Archive | September, 2018

Review of Born to Battle: Grant and Forrest; Shiloh, Vicksburg, and Chattanooga, The Campaigns That Doomed the Confederacy, by Jack Hurst

25 Sep

Jack Hurst’s Born to Battle: Grant and Forrest; Shiloh, Vicksburg, and Chattanooga, The Campaigns That Doomed the Confederacy, formally posits a question that any Civil War historian, amateur or professional, has at one time or another either pondered or been asked: had Nathan Bedford Forrest been given more authority and a larger field command, might he have been able to win the war for the South? Granted, this is not the only thing addressed in what is actually a rather engaging chronicle of some of the critical actions of the Civil War’s Western Theater, nor is it necessarily presented quite so bluntly. But it is surely the primary question readers will be left to ponder after reading through Hurst’s provocative comparison of two of the Civil War’s most effective natural leaders and the battles they fought.


Hurst finds the stories of Grant and Forrest to be remarkably similar, and through their experiences paints a picture of the war in the west that illustrates how it was both fought and determined. The comparison might at first seem jarring to some, but both men came from humble backgrounds, understood how to get the most out of their men, could virtually see through the “fog of war” as few of their contemporaries, and had to prove themselves to their social betters to advance in rank. The crucial difference in the wartime experiences of the two, Hurst finds, lies in the fact that whereas Grant labored for a president who recognized his brilliance and ultimately entrusted him with implementing the strategy that won the war, Forrest was restricted in his advancement by the Confederacy’s class-conscious leadership structure and consequently served practically the whole war as a sideshow in the major theaters of action.

Hurst’s treatment of Grant’s rise from obscurity to preeminent war leader is thoroughly researched and carefully presented even if not necessarily new to most Civil War historians. He presents Grant as a confident, natural leader who, when given the opportunity to demonstrate his talents, was extraordinarily successful. In Forrest, Hurst finds an unlettered man with a rare innate ability to discern battlefield situations and organize events in his favor. As one of the foremost authorities on the life of Forrest (Nathan Bedford Forrest: A Biography), Hurst perhaps might be expected to point out Forrest’s overlooked or frustrated abilities in such an analysis, but this is not hagiography and his findings here should not be dismissed. He offers a thoroughly-researched account of the way class manifested itself in the Confederate leadership structure and the times the “Wizard of the Saddle” was blocked in his aspirations for more influence and watched as lesser leaders were advanced in his stead. In contrast to the free hand eventually given Grant, Hurst believes that the South’s “blue-blooded leadership” in large part squandered Forrest’s uncanny talent.

Still, Born to Battle is not at heart a hypothetical narrative about one of the Civil War’s most persistent “what ifs;” it is a unique analysis of what the author sees as some of its defining campaigns and the leadership decisions that decided them. While Hurst shows that trusting Grant was unequivocally one of the better moves made by either side during the war, he stops short of suggesting specifically what Forrest might have been able to accomplish with a more central role in the major campaigns of the western theatre. This is well, for this is truly an unanswerable question. Forrest essentially operated as a small-scale cavalry raider for much of the war, and it is uncertain whether he might have been able to translate his stunning success in that role into victories at the head of a larger body of foot soldiers. In truth, it is hard to imagine Forrest, famously headstrong, impatient, and barely literate, in any different capacity. But the fact that he never got a chance in itself is a command decision worthy of our consideration. Speculation aside, Hurst’s exploration of how Forrest was viewed and utilized by the Confederacy’s officers and leadership is the primary strength of the book. This is a volume that will appeal primarily to knowledgeable readers of Civil War history already well-versed in the campaigns it discusses, but well worth the read for anyone interested in how individual leadership decisions won them and, by extension, the larger war.


Review of 4th and Goal Every Day: Alabama’s Relentless Pursuit of Perfection, by Phil Savage with Ray Glier

4 Sep

Nick Saban has built a remarkable football dynasty at Alabama. His teams win consistently at a high level, are a perennially contender for national championships, and routinely feature an impressive collection of NFL talent. While Alabama is a traditional powerhouse, the level of excellence the program has achieved under Saban is truly exceptional. In 4th and Goal Every Day: Alabama’s Relentless Pursuit of Perfection, author Phil Savage attempts to explain the inner secrets of Alabama’s singular success.


Savage is uniquely positioned to evaluate Saban’s program. Having been around the game of football for his entire career, Savage has been a player, coach, and longtime NFL scout in addition to having served for years as color analyst for football games on the radio broadcasts of the Crimson Tide Sports Network. He worked with Saban during his days with the NFL’s Cleveland Browns, and contributed to Saban’s gameplanning at Alabama by providing a detailed scouting report of Alabama’s opponents each week. Savage brings to the table an in-depth knowledge of the X’s and O’s of the Saban system as well as a keen eye as an observer of how he coaches players and, CEO-like, administers the inner workings of what is essentially a multi-million dollar business.

Savage identifies some very basic reasons for Alabama’s dominance over Saban’s tenure. He notes that Saban emphasizes fundamentals; stresses attention to the smallest detail; relentlessly recruits according to his own set of standards which projects how a player will fit into his system; develops players from raw recruits to polished players as well as anyone in the nation; and demonstrates surprising adaptability in his strategy. None of these ingredients for success come as a revelation, but it is clear that the Saban approach to them is demonstrably more effective than most of his contemporaries owing to the “relentless pursuit of perfection” in all areas of operations on and off the football field, according to Savage. It is an approach developed during his time at coaching stops in the NFL but especially fine-tuned as the head man at Michigan State and LSU, and perfected at Alabama. Part of the reason the Saban way works so ideally in Alabama, Savage asserts, is owing to the importance of football in the culture of the state. Alabama, simply put, is the perfect place for a coach like Saban.

4th and Goal Every Day has the tone of authority when discussing football strategy and the methods of teaching fundamentals, but it has perhaps too much of the air of an ode to all things Saban to allow it to appeal to a broad readership outside of the devoted Alabama fan base. With a preface by alum Rece Davis and an introduction by the coach himself, the book is unashamedly a partisan assessment, even though Savage does discuss candidly the failures Saban has experienced at Alabama and the impact they have had on the program. The book is relatively well-written for one of its genre, featuring some mild repetition but filled with interesting stories and informed analysis that are sure to entertain the rather large Alabama following and offer some insight into how the Crimson Tide achieves what it does to those wishing to emulate its success. The book is one of the better and more substantial of the mounting collection of books on the modern Alabama football dynasty.