Archive | February, 2018

Review of Adventurism and Empire, by David Narrett

27 Feb

The years between the end of the French and Indian War and the Louisiana Purchase were filled with intrigues along the Mississippi Valley and the Gulf Coast. England, Spain and eventually the United States vied for control of the region with the Native Americans caught in the middle. David Narrett explores this topic in detail in his book Adventurism and Empire, The Struggle for Mastery in the Louisiana-Florida Borderlands, 1762-1803. The length of the book’s title foreshadows the complexness of the subject as Narrett explores in detail the efforts of nations as well as individuals in securing the expansive area.

Narrett’s thesis was summarized distinctly in the book’s conclusion when he reiterates that although diverse interests fought for power in the region, no single entity was able to completely assert its control. This fact led to individuals, more than the nations themselves, playing large roles at attempts at empire building. This “adventurism” that Narrett consistently alludes to tended to dominate events as nations were forced to react to the plans and conspiracies of power-grabbing individuals.
James Wilkinson, U.S. general and spy under the auspices of the Spanish crown and William Augustus Bowles, Tory and self-proclaimed leader of the Creek Nation, are two of the book’s more prominent characters whose schemes the author explains and whose actions seemed to steer the course of history. Many others are featured in the book so that at times the narrative feels like a “Who’s Who” of late 18th century Gulf Coast personalities. These include James Willing, Oliver Pollack, James O’Fallon, George Morgan, and Anthony Hutchins to name a few. It was the actions of “adventurers” like these whom state leaders such as Spanish Governors Francisco Luis Hector Carondolet and Esteban Miró were either forced to confront or at other times, encourage as conspiracies to help the Spanish maintain the tenuous hold of their territory.

Narrett’s detailed narrative chronicles the multitude of these personalities and plots over these four decades which seems to further prove the complexity of the time period. These actions and reactions of individuals prove the region’s development was not a strict linear or inevitable progression like many past history books portray the United States predestined growth with Manifest Destiny. Politics, diplomacy and personal interests all factored in settling the area.

As someone deeply interested in this time period, I eagerly anticipated reading this book. No doubt that Narrett conducted extensive research and his story leaves no stone unturned, but the account jumped all over the place on too many occasions. It was hard for me to keep track of it all, leading to many times when I simply put the book down to read later. That point aside, Adventurism and Empire is a fascinating book that shows how this multifaceted region of the country developed and was the stage for nations to wrestle for control and for individuals to seek their fortunes.


Willing’s Raid: A Campaign of the American Revolution in the Gulf South

20 Feb


A few weeks ago I posted in this space a brief summary of Alabama’s two Revolutionary War battles. Today I would like to remember another lesser-known episode in the Gulf South’s connection with the war with a summary of what has become known in history as “Willing’s Raid.”

Occurring 240 years ago (1778), this raid into British West Florida by former Natchez resident James Willing was a Continental Congress-sanctioned effort to obtain desperately-needed supplies for patriot forces from Spanish authorities in New Orleans under the auspices of delivering dispatches to Governor Bernardo de Galvez. Willing was to also seek the neutrality of residents of British West Florida along the Mississippi River and, it was tacitly agreed, capture anything of value he happened to come across en route through British territory.

Willing departed from Fort Pitt in January, 1778 with about 30 men aboard a boat inauspiciously named the Rattletrap. Entering British West Florida at Walnut Hills (modern Vicksburg) on Feb. 18, 1778, he immediately began a campaign of plunder of private property that generally spread fear along the Mississippi frontier and would lead to increasingly strained relations between British and Spanish authorities in the region. At Natchez, he struck out at particular loyalists he likely knew from his short residency there a few years prior, lavishing special attention on tory Anthony Hutchins by raiding his plantation and seizing his slaves. He forced citizens of Natchez to take an oath of neutrality in the fight between the British and Continental forces, and audaciously raised the American flag. He only caused more mayhem as he headed south and his retinue grew close to 100 men, committing what can only be termed strategic looting and destruction in the Baton Rouge area. He stole goods, killed cattle, captured slaves, and even seized some small British merchant boats traveling along the lower Mississippi.


Willing eventually reached the relative safety of New Orleans, where he tried to sell his captured booty and scheme a way to evade British forces, now on high alert and soon sending troops out to exact revenge, in order to make it back to American territory. Some scattered skirmishing between the Americans and the British occurred as Willing used New Orleans as a base from which to work in the region in the spring and summer of 1778, but it only seemed to rouse British citizens in the area to action rather than discourage them from taking sides. In fact, any positive results for the American cause from Willing’s efforts were in truth fleeting, as he obtained only small quantities of supplies and the primary upshot of his activities seemed to be a heightened awareness on the part of British authorities of the military vulnerability of their possessions in the region, the resentment of the local populace who were previously wholly uninvolved with the conflict, and the sudden reluctance of Spanish authorities to do much to overtly aid the Americans. Willing at length left New Orleans and was ingloriously seized and briefly imprisoned by the British.

So ended American efforts to broaden the war for independence into the lower Mississippi Valley. The very next year, however, Spanish took matters into their own hands and launched an offensive aimed at conquest of British holdings which did much more to advance the American cause in the region than Willing could have imagined.





