Archive | December, 2017

Read the Book!

19 Dec

Book for review

I have done a lot of book reviews in my time, posting them here on this blog and in the pages of various journals, magazines, and other publications. My work may not be stellar, but I can tell you that I have actually read every book I have reviewed. Unfortunately, I don’t think I can say the same of many of the reviewers I have read. I will admit I do not have any hard evidence, but I see a surprising amount of book reviews in academic journals written by professional historians that read as though the author read no more of the book than the dust jacket. Maybe they are just bad at expressing themselves, or maybe they just do not know how to actually critique a book. Either could be the case, and far be it from me to pretend I am an expert in the art of book review. But I have seen too much effusive praise for masterful narratives that are in truth clunky and repetitive, too many complements for definitive treatments that were in fact limited or speculative, and no little criticism of books based on assumptions about their arguments that seem to rely more on a glance at the table of contents than any thorough analysis. My point is simply this: reviewers everywhere please do us all a favor and actually read the book you are tasked with reviewing before you praise or condemn it. It is, after all, the most basic part of the responsibility you accepted.


Review of Benjamin Hawkins: Indian Agent, by Merritt B. Pound

12 Dec

Few men had as much interaction and influence with Native American society around the turn of the nineteenth century as Benjamin Hawkins, who served as principal Indian agent in the Southeast from 1796 to 1816. Surprisingly, there are hardly any biographies of the man other than his collected works which include introductions that provide a brief overview. One of the few is Merritt B. Pound’s Benjamin Hawkins: Indian Agent published in 1951.


Hawkins had a long career of public service before his work as Indian agent. A native of North Carolina, he served on the staff of George Washington during the Revolution. He then served in North Carolina’s House of Commons, the Continental Congress and finally the U.S. Senate. He quickly became interested in the affairs of Native Americans and was finally appointed Indian Agent in the Southeast in 1796 by George Washington. He would spend the next twenty years in this capacity until his death in 1816.

Pound provides ample evidence of Hawkins’s affinity for the Native Americans. Hawkins was concerned for their well-being as he attempted to persuade them to accept modern ways of farming and agriculture in lieu of their traditional ways of life, which focused mainly on hunting. Hawkins promoted these new practices amongst a population torn with conflicting views of the future of their society. All the while, Hawkins tried to maintain peace as the states of Georgia and Tennessee with land hungry settlers sought additional Indian land. Many felt Hawkins sided too often with the Indians.

Hawkins is most identified with his relationship with the Creek nation, in which he had more contact. His proximity to them and his work with that tribe allowed him to have great influence among them. In reality, at times he served as an almost unofficial chief of the nation. During regular meetings of the Creek Council, he held sway in his attempts to maintain law and order with Creeks and the whites. Hawkins worked hard to see that the guilty (on both sides) were properly punished in such cases of thievery and murder. Hawkins’s biggest failure, unfortunately, was when he failed to fully identify the threat of Tecumseh which contributed to the Creek Civil War and the eventual conflict with the United States. That war led to a harsh land cession treaty with the Creeks which not only devastated that nation, but Hawkins himself who passed away shortly afterward. Written in 1951, this book does not contain the most up-to-date scholarship regarding the origins of the Creek War and its international connections.

Pound’s book reads like many books written in the 1950s. It is heavy on quotes and facts and reads like it was written by someone who was head of a political science department, which Pound was at Georgia for twenty-five years. It lacks a strong narrative and is not a “page turner,” but it does provide a solid overview of Hawkins’s life. It is almost unfathomable that there has not been a complete, modern biography of this important figure in U.S. history known as “Beloved Man of the Four Nations.”
As an aside, Hawkins as agent lived among the Indians for twenty years, finally establishing his home and the Indian agency along the Flint River in present-day Roberta, Georgia. During these years, one of Hawkins’s greatest contributions is his observations as he traveled the region. Hawkins was a prolific writer and the collected works of Benjamin Hawkins is a must for anyone interested in the time period and Native American culture and society.


Review of Andrew Jackson and Miracle of New Orleans, by Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger

5 Dec

Andrew Jackson’s climatic victory over the British at New Orleans in 1815 is the latest topic chosen by Fox News Channel’s media personality and historical author Brian Kilmeade. Kilmeade, along with co-writer Don Yaeger, have written previous books on George Washington’s spies and Thomas Jefferson’s war against the Tripoli pirates to some critical acclaim. In Andrew Jackson and the Miracle of New Orleans, the authors have written a solid and inspiring account of Jackson’s triumph in the most famous battle of the War of 1812.


