Archive | August, 2017

Review of The Last Years of Robert E. Lee: From Gettysburg to Lexington, by Douglas Savage

29 Aug

It is richly ironic that in their headlong rush to censor from our view all vestiges of the Confederacy, those who would like to wish that history did not happen have focused so much of their efforts on Gen. Robert E. Lee. Perhaps the most reluctant of all rebels, Lee’s name has become a flashpoint for controversy of late and the “marble man” has morphed before our very eyes from a disciplined leader hesitant to join the Confederacy to a foaming proponent of slavery dismantling the very foundations of our republic. Such are the whims of the historically ignorant, and we should be careful not to follow them in falling into the trap of understanding our past by filtering it through the lens of modern passion no matter how well-meaning. Despite the sudden righteous cacophony created by those who fail to discern the difference between advent and historical context,  those who actually study and write about the past have had a remarkably consistent interpretation of Lee over the years.

He was a gifted leader with an antiquarian sense of honor even his contemporary citizens of the Victorian age found remarkable and whose rigid sense of obligation caused him to choose to follow his home state into a war he would rather not have fought. He was a slaveowner but no firebrand proponent of the institution and recognized involuntary servitude as a labor system incompatible with any long-term future America. But he was also so thoroughly a man of his times that he simply could not dare contemplate a society in which blacks and whites were fully politically equals, either. In other words he represents both the very best and very worst of the majority of leaders of his era regardless of the region from which they hailed or whether they wore blue or gray in our terrible civil war. Despite the prattle bandied about today over his legacy, the truth is he is thoroughly an American historical figure and a touchstone of his era.


Douglas Savage’s The Last Years of Robert E. Lee offers a particularly compelling and thoughtfully written look at the man by examining Lee from the very peak of his martial powers through his devastating defeat and his rather calm postwar life. The book begins as the Overland campaign of 1864 opens, and takes readers through the vicious and almost continuous fighting that bloody spring and summer before Lee’s ragged army was gradually corralled into extended defensive lines around Petersburg. Savage then proceeds to chronicle the dissolution and defeat of Lee’s army, his surrender at Appomattox, and his postwar career directing the small Virginia college which today bears his name. Along the way Savage, an accomplished author of several acclaimed books, brings Lee to life in a way few others have, focusing as much on his defeats and his victories; his infirmities as his endurance; his personal relationships as much as his public persona. All are related in intriguing prose and a novelist’s flair.
The result is a portrait of Lee that strongly resembles the likenesses offered by a host of other authors, but offering personal details and insight that allow readers to visualize him as more flawed flesh and blood than statuesque stone. Savage shows in the pages of the book the man’s inner workings as well as even the best of the legion of capable authors who have chronicled Lee. Savage demonstrates that Lee’s remarkable change from military leader to peacemaker is no hagiographical hyperbole, but rather the natural response of a principled man of his age initially lukewarm to the war thrust upon him but too practical to hold the type of debilitating emotional grudge that marked so many of his contemporaries and helped perpetuate the South’s remaining a land apart for generations after his death. Lee might have been a throwback in some ways, but he was a pragmatist with a clearer understanding of what the future of America augured than most of his peers. He was no progressive, but seemingly proved more willing to embrace change than the majority of his Southern countrymen, as well. We forget that in the last days of the Civil War it was none other than Lee who advocated the arming of slaves and the granting of freedom to those who served the Confederacy as soldiers—certainly too little too late to make him a freedom fighter but clearly an indication this was a man who had doubts about slavery being the proverbial cornerstone of a lasting Southern nation.

The Last Years of Robert E. Lee is a compelling and artfully presented take on a decidedly human Lee which presents him in his totality as a military leader, family man, educator, and general Southern man of his generation. Yet it is also a book that clearly demonstrates Lee undeniably stood apart from his contemporaries in fundamental ways and exerted an influence on so many for so long in both his actuality and his essence that he simply demands to be reckoned with in United States history still today.


