Archive | February, 2019

Review of Alabama’s Frontiers and the Rise of the Old South, by Daniel S. Dupre

26 Feb

Alabama’s history from the Spanish explorations to the antebellum years is one of near-constant conflict and change. As various cultures and governments interacted across the vast borderland that was the Southeast, the area that became Alabama came to play a pivotal role in the efforts of Native Americans, Europeans, and later, Americans, to maintain a degree of control of the region. That saga is arguably the most fascinating in Alabama’s storied past, but indisputably among its least understood. Having spent a large portion of his career researching and writing about the era, historian Daniel S. Dupre (author of Transforming the Cotton Frontier: Madison County, Alabama, 1800-1840) chronicles this epic struggle in Alabama’s Frontiers and the Rise of the Old South. Dupre’s wide-ranging book covers a lot of historical ground in comprehensible fashion, and in the end is one of the better attempts to explain this complicated and multi-faceted era of intrigue, speculation, warfare, and cultural exchange which witnessed Alabama’s transformation from contested frontier to heart of the Old South.

Alabama's Frontiers

Starting with DeSoto’s entrada in the mid-1500s, Dupre covers Alabama’s development all the way through statehood and into the 1830s. Dupre starts with DeSoto, whose famed expedition unsuccessfully tried to use the indigenous inhabitants to find his dreamed-of gold and riches, but resulted primarily in leaving the surviving tribes and cultures in absolute disarray. The French and English came later to tame the land and establish outposts and trade networks with the descendants of those earlier native tribes. These tribal groups were able to play the European rivals off one another to gain favorable trade terms and to maintain a degree of autonomy and outcomes as long as there were multiple colonial powers vying for control of the region. After the American Revolution, however, the newly-formed and steadily strengthening United States became the sole power with which the Native Americans had to negotiate, and they did so at a considerable disadvantage.

The Creek War and eventual Creek removal in the 1830s eventually concluded Alabama’s frontier era since no other obstacles remained to prevent American control of the land. Hordes of settlers flooded into the territory in the era, bringing their slaves to work the fertile soil that was ideally suited for growing cotton. The speculative land booms that occurred helped eventually spur the development of Alabama’s agricultural economy and establish it as the heart of the cotton producing Antebellum South.

Dupre delivers a well-written narrative drawn from solid sources and first-hand accounts where he allows the participants themselves to tell their stories. This is especially true with the numerous accounts of immigrants describing their journeys filled with anticipation, hardship, and difficulties. Despite the fact that readers familiar with the broad sweep of Alabama history will find few surprises within its pages, the book fills a gap in the historiography of the state by examining these 300 years in terms of one overarching theme of settlers settling the frontier. Viewing Alabama’s past during this time as a series of struggles for control of a changing frontier is a useful one in helping us understand the period, even if it is inherently written more from the viewpoint of the Europeans and Americans that initiated most of the changes discussed than the Native Americans and slaves who were at the center of the watershed events he highlights. The book, however, deserves its place on the bookshelves of anyone interested in Alabama history and promises to be a valuable reference source on the era of its focus for many years to come.


Review of 11th Month, 11th Day, 11th Hour, Armistice Day, 1918, by Joseph E. Persico

19 Feb

Needing a good audiobook for my commute and having just passed the centennial of World War I, I selected 11th Month, 11th Day, 11th Hour, Armistice Day, 1918, World War I and its Violent Climax written by Joseph E. Persico. This six hour audio presentation read by Harry Chase provides a griping account of the “War to End all Wars” that emphasizes the tragic nature of the conflict.

11th Day

Persico’s narrative hinges on November 11, 1918, when the armistice would go into effect, halting the bloodshed. He alternates chapters from that day to a chronological narrative of the conflict. During the narrative, Persico traces all the war’s history from its absurd cause coming out of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, to mass mobilizations, the horrible killing fields at places like Verdun, the Somme and Passchendaele, the United States’ entry into the war up and the eventual armistice itself. Persico deserves high praise for one of the better explanations of how that random assassination in Sarajevo led multiple countries to declare war on each other. How the world went to war is perhaps the saddest catastrophe of all, illustrating a complete failure in diplomacy as well as common sense.

