Archive | August, 2018

Review of Alabama Founders: Fourteen Political and Military Leaders Who Shaped the State, by Jim Lewis

28 Aug

With recent books on Alabama antebellum years (Clearing the Thickets: A History of Antebellum Alabama), and its capitals (Lost Capitals of Alabama), independent writer Jim Lewis has emerged as one of the leading authorities on early Alabama. His most recent contribution, Alabama Founders, is a succinct series of biographical sketches of some of the primary political leaders substantially involved in Alabama’s establishment and its first years of growth as a part of the American union. It is a welcome and timely addition to the state’s historiography and a solid contribution to its ongoing bicentennial celebration.


Alabama Founders promises to replace several older, difficult to find biographical reference sources on the subject which remain standards today, such as Thomas M. Owen’s History of Alabama and Dictionary of Alabama Biography (originally published in 1920!) by providing a single, well-researched and written reference book. Lewis has canvassed virtually every available source to find information on his subjects, and each short biography is presented with the depth and clarity that only someone well-versed in the time period can provide. Thanks to Lewis for providing us with a book that is sure to become a fixture in libraries public and private across the state.


Review of American Chronicles: The Civil War, Interviews by NPR

21 Aug

As I spend a lot of time on the road, I listen to quite a few history books on cd. For a bit of a change of pace, I recently picked up a relatively brief audio recording of interviews focusing on the Civil War which aired on NPR broadcasts over the past several years. Entitled American Chronicles: The Civil War, the audio program is a collection of these interviews over a roughly ten-year period and served as NPR’s contribution to the recently-completed observance of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War.

American Chronicles

The interviews feature discussions with authorities on number of subjects, ranging from park rangers to noted authors, and cover a variety of topics including military strategy, politics, and even Civil War music. Some are better than others, but all of them are interesting. Listeners are treated to a portion of a ranger-guided tour at Antietam, to James McPherson discussing the Battle of Gettysburg, and a local historian in Illinois retelling the adventure of Jennie Hodgers, who served throughout the war as a member of the 95th Illinois at places such as Vicksburg and Spanish Fort as “Albert Cashiers.” Perhaps the highlight of this eclectic collection is one of Shelby Foote’s final interviews, in which he extrapolates on why the war endures as such a powerful force in our national history. In summary, the interviews are an enlightening and entertaining look at some of the fascinating stories and the complicated legacy of a defining event in the history of our nation.


Review of The Pen Makes a Good Sword: John Forsyth of the Mobile Register, by Lonnie Burnett

14 Aug

The decades between 1830s and the 1870s are perhaps the most pivotal defining period of Southern history. Within the span of those forty years the region witnessed unprecedented development, became especially embroiled in an international war, underwent a transformative political upheaval that resulted in secession, waged and suffered defeat in a bloody civil war, and endured the long, difficult period we today call Reconstruction. The career of John Forsyth, Jr., a leading Southern journalist and political figure who made his home in Mobile, Alabama, and Columbus, Georgia, coincides perfectly with this defining epoch in regional history. More than that, Forsyth, through his influence, voice, and connections, played an important role in understanding, reflecting, and at times forming opinion and reaction to some of the most important events of his time.


If the name doesn’t ring a bell, you are not alone. One of the most recognizable names of his generation at one time, our memory of him has quickly faded even in the very places he once called home. Rescuing this forgotten figure from contemporary obscurity and vividly illustrating the times in which he lived is Lonnie Burnett’s 2006 biography, The Pen Makes a Good Sword: John Forsyth of the Mobile Register. I’m embarrassed to admit I’ve just gotten around to reading this informative book, as author Burnett (now Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Mobile) has long established himself as one of Alabama’s leading historians and since I have also called both Columbus and the Mobile area home his subject’s name is very familiar. Having belatedly read the book cover to cover, I am glad I did.

