Archive | April, 2017

Review of Go South to Freedom, by Frye Gaillard

25 Apr

The latest book by accomplished author Frye Gaillard, currently Writer in Residence at the University of South Alabama and longtime favorite Gulf South storyteller, is a slender volume based in regional history aimed at younger readers. Entitled Go South to Freedom, the book is Gaillard’s entertaining and smoothly written retelling of an actual oral history of an African-American family in the Mobile area. The book is illustrated by Anne Kent Rush with depictions of the scenery and wildlife native to the region in which it is set.

Gaillard Go South

The family legend which inspired the book, an intriguing but fragmentary account handed down through the generations, centers on an intrepid African-born slave and his desperate attempt to lead his family to freedom in 1830s Georgia. Although this family patriarch, named Gilbert Fields, intended to take his family north, a cloud-filled and stormy night hid the stars during the flight and threw him off track. In the fugitives’ haste to put as much distance as they could between themselves and the plantation they fled they realized too late to reverse course that he had been traveling south by mistake. Grasping the futility of following the original plan, Fields instead led his family on an adventurous pursuit of freedom that found them living among the Seminoles of Florida for a time before ultimately making their way to Alabama.

There are of course a lot of gaps in this story, and Gaillard takes a few liberties (with the family’s permission) in the process of transforming this piecemeal family history into a continuous narrative. The result is a simple but profound tale based in fascinating historical fact that is sure to enlighten and inform readers of all ages. There are moments of sadness, moments of drama, and moments of revelation in the span of the book’s mere 72 pages, all related in a way comprehensible to the book’s primary audience. While expressly geared towards younger readers, the realities of the world in which the epic journey takes place are introduced in compelling fashion. In addition to illustrating the desperate gamble of flight from slavery by bondsmen during the time and the precariousness of life on the run, the book introduces readers to the unique world of the antebellum Gulf South region, a place where Old South plantations and maroon settlements among sympathetic Seminoles existed within a short distance of each other, and a place where cities such as Mobile and New Orleans contained substantial populations of free blacks among their citizenry at a time in which such populations were nearly nonexistent elsewhere in the Deep South. As an introduction to the time period for younger readers, Go South to Freedom is highly recommended.


The Beauty of Antique Maps

18 Apr

I love old maps. They are unique artifacts that contain many layers of information and are often quite literally works of art. Maps from centuries ago had to be hand drawn with painstaking detail, required tremendous research to produce, reflected to a great degree the physical exploration by real people of the places they depicted, and often contain elaborate ornamentation. Digital maps of today are utilitarian and antiseptically technical in comparison; much better at telling us exactly where things are but utterly lacking anything that would make them endearing or worthy of framing and placing on a wall. While many antique maps are entirely obsolete for the purposes they were meant to serve, many are unique artifacts of the era in which they were produced that help us understand what people viewed as worth noting, how they traveled, and from what perspective they viewed the world around them.


Having spent over a decade of my career as a museum curator, I am aware that not everybody sees old maps, or a great many other tangible reminders of the past, from quite my same point of view. For example, I remember vividly an exchange several years ago with a student at an educational program for an exhibition I had curated on antique maps of the Southeast dating back to the 1500s. The kid thought the old maps were “neat” and was glad that we had them on display, especially since “nobody needed maps anymore.” I’m sure what he meant was that digital technologies such as those available as standard equipment on virtually any smartphone had rendered printed maps obsolete as a tool for finding your way around. I suppose there is a story in this exchange about how our digital age is creating a virtual world in which things like maps, books, newspapers, and other printed materials are increasingly presented electronically and that we are in some way losing something in that process, but that is a blog for another day. For now, I just want to draw attention to the craftsmanship and beauty of antique maps and the layers of information they hold because nothing like them is produced today.

Map of Florida and Louisiana

We do not have charts like those European explorers created, mapping coastlines in some detail but relying on rumor and conjecture to depict the interior. We no longer have maps produced by colonial powers, claiming huge swaths of contested continents as their dominion and exaggerating their influence in remote locations where forts stood near allied Indian villages. Nor do we have “emigrants guides” such as those produced in the early 1800s, showcasing the best roads into undeveloped areas and highlighting their potential wealth. In short, maps are no longer used to communicate what might be; they are definitive representations of what is. Understanding that fundamental change helps us appreciate antique maps in a new way, I think, and makes them all the more fascinating as historical artifacts.



