Archive | January, 2018

Review of Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution, by Nathaniel Philbrick

30 Jan

As I have noted in my reviews of his books in this blog, (Sea of Glory, Mayflower) one of my favorite authors is Nathaniel Philbrick. He has that rare ability to weave a good story in a convincing and memorable way that allows readers to easily follow complex stories. His writing is always engaging, and he has a knack for painting lively pictures of personalities from the past which helps readers understand them as real people. I recently got a chance to listen to an audio recording of his account of the role of Boston in the American Revolution, entitled Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution. As usual, I came away thoroughly impressed and better informed.

Philbrick Bunker Hill

It is no stretch to say that Bunker Hill contains the story of the American Revolution in microcosm, as it chronicles the military, political, and social dynamics of arguably the most pivotal American city in the movement for independence. The general overview is somewhat well-known by most people with even a cursory understanding of the Revolutionary War; Boston’s role as a trendsetter in the movement towards independence; its central role in the first phase of the fighting at places such as Bunker Hill and nearby Lexington and Concord; its endurance of a siege by American forces; its role as the proving ground of George Washington’s leadership. Philbrick treats each of these familiar stories in kind in the book, bringing to life the individuals whose actions changed the course of American history and painting a vivid picture of the landscapes which witnessed some of the war’s first large battles.

Philbrick is particularly compelling in his description of the battles of Lexington and Concord, the skirmishes which opened the war, helping readers understand the realities of the conflict for combatants and the physical terrain on which they were fought. He captures better than any other author I have read the drama, the fear, and the palpable sense that suddenly everything had changed as a result of “the shot heard around the world.” His meticulous retelling of the Battle of Bunker Hill is equally stirring, explaining the contest with a level of detail I have rarely encountered. Philbrick’s discussion of the gritty reality of life in the city of Boston and the famous and not so famous characters who were there during the events he chronicles—including Washington, British Generals Thomas Gage and William Howe, Paul Revere, Joseph Warren and his fiancé Mercy Scollay—make for one of the more enlightening accounts of the opening of the Revolution. If you have an interest in the beginnings of the American Revolution, you should read this book.


Epic Fail, part 2

23 Jan

In honor of the latest display of petty selfishness and amateur statesmanship in Washington, Clay and I thought it would be a good time to repost one of our favorite blogs from our archives. We wrote this in 2013, during one of the many actual or threatened shutdowns of the government we elect “leaders” to operate. The particulars might be a little different, but the larger points remain:

government shutdown


Anniversary of the “Attack on the Village”—Alabama’s Largest Revolutionary War Battle

16 Jan

Coastal Alabama is probably not the first locale that pops into your mind when you think of major theaters of action during the Revolutionary War, but it did feature two locally-significant clashes which are worthy of notice. As last week was the 237th anniversary of the largest of these two forgotten battles, I thought I would take a moment to commemorate Alabama’s brush with the war which brought about our nation’s independence by summarizing this pair of contests between colonial British and Spanish forces.


Galvez stamp

Galvez’ campaign against Mobile was commemorated with a postage stamp in 1980


At the time of the American Revolution, Mobile and the surrounding region were a part of the colony of British West Florida (yes there were actually more than 13 colonies!). West Florida, like neighboring East Florida, simply chose not to align itself with the rebellious colonies along the eastern seaboard. Despite two invitations, its government declined to send delegates to the Continental Congress. Instead, West Florida became a safehaven for loyalists from other colonies and the sparsely-inhabited province experienced a veritable population boom due to the arrival of loyalists during the war. Meanwhile, ambitious officials in the neighboring Spanish colony of Louisiana, worried about a British move against them, moved preemptively to seize the opportunity to settle old scores and acquire by conquest territory they coveted while the British were distracted by war with the upstart Americans.

In a remarkable series of offensives spearheaded by the audacious Governor Bernardo de Galvez, Spanish forces (consisting of regulars, militia, free blacks, and slaves) in 1779 secured successively the surrender of British posts at Manchac, Baton Rouge, and Natchez before moving on Mobile. Galvez arrived below the city early in 1780, and after a short siege and brief but intense bombardment, forced the outnumbered and outgunned British garrison to surrender on March 14, 1780. There were about a dozen casualties, but only one man killed in the entire affair. Galvez held designs on the provincial capital at Pensacola, but a hurricane forced a postponement of his plans. In the meantime, the Spanish established an observation post protecting Mobile on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay near a small settlement known locally as “the village” (la Aldea to the Spanish)—the forerunner of modern Daphne, Alabama. The post is commemorated in the naming of the adjacent community of Spanish Fort. At this post on January 7, 1781 occurred Alabama’s largest Revolutionary War battle.

