Archive | April, 2019

In Appreciation of the Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution

30 Apr

Owing to my profession as a historian, over the years I’ve had numerous opportunities to come into contact with a wide variety of historical associations, heritage groups, and various societies which are formed around some sort of appreciation of the past. Some are focused on state, county, city, or neighborhood history, while others are dedicated to the study of a place, a person, an event, or an era. In general, most of these groups serve as meeting places for those with common interests, and, although there certainly are exceptions, are usually rather benign and have limited impact in the larger community.

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I wanted to mention here my appreciation for two groups which do consistently seem to work purposefully to educate the general public and have an impact out of proportion to their relatively small numbers and resources; The Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution. Like most heritage-focused groups, both are comprised of primarily older ladies and gentlemen who have the time to indulge their interests (although membership is open to adults of all ages who meet certain lineal qualifications), and the level of activity and energy in their chapters varies greatly. Not all chapters are full of dynamic movers and shakers, and their membership rolls often seem to be declining rather than increasing. Still, I have found them to always be sincere in their appreciation for the encouragement of the study of American history and they are all part of organizations whose missions are among the most praiseworthy in my opinion.

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The Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution are responsible for the placing of countless historic markers and monuments, the creation of innumerable education programs, the publishing of hundreds of books, the preservation of many historical structures, the funding of several scholarships, and a variety of initiatives aimed at promoting a better understanding of American history, the promotion of patriotism, and the honoring of our veterans. I have nothing but respect for organizations committed to these laudable activities. They are more important than ever today in our fractured and historically ignorant environment, in my opinion, and I hope they will enjoy continued success in the generations to come.


Review of The Last Siege: The Mobile Campaign, Alabama 1865, by Paul Brueske

23 Apr

It has unfortunately been all too easy for generations of historians to dismiss the Mobile Campaign—the last major combined-forces operation of the Civil War, involving over 55,000 troops and over two dozen warships—as some sort of inconsequential mopping up operation largely due to the simple fact that it occurred in 1865. While it certainly cannot be said to be as pivotal to the overall course of the war as events at places such as Gettysburg or Vicksburg, the months-long campaign which led to the ultimate capture of the last remaining major port and city in Confederate hands is nonetheless a significant event which has long deserved more attention than it has received. In the past few years, I have reviewed most of the small, but thankfully growing, body of literature on this intriguing but relatively little-understood campaign in this space. Today I am pleased to offer my thoughts on one of the most comprehensive and interesting yet published, The Last Siege: The Mobile Campaign, Alabama 1865, by Paul Brueske.


This is the first book for Brueske, track coach at University of South Alabama and amateur historian who has spent many years intensively researching the details of the campaign. In Last Siege he chronicles in its totality the fighting on land and water which led to the capture of Mobile, including cavalry skirmishes along the Florida-Alabama line, sieges at Spanish Fort and Blakeley, and naval actions in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta. With a keen eye for unique details, Brueske brings to light many personalities and occurrences otherwise lost to history, such as the fact that future governors of both northern and southern states fought in the campaign; the story of a female soldier who participated in it disguised as a man; the tale of the Union army’s attempt to bombard Confederate lines with mortars fashioned from the trunks of sweet gum trees, the use of land mines and underwater torpedoes by outnumbered Confederates; the actions of one of the largest contingents of African-American soldiers to fight in any battle of the Civil War; and numerous other colorful details that have rarely, if ever, been discussed in books on the Mobile Campaign.

Last Siege is a great addition to historiography of its subject that is distinctly different from other volumes, presenting the campaign in a comprehensive fashion and unearthing minutia never before discussed. At its core is an overt effort to have the campaign understood as more strategically important at the time than is generally understood. As evidenced by the manpower and material the Union army and navy committed to the effort to capture perhaps the best-defended city in North America at the time and the casualties they and the Confederate defenders endured in the course of the effort, the Campaign for Mobile was far from a negligible afterthought. Brueske makes a convincing plea for its relevance in the pages of Last Siege as he fashions a sentimental but insightful overview of the definitive campaign of the war in the Gulf Coast region. Detailed, persuasive, and fast-moving, the book is chock full of new information on an understudied subject and thus a rarity in Civil War literature. It is well worth your time if you have a casual interest in the subject, and a must-have if you are a serious student of Alabama and Gulf Coast history.