Review of Alabama: The Making of an American State, by Edwin C. Bridges

22 Aug


Edwin C. Bridges’ Alabama: The Making of an American State is a landmark in the historiography of Alabama. Comprehensive, engaging, and beautifully illustrated, the book is destined to be the standard narrative history of the state for many years and a key reference source for generations. In less than 250 information-packed pages the author chronicles the major people, places and events significant in Alabama’s story stretching back to the earliest prehistoric occupations down to the present day.




Bridges, Director Emeritus of Alabama Department of Archives and History, is uniquely situated to produce such a wide-ranging narrative, having spent the bulk of his distinguished career immersed in interpreting all areas of the state’s past and working with its preeminent scholars on innumerable projects. As a consequence of his knowledge and connections, the book has the unmistakable tone of authority and is something quite more than a mere overview narrative. It reestablishes a historical timeline for understanding Alabama’s colorful past and refocuses attention on dozens of key players—some familiar and others less so—for students of the state’s history of all ages. The book is carefully balanced, giving attention to cultural, political, military, economic and spiritual matters which influenced the development of the state throughout its history.


Alabama: The Making of an American State is timely in that it is perhaps one of the more important contributions to Alabama’s bicentennial celebration (taking place over three years between 2017-2019), but also because it appears after a long period without a similar publication detailing the state’s past. The most recent scholarly treatment of Alabama’s past, Alabama: The History of a Deep South State, first appeared in 1994 even though it was recently reissued. When first printed, that book was the first of its type in decades, as well; works of this sort do not appear very often and when they do they have a tendency to shape historical understanding of the state’s past in special ways.


I give Bridges credit for choosing to publish the book without footnotes, opting instead for a bibliographical essay on key sources for each of the eras he chronicles. His effort is to provide a new overview framework for understanding the state’s rich but controversial heritage by the broadest possible spectrum of readers, and he succeeds in marvelous fashion by eschewing an overly scholarly, thesis-heavy approach for one of sober reflection conveyed in storytelling style. On matters where there remain significantly differing scholarly opinions or on subjects where we simply do not know as much as we would like, he says as much. On matters thoroughly interpreted in other publications, he provides superb summaries that never strike the reader as a dry rehash of the work of others. The book is well-planned, polished, and a definitive summary of Alabama’s remarkable story. Whether you a reader with a casual interest in the state’s past or a niche scholar able to devote a career to the study of a specific era, you will benefit by reading this thoughtful narrative.




Charlottesville: Two Takes On Racists and Misappropriated Historical Symbols

15 Aug

Part One

White Nationalism, that proverbial pimple on the ass of the American public, reared its imbecilic head and began to fester anew in Charlottesville, Virginia last weekend. The overwhelming majority of thinking Americans were quick to condemn these miscreants and their perverted racism in the wake of the mayhem they wrought, as they should. Many were quick to ask that our president be more forceful in condemning and repudiating such backwardness, and they have every reason to. Many made pleas that we as Americans openly discuss in a peaceful way our differences, which is proper. Many seem to think that the ideology of white nationalism stems from a celebration of the Confederacy and that effacing all vestiges of its memory is a solution to the proliferation of ignorance and hate among a small but vocal portion of our society. They are dead wrong.

The degenerates that go around spewing hate and taking pride in the purity of their white skin (a laughably absurd notion given the “mongrel” nature of the “white race” due to the multiple Germanic and Anglo-Saxon tribes from which it traces its lineage) do not represent in any shape, form, or fashion anything in the American past. They have a distinctly modern agenda and have simply coopted symbols from our history and tied them into their sick notions of a new American society. It is perhaps appropriate that they fly the Nazi swastika—there is a semblance of commonality in their agenda and Hitler’s evil 20th century plans—but they also are fond of flying the Confederate flag and, in KKK-like fashion, prominently brandishing the Christian cross as they condemn blacks, Jews, and a host of others to which they feel superior. We have heard nobody (yet) allege the root cause of all this backwardness is the church, nor say we should remove all Christian symbols because of their misuse. Nor should we. So I have to wonder why effacement of all controversial symbols from our past is viewed as a solution to deviancy when the people employing them are likely as ignorant of the history they represent as the general populace. What do we do the next time some other misguided group latches onto other historical symbols and personalities—do we remove any mention of them as a consequence as well and think we solved the problem? The trouble is, you see, we have quite a bit of unsavory history that hate groups could utilize in their scheming.

