Archive | May, 2017

Review of Pearl Harbor: FDR Leads the Nation Into War, by Steven M. Gillon

30 May

December 7, 1941 will forever be remembered in American history as the “Day of Infamy.” We all know the surprise attack on American military facilities at Pearl Harbor by Japanese forces stunned the nation and ended up launching the United States into World War II. Still, it is sometimes difficult to appreciate the speed with which America transitioned from what some might describe as an isolationist country to working together to win a two-fronted global conflict. Pearl Harbor: FDR Leads the Nation Into War is an account of the twenty four hours between the time the bombs began falling around 1:30 in the afternoon eastern time, to the moments after President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s memorable address to Congress the following day. It is a riveting tale which helps us grasp this turning point in national history and the pivotal role of the leadership of Roosevelt at the moment of crisis.


Author Steven M. Gillon, a professor at the University of Oklahoma and Resident Historian for the History Channel, published the book in 2011, having already come to national attention for his study of another milestone twenty-four hour period in American history, The Kennedy Assassination—24 Hours After (2009). In Pearl Harbor, he takes readers through the initial shock across the nation as the details of the severity of the attack trickled in and explores the variety of responses to the news by the public and government officials. We sometimes forget that citizens at the time feared that, with good reason, more attacks might be coming on the mainland. Even Roosevelt’s advisors, themselves panicked at what had occurred in the moments after the attack, warned that if the Japanese wanted to press their advantage at the moment they might be able to launch an inland invasion from the west coast that America’s armed forces would be ill-equipped to halt until it had reached Chicago. Throughout the chaos of the day, and the alternating degrees of denial of the success of the attack and wild rumors of what would occur next, Gillon keeps a sharp focus on President Roosevelt’s resolve in determining an effective reaction which would give purpose to his and the public’s outrage. Gillon does not so much praise Roosevelt for making all the right moves as highlight the importance of his leadership in a moment of crisis in guiding a national response that would alter the trajectory of American history. He highlights his decisiveness, his clarity of vision, and his attention to detail in the process. He recounts, for example, the painstaking thought that went into literally every word of his address to Congress on December 8th—a short speech most of his top advisors thought appropriate in neither length nor substance yet today is remembered as one of the most important in all of American history.

Along the way Gillon manages to clearly explain the international context of the attack on Pearl Harbor, and how America’s response to it ultimately embroiled the nation in conflicts both in the Pacific and in Europe against Hitler’s Germany that would transform the United States into a global superpower. To that end, Gillon convincingly destroys any notions still today occasionally advanced by conspiracy theorists that he or anyone in the Federal government had any knowledge that the attack on Pearl Harbor was imminent. Clearly, officials knew the Japanese were taking increasingly belligerent actions in the days and weeks before the event, but no credible evidence has ever surfaced that anyone could have imagined exactly what the Japanese were planning. In summary, Pearl Harbor is a spellbinding and insightful tour through one of the most consequential twenty four-hour periods in American history which demonstrates the centrality of leadership in moments of crisis.


Review of Union 1812: The Americans Who Fought The Second War of Independence, by A.J. Langguth

23 May

The past few decades have witnessed enough scholarly studies of the War of 1812 that in some ways it seems almost disingenuous to continue to call it America’s “most forgotten conflict.” We certainly have nowhere near the awareness of that war’s impact that we should, but I do believe that the several relatively recent books on the war and the many special commemorations of the 200th anniversary of some of its most pivotal events have helped bring it into our collective consciousness. If you do not know about the War of 1812, it really is no one’s fault but your own. Recently, I at last got a chance to read the entirety of one of the more popular books on the war which has been published in this last decade, A.J. Langguth’s Union 1812: The Americans Who Fought the Second War of Independence.


The book is a narrative of the War of 1812 era as revealed through the biographies of its leading figures. Rather than a series of standalone biographical sketches, Langguth skillfully weaves together the experiences of frontiersmen such as David Crockett; Native American leaders like Tecumseh; politicians including James Madison; and military leaders such as Oliver Perry. Each of the well over two dozen notable individuals chronicled in significant detail are examined both on their own merits and how it was that their paths crossed. It is an intriguing approach, and one that many readers will no doubt find breathes life into the standard biography.

