Archive | October, 2018

Review of The Gulf Theater, 1813-1815, by Joseph F. Stoltz III

30 Oct

To commemorate the War of 1812’s Bicentennial, the United States Army’s Center for Military History published a series of pamphlets that provides a general summary of the key campaigns of the war. Due to my interest, I acquired and read the one written by Joseph F. Stoltz III concerning the campaigns along on the Gulf Coast in 1813-15. Stoltz, who recently published A Bloodless Victory: The Battle of New Orleans in History and Memory, provides a sufficient overview of the British attempts to gain control over the Gulf Coast, but I disagree with his analysis at the end.


In only fifty pages, Stoltz guides the reader through the British campaign. He only gives the Creek War a passing glance and quickly runs through the actions at Fort Bowyer and Pensacola. The majority of text focuses on the New Orleans campaign as he tracks the British victory at Lake Borgne, the climatic night battle on December 23, and the preliminary actions leading up to the main British assault on January 8. He covers these actions as adequately as anyone can in such a brief amount of space providing the reader with a general idea of what took place.

I do have issue with his final analysis where Stoltz seems to downplay the importance of this campaign and the battle for New Orleans as it occurred after the Treaty of Ghent was signed. In fact, he states that “the impact of the last major battle of the War of 1812 is questionable…” He feels had the British captured the city, it would not have made much of a difference as the British or a country they sold the land to (such as Spain) could not have held it long in the face of American expansionism. Many historians, including myself, think a British victory at New Orleans would have at least forced a reassessment over the terms of the treaty and further negotiations as controlling that city and the Mississippi River’s outlet to the Gulf would have been a major disaster for the United States. Great Britain would not have simply returned the city to the United States for nothing!

Finally, Stoltz also does not put enough emphasis on the campaign’s role in bringing Andrew Jackson to prominence. He gives its importance a few cursory statements, mentioning Old Hickory along with William H. Harrison and Zachary Taylor. No one should compare Harrison and Taylor’s importance to this nation with that of Andrew Jackson and his two terms as president and an age that bears his name!


Review of The Idea of America: Reflections on the Birth of the United States, by Gordon S. Wood

23 Oct

Gordon S. Wood is one of the most highly regarded scholars working in the field of American history today. Arguably the preeminent expert on our nation’s founding era, over the course of a distinguished six-decade career in which he has taught at Brown, Harvard, Cambridge, Michigan, and William and Mary, he has won numerous accolades including a Pulitzer Prize, and compiled an impressive list of publications. Among his noteworthy books are such acclaimed volumes as The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787; The Making of the Constitution; The Radicalism of the American Revolution; The American Revolution: A History; The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin; and Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different. In his latest work, The Idea of America: Reflections on the Birth of the United States, Wood presents some of his most insightful essays on a variety of topics written over the course of several decades of work.


The book consists of eleven essays addressing various issues critical to understanding such topics as why and how the American Revolution occurred, the true aims of those who participated in it, how we are to understand its results, and its role in both national and international history. At the end of each essay Wood offers a brief postscript explaining when and under what circumstances the piece was originally written, how it was received, and why it is still relevant to those seeking to understand and interpret the most pivotal formative event in our shared past.

Wood makes two things consistently clear throughout the book. One, he believes the Revolution is beyond question the central event in American history and that we must understand that touchstone to comprehend who we are as a people and what we aspire to be. Two, he firmly believes that to truly understand the past we must make a conscious effort to remove ourselves and our modern biases from our approach to it and seek to know historical personalities on their own terms. Both are refreshing points to ponder from one of our elder statesmen, and we would all do well to heed his sage advice. No era of our shared heritage has traditionally been subject to more interpretation than our founding saga, and no historical figures have had more words put in their figurative mouths than the founders, after all. But what did they really think, and why did they act as they did? What are we to make of their accomplishments? The Idea of America is part historical investigation of these topics, part philosophy on the proper way to study the past, and part treatise on the significance of America’s founding.

Readers should be forewarned, though, that this book is not written for the casual historian. Virtually every essay contains an erudite overview of the historiography of the subject at hand, and one probably should at least be somewhat familiar with the concepts advanced by such iconoclastic figures as Charles Beard, Carl Becker, and Bernard Bailyn to appreciate some of Wood’s arguments. The book is in truth a rather sophisticated academic study which at times focuses nearly as much on the scholarship of the Revolutionary Era as on the events of the era itself. This does not mean it is a dry, dull tome, but readers looking for a more traditional narrative of our nation’s origins will likely want to look elsewhere. For serious students of history who are wont to ponder the larger questions Wood addresses, it is an enlightening read.


Review of The Life and Times of Gen. Sam Dale, The Mississippi Partisan, by J.F.H. Claiborne

9 Oct

Alabama’s historiography features a number of legendary volumes that, while perhaps embellished or later greatly improved upon, remain established foundational texts with which historians of the state must often reckon. It is indeed difficult to write about Alabama history without some knowledge of Albert James Pickett’s history of the state, or the Civil War and Reconstruction without Walter Lynwood Fleming’s iconic but now largely rebuked volume on the subject, or the colonial era without the work on the era of Peter J. Hamilton. All of these seminal volumes were published in the 1800s and remain landmarks in Alabama literature today. So it is with the study of Alabama legend Sam Dale. Astonishingly, J.F.H. Claiborne’s biography of the man, originally published in 1860, remains the foremost biography of its subject despite rather wide consensus that it contains no little embellishment and is thinly documented. Nevertheless, The Life and Times of Gen. Sam Dale, the Mississippi Partisan, is one of the few books of its age that remains a must-read for students of early Alabama history.