Review of The Fall of the House of Dixie: The Civil War and the Social Revolution That Transformed the South, by Bruce Levine

9 Apr

That the Confederacy was inextricably connected with the institution of slavery is a fundamental part of any understanding of Southern society during the Civil War. The many ways the practice played a role in the coming of the war, its progress, and its outcome are well known to anyone with a casual knowledge of American history. Despite its centrality in one of America’s defining dramas, few scholars have attempted to tell the story of the Civil War through the lens of the institution of slavery, though, instead treating the topics as closely related but best understood separately. Here to try to more closely connect the two in a narrative of the war is Bruce Levine and The Fall of the House of Dixie.


Levine, a University of Illinois professor and author of the noted Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves during the Civil War, essentially provides an overview of the war with reflections on slavery’s place in America at the time in the book. The tone is set by the title, which draws a comparison between the story of the Confederacy and the famed Edgar Allen Poe tale, The Fall of the House of Usher. In Poe’s piece, tiny cracks in the foundation of a mansion eventually widen to cause the sudden and dramatic collapse of the structure. Levine attempts to relate the Confederate war effort in a parallel way, as a pervasive and deep-seated but willfully ignored problem that consumed the entirety of Southern society and brought down the Confederacy from its very foundation.

All of this is well and good and difficult to find much fault with as a general framework through which to understand the war era, but to construct a nearly 500 page manuscript around the premise that Americans don’t grasp the connection between Southern society and slavery seems a little strange to me. We may not know much about our own history these days, but the one thing we do seem to be aware of—as evidenced by the recent flailing attempts to remove all vestiges of the Confederacy in various spots across the nation—is that slavery was associated with the antebellum South. Still, Levine’s book attempts to be at once a societal and military history and purports to yield new revelations in the process, but succeeds at neither goal satisfactorily.

The book in truth contains a pretty standard overview of the war, interspersed in short summary increments placed between longer sections of narrative chock full of quotes from Southern military officials and civilians revealing their thoughts on the institution of slavery. Taken together, they display a mounting fear over the demise of the practice, evidence an occasional perverse denial that it was an integral component of the way of life they were fighting to preserve, and demonstrate the many ways Southerners feigned surprise at their discovery that slaves actually preferred freedom to bondage even if it carried with it new risks. There is something worthwhile in the assemblage of these multiple viewpoints emphasizing the disintegration of slavery occurred during the war, not after it. It is worth noting that the reactions of Southerners are defined by a rather unsurprising narrowness of range, though, and are marked by noticeable lack of change in tone as the Civil War progressed. If there is one big takeaway from Levine’s book, it is that the institution of slavery pervaded every aspect of the Southern psyche and there is no evidence of a real evolution of understanding of the practice during the course of the war. Planters worried about losing their property throughout the conflict, yeomen farmers claiming a few or no slaves worried over their place in a free society as that increasingly became a likelihood, and both worried over how to manage the obviously unhappy enslaved population during a devastating war. That thousands of bondsmen would end up serving as troops was too much to take for many.

In the end Levine’s book is essentially a chronicle of perceptions of slavery and reactions to its steady demise during the Civil War, and we should be glad that he has assembled them. That is its contribution to the historiography on the subject and the sole reason students of the Civil War era will want to consult it. It does to some degree chronicle the “social revolution” which forever altered Southern history, and it does powerfully link the root cause of the war with its progress. Widely researched and well-written, it is for the most part entertaining even if often inherently repetitive. But this is no reframing of our understanding of the war and provides no genuine revelations about Southern society during the Civil War. For the best studies of both of those topics, readers will still look elsewhere.


Review of Columbus, Georgia 1865: The Last True Battle of the Civil War, by Charles A.Misulia (as published in the Spring, 2011 issue of the Georgia Historical Quarterly)

2 Apr

Columbus, Georgia 1865: The Last True Battle of the Civil War is one of those refreshing and rare books in the veritable flood of Civil War-related literature that truly offers something new for readers. Far from yet another attempt at reinterpreting oft-repeated information, author Charles Misulia explores a little-known story that has received surprisingly scant scholarly attention in an engaging fashion. The book is thoroughly researched, comprehensive in scope and content, and well written. In it, the author has given the dramatic Civil War saga of Columbus, the city along the Chattahoochee River that became perhaps the second-largest industrial center in the Confederacy, the retelling it so richly deserves.