Langguth comes to the task with something of a reputation as biographer due his success with a similar study of many primary characters from the Revolutionary War, Patriots: The Men Who Started the American Revolution. The common denominator in both is that he attempts to understand the conflicts through the experiences of the key decision makers who influenced their outcome and who we have chosen to remember as critical players in our shared past. Along the way he examines military, civilian, and political events and demonstrates their persistent entanglement. Union 1812 in the end, then, is much more than a collection of life stories—it is a lens through which to view a pivotal era in the nation’s history by understanding how and why individuals acted as they did. Readers looking for equal time and space devoted to all individuals mentioned, or all battles discussed, will need to look elsewhere. Make no mistake, though, if you read this book you will better understand how and why the War of 1812 was fought and the context of the times in which it took place.


Touring Dade’s Battlefield Historic State Park and Seminole Wars Sites in Florida

16 May

Sites where military engagements took place are always intriguing to me owing to the fact that what occurred on their grounds—regardless of whether they were skirmishes or epic clashes of huge armies—are often associated with events of enduring consequence in American history. They are also compelling to me because they are, in simplest terms, places where men fought and died. There is naturally a somber aspect to any battlefield visit as a result. While fascinated to learn about what occurred at these sites, I am always cognizant that they are in some respects memorials to lives lost.

At few sites has that heavy sense of reflection been more powerful in my conscious than during my visit to Dade’s Battlefield Historic Site. A small, out-of-the-way park near the small town of Bushnell in central Florida, the park preserves and interprets an unfortunately little-known conflict known as “Dade’s Battle”. The fight essentially began the Second Seminole War. There, on December 28, 1835, just over 100 U.S. troops under the command of Major Francis L. Dade were marching along the King Highway from Fort Brooke (modern Tampa) on their way to Fort King (modern Ocala) when they were ambushed by a larger group of Seminole warriors. At the conclusion of the day-long struggle, all but three of the soldiers lay dead; those that eventually survived were presumed to be. One of the badly injured soldiers who survived the battle was found and killed the next day. The harrowing account of one of the survivors, Ransom Clarke, informs our knowledge of exactly what happened at this Gulf South version of Little Big Horn.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Tensions had been on the rise in the region for a long time prior to the massacre as the Seminoles resisted the seizure of their land and their forced removal as best they could, but Dade’s Battle marked the official beginning of the seven-year long Second Seminole War. The battlefield where the encounter took place is essentially a section of the road over which the troops were traveling when they came under attack and an archaeologically-informed recreation of the makeshift barricade of fallen trees they hastily constructed under fire. Along the trail visitors can see exactly where a few individuals, such as Major Dade, fell, and contemplate the desperate fight the men in the small fort must have waged as they were surrounded by a ghost-like foe which artfully moved through the dense underbrush. A modest but informative visitor’s center is on site where a few compelling artifacts that survived the battle are on display. The site of a pivotal event in one of the nation’s longest and saddest sagas (the three Seminole Wars were fought between 1816 and 1858), Dade’s Battlefield Historic State Park is worth a visit if you are traveling in central Florida and a must-see for anyone wishing to tour the scattered sites offering interpretation of the Seminole Wars in Florida.

A few other Seminole War sites of note in Florida:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


Review of Mobile Under Siege: Surviving the Union Blockade, by Paula Webb

9 May


There are, thankfully, a growing number of informative studies of the Civil War Campaign for Mobile available to readers. This relatively recent scholarly outpouring is certainly long overdue, for this last major campaign for the last major city in Southern hands is among the most intriguing of the war and perhaps most illustrative of the fundamental changes in the nature of warfare the conflict had wrought over the course of four eventful years. In truth, the fighting for Mobile in the fall of 1864 and spring of 1865 alongside and on the waters of the Mobile Bay area in many ways had more in common with the fighting which took place on the battlefields of Europe in World War I than the open field maneuvering of the contests waged between Rebels and Yankees in 1861. Scholars investigating the campaign have noted this as one of the more its intriguing aspects, and brought to light considerable information illustrating the details of the fighting for Mobile. It would seem that because the target of the long, complex campaign involved one of the largest cities in the Confederacy it might also yield itself to more than its fair share of civilian perspectives. Until the last few years, however, this has not been the case with the campaign’s historiography. In fact, the civilian perspective has been noticeably lacking in this story.




