Archive | September, 2017

Review of These Rugged Days: Alabama in the Civil War, by John S. Sledge

26 Sep

With the publication of These Rugged Days, Alabama’s extraordinary military saga during our nation’s most dramatic trial has finally been told as it has so long deserved. A rich and colorful tale of larger-than-life leaders, colorful personalities civilian and military, and dramatic moments framed by cavalry raids and modestly-sized but deadly battles on land and sea, it is a story that has awaited an able teller for over a century and a half. Aside from the relatively substantial but niche body of literature about the Battle of Mobile Bay, few professional studies chronicle the state’s Civil War battles in any great detail. Even fewer have attempted to paint the broader picture of the shooting war in the Heart of Dixie as a whole. Instead, Alabamians for generations now have had their story of those most pivotal years of 1861-1865 told largely through the lens of battlefield experiences in Virginia, Georgia, and Tennessee, spiced with a smattering of civilian anecdote, or in monographs of less than easy availability. Save for the famous meeting of the man and the hour in Montgomery in 1861 and Farragut’s celebrated exclamation regarding underwater explosive devices in 1864, Alabamians have generally been assured what happened within their state’s borders was either inconsequential or unnecessary, ultimately rendering it all rather forgettable. Enter author John Sledge, an accomplished writer with a lengthy and growing list of accolades and an innate feel for the subject born of familial heritage and decades of study. Through his appreciation for the past of his home state and his smooth, engrossing prose, we finally have a riveting account of Alabama’s Civil War that enlivens obscure figures we should better know, animates forgotten landscapes where war was waged with which we should be more familiar, and brings home the visceral emotion and profound spectacle of combat on Alabama soil and waters through which we should have understood these events all along.

Sledge Rugged Days

It is indeed one of the supreme ironies in Alabama’s storied history that a state so starkly shaped by the war and so associated with the movement which brought it about has so thin a historiography of its own Civil War experience. As discussed in previous blogs here evaluating some of the timely recent scholarly attention being focused on Alabama’s war years (Civil War Alabama and The Yellowhammer War), there have been few serious studies of the war in the state in modern times, none of them satisfying or enduring. Clearly, the skirmishes, raids, and battles which took place within the state were in no way equivalent to Shiloh or Gettsyburg, but they are actions where men fought and died, had real consequence at the time of their occurrence, and are enduring landmarks in local history for communities from Athens to Spanish Fort and Demopolis to Loachapoka. But in addition to any measure of impact on the war’s trajectory, these events deserve mention for their sheer drama. Alabama’s hallowed grounds include territory on which the “Wizard of the Saddle” (Nathan Bedford Forrest) accomplished some of his most daring feats and had some of his closest calls; beheld the largest naval engagement of the war; provided the backdrop for the largest cavalry force organized during the war; and witnessed the last grand open-field charge of the war. The state not only served as the first capital of the Confederacy, but played a significant part in the logistical operation and supply of its armies to boot. The war also left in its wake epoch-defining destruction, despair, and disorder. Clearly it is a rich story for investigation if ever there was one.

Sledge begins his book by referencing an episode from his childhood, recalling the time when a beloved grandmother recounted for him the story of Wilson’s Raid during a trip from Montevallo to Selma. The story illuminates the author’s own background and alerts the reader to the lens through which he wants us to understand the story he tells, but it also serves to highlight the way so much of Alabama’s Civil War heritage usually has been told—as distinctly personal, local legend brought to life only on special occasions rather than shared statewide experience. His ensuing accounts of the major military actions in the state, ranging from the march of Abel Streight’s “jack ass cavalry” across the hilly, verdant terrain of north Alabama to the thundering artillery duel which took place where the lapping waters of Mobile Bay meet the glimmering Gulf of Mexico during the Battle of Mobile Bay are models of storytelling. Never does Sledge try to overstate significance, but consistently does he communicate real people, places, and events undeservedly forgotten by most Alabamians. The reader comes away with a better understanding of how and why the scattered fighting in the state unfolded as it did, and learns in its course the effect on the communities through which the armies passed. Again, real people, brought to life as living, breathing eyewitnesses, are animated, including among them the swaggering cavalryman Forrest, the bold heroine Emma Sansom, the irrepressible artillerist John Pelham, the salty naval captain Franklin Buchanan, and the patriotic novelist Augusta Jane Evans. But we also hear from lesser-known citizens and journalists, students and planters, businessmen and mothers, free men and slaves. These Rugged Days indeed presents a balanced approach, weaving snapshots of moments in time into a comprehensible tapestry with flair and obvious affection.

I highly recommend the book to anyone interested in Alabama history. It is authoritative but not tedious as an overview guide to the military actions occurring within the state, possessing just enough information on military maneuver to chronicle the combat without bogging the reader into the mire of overly detailed accounts of troop dispositions. It likewise contains just enough civilian perspective to give a convincing taste of Alabama’s distinct homefront flavor without overemphasizing the role of daily routine in a war which was anything but. Sledge is unapologetically writing for the most general of audiences here, and it is to his credit and our benefit. My only quibble would be the absence of some good custom maps through which to better follow the action he describes, but this is nitpicking. As a narrative history of Alabama’s Civil War events, These Rugged Days is unsurpassed and will certainly be the standard on its subject for years to come.


