Archive | March, 2019

Review of Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates: The Forgotten War That Changed American History, by Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger

26 Mar

Pleasantly surprised with Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger’s history of the Battle of New Orleans, I recently decided to listen to an audiobook recording of their 2016 book Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates: The Forgotten War That Changed American History. Like most people, I knew little about the First Barbary War (1801-1805) and figured this might make for a fast-moving overview of the conflict and lead to a better understanding of its context and lasting impact on America’s development. After listening to it, however, I feel like I got a distorted version of the real story in a muddled, unevenly paced narrative that attempts to explain the events of the conflict through a distinctly modern lens.


The war the book discusses is indeed one of our most forgotten conflicts, its causes, course, and results little known or understood. Yet it ranks as a landmark event in the history of our republic, it being the first international conflict in which the young United States had a chance to establish itself as a world power. As strange as it sounds to us today living in the era in which our nation is the world’s lone true superpower, there was a time in which rogue nations such as the Barbary states (Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli, at the time newly independent from long years of Ottoman rule) routinely preyed on American shipping in the Mediterranean and forced us to pay tribute for passage in international waters at the peril of the seizure of our ships and crewmen. Our young government was seemingly unable to stop the practice in the first decades of nationhood, and the circumstance threatened our standing if not our very sovereignty. We at long last mustered the resources and resolve to challenge the Barbary pirates during the administration of Thomas Jefferson in the form of a specially-created fleet and military forces sent to the region to enforce American rights. Our victories on land and sea in combat with the Tripolitans are forever immortalized in the Marine’s Hymn:

“From the Halls of Montezuma,
To the Shores of Tripoli,
We will fight our country’s battles
In the air, on land, and sea;”

The tale revealed in the pages of Kilmeade and Yaeger’s book is at times fascinating and enlightening. I will admit that since I knew very little of the travails of the American sailors and ships in that region and the difficulty with which we finally brought our military might to bear or the ways that victory helped launch a new era of American naval power, it did help me understand a formative era of our nation’s past. But Kilmeade and Yaeger seem to want to cast the events they chronicle in the light of our modern-day difficulties in that region, somehow conflating the Barbary Wars (we were ultimately in a state of armed conflict for over a decade) as part of a continuity of strained relations with Islamic states. They offer up the Barbary War as a sort of proof of old axiom about history repeating itself and suggest forcing a link between eighteenth century Mediterranean pirates and Middle East terrorists which I fail to grasp. Since listening to the book I have found other reviewers who know far more than I do question some of their conclusions and even their understanding of some of the evidence they use to make their arguments. In summary, if you want to know more about the Barbary Wars and their significance, I would suggest you look elsewhere.


Review of Corinth 1862: Siege, Battle, Occupation, by Timothy B. Smith

12 Mar

As demonstrated by my recent blogs about touring the Civil War battlefields at Iuka and Corinth, I have of late become very interested in the Confederate Heartland Offensive of 1862 and come to a newfound appreciation of it as a major turning point in the war. The loosely-coordinated actions in northeast Mississippi and central Kentucky—battles at such places as Munfordville and Perryville for the most part of little more than passing familiarity only to serious Civil War historians—represent one of the Confederacy’s major bids for independence. While certainly not on the scale as the offensives at Antietam or Gettysburg, these battles might be argued to have every bit of the significance when viewed in the big picture. Being unable to bring Kentucky officially into the Confederacy, being unable to threaten the Union at any point west of the Maryland border, and submitting to the surrender of an enormous swath of territory stretching from the Appalachians to the lower Mississippi valley were just some of the most immediate ramifications of the failure of the Southern armies in the mid-South during that hot, dry autumn.