We will admit that we approached this book with a few reservations. The southern campaigns of the War of 1812 and the related Creek War of 1813-14 are complex in nature and many trained historians have struggled over their details in recounting them. Familiar with some of the missteps of other media personalities such as Bill O’Reilly and the unflinchingly biased accounts of historical events by other journalists and pseudo-historians, we wondered what sort of treatment what happened on the plain at Chalmette might receive at the hands of Kilmeade and Yaeger. To our relief and surprise, we found The Miracle of New Orleans to feature a reasonably well-written narrative of its subject; choppy and plodding in analysis of contextual events but engrossing and substantive when recounting the battle which is its focus. The writers open the book by quickly tracing Jackson’s background with brief, but well-done overviews of his Revolutionary War encounter with a hostile British officer, his epic duel with the Bentons in Nashville, and trek to and from Natchez where he earned his “Old Hickory” sobriquet. The writers also move rapidly through the Jackson’s Creek War actions, touching on all the major encounters leading up to New Orleans. As do so many authors, they stumble with some of the facts surrounding a few Creek War battles (for instance, Creek leader William Weatherford was not at Talladega as their narrative alleges), but the story of that war overall is communicated well and appropriately leads toward the British threat to the Gulf Coast which culminated in one of America’s most decisive military victories.

The book really shines when discussing Jackson’s fight with the British at New Orleans. Kilmeade and Yaeger’s narrative of the multiple encounters which comprise the New Orleans campaign are some of the finest we have read. Writing succinctly but compellingly, they provide a stirring account of the gallant defense of Fort Bowyer by outnumbered forces at Mobile; Jackson’s audacious capture of Spanish-held Pensacola; and the forgotten pitched naval engagement at Lake Borgne which paved the way for the British landing on the American mainland. Occasionally the authors step back to examine the negotiations toward the treaty which would end the war, taking place as these events unfolded, to hammer home the point that although the battle was fought technically after the treaty was signed, it is clear that had the British captured the city, it would not have been simply returned to the United States. Achieving victory was imperative for Jackson, then, both for the immediate safety of the city of New Orleans and the long-term security and self-determination of the United States.

Kilmeade and Yaeger highlight Jackson’s pivotal leadership during the campaign as they describe his perseverance though difficult health issues and successful wielding of a diverse and largely untrained and untested force to defeat perhaps the most feared army in the world at the time. Jackson comes in for praise at multiple points in the narrative. His initiative in attacking the British at night upon learning of their landing probably saved New Orleans initially as it caused British leadership to delay a thrust into the unprotected city. His decisive strategy lured the British into a bloody frontal assault they ultimately lost in dramatic fashion. His restraint in pursuit of the enemy after the attack avoided risking a setback to American arms which might have swung the momentum back to the invaders. Jackson’s planning was not without its flaws, the authors note—pointing to the potentially disastrous British assault on the American position opposite of the Mississippi River from Chalmette—but with the overwhelming victory on January 8, 1815 by a resolute but ragtag army, the invaders had no choice but to retreat back to their ships. The Gulf Coast and the outlet of the mighty Mississippi, the critical trading artery for the western frontier of the growing United States, had been secured against European interference once and for all by force of arms.

We believe The Miracle at New Orleans brings a topic that is near and dear to us, and crucial in our nation’s history, even more much-needed recognition. Jackson’s victory at New Orleans, perhaps the nation’s finest hour militarily, proved to be a cornerstone in the future expansion of the United States. Perhaps just as crucially to the course of American history, it brought Jackson to national acclaim and set him up for his two-term presidency and unprecedented influence over a time period that would forever be known as the “Age of Jackson.” This book provides a refreshing counterbalance to the selective, poorly informed recent attacks within academia and popular culture on Jackson’s legacy and place in American history. It is certainly not a wholly uncritical evaluation, but to the authors’ credit it points out that, while a man with obvious faults whose worst moments Americans seem to revel in highlighting, the “Hero of New Orleans” had some very important successes that we all can and should celebrate.