Lee Statue at Charlottesville

The deep, substantive, and emotional debate taking place in this country over the place of controversial historical symbols is healthy. Understanding our complicated and troubled past and how we remember it are some of the most important discussions we can have. But as a historian who seeks to understand the past first and foremost rather than justify heroes or condemn villains I am increasingly troubled by our selectivity in dealing with such symbols. Perhaps it is because the Confederacy was defeated and its cause lost—a morally bankrupt one which needed to be defeated—it has become a scapegoat for all that is wrong with America’s past. Judging by the narrow focus of our effacement efforts, I can’t help but think someone with no knowledge of American history dropping in on us might reasonably assume that racism and slavery were invented in 1861 by a cabal of angry Southern plantation owners, and that with the defeat of the Confederate armies by the enlightened United States in 1865, both those evils were forever vanquished in America and the nation returned to the racial progressivist continuum initiated by its founders.

The cold, hard truth, however, is that slavery and racism predate the Confederacy by centuries, and the institution was profoundly part and parcel of America’s development for hundreds of years prior to secession. It is good that this fact bothers us, but blinding ourselves to it so that we can isolate a handful of villains in a four-year period among centuries of misdeed is an exercise in willful ignorance and misinforms us and, potentially, future generations. Slavery is an ancient institution forged on populations across the globe. Forcing people to labor against their will for the profit of others has been a terrible result of human greed and misuse of power for as long as there have been humans on the planet. It has rarely been about hate per se, but has always been about power.

We in America like to think of ourselves as descended from an exceptional heritage among the world’s nations, though, and that from the time of the landing of the Pilgrims our national story has been one continuous sweep towards “liberty for all.” We do not like to be reminded that slavery was a foundational element of our nation’s economy from its earliest colonial days, or that it was sanctioned in our constitution, or that many of our early leaders were associated with it to varying degrees. They could scarcely help being so mind you—it was in the very fabric of American society despite their grandiose claims. Whether in the North or South, the East or the West, or an urban or rural location, there is scarcely a place in our great country unconnected with the barbaric institution in some way. In truth if you look for an American past unblemished by the taint of slavery you are on a fool’s errand. Yet we as Americans have usually chosen to believe more in the statements our ancestors made about liberty than denigrate them for their own shortcomings or curse them for being products of their own time, and it has been to our benefit as a nation.

So does all this mean that we should give the Confederacy a pass, and venerate its leaders unquestionably and overlook the fact that its military and political leaders engaged in what could be described treason and, had they won the war they waged, would have certainly kept blacks enslaved for at least another generation? Of course not! But we should acknowledge the fact that Confederates were a lot more in the American mainstream of their time than we are comfortable in admitting, that they fought for a complex variety of motivations and that most conceived their fight being predominantly one for home and hearth, and that they were not necessarily of one mind about the future of American race relations. We would also do well to remember that there are great differences in the rationale and timing of monuments, memorials, and other commemorations of the totality of their lives and deeds. Maybe many of the statues of them can ultimately be best displayed in a new context or location or in some cases removed forever. It is a debate we should have as a society and that historians should have a voice in.

But what we simply cannot do is to allow perverts and deviants to tell us as Americans how we remember and interpret our own history. We can’t have knee-jerk reactions to remove symbols appropriated by these people thinking the symbol gave them the idea for their evil thoughts and deeds. People in our past should be judged and understood in the context of their times. White Nationalists should be judged in their own in similar fashion, a time in which the bigotry they espouse has been clearly repudiated and their dim vision of a future America recognized as a darkly revolutionary and terribly aberrational notion not linked with any historical reality. Let’s judge them for the pathetic views they advance, and leave the Confederacy—and any other era of American history—out of it. American history is not all glorious and enlightened, but it has little connection to the genocidal agenda on display this last weekend and we merely make ourselves feel temporarily better by pretending that not remembering our most difficult moments from the past will solve our problems today.



