Archive | May, 2019

Review of Valley Forge, by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin

28 May

The iconic name of Valley Forge endures in American history as a triumphant point along the fiery trail of war that led to American independence. It was there, on the serene farm-dotted landscape of southeast Pennsylvania, that General George Washington’s ragtag Continental Army endured a winter of privation and rigid training that transformed it into the disciplined fighting force which ultimately won the Revolutionary War. The place, now a national park, enjoys a near-mythical status in our nation’s storied past, and has become virtually synonymous with notions of resolve in the face of long odds. I’ve had the pleasure of visiting the amazing site and have read accounts of that epic encampment in various histories of the war and biographies of its participants, but had never read a focused narrative on the winter at Valley Forge itself. When I saw Bob Drury and Tom Clavin’s recent book, Valley Forge, I knew I had to read it.

Drury and Clavin

Drury and Clavin bring significant experience to the project, having collectively authored over a dozen books and worked together on other acclaimed projects (The Last Stand of Fox Company, Last Man Out, Lucky 666 among them). Valley Forge benefits from that experience and is a stellar narrative and engrossing read. The authors follow Washington’s bedraggled and defeated army—recently routed on the field and ingloriously pushed out of the nation’s capital of Philadelphia by the British—as it settles into the makeshift cabins of the famed winter encampment of 1777-1778 whose name we know so well. The book is a comprehensive account of what happened during that winter of redefinition. The authors detail the conditions—often exaggerated in memory but nonetheless based in a dispiriting level of suffering—and the pivotal training it received from men such as perpetually swearing Baron Von Steuben (who as it turns out was not a baron at all), as well as the essential role played by France’s entry into the war as an American ally during the time. They describe how, on one level, the winter encampment in the Pennsylvania countryside can be understood as a proverbial separating of the wheat from the chaff in Washington’s army, leaving a leaner, meaner, more able fighting force better prepared to wage the type of war it faced.

Drury and Clavin focus on the army itself in Valley Forge, bringing to light key players in that pivotal winter including Lafayette, and of course Washington, as they bring to bear a wealth of accounts of private soldiers such as the redoubtable Joseph Plumb Martin and a host of other individuals who we would otherwise be unfamiliar. To the author’s credit, though, their book is not myopically focused on Washington and his inner circle, but evaluates British strategy during the period as explored through key individual leaders such as British officers and brothers General William Howe and Admiral Richard Howe.

Readers of the book walk away with a better understanding of not only what the American army endured, but just how stacked against it were the odds. We often forget how much of the Revolutionary War featured reverses for our armies, and how dysfunctional and unequal to the task our fledgling federal government seemed to be during a great part of its course. Valley Forge proved to be a turning point in resolve, ability, and in leadership which played no little role in the outcome of the war. This book will not fundamentally change any interpretation of the events it covers or necessarily offer much new information for those acquainted with its story, but it is an excellent narrative on one of the most legendary episodes in the long struggle that established our national independence.


Review of The Annotated Pickett’s History of Alabama, by Albert James Pickett, edited by James P. Pate

21 May

Albert James Pickett’s two-volume History of Alabama, and Incidentally of Georgia and Mississippi, from the Earliest Period has been a vital reference source on Alabama history since it original publication in 1851. Reissued a few years later and almost continually in print since that time, it remains a foundational text on Alabama’s past despite the mounting evidence that it contains several small errors of fact and some omissions that left incomplete some of the stories it told. Derived to some degree from interviews with participants in some of the state’s landmark events but also relying on some serious research, the book made the most of the sources then available. Of course, Pickett did not have benefit of over a century and a half of serious academic inquiry or the numerous archives and libraries available to today’s writers, and consequently filled in gaps in the story as best he could. And a rollicking tale it is, covering in adventurous style the entrada of De Soto through the establishment of the state as a part of the American union.


Highly respected professor emeritus of history at University of West Alabama Dr. James Pate has thankfully undertaken the daunting task of annotating this iconic volume. Requiring years of intensive research, the annotations correct longstanding errors and serve as a reference on the events mentioned in the book themselves. They are conveniently placed in the borders of the pages, allowing for easy scanning while still enabling the reader to enjoy the text as originally presented. Already a grand tour of early Alabama history, it is now a more accurate one and an impressive accounting of some of the best scholarship on the state’s colonial, territorial, and early statehood years currently available. Pate has also provided us a much-needed index to Pickett’s noted work. Presented in a beautifully-bound hardback by NewSouth Books, this annotated version on an Alabama literary classic should no doubt find its way into virtually every library in the state and many beyond, and is imminently deserving of a place in the private collections of anyone with an interest in the state’s history. Kudos to both Pate for the diligent work and to NewSouth Books for its publication—a fitting contribution to Alabama’s bicentennial celebration of statehood if ever there was one.