It was with great anticipation, then, that I recently picked up my autographed copy of Timothy B. Smith’s Corinth 1862: Siege, Battle, Occupation. A prolific and widely respected authority on the war in the west whose fame is only growing, Smith possesses a special expertise on the topic at least in part due to his years working with Shiloh National Military Park. In his years since then, teaching at the University of Tennessee-Martin, he has expanded his research interests but continues to be one of the leading national authorities on the pivotal battles which raged in and around Shiloh in 1862. Due to the relatively limited professional scholarship on the Battle of Corinth, I knew that whatever Smith did, it would make a major contribution to our understanding of the battle. In the past few decades, only Peter Cozzen’s landmark Darkest Days of the War: The Battles of Iuka and Corinth (which first appeared in 1997) have focused the attention of readers of Civil War literature on these important conflicts. As Cozzens’ acclaimed book has been sitting unread on one of my bookshelves for more years than I’d like to admit, though, I am unable to provide any opinion as to how it compares to Smith’s work. What I can say is that Smith’s Corinth 1862 contains everything you might want to know about the battle, and then some.

In the course of some 300 or so pages, Smith covers strategy, tactics, and each sector of the fighting in remarkable detail. Indeed, it seems as if he works to insert every quote from participants he found in his exhaustive research into the narrative. His comprehensiveness never gets too tiresome, however, as he manages through his highlighting of individual decisions and reactions to make personal a large, easily confusing series of conflicts that even those on the ground fighting it sometimes barely understood. The entirety of the siege, the multi-front, multi-stage battle in which the Confederate army nearly broke through the Federal defenses in a bitter two-day contest, and the intriguing aftermath, in which the Federal army formally attempted to deal with the growing number of former slaves which followed in its wake, are all discussed.  Smith’s writing is solid and enjoyable, never flashy or overwrought with hyperbole, but still manages to make vivid the heat of battle and the fog of war. All the iconic moments of the battle that those familiar with it will look for and many they might not are described here: the chaos of the Confederate breakthrough near the famed crossroads with which the city of Corinth is forever associated; the extraordinary bravado of William P. Rogers, shot nearly a dozen times as he led his men into a storm of bullets and artillery fire at Battery Robinett; the triumphant gallop of Union General Rosecrans as he exulted in victory; the poignant image of a weeping, speechless Confederate General Price as he mourned the loss of one of his subordinates; the suffering of the few civilians left in town to observe the carnage.

Smith’s book is a thorough, definitive account of the Battle of Corinth, and by extension the Civil War experience of the town of Corinth itself. If you have an interest in it or the larger campaign in which he played a part, it stands as a must-read among the relatively few books on the subject. My one criticism of the book is the same I frequently have of works of this type; there are simply not enough maps to accompany the detailed discussion of the battle he provides, even though the ones provided are relatively good ones. Still, Corinth 1862 is an exemplary piece of scholarship and bound to be a standard on the topic for many years to come.


Review of Beauvoir, The Jefferson Davis Home and Presidential Library

5 Mar

Knowing that Beauvoir, the postwar home of Confederate President Jefferson Davis located in Biloxi, Mississippi, is owned and operated by the Mississippi Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, I fully expected the interpretation I would be treated to on my recent visit would have a decided slant. I discovered that it really had very little interpretation at all, however. The institution, comprised of a historic home and grounds, reconstructed outbuildings, and a massive “presidential library” display a disjointed, haphazard effort at interpreting any specific story. I left surprised, confused, and if truth be known, more than a little saddened.


I truly had trouble determining exactly what story Beauvoir was attempting to tell throughout my tour of the property. For starters, the self-guided tour of the exhibits within the so-called presidential library was a thoroughly confusing experience. Inside the cavernous and evidently somewhat deteriorating building were assorted “cabinets of curiosities” containing items associated to varying degrees with Davis with seemingly no apparent interpretive theme. Some of the items had no labelling at all. I expected to find a thorough analysis of Davis’ life within the building if nothing else, but I found the information presented on him to be disjointed at best and curiously silent on his role in the Confederate war effort. There were a few really interesting items on display amongst the exhibits, mind you, such as his funeral carriage and the coat he was wearing when captured by Union troops in 1865. But the exhibit did an exceedingly a poor job of telling the story of Davis’s life and featured some of the worst descriptive labels of any supposed professional museum I have seen in a while. The largest exhibit gallery purported to tell the story of the life of the Confederate soldier, but essentially boiled down to displays of weaponry and a few uniforms. Perhaps the most organized part of the display was a small section featuring material on the Confederate veteran’s home which once stood on the property.