Review of The Natchez Indians: A History to 1735, by Jim Barnett

19 Sep

The Natchez Indians were one of the last remaining mound building cultures on the North American continent. Their complex society established along the Mississippi River placed them in the path of European explorers and colonists. Natchez interactions with these foreigners, especially the French, eventually led to that tribe’s ultimate destruction. Jim Barnett’s The Natchez Indians: A History to 1735 provides a thorough, yet concise narrative of these dramatic events.

Barnett Natchez
Barnett, longtime archaeologist/historian with the Mississippi Department of Archives and History as well the site director of the Grand Village of the Natchez Indians, is the foremost expert on the topic and the perfect person to tell their story in detail. Utilizing the vast archaeological record left behind in the Natchez, Mississippi area along with colonial archives, Barnett traces the Natchez Indians (and their predecessors) from their earliest encounters with DeSoto’s Spanish expedition to the later French and English colonists and traders.

Barnett divides the narrative into four broad chapters. Chapter one deals with DeSoto’s Spanish expedition as they failed to overcome the powerful ancient Chief Quigualtam and his empire who Barnett feels were the forefathers of the Natchez. Chapters two through four delve into the workings of the French as they attempted to colonize and settle the region.

Barnett uses the observations of the French explorers and colonists to tell most of the story of the Natchez Indians. The Natchez Indians were a confederation of villages located around a main ceremonial center known as the Grand Village. It had been believed that the Great Sun of the Grand Village maintained a strong level of control over the surrounding settlements, but that notion seems to have been disproved as the other chiefs maintained their own level of control and autonomy. The French who attempted to settle the area for profit along with English traders who made inroads with the northernmost villages led to the eventual end of the Natchez nation. The French and the Natchez had a strained relationship from the earliest interactions in 1682. Several “Natchez Wars” took place that further strained relationships until the famous Natchez Massacre which occurred in November 1729 when the Natchez Indians revolted and killed over 200 colonists. Some scholars believe that the English might have had a role in fomenting this revolt, but there is not enough evidence to accept that as fact. The more likely reasons for the revolt were a fort commandant who acted harshly towards the natives and long-term grievances with French leaders and colonists whose attempts to gather more land caused friction. The French eventually rallied and along with Choctaw allies, regained control of the area. The Natchez who survived fled westward across the river where a final confrontation took place. The Natchez who escaped the region eventually moved to live with the Chickasaw, Creek, and Cherokee, having lost their own true identity as a nation.

Barnett has provided the definite account of the Natchez and their relations with the Europeans, predominantly the French. The book does lack information on the Natchez people themselves. One wonders if the book’s title should have emphasized the conflict of cultures theme as this book seems to focus on these interactions rather than simply an overview of Natchez culture. Although my interest is in these interactions, readers seeking details on Natchez life will need to look elsewhere.


Review of Jacksonland: President Andrew Jackson, Cherokee Chief John Ross, and A Great American Land Grab, by Steve Inskeep

12 Sep

Host of NPR’s “Morning Edition” and talented writer Steve Inskeep’s recent book, Jacksonland, pits President Andrew Jackson and Chief John Ross as pivotal antagonists on opposite sides of one of America’s greatest moral dramas. The book ambitiously explores the searing saga of the debate over Indian Removal through investigation of each of these men’s background, viewpoints, and actions. The result is a compelling and surprisingly balanced explanation of the complicated motivations underlying the causes and course of a struggle that still reverberates powerfully in our national psyche.


We all know the general outlines of the story as laid out by Inskeep: a steadily increasing American population with a seemingly insatiable demand for land jealously looked upon the vast native domain of the original American Southwest as more space than any combination of Indian groups could ever properly use, and determined by hook or by crook to have it as their own. Indians were overwhelmed and in a poor position culturally, economically, politically, or militarily to resist the onslaught. Americans ultimately had their way, systematically wresting lands from Native Americans in treaties providing flimsy legal sanction. The Creeks first felt the full force of this procedure, surrendering portions of their ancestral lands via treaties before having a huge twenty-million acre swath wrested from them in the aftermath of the Creek War of 1813-14. Soon the Chickasaws, Choctaws, and Cherokees experienced different strains of the same story leading to multiple “trails of tears.” This process altered the course of American history by both inglorious precedent in delineating the status of Native Americans in the country and by setting the stage for the rise of the “Old South.” It left us with a nagging stain on our character that seemingly only grows more troublesome as time goes on.

