Archive | May, 2018

Review of Shiloh: Bloody April, by Wiley Sword

29 May

The battle of Shiloh, like other battles and campaigns in the Western theater of the Civil War, has been overshadowed by their counterparts in the East. There are only a dozen or so accounts of this battle. Historians James Lee McDonough, Larry Daniel, and Tim Smith have written some of the more scholarly accounts of the battle while Jeff Shaara and Winston Groom have written narratives geared toward the general public. So, how does Wiley Sword’s Shiloh: Bloody April, originally published in 1983, stack up with the other accounts?

Bllody April

Sword provides perhaps the most detailed account of the battle. After numerous reverses in the West, Confederate leadership gathered forces from throughout the South to launch a surprise attack on an unsuspecting Union army encamped along the Tennessee River twenty miles north of the critical rail junction at Corinth, Mississippi. From beginning to end, Sword’s meticulous narrative is the most complete, providing an abundance of information about all things related to the campaign and battle. Although this version is great for those looking for specific facts, it does make reading the book somewhat of a chore. Most works concerning battles tend to be page turners as the reader tracks the ebb and flow of the battle to its climatic conclusion. To this reader’s dismay, Sword’s narrative is so slow moving and methodical that closing the book and stopping is easy to do. No doubt that Sword conducted a tremendous amount of research, but information provided about Confederate and Union troops are described in a detail that is almost too hard to follow as the reader’s eyes gloss over so many names and facts. The book does contain plenty of maps, but at times, there are not enough.

Sword’s story does relate all the necessary information about the conflict. Sword discusses the background leading up to the clash on April 6 and 7, the various commanders and their decisions, the battle itself, and finally its aftermath. Sword does emphasize the struggle for the “Hornet’s Nest.” Sword’s point of Confederates being given directives about “marching towards the heaviest fighting” caused this tactical error. Confederates launched several uncoordinated assaults at this Union position which took too much time, thereby allowing the Union command the opportunity to establish a final position which was never assaulted with a full force due to darkness which ended the battle’s first day. Recent historians such as Tim Smith, however, have questioned the importance of the “Hornet’s Nest.”

Sword’s research did unearth plenty of quotes from the battle’s participants that enrich the story. Sword scatters these throughout the narrative, providing a personal touch of the horrific nature of the battle and its aftermath. For example, a Confederate soldier recounted how after the battle’s first day, he crawled into a tent to avoid the rainstorm and awoke the next morning to learn “he had slept with a dead Yankee.” To be honest, these personal reminiscences helped me survive the tedious narrative.

What I hoped would be the best part of the book was the last chapter exploring Shiloh’s enduring controversies. Unlike the rest of the book, Sword quickly discusses issues such as did the Confederate battle plan and troop formation prevent victory and could the Confederates have broken Grant’s last line? Unfortunately, the author does not seem to emphatically state an opinion one way or the other. It appears his purpose was simply to say these controversies continue whereas I want to know exactly what his research has led him to believe.

The book I reviewed was a 2001 revision, which Sword states allowed him to utilized material not available when he first wrote the book. The biggest inclusion of material relates to being able to determine the actual death site of A.S. Johnston. And in a microcosm of the entire book, Sword recounts his journey, step by step, to find the location of Johnston’s wounding and death site based upon maps that were recently uncovered. Reading that appendix was exhausting and I must admit that I did not read it word for word. Unfortunately, most of the book felt like that.

I am never comfortable writing what I feel is a bad review of a book. Sword should be complimented on his exhaustive research and detailed narrative. Information he uncovered is no doubt very useful for scholars trying to better understand the story. As for this reviewer, whose favorite Civil War battle is Shiloh, I simply cannot recommend this book to anyone looking for a great read on this monumental moment during the Civil War.


Review of Vicksburg: Fall of the Confederate Gibraltar, by Terrence Winschel

22 May

Recently, while preparing to teach a multi-part continuing education class on the Civil War’s Western Theater, I had an occasion to review several books I had on the shelf chronicling the Vicksburg Campaign. As it turns out, I had even more than I thought—the campaign has been the focus of more than its fair share of books, guides, and detailed studies over the years. One of the most significant turning points in the Civil War and arguably the most pivotal in the western theater of action, I guess it deserves the lavish attention which has been devoted to it by generations of scholars. There have been 400-page tomes devoted to tracking every movement of the contending armies, books exploring the campaign through the lives of the leaders of the opposing forces, and a few tour guides helping readers retrace the steps of the Union and Confederate armies from the winter of 1862 to the summer of 1863.