The book is at once not what one might expect from a biography of a man of letters such as Forsyth and so much more. A newspaper editor for much of his life and a very public figure by virtue of his status as a son of Andrew Jackson’s secretary of state and the offices he held during his esteemed career—such as U.S. Minister to Mexico, state legislator, and mayor of Mobile—much of Forsyth’s career played out in the pages of periodicals of the era rather than in a wealth of private correspondence. On the expansion of slavery, national politics, the pivotal election of 1860, the viability of an independent Southern nation, and the conditions in which the defeated former Confederacy would reenter American political life, Forsyth naturally had much to say. Further, what he did say reflected quite often not just his personal opinion but those of large numbers of his fellow citizens. Because Burnett’s chronicle of his life is traced in large part through his innumerable editorial articles, a variety of types of official correspondence, and the writings of contemporaries who either shared or stood opposed to his views, it is in the end a unique first-hand account of the era as much as the man. Forsyth’s public writings are of course taken with the appropriate grains of salt depending on the situations in which they appeared, mind you, but the book ends up detailing the life of a man playing a leading role in a remarkable age filled with landmark events more than focusing on the inner workings of the man himself.

Few will be disappointed with the result, for Burnett makes Forsyth’s world both tangible and understandable, and illuminates aspects of the times in which Forsyth operated from the perspectives of both the individual and the larger populace. The book is worth a read for this even more than for its revelation of a relatively forgotten figure from the Southern past. The Pen Makes a Good Sword is sure to remain the standard on its subject for a very long time, but its true importance rests upon its broader vision.


Review of The Road to Guilford Courthouse: The American Revolution in the Carolinas, by John Buchanan

7 Aug

When discussing the Revolutionary War, the general public usually comments on events that occurred at places such as Boston, Princeton, Trenton, and Philadelphia. The more serious scholar also puts great value on events that took place further south. John Buchanan’s The Road to Guilford Courthouse: The American Revolution in the Carolinas emphasizes the importance on the war in this theater with an epic account of the campaigns, battles, and personalities which shaped it.

Road to Guilford Courthouse

The focus of the American Revolution moved south when the British command determined that the key to victory was to mobilize the thousands (or so they thought) southern Tories who simply needed British assistance to rally around the British Crown. British armies had previously won several battles and captured important places such as Philadelphia and New York City, but seemed no closer to winning the war as George Washington still maintained a potent fighting force. Sending a large army southward to capture Charleston and subdue the Carolinas, therefore, became their new primary objective to help win the war. The British captured Charleston in June 1780 and when they soundly defeated another army at Camden a few months later, their goal of pacifying the region seemed well in hand.

Rebels in South Carolina, however, would not be so easily defeated. Utilizing quick hit and run tactics (guerrilla warfare), Rebel forces consisting of mainly militia continued to harass the British. With more engagements fought in the state than any other, South Carolina became a true civil war between those residents fighting for independence and those staying loyal to the king. As Buchanan points out, the Palmetto state was never fully brought under British control due to the heroic efforts of a host of legendary characters such as Francis Marion, Thomas Sumter, and Daniel Morgan.

Buchanan also highlights many of the British personalities such as Banastre Tarleton and Lord Cornwallis, who was exasperated about failing to completely subjugate the region and eventually wore his army out trying to catch Nathaniel Greene’s army to force a climactic battle. Cornwallis’s “victory” at Guilford Courthouse in March 1781 further decimated his army while failing to deliver a knockout blow. Cornwallis was left with nothing but a rendezvous with destiny at Yorktown.

Buchanan expertly traces the fighting in the Carolinas over these two years in monumental fashion. His richly-written narrative never gets bogged down in details and he provides plenty of primary source material on the numerous commanders as well as the regular troops in the field. He also includes thoughtful commentary on decisions made and the men who made them; for example, his biting criticism on Horatio Gates at Camden. The book’s jacket contains a review comparing this work to McPherson’s Civil War historiography and this reviewer agrees with the comparison. Although written over twenty years ago, it remains the definitive book on the subject; an outstanding work that anyone interested in the Revolutionary War should read.

The book does have one crucial fault and it is unfortunately a major one. It lacks quality campaign and battlefield maps to accompany the narrative. The only maps in the book are pulled from the Papers of Nathaniel Greene and are hardly helpful in following troop movements. I am at a loss as to how a book on military actions of this magnitude cannot contain adequate maps that detail the actions involved. It is this lack of maps that prevents this account from ranking among the very best. Shame on the editors for not demanding these necessary maps be included!

That aside, one of the greatest compliments one can give a book is the desire to read more on the subject. Without a doubt, The Road to Guilford Courthouse has spurred my interest in the subject and I look forward to learning more.