We are fortunate that two brief but entertaining studies with a decided focus on how civilians responded to the military situation in the “Paris of the Confederacy” have been published within the last year. I recently reviewed the first, Russell Blount’s Besieged: Mobile 1865, in this space. Today I draw your attention to Mobile Under Siege: Surviving the Union Blockade, by Paula Webb. A reference and outreach librarian at the University of South Alabama who hails from Mobile, Webb brings her great familiarity with the city’s history and considerable research skills to bear in producing her account. The result is a refreshingly different approach to a story many have told from a primarily military standpoint that finally attempts to wrestle specifically with civilian reactions to the war.


In nine short chapters, arranged as a month by month chronicle of life in Mobile from August of 1864 to April of 1865, Webb discusses life in the city as revealed in newspapers, journals, diaries, letters, and other correspondence involving both civilians and military officials. The progress of the military campaign aimed at the capture of the city is the constant backdrop, and she gives overview analysis of its major developments as she introduces readers to details of morale, devotion to the war effort, social life, economic crises, and political divisions within Mobile. In the process readers come to know a bit of the personalities of some influential figures in the city at the time, such as Confederate General Dabney Maury, socialite Octavia LeVert, and author Augusta Evans, as well as a host of lesser known individuals. Webb’s description brings to light what was on the minds of Mobile’s citizens during the siege, and discusses the military campaign at their doorstep from the viewpoint of what they knew and when. Interestingly, there is considerable attention given to the lively discussion during the period over whether or not to arm the slaves to achieve Confederate independence.


The book is richly illustrated with images that complement the text. Readers will find that there are a few passages which might have benefitted from some more detailed copyediting and occasional doses of hyperbole. Plus, those knowledgeable of the military engagements of the campaign may find the discussion of the fighting rather thin in places. I doubt many in the books intended audience will find any of these small criticisms a drawback, nor should they. Webb’s book is informative and a welcome addition to a growing body of literature on the Mobile Campaign.




Review of The Civil War Siege of Jackson, by Jim Woodrick

2 May

Fellow Mississippi Department of Archives and History employee Jim Woodrick has tackled an aftermath engagement of the larger Vicksburg Campaign in The Civil War Siege of Jackson, Mississippi. As a former Civil War Sites historian for MDAH, Woodrick is imminently qualified to tackle the subject of this lesser known affair. And yet, when it is all said and done, was there enough to talk about in the first place?

Jackson Siege

Woodrick’s narrative provides a rapid overview of the Vicksburg Campaign to set the stage for the later action at Mississippi’s capital. Vicksburg surrendered to Union forces under U.S. Grant after a long campaign and 47 day siege.  Afterwards, Grant ordered his subordinate William T.  Sherman to march his men to Jackson to defeat/disperse the Confederate Army of Relief led by Joseph E. Johnston. Sherman’s men pushed Johnston’s army inside earthworks surrounding the city and for a week (July 10-17, 1863), bombarded, skirmished, and braved the unyielding heat until Johnston pulled his men out, yielding the city to the Union army. Woodrick describes in detail troop movements, the dangers of sharpshooters, and one costly Union assault as well as interesting vignettes such as Confederate soldiers playing a piano during one particular action. Woodrick does this in a well written prose, but it is easy to see why in most book length treatments of the war in Mississippi that this siege is usually described in a paragraph or two. Basically, the story is Sherman’s men pushed Johnston into the city, encircled it and then Johnston escaped eastward. End of story. There was simply not that much action and very little intrigue.

The book’s strongest chapter is its last when it explores the “Chimneyville” description of Jackson; Union forces did so much damage to the city that all that basically remained were the chimneys of buildings no longer left standing. Woodrick provides ample evidence to convince the reader that the “Chimneyville” narrative is probably true. This reviewer, however, will always question that theory since the state capitol, governor’s mansion, and city hall all survived.

In summary, Civil War Siege of Jackson is a well-written and detailed narrative of an oftentimes ignored operation. It has not had any book length treatments in over thirty years. Any Civil War historian seeking to complete his collection involving the Vicksburg Campaign needs to add this book to his library.

As an aside, living in Jackson gave me the opportunity to visit a few of the sites associated with the siege and take images of existing markers and surviving entrenchments. Unfortunately, there are only a few markers of the siege, but it was enjoyable to identify these markers that relate to the book and get a better idea of where the armies were positioned as they squared off against one another.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.