The highlight of the book is Persico allowing the participants of the drama to narrate the events themselves. Listeners hear from front line soldiers, home front civilians, battlefield commanders and even names of those who would become more famous afterwards such as George Patton and Adolph Hitler. These first-hand accounts, dramatically read by Chase, provide energy and a human element while moving the narrative forward at a rapid pace.

Persico’s emphasizes the total futility of this war with its nearly nine million battle deaths by focusing on the last day of the war. Commanders faced a difficult decision on whether to follow orders and continue the fight right up to the cease fire or simply hold their ground until the armistice became official. Sadly, the last day witnessed nearly 11,000 casualties (more than D-Day when there was something to fight for) when it had become common knowledge that the war was over and there was nothing to gain by continuing to offer battle. Persico ends his narrative by making the point that wars have always been the choice to solve disputes. If the absolute killing and murder in World War I did not prove war’s failings, then nothing ever will.


Review of John Quincy Adams, by Harlow Giles Unger

12 Feb

I am sure I am not alone in saying that while I am of course aware that John Quincy Adams served as our nation’s president and was the son of founding father John Adams, I know precious little else about the man. Picking up Harlow Giles Unger’s recent biography of him, John Quincy Adams, then, promised to offer me a chance to learn quite a bit about a relatively unfamiliar figure and likely increase my knowledge of the era in which he lived. I was not disappointed.


In truth I came away from the book surprised at myself for having taken so long to learn about Adams. I have to admit I found him to be a much more accomplished individual than I had originally would have thought. He was something of a child prodigy as a young student, and largely through the influence of his esteemed father entered into a series of diplomatic postings across Europe beginning in his twenties. But he excelled in this role, later taught at Harvard, wrote poetry, served as a congressman, and was once being offered a seat on our nation’s supreme court—all in addition to serving term as the nation’s chief executive. As Unger points out in a rather interesting biography of a man he clearly admires, Adams might have been, on paper, one of the best qualified men to ever hold the office of president. The trouble was, he was so patently unqualified for the realities of national politics and refused on principle to learn. The result was a career we remember mostly for a rather ineffective single term as the nation’s leader and a post-presidential career that, ala Jimmy Carter, seems to in many ways perversely to have been more distinguished than that exalted post. Adams stayed at it to the last, quite literally dying the nation’s capital after suffering an apparent stroke on the House floor.

It is hard not to admire the Adams which appears in the pages of Unger’s book, and at times pull for him to succeed despite himself. Adams was on the right side of history on several matters, most importantly his early and vocal advocacy of abolition and his unflinching support of American interests abroad, but he was almost comically unable to do what politicians have to do in order to get things done. He never quite understood why populist candidates ridiculed him as out of touch when he advocated the establishment of educational institutions as “lighthouses in the sky.” He wondered why his colleagues in the capital seemed to think he was speaking a foreign language when he mixed in classical oratory and literature in his speeches which only the most educated could grasp. In his memoirs he questioned why others perceived him to be so aloof and stern when in truth he was rigid and reserved almost to a fault. Adams had high ideals and genuinely wanted his country to better itself through education, enlightenment, and a firm moral foundation, but most Americans perceived the way he advocated these sentiments as out of touch with the times at best and, at worst, at odds with their practical needs. Even when he at times realized these truths, to Adams they made no difference. He would abide by his own sense of right and wrong even if it meant political defeat.

This isn’t to say Adams was some unrecognized genius, or that his stoic and unwavering commitment to a personal code of honor should be celebrated as unique in his era. Unger’s treatment of Adams is sympathetic, but it makes clear that he had both uncelebrated virtues and justly criticized shortcomings in a well-written and entertaining narrative. John Quincy Adams presents the life of a man worth our study and is worth your time if you have an interest in the Jacksonian era.


