Archive | December, 2016

Touring Petersburg National Battlefield

20 Dec

During my trip to several Civil War battlefields this summer, one historical park stood out as distinctly different from the others. The Petersburg National Battlefield interprets the site of one of the Civil War’s longest contests, a prolonged siege featuring numerous small fights which mark the extended prelude to the frantic last campaign of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. The fighting (and squalid conditions) along the lines at Petersburg in 1864-1865 resulted in some 70, 000 casualties, making it one of the deadliest—if not the most glamorous—clashes of the war. It famously pitted the remnants of the once-proud Confederate army, including some of the youngest and oldest Southern troops pressed into service, against a large and increasingly well-supplied Union army whose might made the outcome of the contest somewhat inevitable.

That fact, along with the remains of the earthworks constructed by the contending armies, brought the horror and desperation of the war home in a unique way. In place of a gallant charge, there was a huge hole where an underground mine was set off underneath a portion of the Confederate lines. In place of the proverbial old home where a general laid plans for battle there were piles of earth delineating the battle lines from which the contestants watched each other in a ceaseless vigil; those brave or foolish enough to expose themselves for a moment too long were shot down by sharpshooters. I could not help but ponder the terrible conditions the soldiers endured, and the desperation and nervousness each side must have felt as they wondered if every day would be the day that decided the contest—and by extension to some degree, the war.  This is not to mention, of course, the apprehension with which the stalemate was monitored by civilians in the city of Richmond and Petersburg itself, communities whose fated hinged quite literally on what happened along the siege lines.

Visiting the park was an enlightening experience, and actually one of the better and more memorable I have had in any historical park. There were excellent reconstructions of the obstacles placed in front of the lines; realistic depictions of the gun emplacements and troop living conditions; an innovative—even if older—visitor center that interpreted the siege in profound terms with minimal text and artifacts; a good overview film; and an enthusiastic and informed staff that complemented all the park had to offer. Petersburg is a big park, and there is a lot to see. For those contemplating a visit, I would forewarn them that a tour will take a little time, and that they should be aware that a sizable portion of the remaining earthworks are actually detached from the main park tour route and not as easily accessible or as well interpreted as the main portion of the park. Petersburg may not be as familiar to the casual Civil War historian as, say, Gettysburg or Antietam, but I assure you it is worth to time to visit.


In Praise of Pioneers of Old Southwest History, Thomas D. Clark and John D.W. Guice

13 Dec

The history of the original American “Southwest”—essentially the trans-Appalachian South—is endlessly fascinating to us. Literally south and west of the Atlantic seaboard states which won their independence from Great Britain during the Revolutionary War, much of the expansive region remained on the periphery of American life as an untamed frontier until the height of the antebellum era. As a consequence, its heritage is replete with international intrigues and dramatic conflicts well into the nineteenth century, punctuated with the deeds of adventurous settlers, proud Native Americans, and numerous larger-than-life colorful characters.


In our opinion, the definitive introduction to the history of the region and the tumultuous era in which it came of age is Thomas D. Clark and John D.W. Guice’s The Old Southwest: Frontiers in Conflict. Sure, nearly three decades that have elapsed since it first hit bookshelves in 1989, but it remains the authoritative volume on its subject and as fresh and relevant as ever. Advance readers suspected such might be the case, it appears, for the blurb on back of my copy features a quote from the American Indian Quarterly asserting boldly that “It will, in all probability, earn the distinction of becoming the standard frontier history of the Old Southwest.” Indeed, it has, and then some.

The book is at once fast moving and comprehensive, entertaining and informative. It accomplishes its objective by doing much more than merely relating facts; it gives one a sense of the land on which a truly remarkable historical drama took place, and helps readers understand the lives and dreams of those who inhabited its humid, forested recesses and the dirt streets of its metropolises. It places a region and its inhabitants in geographical and historical context, over the course of some 250 pages introducing the people, places, and events which collectively shaped one of the most storied regions of the country.  It examines Indian wars and state rights, international intrigue and the pursuit of statehood, colonial foundations and the process of Americanization. The authors do nothing less than give shape and texture to a unique American region in the book, illuminating its profound importance in American history.

Mississippi-born Thomas D. Clark, remembered as Kentucky’s leading historian for his decades of life and labor there, was in his 80s when he co-authored the book. He brings to bear a lifetime of intense scholarship in its pages, and his mastery of the subject shows. John D.W. Guice, longtime professor of history at the University of Southern Mississippi and a celebrated and accomplished scholar in his own right, worked with him on the project. The pairing works perfectly. There are other historians who have researched and written about the region, many, such as Frank L. Owsley, Gene A. Smith, and Robert V. Haynes,  more than deserving of praise for their illumination of certain critical chapters and stories in the region’s rich history. But none have so beautifully traced the contours of its heritage with more flair than Clark and Guice. They truly set the bar high with The Old Southwest. Anyone seriously interested in the region they so admirably chronicle should have it on their bookshelf. We have enjoyed the book so much that we have read it numerous times and never fail to gain some new insight and an even stronger appreciation of this region and time period. So, thank you Dr. Clark and Dr. Guice, for helping us all understand the real roots of the history of the American South.


Commemorating the Anniversary of Pearl Harbor

6 Dec

2016 marks the 75th anniversary of the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor; the vicious, unprovoked Sunday morning raid which destroyed much of America’s Pacific fleet, killed over 2,400 and wounded nearly 1,200 people, and forced the nation into World War II.  It was a tragic turning point in American, indeed world, history, and the “Day of Infamy”—Dec. 7, 1941, continues to resonate in our collective consciousness. Clay and I have previously written about our inspiring visits the USS Arizona Memorial in Hawaii, the epicenter of our official national remembrance of the event.

With this year’s anniversary, a variety of special events large and small have been planned. One unique one connecting the historical and sports worlds caught my eye as creative. In similar fashion to the University of Maryland’s “Star Spangled Banner”-inspired uniforms last season, the University of Hawaii’s football team honored the occasion with a special helmet commemorating the attack on Pearl Harbor and the fighting spirit of Americans who fought the war which beginning that day engulfed the country for the next four years.


In October in a game at Aloha Stadium against the University of New Mexico, the Warriors donned simple white headgear with the date “12-7-41” on one side and the insignia of the 442nd Infantry emblazoned on the other. The 442nd was a unit compost almost entirely of soldiers of Japanese ancestry, many of whom had family members confined in internment camps. From 1943 to the end of the war, the 442nd fought in a number of engagements in Europe during World War II, seeing action in Italy, France, and Germany. They are remembered for being one of the most decorated of any unit in American military service. Out of the approximately 14,000 men who served in the unit, over 9,400 earned a Purple Heart. Twenty-one were awarded the Medal of Honor.


I applaud the University of Hawaii for remembering the service of those who perished at Pearl Harbor and honoring the patriotism of those who took up arms in the wake of the attack.