Review of Stonewall Jackson: A Biography, by Donald A. Davis

13 Feb

Few American military figures were as dedicated and successful in their craft, or as eccentric and enigmatic in their daily lives, as the great Confederate General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson. The stories about his battlefield prowess are legendary and engrained in our nation’s military history; the lightning-quick marches, the audacious facing down of long odds, the incredible discipline which allowed his men to function like a well-oiled machine. Stonewall is perhaps second only to Gen. Robert E. Lee in the pantheon of Confederate heroes because he won battles and inspired fear in his enemies.

Davis Jackson

Yet just as his battlefield exploits continue to be lauded and studied, so do the peculiarities that made him so memorable to those with whom he came in contact remain intriguing to us today. Here was a man so stoically determined to do duty as he perceived it that once, when called to his commander’s office prior to the Civil War and finding him absent, spent the night waiting until the officer returned the next morning. Here was the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) instructor who, when asked to clarify a point by a student, would pause and begin reciting the lesson from the beginning, utterly unable to understand how hearing and comprehension were not one and the same. Anyone familiar with Civil War literature will recall one of the often-repeated, but certainly embellished, stories of his eccentricities; riding around on horseback sucking on a lemon, sitting with one arm raised high in the air in the belief it aided his circulation, taking a little packet of food with him to dinners because he refused to stray from the diet he believed he must maintain. In short, Stonewall Jackson seems forever destined to be regarded as both extraordinarily brilliant and almost comically idiosyncratic. Can we ever really know such a man and grasp what made him tick?

Entering into a robust if not overly crowded field in an endeavor to relate the essence of the man to readers (in 2007) is Donald A. Davis with Stonewall Jackson, an entry in St. Martin’s Press’ “Great Generals” series of biographies of American military leaders. Davis may be unfamiliar to many readers of Civil War histories, but he comes to the task with an impressive background of popular titles including the acclaimed Shooter: The Autobiography of the Top-Ranked Marine Sniper and Lightning Strike: The Secret Mission to Kill Admiral Yamamoto and Avenge Pearl Harbor. In his biography of the Confederate leader he seeks to chronicle the broad sweep of his relatively brief life—he died at the young age of only thirty-nine—with a rather overt focus on exposing the forces which shaped him and the genesis of the worldview which drove him.

Davis delves deeply into Stonewall’s background in his search for how he developed into the triumphant general who passed away at the height of his powers. He examines his rather humble origins, his solid if somewhat undistinguished military career prior to the Civil War, his adoption of the Presbyterian faith as an adult, and his brief career as a teacher at VMI. As would be expected, a considerable portion of the book chronicles his mere two years as a Confederate general. Davis tracks the leader through the dramatic moment in which he earned his iconic nickname in the Battle of Bull Run (First Manassas), his remarkable series of victories and the times in which he quite literally ran circles around the befuddled forces opposing him, his legendary relationship with Robert E. Lee, and the tragic friendly fire accident which resulted in his untimely death. Davis recites all the familiar stories in his account of Jackson’s war years, and is particularly adept at relating the essence of his military strategy in a lively and easily understood manner.


Review of Traveling the Beaten Trail: Charles Tait’s Charges to Federal Grand Juries, 1822-1825, by Paul M. Pruitt, Jr., David I. Durham, and Sally E. Hadden

6 Feb

The latest in the series of “Occasional Publications” of the University of Alabama’s School of Law is a ca. 100-page summary of the life and career of Judge Charles Tait, Alabama’s first federal district judge. Tait’s name is no doubt unfamiliar to the great majority of Alabamians today, but at one point he would have ranked among the most notable and influential men of his era. A United States senator and Chairman of the Committee on Naval Affairs prior to moving to the state, he was a close friend of some of the leading lights in national politics in his day and actually a cousin of Henry Clay. It was Tait, through his position and connections, who helped fast-track Alabama’s statehood after less than two years as an independent territory. But Tait was more than just a successful politician. He taught school, practiced law, studied science (he became a member of the prestigious American Philosophical Society and the Academy of Natural Sciences) and became a wealthy planter who, in his later years, could afford to turn down a plum diplomatic position as ambassador to Great Britain offered by President John Quincy Adams to spend more time with his family and engaging his hobbies.


The book is centered on three of Tait’s surviving charges to grand juries, written in 1822, 1824, and 1825, which are used to illustrate the legal, political, and cultural realities of his time. These charges are essentially instructions in the law to grand juries, and quite often the background history of the relevant statutes, which they are to administer before considering the evidence brought before them. They are basically brief civics lessons on whose success in large part rested the ability of the jurors, who had little exposure to the intricacies of law in the developing frontier state, to do their duty. They are included in their entirety following the biographical portion of the book. The brief book is a wonderful examination of the realities of life in early Alabama, as it traces Tait along the backcountry trails he was forced to traverse to hold circuit court throughout the young state. It is also a nice summary of this important man’s life. Due to format and scope, the book will probably not appeal to a wide audience, but if you have an interest in Alabama’s formative years you will no doubt enjoy this quick and enlightening read.