Review of Confederate Goliath: The Battle of Fort Fisher, by Rod Gragg

5 Feb

By late 1864, Wilmington, North Carolina was the last major seaport in use by the Confederacy. It served as a safe haven for blockade runners bringing their precious cargo into the South to help sustain the nation, specifically Robert E. Lee’s army in Virginia. Wilmington was protected by Fort Fisher which provided security for the crucially important ships and fended off the Union Navy. Fort Fisher’s fall and subsequently that of Wilmington put perhaps the last nail in the coffin for the Confederacy. My knowledge of Fort Fisher and Wilmington had been limited to the sentences above. Rod Gragg’s masterful Confederate Goliath, The Battle of Fort Fisher not only increased my knowledge of this vitally important campaign, but has done so in such a well-written narrative that it should serve as a model for other Civil War works.


Confederate Goliath grabs the reader instantly by putting the characters at the heart of the action. With the feel of a novel, Gragg introduces us to William Lamb, Fort Fisher’s commander, and readers quickly delve into his thoughts, motivations, and actions as we learn about the town’s importance and the absolute necessity for Fort Fisher. Gragg does the same as he introduces the other key characters in the unfolding drama, such as Confederate leaders William H.C. Whiting and Braxton Bragg, who I will discuss later in this review. Their Union adversaries Admiral David D. Porter, Benjamin Butler, Alfred Terry and others are given ample examination and discussion so the reader is clear of their motivations as well.

The Union made two attempts to capture the fort. The first one made in December 1864 was the textbook example of how poor Army/Navy relations could lead to failure as Porter and Butler not only did not get along, but hardly even communicated. After a naval bombardment, troops were landed ashore, only to be quickly removed as several Union leaders, including Butler, feared the assault could not succeed. This failure raised Confederate hopes that their fort was truly impregnable. Those hopes would be dashed less than a month later. Alfred Terry replaced Butler as leader of the army’s forces and he and Porter forged a working relationship that succeeded. The fort was again bombarded ruthlessly, troops landed ashore and a massive assault was made on January 15, 1865.

Gragg’s description of the climatic attack was truly a highlight of the book. The fort was assaulted on two main fronts. Seeking the laurels of victory for himself and the navy, Porter sent a force of sailors and marines against one side of the fort which was beaten back under the personal leadership of Lamb. This assault however, allowed the more powerful attack to occur on the opposite end. Gragg’s description of the assault is one of the best written battle narratives that this reviewer has read in quite some time. The reader feels like he is witnessing first-hand the heroic charges of the attackers and sympathizing with the doomed defenders. The previous naval bombardment had decimated most of the forts’ guns, severely hampering its defense and the mental barrage on the Confederates who had to huddle inside bombproofs also decreased their effectiveness as solders. Gragg’s ability to intersperse quotes from the battle’s participants adds depth and a personal touch. In the end, the narrative had an almost “Alamo” type feel to it as the Confederate forces were finally overwhelmed and left with no real choice but to surrender.

Gragg holds nothing back in his criticism of Braxton Bragg, Wilmington’s overall commander. Confederate leaders Whiting and Lamb begged for Bragg to attack the Union rear line with veteran North Carolina troops to relieve pressure from the attack on Fisher, but Bragg refused. As he did often during the war, Bragg’s hesitation and vacillation helped lead Confederate forces to defeat. Whiting went to his death bed after the war blaming Bragg for the fall of Fort Fisher and Wilmington. Jefferson Davis’s insistence to continue to rely on Bragg and place him in positions of authority all the way into 1865 might be Davis’s worst military decision of the entire war.

Confederate Goliath, which won the Fletcher Pratt Literary Award, deserves all the praise it has been given and more. Well written and researched, it captures the reader from page one and delivers an epic journey into a sometimes overlooked, but important part of history of the Civil War. I visited Wilmington this past summer and enjoyed my tours of Fort Fisher and the city. My biggest regret is not having read Gragg’s book beforehand. I desperately want to return and walk the grounds of the fort and city once more. Any book that makes you want to do that definitely is a worthwhile read and one I am proud to have on my bookshelf.