Archive | February, 2017

Review of Lemoyne D’Iberville: Soldier of New France, by Nellis Crouse

28 Feb


Few individual names loom as large in Gulf Coast colonial history as that of Pierre Lemoyne d’Iberville, the founder of French Louisiana. A war hero in Canada for his exploits in combatting the English in the Hudson Bay region and a favorite in the king’s court in Paris long before he ever set sail for the Gulf of Mexico, Iberville and his brothers (especially Bienville) spearheaded the French colonization experiment in the region and brought it into fruition almost by sheer force of will alone. From 1699 to 1706, Iberville not only established a foothold in the area for the French, but he helped secure strategic alliances with numerous native groups and made several cross-Atlantic voyages to obtain and deliver supplies for the infant colony. From crude frontier outposts in wilderness clearings in modern Mississippi and Alabama, he explored vast tracts of the interior, oversaw the creation of settlements, forged their collective policies, and steadily extended their influence over a wide swath of the continent.



The only book-length study of Iberville’s remarkable life, Lemoyne D’Iberville: Soldier of New France, was published originally in the 1950s by colonial historian Nellis Crouse. Thankfully, LSU Press republished the book with a new introduction by accomplished colonial era historian Daniel H. Usner in 2001, bringing this wonderful piece of scholarship to the attention of a new generation. The book is an excellent overview of this undeservedly forgotten man’s incredible life and exploits, which through tracking his biography by extension creates a record of the establishment of French influence in North America in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.


Crouse paints a portrait of Iberville as a talented and ambitious man who, despite being born into one of Canada’s more prominent families, managed to rise from relative obscurity to become one of the most important and most famous French colonial leaders of his day. He could be incredibly determined and brave, fighting alongside his men in the snow and ice of the subarctic and the steaming heat of the subtropics. He could be visionary and tactical, scheming ways for France to advance its interests in the region he operated in but always keeping an eye towards efforts that would culminate in continent-wide hegemony. He could also be brutal, duplicitous, and avaricious, perpetually alert to opportunities for personal gain and changing the terms of agreements he made if he deemed it expedient. But above all Iberville emerges from the book as a man who commanded respect through his actions, and a person who never hesitated when he recognized an opportunity. Iberville was indispensable to France in its attempts to establish a presence on the Gulf Coast and solidify its claim to the Mississippi Valley at a time when the race for control of the North American continent was at its height. If you are interested in how that story unfolded, you should know about him.




Review of Civil War Alabama, by Christopher Lyle McIlwain, Sr.

21 Feb

For a state whose historical identity is as inextricably bound up in the antebellum and Civil War years as Alabama—Montgomery served as the Confederacy’s first capital, after all—there are surprisingly precious few studies of the state’s overall war experience by historians. In truth the last serious scholarly attempt at chronicling the political and military battles which ravaged the state from 1861 to 1865 and the way both impacted the collective homefront was Walter Lynwood Fleming’s Civil War and Reconstruction in Alabama. While still useful in some ways, that landmark book (published in 1905) is hopelessly outdated and far from an objective one. There have been numerous studies since its publication that addressed some of its main themes, most of them either strictly military or political, and even more focusing on individual geographic regions. Clearly, Christopher Lyle McIlwain’s recently-released Civil War Alabama is a welcome addition to the state’s historiography, then, and would seem to promise to address a long-overdue subject and frame it for a new generation. It is and it does, but not necessarily in the way one might assume.


For starters, the book is a provocative study that will surely spark discussion and encourage a new understanding of the war among its readers instead of elaborating in more detail on events of relatively common knowledge. It may actually make some question all they thought they knew about the causes, course, and consequences of the Civil War in Alabama in the process. McIlwain’s primary argument, made early and often, is that most Alabamians either opposed or had lukewarm enthusiasm for the Confederacy, and in effect were led as sheep to the slaughter by a short-sited, arrogant, but powerful ruling class who, despite their minority status, possessed the means and authority to squelch dissent in a ruthless manner. The majority of these dissenters, in McIlwain’s view, were “reconstructionists” who desired a Union where slavery still had a place. That citizens of such persuasions existed and operated in every corner of the state during the war may not necessarily be a revelation to many, but McIlwain’s study asserts their numbers and influence as larger and more pervasive than most previous scholars. His most eyebrow-raising assertion, that secessionists may have even been in the minority during the very height of the fervor which led to disunion, hints at a major revision in the way we approach an understanding of the war and undergirds his thesis.