Inskeep frames this complicated tale with illuminating biographies of two men on opposite sides of one of the last, heartrending battles in this long drama—the struggle over Removal of the Cherokee. Andrew Jackson comes across perhaps as expected; a force of nature whose alternating competence and scheming, unwavering principle and moral relevancy, combine to forever make him in turns an object of esteem and derision. Rising from humble origins, he became a symbol for the age in which he lived and was thought to represent the very best of the American spirit; today he remains a symbol of his age but is increasingly associated in the popular mind only with the worst aspects of our national character. Inskeep pounces on those flaws, showing Jackson to have easily conflated official duty with private gain on more than one occasion, but in fairness also explores his deep and abiding patriotism as guiding even his morally questionable actions. John Ross, Inskeep shows, was perhaps an even more unlikely champion of native rights. He claimed at least as much white blood as Cherokee, and fought alongside Andrew Jackson against Red Stick Creeks during the Creek War of 1813-14, before becoming a planter and slaveowner thoroughly accustomed to a “white” lifestyle. Ross, in fact, moved seamlessly within both white and native worlds as his needs dictated, but in some ways was never entirely comfortable in either. Ross worked hard to maintain the Cherokees’ place in a changing America even if the course he charted represented a near total abandonment of ancestral ways as he strove to show his people could successfully live exactly as their white neighbors. It is refreshing to see that in Inskeep’s hands Ross is less shining martyr than lens through which to understand the tragic denouement to centuries of Indian hegemony in the American South. Jackson, in his telling, is representative of the unbridled greed and ambition of early America in this tale of conquest; Ross the unwilling foil forced to make mounting compromise that in the end sacrifices virtually the entirety of the original goals. The tale is tragic almost as much for its predictability as for its actual results.

Inskeep’s biographical portraits and his chronicle of the political intrigue as each man pursued his goals is gripping and informing narrative sure to help frame lucidly the events he details for a new generation, but scholars of the era and topic will in truth find little new in the story. Perhaps the most lasting contribution of the book will be Inskeep’s deft explanation of how the heart of the Old South—“Jacksonland” in his parlance—figures so prominently in the pivotal events of nineteenth century America. It is in this region that the defining clash of cultures occurred which led to Removal, and it is in this region that Jackson’s stamp on America was most pronounced. The book therefore frames in a new way the overarching influence of Jackson in American history. It is important we remember this man and what he represented, Inskeep’s book reminds us if only by accident, because his rise was only made possible by the support and encouragement of a majority of his fellow countrymen at the time. In this light it is vital that we understand the context of his actions and not paint him as the originator of racism and bigotry, even though there is an alarming trend in America today to make him the lone scapegoat for all the sins of his era and therefore exonerate any and all accomplices and remember as saintly all his foes. As historians we know that to encourage such an oversimplification of the facts would not be history but political spin. Inskeep makes no secret of who he views as the hero and the villain in his account of one of our nation’s most unfortunate crises, but I give him kudos for approaching the topic with balance and reminding us of the complexity of the story. We would do well to remember that, if we take away nothing else from our study of the time period.


Review of Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson, by S.C. Gwynne

5 Sep

Two of the men I most admire from the past share the same last name. Those who are regular readers of this blog know of my admiration of Andrew Jackson. Going back to my childhood, I also have great fondness for Thomas J. Jackson, know forever as Stonewall. S.C. Gwynne has provided another biography of the famous Confederate General in Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson. The question is does this latest biography have anything new to offer its readers?

Gwynne provides a complete narrative of Jackson’s life. He utilizes the classic literary method of jumping back and forth in time instead of simply providing a strict, chronological history of Jackson from his birth to his death. All of the well-known facets of his life are described from his early days on his uncle’s farm after his parents’ death, academic career at West Point, Mexican War exploits, and finally Civil War career when he became the most feared Confederate leader of the war before his untimely death. Gwynne also focuses on his family, from his influential sister Laura to his first wife Ellie who died shortly after childbirth to his second wife Anna. Of course, Gwynne examines his deep religious beliefs which dominated every aspect of Jackson’s life as well as the general’s oddities of behavior. His recounting of Jackson’s military exploits deserves special mention as Gwynne smoothly describes the actions in a captivating manner. (I do admit that one error identifying a map of First Manassas as July 21, 1862, is a discouraging one as everyone knows that the first major battle of the war took place in 1861. How did this glaring goof get past editors?) Overall, it is a well-written account that allows the reader to turn the pages quickly without ever getting too detailed to slow the narrative.

However, once I had finished, I had to wonder if this biography had revealed anything new? As someone who is well-versed in the story of Jackson’s life after reading numerous biographies of Jackson as well as the Civil War’s eastern theater, I am simply not sure I learned anything different or that the writer had any new perspectives on Jackson. James “Bud” Robertson’s Stonewall Jackson: The Man, the Soldier, the Legend remains the definitive biography of Stonewall and I would simply recommend that book over this one. Perhaps I am being too critical and this is merely an example of a subject that deserves a library of works and there is not a problem with one more as long as it is well written. I certainly enjoyed reading again the exploits of Jackson who rose from obscurity to become one of this nation’s most fascinating figures and this book simply reinforces that fact.