Review of The Story of Helen, Georgia: Desperately Seeking Helen, by Matt Gedney

14 May

Helen, Georgia, the faux-Bavarian vacation destination along the headwaters of the Chattahoochee in the northeast Georgia’s scenic Blue Ridge Mountains, has a history that stretches back far beyond the 1960s effort to recast the sleepy lumber mill community into an Alpine village. Thanks to the persistent research and stream of books by local historian Matt Gedney, its fascinating story is finally being told. Gedney, author of Living Along the Unicoi Road (2012) and The Story of Helen and Thereabouts (2005), most recently has published The Story of Helen: Georgia: Desperately Seeking Helen (2013). In this latest, expanded version of his 2005 history of the town, Gedney explores more fully the town’s past and, as the title implies, finally determines the identity of the town’s long-elusive namesake.

Story of Helen
A relatively short, well-illustrated book, The Story of Helen chronicles the history of the town from its founding in 1913 as the site for an expansive lumber mill through its years as a regional trading town to its modern evolution into a themed mountain resort community. (Along the way, he explains that Helen is named after the Missouri-born daughter of one of the initial founders.) It is interesting reading if you have ever visited Helen, if for no other reason than the fact that under the Bavarian facades of many buildings lie early 20th century structures designed, built, and put into service during an entirely different era that seems far removed indeed from their role as the souvenir shops of a contemporary tourist destination. Gedney’s knowledge of the community of Helen and the surrounding area is truly impressive, and the details of the small, tight-knit mountain community he brings to light in the pages of this latest book are sure to give visitors with an interest in the past an entirely new perspective on the town and its pioneer founders.

So, if your travels ever take you to the northeast Georgia mountains and you are at all curious about the history of this beautiful and historic area, be sure to look for this slim volume or Gedney’s other books. They are brief, informative, and enjoyable.


Review of Flush Times and Fever Dreams: A Story of Capitalism and Slavery in the Age of Jackson, by Joshua D. Rothman

7 May

In the early 1830s, Mississippi and its surrounding states provided opportunity for those seeking wealth and fortune. Availability of cheap land, easy credit, and high cotton prices created a frenzy of mass speculation in this burgeoning cotton frontier. Interwoven into this narrative was the institution of slavery which played a key part in the economy’s growth and development. I came across Joshua Rothman’s Flush Times and Fever Dreams, A Story of Capitalism and Slavery in the Age of Jackson in hopes of learning more detail on this period, but came away disappointed. Rothman, professor of history at the University of Alabama, uses the time period as a backdrop as he examines the lives of some of its participants in an area that resembled a lawless frontier, but he never stated a clear thesis or reason for this book in the first place.


After providing a well-written prologue describing the speculative boom of the new cotton frontier, Rothman introduces us to Virgil Stewart. Stewart is a typical restless spirit who comes to Mississippi to find his fortune. Never quite succeeding, he gets involved in a dangerous mission to help determine if a man named John Murrell is stealing slaves. Virgil eventually finds Murrell and after riding with him, learns all about Murrell’s criminal escapades. Stewart reports on his findings and eventually publishes a booklet that addresses Murrell’s criminal exploits and his involvement in a larger conspiracy of a slave uprising. This booklet falls into the hands of many in Madison and Hinds Counties in Mississippi which heightens their greatest fear of a slave uprising, leading to a “witch hunt” to bring all the proposed instigators to justice.

The vast majority of the book is about “committees of safety” becoming judge, jury, and executioners as they seek out possible ringleaders to eliminate this threat. Rothman describes in detail dozens of men being captured and “tried” and beaten until confessions and other accusations are given out. Slave insurrections are one of the biggest fears of the area and any and all means are accepted to keep law and order. In the book’s middle chapters, Rothman seems to break away from the main narrative to describe another situation involving gamblers in Vicksburg when the city determines to outlaw this unwanted segment of the population. These chapters illustrate the writer’s lack of focus and further confuse the reader on the book’s true purpose.

Rothman performed thorough research to accurately describe these unusual series of events. However, this reader searched for a larger meaning in all the details. The author kept returning to these specifics again and again without there ever being a successful conclusion after all the buildup. What was the point of it all and how does it relate to the bigger picture other than to be another example of the evils of slavery and how society went to any means necessary to protect itself? I certainly learned about the events around this possible slave uprising in 1835 but wanted the author to be clear about what this meant in the greater scheme of things. My biggest takeaway was the total lack of due process for those accused as mob law served as the only higher authority, but I doubt that was the author’s main point. Rothman seemed to touch upon a main thesis about slavery’s negative impact on the frontier and its relationship to these flush times, but for this reader, I never quite got it.