Nazi flag Charlottesville

Part Two

Like most everyone else on the planet, I felt sickened by the events of the past weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia. Watching white supremacists gather and spew their hate-filled language and rhetoric makes one simply shake their head and question humanity. To think that these sort of rallies can still draw scores of people in the year 2017 baffles the mind. Violence is all that will come from such gatherings.

So much has been written and said about the evils of these white supremacists and the responses to them that there is no need for me or anyone else to say much more.  I want to briefly focus on the aspect of symbols and their part in this drama and the relationship to my white Southern heritage. I am fearful that my words will mark me as a Neo-Confederate, which I am not. I am simply a white Southern male who was raised to have an appreciation and respect for soldiers in the Confederate Army who fought, according to the vast majority of evidence, to simply defend their homes. Watching these idiots and their continued use of Confederate flags as their symbol sickens me!  Granted, I am a white Southern male, and therefore, approach these symbols from a different perspective than my fellow black Americans. But to me, that flag does not represent white supremacy but was simply the flag carried by scores of men who fought primarily for a cause other than simply the desire to defend slavery and white supremacy. I understand that millions of black Americans see the Confederate battle flag as a symbol of white supremacy. Nowadays, it has become impossible to display that flag without that being the dominant expression.  All I can say is DAMN those who after the Civil War hijacked that flag to represent their cause of white supremacy and racism.

Beginning as a youngster, I have enjoyed reading military accounts of the battles of the Civil War and was amazed at the accounts of strategy, tactics, and extreme bravery by my Southern ancestors. Nowadays, I am sometimes made to feel guilty to have enjoyed my reading of the war as it seems to place me in this group of white supremacists who still desire to fight the war and promote their racist demagoguery.

I want to scream at these idiots and say their ridiculous actions will only bring about the demise of monuments and symbols which they claim that they want to protect and save!!!! But the removal of these monuments and symbols is the only possible outcome when these morons link statues and monuments to the cause of white supremacy and even worse, link it with the Nazi flag, the ultimate symbol of racism and hate!

A statue of Robert E. Lee served as a backdrop to the actions this past weekend and I am convinced that he would strongly disapprove of the actions of those who want to use his image and statue to further their cause!!


Review of Wolf of the Deep: Raphael Semmes and the Notorious Confederate Raider CSS Alabama, by Stephen Fox

8 Aug

The Confederate privateer cruiser CSS Alabama is among the most famous warships to have sailed during the Civil War. For that matter, it is one of the more noted vessels in all of American history. Designed by Confederates to prey on United States shipping as a counter to the young nation’s hopelessly overmatched naval forces, the British-built ship was wildly successful in its mission. Under the ruthlessly efficient Captain Raphael Semmes and his trusted second in command, John M. Kell, during a roughly two-year cruise the speedy Alabama captured or burned some 65 Union ships and took more than 2,000 prisoners. Roaming the world’s oceans at will as the most-wanted raider on the planet, the ship became a legend in its own time. At ports from France to South Africa and from Brazil to the Singapore, the Alabama was recognized as perhaps the most famous ship afloat anywhere in 1863 and 1864 and its crew hailed as celebrities wherever they stopped.


The ship’s days as the scourge of Union shipping finally came to an inglorious end off the coast of France in August of 1864, when the weather-beaten ship, desperately need of a thorough overhaul, limped out to fight the Kearsarge, standing just beyond French waters in wait. Though his ship was leaking, listing, and contained a faulty powder supply, Semmes realized he had finally been brought to heel as he attempted to repair the vessel at Cherbourg.  Should he wait until repairs were complete to venture out he would be facing much more than a single Union gunboat. After a pitched battle the Alabama was sunk in nearly 200 feet of water, not to be seen again until underwater archaeologists found the wreck in the 1980s. Its captain was whisked away to the relative safety of Great Britain by a yacht and thereby successfully, for the time at least, evaded capture by frustrated federal officials.


