Archive | June, 2019

Review of War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865, by James M. McPherson

25 Jun

The conflict of the Union and Confederate navies during the American Civil War has always been a relatively understudied subject. Occupying a fraction of the resources and manpower as the armies of the United States and the Confederacy, the navies have, aside from a stray mention of the fight between ironclads in Hampton Roads in 1862, the Battle of Mobile Bay in 1864, and the novelty of the story of the Hunley, customarily received scant attention in overview studies of the progress of the war. Yet the navies influenced the war out of all proportion to their size, argues one of the deans of the study of the war, James M. McPherson, and he believes it is high time we reevaluate their influence. In War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865, he urges a reexamination of the pivotal role played by naval forces in the course of the war and provides the best single-volume overview of the naval war to be printed in decades.


In War on the Waters, McPherson delivers a lively, fast-moving, yet comprehensive overview of the naval war that is a model for good narrative history. If you are even casually familiar with his writing—and if you are reading this blog you no doubt are—you will know that he is author of the landmark book Battle Cry of Freedom, which is still the standard single-volume history of the war in university courses across the nation some three decades after its original publication. War on the Waters promises to do for the naval aspect of the war what that celebrated volume has done for the study of the war overall, which is to provide a standard single-source reference source that will be essential reading on its topic for at least a generation. In just under 300 action-packed pages, McPherson touches on all the major campaigns of the navies on the coasts and the inland waterways, highlights the significant people, places, and events central to the story of the navies, and illuminates the manifold ways the navies influenced the course of the conflict. It is a must-have for any serious Civil War enthusiast.


Remember the Alamo

18 Jun

On a Texas vacation with my family, we stayed a few days in San Antonio which gave me the opportunity to visit the Alamo. As I stated in a blog in May of 2018, the Alamo is one of this nation’s most iconic places and having just read a brief overview, I was excited to experience the site firsthand. Unfortunately, my visit left me disappointed and a little sad.


Several factors contributed to my disappointment. The Alamo is located in the heart of downtown San Antonio, now the nation’s 7th largest city. This location hampers a visitor’s ability to transport themselves back in time as it is hard to imagine what the 1836 landscape was like surrounded by the trappings of such a large city. The site also receives over two million visitors a year, meaning the site is always overburdened with tourists, most of whom only have a casual interest in the site and are more interested in taking selfies then learning history. It angered me to watch so many visitors fail to treat the place with proper respect. Also, several touristy businesses like Ripley’s Haunted Adventure are located nearby, which gives the entire setting a “Disney” like atmosphere. These influences take away from what should be a somber site that encourages visitor reflection.


The basic self-guided tour also seems lackluster. (For a fee, you can get a special guided tour.) First of all, a staff member takes your photo in front of the church in which you can pay to have a print (yet another Disneyesque experience.) You then enter the church itself (one of only two surviving structures) and see some displays and then after that, there is a plethora of other attractions inside the compound including more exhibits, a huge gift shop (of course), and an area where a film is shown. The film should be the first thing visitors see to set the stage for their experience. There is no real order of things; it all seemed haphazard. When I was done with my visit, I was simply left empty and hollow without that feeling of historical awe that I should have had after leaving such an important site.

Alamo Monument

The Alamo is identified as the Shrine to Texas Liberty where nearly 200 men lost their lives fighting for a cause that required their sacrifice. It should be a memorial and not a tourist trap or amusement park. Being located in the heart of a city and herding over two million visitors a year presents many difficulties and challenges, but I do feel that the Alamo Trust, which runs the shrine’s day-to-day operations, should make a stronger effort to ensure that this site where men lost their lives is treated with the reverence it deserves.


Review of The Alamo 1836, Santa Anna’s Texas Campaign, by Stephen Hardin

11 Jun

With a trip scheduled to San Antonio, I was looking for a quick read on the history of the Alamo and chose Stephen L. Hardin’s The Alamo 1836, Santa Anna’s Texas Campaign. One of Osprey Military’s Classic Battles Series, this book provided me the necessary overview and heightened my interest in this iconic moment in U.S. history.