Review of Fort Maurepas, by Jay Higginbotham

11 Apr

Accomplished historian Jay Higginbotham is largely unknown outside of his home Gulf Coast region and the few scholars who have spent time researching the region’s French colonial heritage. In two landmark books, however, he basically provided the essential narrative of why and how the French first established themselves on the Gulf in the first two decades of the eighteenth century.

Higginbotham Fort Maurepas

I hope to review in this blog on another day his magnum opus, Old Mobile, a 500-plus page tome that is the definitive study of the founding of Mobile. Today I would like to draw attention to a slim volume he published in the 1960s entitled  Fort Maurepas. While featuring less than 70 pages of text and nearly fifty pages of images and appendices, in my opinion the book is essential reading for anyone interested in the region’s colonial-era history. The book is of course a chronicle of the founding of the French Fort Maurepas on Biloxi Bay in modern Mississippi in 1699, but it is much more.

In his swift-moving narrative, Higginbotham offers one of the best accounts available of the reasons for French colonization of the area and the triumphs and setbacks they experienced in the process. Grand strategy is presented in coherent fashion without overlooking the fascinating stories of the individuals on the ground who made things happen. It is a wonderful introduction to one of the most intriguing eras in Southern history, and I highly recommend it as a starting point for understanding the days of French influence in the Gulf South.


Review of The Blood of Heroes: The Thirteen-Day Struggle for the Alamo-and the Sacrifice that Forged a Nation, by James Donovan

4 Apr

The Battle of the Alamo is one of most studied and iconic events in all of American history. One would be hard pressed to find another example of a resounding defeat which inspired so many for so long. The doomed frontier outpost garrison, annihilated at the hands General Santa Anna’s Mexican army during the Texas War of Independence, became not only a rallying cry for those involved in that struggle in the spring of 1836, but a point of pride and inextricable part of the identity of Texans and in many ways Americans in general. While it seems we may know all that can be known about the battle, James Donovan has recently shown us that there is indeed something to be gained in the retelling of familiar stories. In The Blood of Heroes: The Thirteen-Day Struggle for the Alamo-and the Sacrifice that Forged a Nation, he crafts an entertaining and engaging narrative that frames the events March 6, 1836 for a new generation.


Donovan comes to the task with a demonstrated ability to weave a good tale of a forlorn last stand, having previously authored the widely acclaimed book A Terrible Glory: Custer and the Little Bighorn—the Last Great Battle of the American West. The similarities in topic and theme between the two are obvious, and the lively prose, compelling organization, and attention to detail for which Terrible Glory has been praised are in evidence in The Blood of Heroes. Donovan tracks the Battle of the Alamo from the vantage points of its background, planning, and participants on both Texan and Mexican sides. This book, in truth, explains nearly as much of the mindset and experiences of Santa Anna’s men as those they attacked, allowing it to become a truly unique chronicle that will be particularly useful for anyone wanting learn about the battle.

The book centers on the lives of key characters familiar to anyone who has ever studied the struggle in San Antonio; the indefatigable leader William Barrett Travis, the irascible dueler James Bowie, the frontiersmen and erstwhile politician David Crockett; and the haughty and cold-hearted General Santa Anna. It’s a compelling cast for a riveting story which Donovan ends by reflection and a thoughtful investigation into one of the most enduring legends from the battle. In a final chapter, he explores the facts surrounding the “line in the sand” supposedly drawn by Travis. As the story goes, Travis traced the line—now commonly referenced as a metaphor for an ultimatum—after asking those inside the Alamo to declare whether they would stay and fight or run once they learned of the impending Mexican attack. He lays out quite a bit of convincing information arguing that the event actually happened, asserting that even if it did not unfold exactly as legend describes it, the line is so inextricably linked with the Alamo that it is forever part of its story.

The Blood of Heroes has the tone of drama and the ring of authority. It is certainly among the few books that can be considered the definitive study of its subject, and is definitely one of the most intriguing. I highly recommend it to anyone wanting to know more about that pivotal conflict and its enduring place in American history.