For my money, the one essential volume on the campaign for anyone seeking to grasp its fundamentals is one of the more recent and shortest of them all: Terrence Winschel’s Vicksburg: Fall of the Confederate Gibraltar, published in 1999. Winschel served for years as chief historian at Vicksburg National Military Park, but also spent time at Gettysburg, Fredericksburg, and other locations in his long and distinguished career in public history. He is also the author of a longer study of the campaign entitled Triumph and Defeat: The Vicksburg Campaign and co-author of Vicksburg Is the Key: The Struggle for the Mississippi River, among other titles on the Civil War. In Fall of the Confederate Gibraltar, he brings his wealth of experience, knowledge of the battlefields, incredible research, and writing talent to bear in a rapidly-moving but informative study. In just over 150 pages, readers are introduced to all the significant events in the complex, months-long campaign in a summary that manages to capture the essence of strategy, physical realities faced by the armies, the chaos of battle, and civilian perspectives. They will inevitably come away with a clear understanding of not only the events that led to Vicksburg’s fall, but its place in American history. Most will also, I am sure, be inspired to visit the sites where such monumental events happened. So, if you can only read one book as an introduction to why what happened at Vicksburg is important, I would suggest it be this one.


10 Most Iconic Places in the United States

15 May

We all love lists. People are fascinated to read someone’s compilation of their favorite or least favorite movies, books, sports, etc. Lists also serve to stir debate. With that said, I have put together my own list of this nation’s ten most iconic historic places.

This blog has featured numerous entries on our opinions on the importance of historic sites as well as specific features on particular places and tours. In conversation, Mike and I have debated many sites and their significance. So, I decided to go ahead and put on paper my list of places that I think define this nation and have played integral roles in shaping the United States into what it is today. To make the list and be labeled as iconic, the places really do not need an explanation as these sites have simply become synonymous with the United States and are simply ingrained in the American psyche.

I must make a few comments beforehand. To be included, I felt these places had to have historical significance in their own right, meaning this list omits places of natural beauty or just buildings, no matter how impressive they might be. So, this list does not contain the Empire State Building or the Grand Canyon although places like those surely help define the United States. And with many “Top 10” lists, there are always many who barely miss the cut, but again, that helps lead to debate and I hope this blog stimulates comments. I also notice my list has a definite military flavor which is due to my interest in military history. With that said, here is my list, in no particular order:


• Pearl Harbor: The USS Arizona Memorial. Very few places have stirred my soul as this one. This site honors those who died in the December 7, 1941, surprise attack by the Japanese which led the United States into the definitive conflict of the 20th century. I am not sure there is a more powerful monument to those who have sacrificed their lives for this nation.


The Alamo
• The Alamo. “Remember the Alamo” is perhaps one of this nation’s most famous battle cries. The siege and battle, from March 1836, has transcended from just being a key event in Texas’s independence movement and become a part of the country’s westward expansion. Countless movies have only added to this vital piece of American lore.


Selma Bridge
• Edmund Pettus Bridge, Selma Alabama. This bridge became the site of the March 7, 1965 conflict known as “Bloody Sunday” when Civil Rights demonstrators were attacked and beaten by armed police as they attempted to march to Montgomery to advocate for voting rights for blacks. Televised footage and images from the incident galvanized the nation about conditions in the South. Other possible Civil Rights locations could have made this list such as the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis where M.L. King was shot, but crossing this bridge today still conjures memories of that day and illustrates the importance of the Civil Rights Movement in U.S. history.


• Statue of Liberty. Lady Liberty symbolizes this nation’s promise of freedom to all who travel to its shores. Immigration has been a major theme in American history and continues to be heavily debated today.


Fort McHenry
• Fort McHenry. Any iconic site list has to include the location where our National Anthem was born. Bombarded by the British navy in September 1814, the fort survived and the “flag was still there,” providing a much needed victory against the British after the humiliating defeat when Washington was captured and burned.


• Gettysburg. Our nation’s darkest hour, the Civil War, reached its apex, here in July 1863. Other battlefields can lobby for their importance, but Gettysburg is where the Confederacy’s High Tide receded after a climatic three day battle. Abraham Lincoln’s unforgettable Gettysburg address issued months later explained to the nation why this sacrifice was necessary.