One hundred and ninety men garrisoned the Spanish outpost at The Village; mostly regulars along with a few African-American militia from New Orleans. Unbeknownst to these men, a British force more than twice its size advanced on the post for a surprise attack in what the British hoped would ultimately lead to a recapturing of the city of Mobile. Some 700 men—British regulars, German mercenaries, American Tories, and a sizable contingent of Indians under the command of Col. Johann Ludwig Wilhelm von Hanxleden—sprang from the gloom of a dense morning fog and attacked at daybreak on Sunday, January 7th. The disorganized Spanish were at first driven back, but after Hanxleden was killed and the defenders organized a resolute defense, the British assault ground to a halt. After the smoke cleared, the Spanish counted some fourteen killed and nearly two dozen wounded. The British tallied 18 dead and over fifty wounded. The British offensive had ended in devastating defeat. Within a matter of months, their capital at Pensacola would, like Mobile, also be in Spanish hands. As a result of the fighting along the Gulf Coast during the Revolutionary War, the colony of West Florida would pass from British to Spanish hands. There it would remain for another generation until annexed in piecemeal fashion by the United States during the War of 1812 era.


Review of Wicked Mobile, by Brendan Kirby

9 Jan


Brendan Kirby’s recent contribution to The History Press’s “Wicked” series focuses on the “scandalous side” of the Mobile, Alabama area’s rich history. Drawing on fascinating stories from the past on both sides of Mobile Bay and thus incorporating tales from the city of Mobile proper and nearby Baldwin County, the book brings to light several of the region’s more famous sagas of tragedy and controversy. Included are stories dating from the colonial era to the 1900s, and personalities ranging from thieves and murderers to a rather curious scientist and doctor who advanced some outrageous theories on race that even in the 1800s raised eyebrows across the nation. The story of Fort Mims, the work of nineteenth century arsonists, and a sensational murder mystery from the 1930s all receive attention.




As with any book of this sort, the list of subjects is rather random and their connection with things “wicked” more apparent at some times than others. As Kirby has been working as a professional journalist for two decades, he brings to his narrative a writing style that allows for the stories he relates to be detailed in the fashion of a reporter. This approach keeps each story interesting if unconventional for a book that might be categorized as historical, as there are many one and two-sentence paragraphs and introductions to chapters that are more reminiscent of newspaper headlines than narrative history. The technique does keep the book entertaining and makes it a quick read, though. As Kirby points out in the introduction to the book, he is above all a storyteller, and in this volume he has assembled a collection of what he believes are some of the most compelling stories from the Mobile area’s past. Taken as just that and not as a reference source on local history (indeed, there are no notes), the book will appeal to a wide range of readers who, like me, are endlessly fascinated by the past and appreciate a variety of approaches to its investigation.




Review of American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of Nation, by Jon Meacham

2 Jan


Spirituality and the proper role of religion in society have always been some of the most divisive and contentious issues in America. In various forms and to various degrees this struggle has manifested itself throughout our history and seems to be an ongoing debate which serves as a sort of powerful undercurrent in the course of our development as a country. In part, these questions have remained so pervasive due to seemingly antithetical concepts advocated by our founders which we have repeatedly endorsed through the generations; religion is a deeply personal matter which citizens should always be allowed to be explore in freedom, and the government should never be allowed to meddle in the advocacy or harassment of any particular theology.

Meachem American Gospel


Why these concepts have persisted and how they hayed out over the centuries is a fascinating story that few have attempted to tell comprehensively. Jon Meachem’s American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of Nation seeks to explore religion’s role in our national saga through a balanced investigation of its influence in each era of the country’s development. It is clearly a tough task, and one that requires a great deal of generalization and some perhaps seemingly arbitrary focuses on certain individuals at different points in time. But it is also one that is enlightening for its illumination of how central such a personal and potentially divisive issue has been in forming our unique national character. In the book, Meachem finds that religion, or more specifically our willingness to tolerate diverse tracks of religious thought, have not only defined America’s ecclesiastical history but worked to actually form a uniquely American “public religion” of sorts. The book is at heart nothing less than a full-throated and cogently argued endorsement of the concept of separation of church and state as envisioned by the founding fathers.


The primary contribution of Meachem’s book for historians of American history and culture, however, has less to do with his endorsement of the actions of the founders and more with his contention that their partition of church and state has essentially created a unique  “public religion” in America. From mottos emblazoned on currency to oaths of office, American public discourse is and has since its founding been awash in religious symbolism and language. The United States, he shows, is intensely influenced by religious thought, and accepts a certain degree of religious belief as part and parcel of its government, but has somehow maintained a separation of church and state throughout its existence. The concept seems simple, but Meachem’s explanation of how this principle has remained in place through very different eras with very different cultures and priorities is illuminating and reveals a rare, comprehensive grasp of American cultural history. Utilizing pivotal moments from townhall meetings in the Revolutionary Era through the advent of 1980s televangelists, Meachem tracks the influence of religion in American life with an eye towards how a balance between the secular and the spiritual has been maintained in our government. The true beauty of the division, he argues, is that it has fostered rather than hampered the exploration and expression of spirituality that has so long been such a core component of American culture.