Wolf of the Deep recounts in highly compelling fashion the Alabama’s remarkable voyage and the remarkable man at its center, Captain Raphael Semmes. It is naval history in the finest tradition, taking readers through the waves, onto the decks, and into the hold aboard the ship and vividly painting a picture of daily life for its crew on the high seas and in various ports around the world. It also serves as a biography of the enigmatic Semmes, a complex and quiet man seemingly more at home with a book or a writing desk than in command of a rowdy bunch of sailors. Hailing from Maryland but adopting Alabama as his home, Semmes fervently believed in the Confederate cause and despite his somewhat advanced age for the task in which he was entrusted (in his mid-fifties during the cruise) and the nearly three-year separation from his family the voyage of the

Alabama would ultimately require, he went about his work with a determination. Readers learn about his troubled domestic life (his wife had a child by another man during his extended absence during the Mexican War), his talents (he had careers as a writer, lawyer, teacher, and elected official outside of his naval exploits), and his post-war imprisonment and return to civilian life. Numerous details about his personality and life are revealed in the pages of the book. Who knew that the captain of one of the most celebrated raiding ships in history was hopelessly prone to sea sickness?


Fox chronicles the voyage of the Alabama and its place in history better than any previous author. He helps readers visualize the cruiser in action, makes the crew come alive as real individuals, and wrestles with the implications of one of the world’s most efficient privateers being built and supplied by a supposedly neutral foreign power during time of war. Claims for damages inflicted on United States shipping by the Alabama against Great Britain would become an international legal issue for years after Appomattox—a story outlined by Fox in overview fashion at the conclusion of the book. Wolf of the Deep is a tremendous contribution to the historiography of the Civil War and American naval history in general. If you have an interest in either, or simply love narrative history written as high adventure, I strongly recommend this book.


Touring Fort Caroline National Memorial and Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve

1 Aug

The more I learn about America’s colonial history, the more I become aware just how little of that tumultuous formative era we really understand.  Most Americans are not even aware of some of the country’s most important early colonial stories, much less understand the historical context in which the colonial rivalries among European powers played out in early America. They certainly seem to know little of the influence these contests had on the nation’s future development. The story of Fort Caroline, a French settlement in Florida which predates Jamestown, Plymouth, and even St. Augustine, is a case in point. Tracing its founding to a 1562 expedition and settled in 1564 by French Protestants, the short-lived colony suffered the wrath of an attack by Spanish forces which not only resulted in its destruction, but paved the way for over two and a half centuries of Spanish hegemony over large swaths of the Gulf South.

I recently had a chance to visit the Fort Caroline National Memorial, near Jacksonville, Florida, and see the site where one of America’s least understood but consequential sagas played out. It is a peaceful, small park situated almost within a suburban neighborhood along the St. John’s River. Its primary attraction is a reconstruction of a fort built there (on approximately the stie) by French colonists. Led by a gentleman named Jean Ribault and assisted to a great degree by local Timucua Indians, the fort became the centerpiece of a settlement of perhaps 200 people which allowed the French to at one point lay claim to a long section of the Atlantic coast. A modest visitor’s center with a succinct series of exhibits orients guests to the history of the site and the larger Timucuan Ecological Preserve of which it is a part.

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That French claim provoked an immediate response by Spain, already established as a colonial power in South and Central America at the time and not prone to brooking any interference in its plans for further regional domination. The French technically made the first move in the feud surrounding the establishment of the colony, as Ribault, arriving from a trip back to France with nearly 600 soldiers and settlers, moved to attack a Spanish force under Pedro Menendez de Aviles, who had been sent to extricate the French from the area. After a storm beached Ribault’s ships, Menendez was able to attack the weakly defended Fort Caroline on September 20, killing over 100 people. He then headed south to find the stranded French, and at a place forever after known as Matanzas (meaning “slaughter”), killed 350 Frenchmen. The actions of the Spanish eliminated the French from the region, facilitating the establishment of St. Augustine in the aftermath—now recognized as the oldest continually inhabited city in the United States. Though a French military force did return to the region in 1568 and exacted revenge on the Spanish, destroying their fort, France would never again be a serious player in the colonial contests along the southern Atlantic seaboard.

Fort Caroline is a compelling, somber site, offering visitors a chance to reflect on the goals and dreams of Europeans who settled early America and whose contentious rivalries shaped settlement patterns, cultural development, and the political boundaries of what would, centuries later, become the United States of America. On a more basic level, the site helps us appreciate just how far back our history stretches and how much of it is waiting to be discovered.