Due to an undeniably high level of scholarship, this is a serious book that deserves attention. It is built upon some substantial research, for starters. McIlwain has seemingly unearthed virtually every letter, article, and order that he could find during decades of investigation to lay the foundation for his argument. He brings to light the breadth and depth of disaffection in Alabama and explores how internal division wrought havoc on the war effort and the homefront. As one might imagine, the results are impressive, but careful readers will note they are arranged to communicate his points in such a way that one cannot help but sense a lack of balance in some areas.

If the Confederate war effort was truly as half-hearted and outright resisted across the board in the manner his numerous examples suggest, one cannot help but wonder how the state seemingly so enthusiastically embraced secession, or why so many of its men volunteered to fight in its armies at home and abroad and endured four long years of deprivation and defeat in a doomed cause which, to continue, required them to put their lives on the line. It also leaves one to wonder how so many could so vociferously and strenuously lie to themselves and others in proclaiming their support for the Confederacy in communications private and public. Further, McIlwain seems to allude to a vague but omnipresent, and apparently omnipowerful, Confederate state infrastructure ruled by demagogues and served by a pliant press as able to successfully intimidate and silence opposition throughout the war as the primary reason the reconstructionists were trumped at almost every turn. With resources inadequate to defend its borders and often even maintain a functioning government, plus with defeat and economic ruin steadily engulfing the state as the war dragged on, one must additionally wonder how this authority was so successfully leveraged by so few upon so many for so long. To dismiss every bit of Confederate optimism among journalists, or every bit of collective resistance to Union troops as the orchestrated political spin of a conspiring press or the rhetoric of blowhards is unintentionally disingenuous. Alabama did as much as any other state to bring on the war, to continue the war, and it fought to win the war. This is not to suggest McIlwain is wrong or in some way devious in the way he brings to light his well-documented evidence of dissent, however. Rather, it begs a number of questions that go largely unaddressed in his narrative and must be pondered to arrive at a true estimation of the book’s merit. In places it seems as if the author does not adequately allow for that most fundamental of situations in understanding the commitment of the public to any cause—a change of opinion as circumstances and costs changed. Alabama was a much different place in 1861 than in 1865, and attempting to explain the course of the war through a probe into a nonexistent continuity of opinion is an impossible task. Perhaps the most obvious thing that many will feel is not adequately addressed in the book, though, is the war itself. This is not a book about the course of the war in Alabama as the title suggests; it is a political history of the wartime state and a chronicle of the degree of anti-Confederate sentiment which existed among the general population in every walk of life and the way political leaders wielded influence in pursuit of their goals.

The book is, in truth, one part of a many-sided story, but a part which has really never been told well, if at all. For that reason alone, the book is a must-read for anyone interested in this era of Alabama’s past and should find a prominent place in the historiography of the state. It will challenge readers to understand the war from a new vantage point, and it will surely enlighten them on many things of concern to Alabama’s citizens at the time they scarcely have given much thought to previously. Alabama still awaits its definitive chronicle of the Civil War on the battlefields, but Civil War Alabama has forced us to think of an old topic in a new way. This is no small feat, and one worthy of our consideration.


Review of The Battle of New Orleans, In History and Memory, edited by Laura Lyons McLemore

14 Feb

A series of essays, presented in commemoration of the bicentennial of the War of 1812 Battle of New Orleans in November of 2014 at a symposium held at Louisiana State University in Shreveport, forms the basis for The Battle of New Orleans, In History and Memory. In it, editor Laura Lyons McLemore showcases the work of nine accomplished historians who approach the study of the battle and the way we have remembered its significance in very different ways. The result is a substantial contribution to scholarship on the Battle of New Orleans which will help a new generation of scholars better understand its continuing relevance to our national saga.


