Archive | July, 2017

Review of The Search for Mabila, edited by Vernon James Knight, Jr.

25 Jul

The site of the legendary Battle of Mabila, the 1540 encounter which occurred in west-central or southwest Alabama between Hernando De Soto’s army and Native Americans, has eluded all seekers for generations. This pivotal contest altered the course of De Soto’s exploratory journey through the Southeast and resulted in the deaths of thousands of Native Americans. Even if the lowest estimates of the casualties taken from the piecemeal records are accurate—they range from as few as 2,500 to up to 10,000—the Battle of Mabila resulted in more loss of life among Native Americans than any other fight in all of North American history. It is truly a monumental event, and one of international importance. Given its significance and scale, why has its location not been definitively located?


This vexing question is the subject of The Search for Mabila, a collection of articles by accomplished scholars who have spent the entirety of their careers researching and writing about the history and archaeology of Alabama and the greater Southeast. Collectively, these articles provide a summary of the existing state of knowledge on the search for the battle site. Essays range in content from evaluation of the existing historical record to guesses by experienced archaeologists positing what they would expect to find at a battlefield in which a densely populated Native American village was burned, virtually all of its inhabitants killed, and a large portion of the Spanish army’s baggage and equipment lost.

At the heart of the book is a discussion of the tangled nature of the descriptions of the area in which the battle took place. There are basically four “contemporary” accounts of the events leading to the battle, the fighting which it featured, and the aftermath of the affair, and they are frustratingly vague in some areas and conflict in others. Only one of the four appears to have been written by a participant as a documentary journal; others were largely pieced together later but in theory rely on first-hand testimony of participants. Despite the inherent problems with tracking the precise route of De Soto’s army using these sources, the authors of the articles in The Search for Mabila agree that the key to finding the site will ultimately lie in a more thorough canvassing of the region of west-central and southwest Alabama where all the evidence indicates the battle occurred. In order to make sense of the rivers and towns mentioned in the few accounts we have which serve as reference points in the search, we simply need a better understanding of how the Native American population was distributed along the Alabama and Tombigbee Rivers in 1540. A lot of progress has been made toward that end in the past few decades and the search area for the legendary battle has gotten a bit smaller, but there is a lot more that needs to be done. At current, an area in or near modern Wilcox County, Alabama seems to be the collective “best guess” of the authors, but previous best guesses have ranged from near Tuscaloosa to just north of Mobile.

The book is informative and authoritative as a summation of the current state of knowledge on one of the most infamous events in the entirety of North American history. Anyone seeking to distinguish verified fact from spurious legend in pursuit of finding this important battleground should consult it.


Review of the Journal of the Civil War Era Special Issue: Future of Reconstruction Studies

18 Jul

I enjoy it when journals adopt a theme for special issues and the March 2017 edition of the Journal of the Civil War Era did just that in examining the future of Reconstruction Studies. As this nation commemorates the 150+ anniversary of this seminal event in our nation’s history, the need for examining this period is crucial.  Often overshadowed by re-examinations of the Civil War itself, there is a great need for historians to reevaluate this period and look at finding ways at interpreting the period to a population that is thoroughly confused by the era due to either misinformation, apathy, or just because it is a difficult time to understand. This issue provides a great start to the process.


The journal starts with a forum of distinguished historians as they look at the future of the studies.  The hard-copy journal contains introductory remarks from each scholar and a link to a website where one can read each one’s more detailed essay;   Other articles in the journal discuss the historiography of reconstruction, the early attempt to establish the first Reconstruction unit of the National Park Service, and innovative ways teachers can teach race and reconstruction in their class. Perhaps the best article was a roundtable discussion on the topic in public history and memory. Although I disagree with many points made by the panelists and at times I felt each panelist was using his space to promote his or her organization, the roundtable was very provocative, which is what a good roundtable should aspire to be.

In all, perhaps my biggest takeaway from this journal was how we define “Reconstruction” itself and I was amazed by the many different meanings people have assigned it. Historians can use their personal definition of the time to determine their ways of analyzing it according to their own purpose and agenda. I always thought Reconstruction was simply a two-fold process of reintegrating the former southern states into the Union and determining the political status of the four million former slaves. Apparently there are other ways to look at the process and many historians put more weight on certain aspects than others. Overall, I think the most important question to be answered critically is how could the North win the war and lose Reconstruction?  Scholars justifiably attack white Southern democrats who “redeemed” their states and allowed a rigid race system to prevail, but I always thought the Federal government and the northern population has been given too much of a “pass” for not stepping in to “finish the job” of the Civil War, but instead wiped their hands of the whole affair, happy to have reunited the nation so they could take advantage of the benefits and riches coming from the Gilded Age. I hope to see more scholarship like this journal in the future as I hope these issues can be analyzed and disseminated to the public.


Review of The American Revolution: Official National Park Service Handbook

11 Jul

I will confess that I am really not sure exactly what I expected the National Park Service’s official handbook on The American Revolution to contain when I picked it up a few months ago on a visit to a Revolutionary War battlefield. I probably assumed it would include a summary of the war, its causes and consequences, as well as some sort of detailed focus on the parks and historic sites where the stories of America’s birth are interpreted. I probably would have hoped for some good maps of the war’s major campaigns and some statistics on the battles and the populations in each of the colonies. What I got was something quite different. It confused me a little, and no doubt has confused many others.

NPS American_Revolution_handbook

The handbook does contain a timeline of political events and battles that are remembered as landmarks in America’s origins, and it does include a brief listing of National Park Service facilities associated with the Revolutionary era. But the core of the handbook consists of a series of essays essentially investigating, to varying degrees, the philosophy of self-government that underpinned the formation of American government, the impact of the American Revolution on world history, and aspects of the movement for independence often overlooked in traditional narratives. Written by such noted scholars as Gary Nash and Gordon Wood, the essays are thought-provoking and wide-ranging, and they undeniably help frame the Revolution and its larger consequences in a new light. I must say I was surprised to find a discussion of the Russian Revolution in its pages, but on some level it made sense in the way it was mentioned.

Call me old-fashioned, but it really troubled me that the book has as much or more material on such far-flung topics as the Bolsheviks than the war that actually brought about independence. How can the official handbook on the American Revolution have only 15 of 125 pages devoted to discussing the Revolutionary War? Do we really need two-thirds more pages devoted to discussing “Forgotten Americans” than the War for Independence itself? In short, the handbook seems to do a great job of bringing to light people, places, and events not enough Americans know about, and it puts American independence in a global historical context. But it does precious little to communicate the sacrifice and struggle required to make that concept a reality, much less recount the daring and sheer luck requisite for achievement of independence by a ragtag group of rebels who succeeded in defeating the eighteenth century’s preeminent superpower.

In short, I found the handbook shockingly lacking in key elements of our national story I had expected it to reinforce. The editors of the book seem to have made it almost too sophisticated for its own good, and in an effort to help readers understand the American Revolution in a new way made the fatal mistake of assuming the heart of the story was already known. As we know all too well, it is certainly not. The book is a missed opportunity and one of the few times I have been disappointed with an NPS publication.