Dale is a forgotten figure today, but he once loomed large in the state’s pantheon of heroes. It is no stretch to say he is Alabama’s equivalent to Kentucky’s Daniel Boone or Tennessee’s Davy Crockett. A rugged frontiersman seemingly involved in all the major affairs of his day, Dale’s life traces the very development of the American South over the course of his lifetime. Born in the backwoods Virginia, he moved with his family to Georgia as a young man, became the head of his household following the sudden death of his parents in his youth, and eventually made his way to the Mississippi Territory. He fought with Indians on numerous occasions along the frontier, helped transport American settlers into newly opened lands, allegedly witnessed Tecumseh’s speech at Tuckabatchee, served with distinction in the transformative Creek War and won one of its most celebrated battles, and even showed up on Line Jackson during the Battle of New Orleans. After the war he served in the Alabama and Mississippi state legislatures, and got a chance to rub elbows with many of the leading political lights of the day during an adventurous extended visit to Washington. Venerated for his bravery by no less a figure than Andrew Jackson, Dale is a one-of-a-kind legend and witness to history.

Author J.F.H. Claiborne, nephew of a governor of the Mississippi Territory and a politician and writer, claimed to have taken his rollicking account of Dale’s life mostly from the lips of the man himself in the form of notes from interviews conducted by him and two other men. Where and how much he added is still open to some question, and it is widely accepted that the book is in large part a fairly reliable account of the age in which Dale lived even if it may not be accurate in every detail of his life. Still, it is as near to the remarkable truth of the man as we are likely to have, and it is a quick and entertaining read—especially for a book over a century and a half old. If you have any interest in Alabama or Mississippi history or the early nineteenth century South in general, you should read this book and know about the man it chronicles.


Review of The Man Who Would Not Be Washington: Robert E. Lee’s Civil War and His Decision That Changed American History, by Jonathan Horn

2 Oct

Anyone familiar with the life of Robert E. Lee is aware of his rather close familial and symbolic connections to George Washington. Lee’s father, Revolutionary War hero “Light Horse Harry” Lee was of course a trusted colleague of Washington and the man who left us with that enduring epitaph for our first president; “first in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen.” But Lee also married the granddaughter of George Washington (Mary–daughter of his adopted son George Washington Parke Custis) and lived in the home built by his adopted son. This home, Arlington, was in fact at one point something of a museum for relics associated with Washington. With Lee hailing from Washington’s Virginia, pursuing a military career, and residing literally across the Potomac from the nation’s capital, it is no wonder that Lee acutely perceived himself as standing in the shadow of Washington throughout his adult life. The comparisons only grew sharper with the outbreak of the Civil War, with Lee famously being offered command of Federal armies but siding with his home state and instead assuming a leadership role with the “revolutionary” forces of the Confederacy which saw themselves as the true heirs to Washington’s vision. Because the South lost the war that Lee fought so prominently in, much of this association with Washington has been handed down as simply a bitter irony, and outside of a few scholarly studies of Lee (notably Richard B. McCaslin’s Lee in the Shadow of Washington) virtually a piece of trivia in Civil War historiography.


Former White House speech writer Jonathan Horn takes a new, close look at the connections between Washington and Lee and their impact on U.S. history in The Man Who Would Not Be Washington: Robert E. Lee’s Civil War and His Decision That Changed American History. Throughout what is at heart a biography of Lee that tries very hard to not be just another biography of the man, Horn attempts to keep the Confederate general’s association with our first president front and center. I have reviewed so many accounts of Lee’s life in the pages of this blog that a summary of career as a military leader and college president is unnecessary here. I will say, though, that Horn’s treatment deals with the details of Lee’s Civil War years—usually occupying the bulk of any book written about his life—in particularly summary fashion. This is not a criticism, as it in fact works well to support his primary point that Lee both consciously lived in the shadow of Washington and that we need to understand him as influenced by that involuntary association.

Front and center throughout the book is the contradiction between the seemingly unquestioning veneration of Washington as the founder of our country then and now with the current effort to virtually shuffle Lee out of our collective memory. Horn does not allege that Lee should be regarded in the same light as Washington or that he should be celebrated in the same way that generations of Southerners lauded him prior to today or that we forget that the cause for which he fought was integrally connected with one of the very worst societal systems in human history. He does point out that both icons were thoroughly men of their times, and that their worldviews were much more alike than different. Much as did Richard B. McCaslin in his similar study which first appeared nearly two decades ago, Horn finds that in fact Lee was himself often guided in his actions and decision-making by an acute awareness of the standard he would be held to because of his connections with Washington. It is especially important that we understand these realities today as we as a society move ever closer towards the idea of effacement of those aspects of our past we find uncomfortable as somehow improving our understanding of history.

The Man Who Would Not Be Washington admittedly presents little that is new for those familiar with the lives of the men at its focus. But it does frame their lives in a new and important context which just might help make understanding their linked legacies more relevant to modern readers. It is a timely study which at its heart makes us ponder who we should remember in history and why. Viewed in this light, the book is provocative indeed and worth the read for those interested in how we as Americans understand our past.