Alamo Book cover

Hardin’s book follows the classic Osprey model which divides its subject into chapters based on Origins of Campaign, Chronology, Opposing Commanders and Armies, the Campaign itself and its Aftermath. In approximately 90 pages, the reader acquires a solid feel of the campaign and all the issues involved. Great maps and illustrations enhance the narrative and allow the reader to navigate the story quickly. As for the story itself, Santa Anna launched his movement into the Texas province of Mexico to suppress Texian desires for its own Republic. The Alamo stood in its path and nearly 200 soldiers, including men which have long since become famous such as Travis, Bowie and Crockett, paid the ultimate price for their attempt to hold this strategic ground. Santa Anna’s forces then proceeded to chase Sam Houston’s forces across Texas until Houston finally turned and defeated the Mexican army at San Jacinto over a month later. After being captured after the battle, Santa Anna granted Texan independence in exchange for his life.

This brief book provides a quick synopsis of the campaign, but obviously can’t go into too much detail. There were two points that did stand out. First of all, Hardin seemed to sidestep the debate on whether Crockett died during the battle or was executed afterwards. Also, he is very critical of Sam Houston on his retreat away from Santa Anna’s forces. Popular thought, much of it based on movies and so forth, seem to suggest Houston waited for the best opportune time to turn on Santa Anna and offer battle. Hardin seems to suggest Houston never wanted to fight and that it was his subordinates who finally pushed him to battle. All in all, if you are looking for a brief summary of this climatic moment in Texan and U.S. history, The Alamo 1836 would be a good book to choose.


Review of The Battle of Mobile Bay, by Foxhall A. Parker, Jr.

4 Jun

A slim volume of just over 125 pages originally published back in 1878, Foxhall A. Parker, Jr. ‘s The Battle of Mobile Bay is today largely an afterthought in the study of the Civil War’s largest naval battle. While there has certainly been no proliferation of scholarship on the event, in the 141 years since Parker, Jr.’s study appeared, several talented historians have chronicled in outstanding fashion the events of August 5, 1864 at the mouth of Mobile Bay. Most of those efforts have appeared as chapters in some volumes which told the story of the larger naval war in overview fashion or in thoroughly detailed articles, though, and most of that scholarship is of very recent vintage. In fact those seeking a professional monograph on the subject will usually find only Jack Friend’s superb 2004 volume, West Wind, Flood Tide, readily available to them. It is of course unusual that one slim volume reigns as the definitive source on a major Civil War battle for a century, which is why I finally decided to at last read The Battle of Mobile Bay from cover to cover.


It is a surprisingly enjoyable read. As one would expect, the book contains a few flourishes of Victorian hyperbole and the popular florid prose of the era, but in general it provides a fairly solid account of Admiral David Farragut’s triumphant entrance into Mobile Bay. In truth the book is likely largely responsible for the historical memory of the event in Civil War scholarship for several decades, delineating as it does the events and decisions familiar to readers with knowledge of the course of the battle; the tragic sinking of the Tecumseh, Farragut’s fateful command to “Damn the Torpedoes” and proceed into the bay, and the ranging duel between the C.S.S. Tennessee and the Federal fleet once it had passed the guns of Fort Morgan. The book also contains the text of the after-action reports of Farragut and Admiral Franklin Buchanan, and other official documents associated with the fight.

Parker, Jr.’s work is not cutting-edge scholarship for the contemporary reader by any means, but this does not mean is should be dismissed as the work of an amateur antiquarian. The son of a naval officer, he had quite a distinguished career himself, serving in command of ships during the Civil War; at one time acting as executive officer of the Washington navy yard; and working as superintendent of the United States Naval Academy. He also wrote several naval academy textbooks and two works of naval history, The Fleets of the World: The Galley Period, and of course his study of the Battle of Mobile Bay. He had as much knowledge of naval history and access to records (and actual participants) of the battle as anyone of his era. The fact that his work effectively served as the final word on the event for as long as it did is owing, undeniably, to the relative lack of professional and public interest. But it also attests to the fact that he did a credible job. The book admittedly appeals to a pretty narrow audience of Civil War naval history enthusiasts. If you find yourself among that crowd, it is definitely worth the short time it takes to give it a read.