Washington Mall
• Washington Mall. Many of you may question this entry to my list as it may not fit the qualifications listed above and I may be seen as “cheating.” Sites such as the Jefferson Memorial and Washington Monument might have claim to make the list on their own right, but the mall’s collection of unbelievable monuments as well as the numerous museums there provide much of the information and symbols that define this nation. And MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech from 1963 from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial is one of the defining moments from the Civil Rights movement.


Valley Forge
• Valley Forge. The words “Valley Forge” typifies American determination and a resolve to never quit, even in the face of extreme difficulties. Ragtag Colonial soldiers, under the leadership of George Washington, trained and became an army that would eventually secure independence!


Freedom trail2
• Freedom Trail, Boston. This is probably another “cheat,” but there are so many crucial sites in Boston that it was impossible to pick just one. Bunker Hill, Old North Church, site of Boston Massacre, USS Constitution, Paul Revere Home, Boston Common, Faneuil Hall. Wow! All played roles in this country’s fight for independence.


• Gateway Arch, St. Louis. This grand monument to westward expansion symbolizes a key theme in American history. Located where Lewis and Clark left St. Louis for their epic tour of the west, this arch is the final entry in my list of iconic places.

A few others that just missed the cut were Ford’s Theater, Little Big Horn, Independence Hall, and the World Trade Center. I am positive I have forgotten others. My biggest regret with this list is the lack of a Native American site. And I am sure that were I to compose this list five years from now, my list would change. Comments are welcome!


Review of Forgotten Alabama, by Glenn Wills

8 May

Glenn Wills, a former broadcasting professional, amateur historian, and devoted treasure-seeker of sorts, has compiled a one-of-a-kind collection of photographs of abandoned, overlooked, and neglected sites in Forgotten Alabama. A slim volume with minimal text but a wealth of stunning photographs, the book virtually demands the reader pause and reflect—both on the images in front of them and definitely on their next drive through the countryside. Captured in Wills’ lens are a wide variety of poignant historical scenes many of us in Alabama speed past daily: old gas stations and stores by-passed and closed when interstate highways changed traffic patterns; abandoned old country churches sadly neglected once their congregations moved elsewhere; antique trucks left parked where their engines last ran; deteriorating homes whose owners are long gone.



There is nothing terribly unique in the fact that these sites and structures exist here, as such scenes can be found virtually anywhere in the country. But Wills is among the first I have seen to specifically focus on documenting—both visually and with written descriptions in some instances—our abandoned past. (He has recently published a second volume of Forgotten Alabama images and continues to photograph these scenes across the state.) He is also among the few attempting to tell a story through them, the main themes of which are of course the costs of progress and the ravages of time. He definitely views the tableaus he photographs as art, and the book is in truth a bit more art than history. But what Wills reveals with his compelling photographs is just how much evidence stands all around us of previous eras and how quickly times change. I am glad he is documenting them in what is obviously a labor of love.



Review of Greetings from Alabama: A Pictorial History in Vintage Postcards, by Wade H. Hall

1 May

Containing over 400 images from an incredible collection of thousands of old postcards, many over a century old, Greetings from Alabama: A Pictorial History of Vintage Postcards, is a unique look at the state’s past. The book features images from every corner of the state showing flattering images of a variety of structures, landscapes, street scenes, special events, and monuments from a bygone era. Each image is accompanied by a brief caption explaining the scene and providing a bit of historical context. The book also features a brief introductory essay explaining how early postcards were produced, marketed, and traded, and explains why the postcards from the late 1800s to the mid-twentieth century are so prized.


Union Springs native and longtime educator Wade Hall is the primary author of the book, which in truth is a bit of a group effort by dedicated and knowledgeable individuals at publisher NewSouth Books and the University of Alabama, where Hall’s incredible postcard collection now resides. Hall passed away in 2015 only a few years into retirement from a distinguished five-decade career in Alabama and Kentucky as a teacher, writer, poet, critic, folklorist, and documentarian. I was honored to have worked with Hall on a project or two in a former job at a regional museum a few years ago, and am glad to see some portion of his varied collections being shared with so many in this format. This attractive and entertaining book is a fitting tribute to Hall’s diverse interests and intense pride in his home state, and promises to find a large audience among those with an interest in Alabama. Well done, NewSouth. Mr. Hall would be proud.