Among the most disappointing portions of my tour was my discovery of what passes at the “presidential library.” Tucked away in the back corner a hallway was a single room filled with reference books on Civil War history and a small sign at the unstaffed desk informing me the old books on the shelves were not for purchase, but for reading in the library. I don’t really know what I expected the library to be, but I definitely thought it would be more than this.

My disillusionment only deepened when I took the tour of the home that is the namesake of the property. It was a well-attended tour, with nearly twenty people hailing from the four corners of our country—an indication in my mind that there is still great interest in Davis’ era and we should probably be more comfortable in discussing it, but that is beside the point. Beauvoir, which has been battered by hurricanes and is in truth largely a reconstruction at this point, is nonetheless a beautiful house with an interesting story. The tour guide was professional and knowledgeable and did a good job on the tour, even if she curiously spent the first five minutes of it informing us about a room that was currently not on display before providing any bit of background information on the home and its occupants. She discussed the home’s original builder and spent the majority of the tour discussing the women who lived there, barely mentioning Mr. Davis. Except, that is to say, that he helped design the dome on the U.S. capitol and was one of the organizational founders of the Smithsonian Institution. Both are facts worth considering, but doesn’t the leader of the Confederacy deserve some substantive discussion of his role in the effort to found an independent Southern nation? He may not have lived there during the war, but it is where he composed his epic account of the conflict that served as a foundational text for so much of the Lost Cause movement. Isn’t this what people come to learn a little more about?

The fifty-two acre property has additional attractions, including a garden, a cistern, and the “Tomb of the Unknown Confederate Soldier” which may be visited on foot or via rentable golf carts(!), but I chose to end my visit at the conclusion of the house tour. It was one of the few times I have visited a historic site and literally walked away more confused than when I arrived. What was this place, and what did they want me to know about it? It was not a celebration of the Confederacy. It was not a politically-correct memorial to the war. It was not an iconic local Mississippi Gulf Coast historic site. It was not an authentic historic home and gardens. It definitely was not a true library or museum. It was an institution without a clear vision in my estimation.

I would like to be clear that I am not one of the growing number of people in our society who seem to be offended that we have historical sites that interpret the lives of Confederates, so I have no issue with the fact that Beauvoir is open and has, purportedly, a Confederate leader as its focus. I am also not one of those reactionary Southerners (a thankfully decreasing minority) who buy into the ridiculous “The South Was Right” prattle. I simply believe that Jefferson Davis is an enormously important figure in American history who deserves to have his story told, warts and all. Davis was an accomplished American leader before becoming president of the Confederacy, and he worked as hard as any man could to bring about Southern independence. He was a revered figure in the South in the late 1800s, and his funeral is believed to have been the largest in the history of the region. Clearly, he is a man we should wrestle with as a representative of his era if we are to understand how and why the Lost Cause mentality exerted such a hold on the South for so long. Beauvoir is probably one of the best places to do it, and the site has layers of history to drawn upon. Instead, Davis is buried in this botched effort at some sort of shrine which barely mentions the man and seems to be flailing about ineffectively in multiple directions as it struggles to determine exactly what place it seeks to occupy in the modern heritage tourism landscape. Admittedly, our modern society does not make the task easy, but I really expected a better effort. Beauvoir is worth a visit if you are knowledgeable on Davis and his role in Southern history simply as an important site. But don’t go expecting to learn very much about him or why he deserves to be remembered.