Misulia, a Florida attorney who also runs a company which manufactures reproductions of historical weapons, has closely studied the Battle of Columbus for several years. Previous to this book, he produced a driving tour of Civil War sites associated with the battle, and served as chief consultant for the award-winning documentary “The Last Ditch: The Final Battle of the Civil War,” which chronicles the encounter. In Columbus, Georgia 1865, his years of painstaking and wide-ranging research are brought to bear on a narrative that is easily the most thorough ever written on the battle.

Misulia begins with an enlightening discussion of the cavalry campaign led by Union General James H. Wilson which, after fighting the Battle of Selma and capturing the city of Montgomery, targeted Columbus. He provides a portrait of the city, its impressive concentration of war industries, and the somewhat disorganized and ultimately inadequate efforts at planning for defense of the town prior to Wilson’s arrival. Misulia moves on to give an account of the fighting that occurred in and around Columbus, fiercer and on a larger scale than perhaps is commonly thought, in incredible detail. He continues his narrative to include a discussion of the brief occupation of the city by Wilson’s forces and the effects of the contest on the local population. He includes six appendixes with information on the order of battle and all known casualties; Medal of Honor recipients who were recognized for service in the battle; suggestions for visitors to Columbus interested in learning about the area’s Civil War heritage; and an essay discussing the strength of the evidence supporting the many other claims to the title of “last battle” of the war. The book also features a number of maps and images of key participants.

Misulia’s writing sparkles in his recounting of the battle waged for the city of Columbus. From the opening shots of the battle exchanged near the village of Crawford, Alabama to the dramatic nighttime assault on Confederate entrenchments on the hills of the western bank of the Chattahoochee in and around the city of Girard and the sudden capture of the city, he takes the reader step by step through a conflict rich in drama. Misulia weaves details of the close-quarters combat into a captivating story made all the more vivid by meticulous mining of the diaries and journals of participants as well as official records. This thorough research enables him to capture the essence of the “fog of war” in which crucial battlefront decisions were made by consistently keeping readers apprised of information on the battle’s progress available to the participants at any given time. Considering the climax of the contest actually took place after dark and on uneven terrain across a wide front, this mastery of resources is a particular strength of the narrative.

What promises to make this book interesting for many readers of Southern history and separates it from much of the other current Civil War scholarship, though, is the author’s informed discussion of the impact of the fighting on the residents of Columbus. Ranging from wealthy businessmen and housewives to millworkers and slaves, the battle and its associated upheaval rocked the lives of thousands of people in its wake. This aspect of the clash is told through compelling stories of numerous individuals and an in-depth portrait of the physical destruction of much of Columbus’ industrial riverfront. The displacement of numerous laborers, the search for order by former slaves, and the widespread looting of the city are discussed from the vantage points of both citizens and soldiers. Taken together with Misulia’s lively account of the military engagement, these stories combine to capture the chaos of the time and make the war and its consequences tangible to readers on an emotional level.

Ironically, one of the shortest sections of the book may actually prove to be a primary reason it will ultimately come to the attention of a national audience of Civil War scholars and enthusiasts who have a seemingly indefatigable interest in every detail of the conflict. In an appendix entitled “The Last Real Battle of the Civil War,” Misulia sifts through the various claims to the title of “last battle” of the war which have been offered over the course of nearly a century and a half of scholarship. By measuring these claims against a series of logical and well-defined benchmarks, he concludes the battle at Columbus can justly claim the honor. While the true historical importance of this title may be questionable and Misulia’s conclusion will surely be second-guessed by many, it will do much to help raise awareness of the battle to those interested in both Georgia and Civil War history.

In Columbus, Georgia 1865, Charles Misulia has rescued from obscurity a captivating story that for far too long has been relegated to a historical footnote. While a host of books, including Noah Andre Trudeau’s Out of the Storm, James Pickett Jones’ Yankee Blitzkrieg, and David Williams’ Rich Man’s War, have provided us with overviews of the closing campaigns of the Civil War and chronicled Wilson’s raid in some detail, up until now there has been no book-length treatment of the Battle of Columbus. Columbus, Georgia 1865 is entertaining, enlightening, and an essential volume for anyone interested in the Civil War in Georgia.