Unlike many books of this type, this collection thankfully features many excellent essays and only a few somewhat dull ones. Alexander Mikaberidze, for example, presents an excellent overview of the War of 1812 as an international affair by demonstrating the connections between this conflict and the Napoleonic wars in Europe—in a mere twenty pages doing a better job of explaining these nuances and circumstances than many full-length treatments. Joseph F. Stoltlz III presents an excellent essay on the centennial celebrations of the conflict. His overviews of events in Nashville and New Orleans and connections to the Lost Cause and World War I are fascinating insights into the way in which the memory of the battle has been appropriated and advanced to fit different agendas at different points in time. Tracey E.E. Laird’s discussions of music of course had us humming along with Johnny Horton’s iconic tune. Gene Smith provides a solid overview of the role of African Americans during the war, while Leslie Gruesbeck offers a compelling discussion of how Andrew Jackson has been portrayed in portraiture during his day and afterward. Esteemed historian Donald Hickey provides one of the more intriguing essays in the book, focusing on the many myths—some still stubbornly held to today—associated with the war. Hickey may be actually be the dean of historians featured in the pages of The Battle of New Orleans, but we tend to disagree with his summary point that had the British won the battle, they would have promptly returned the city to American control just as they had returned minor frontier forts. We cannot help but believe the city might have been held for leverage in negotiations if nothing else, as it occupied a pivotal strategic position along the nation’s largest river trading system besides being one of the largest and wealthiest cities in the nation.

As is always the case with collections of essays of this sort, though, other entries were not as strong or did not further the purported purpose of the book. Mark R. Cheatham’s exploration of Jackson’s legendary hatred of the British initially leads readers to believe that perhaps Jackson did not hold a strong dislike of the British going back to the Revolutionary War, but ends up essentially asserting the legend is in fact based in truth. Paul Gelpi’s article on the role of the famed Battalion d’Orleans really did not reveal any new interpretation on the topic, but perhaps readers less familiar with the unit’s role at the battle will nonetheless find it informative. Blake Dunnavent provides an article on how current U.S. military leaders could learn from the War of 1812, but reached rather vague conclusions that at first glance would not necessarily seem to illuminate any enduring lessons to be learned by the leaders of our nation’s armed forces.

Overall, the book offers a quick look at several aspects of the way we remember the war and makes a case that it deserves continuing attention by scholars and the general public. If there is one single point which emerges as paramount from this collection of essays, it is that the war occupies a central place in American history and its relevance is revealed not just through the basic facts of what was accomplished militarily on the plain at Chalmette on January 8, 1815. The battle has permeated American popular culture in many surprising ways over the years, and served as a linchpin in our understanding of the era in which it occurred. For bringing this fact to the attention of a new generation alone, the book deserves a place in libraries.

Sadly, despite it accomplishments the book did still remind us that this epic confrontation has been lost to the memory of our citizens today. It is to our detriment as a society. The War of 1812 was truly our second war of independence and has left us with many iconic historical figures and events which should serve as touchstones in our collective memory. The Battle of New Orleans pitted a rough-hewed citizen army comprised of one of the most diverse groups of people ever assembled under American arms to that point to defend one of its most important cities from an invading army fresh from having defeated none other than Napolean, and shortly removed from burning our own national capital! We can only hope that books such as this one will revive our memory of the War of 1812 and encourage future generations to better understand what is arguably its most monumental event.


Reconstruction National Monument

7 Feb

In January 2017, President Barack Obama designated the nation’s first National Park Service site dedicated to Reconstruction. Obama chose Beaufort, South Carolina, as this significant place of interpretation. Beaufort fell under Union control in late 1861 and was one of the first places where former slaves began exercising some basic rights of citizenship like property ownership and voting. There have been strong calls recently for establishing a NPS site to interpret the critical years of Reconstruction. The fifteen or so years following the conclusion of the Civil War are some of the most important, yet most difficult years of our nation’s history to understand. After four years of bloody conflict, the nation had to determine how to reunite and various sides jostled on how best to do it. The former slaves were caught in the middle and when it was over, most of them were left in a status not too far removed from the harsh institution of slavery that they had just escaped from in the first place.



National Monument dedication ceremony, from Beaufort Today


Citizens today still have different understandings of these critical years and NPS interpretation will further educate the public on what actually did happen during this time period. I do wonder how you choose one site for such a broad, sweeping discussion and I fear a remote place in South Carolina might not attract as many as would be preferred, but it is a start. As one who sees the disappointments of Reconstruction as one of this nation’s biggest failures which set the South behind for nearly 100 years, this interpretation is desperately needed. I have wondered how this nation can devote so much energy to examining the modern Civil Rights Movement without providing the necessary background of the failures of Reconstruction. This is just another example of history building upon history and it is our job as historians to make sure we provide the proper background and context so the public can grasp the bigger picture of our history.