Archive | July, 2019

Review of In Search of the CSS Huntsville and CSS Tuscaloosa, Confederate Ironclads, by David Smithweck

30 Jul

Admittedly, Mobile historian David Smithweck’s latest book, In Search of the CSS Huntsville and CSS Tuscaloosa, is destined to appeal to a very narrow segment of the reading public. The detailing of obscure Confederate naval vessels which served as floating batteries in overlooked end-of-war campaigns is not exactly a thriving niche in Civil war publishing. Still, this slim volume of less than 100 pages warrants attention by those interested in the Mobile Campaign and the Confederate Navy because, for all its many faults as a piece of narrative history, it is the lone source on these two forgotten vessels.


The book is Smithweck’s attempt to chronicle the effort in the 1980s to locate the wrecks of two Confederate ironclads scuttled in the waterways near the city of Mobile. Unable to stem the current of the Mobile and Alabama Rivers due to their weak engines, the twin boats Huntsville and Tuscaloosa were scuttled in the Spanish River as the remnant of the Confederate fleet protecting the city attempted to escape northward in April of 1865 when the city fell to Union forces. Smithweck was a key player in that effort, assisting in various stages with the research and dive efforts which resulted in the relatively unheralded but nonetheless remarkable success story in which two long lost, amazingly intact, Civil War vessels were positively located. There they lie under several feet of delta mud still today, potentially two of the best-preserved of all Confederate shipwrecks. While their raising is an extremely remote possibility, it is a fascinating dream for all with an interest in the Mobile Campaign.

I could focus here on the all the things the book is not (a great or well organized narrative, for example), but for the sake of brevity will say what it actually is. The book is the only reference resource on the construction, service, scuttling, location, and condition of two little-known Confederate naval vessels, complete with field notes from dives and sketches of the boats’ design. For those reasons, it is worth noting by those with an interest in its subject.


Review of The Slaves’ War: The Civil War in the Words of Former Slaves, by Andrew Ward

23 Jul

So many veritable mountains of books continue to be published about America’s Civil War that it sometimes seems there cannot possibly be a topic associated with it that has not been covered. Andrew Ward’s recent book, The Slaves’ War: The Civil War in the Words of Former Slaves, reminds us that even in this most-chronicled of eras in our nation’s past, there is always a new angle to be taken and something new to learn. The book is a long-overdue account of the war told exclusively from the perspective of enslaved individuals. Ward sorted through an enormous amount of material for the volume, including a great many sources which are inherently difficult with which to work. His research took him through hundreds of individual stories collected in a variety of postwar accounts, especially the interviews found within the pages of the publications of the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s. These accounts are notoriously fraught with problems for historians, which Ward, to his credit, addresses head-on. These accounts were collected nearly three quarters of a century after the events chronicled by white interviewers with which many interviewees were likely reluctant to be completely candid. Still, they represent the single best source of the thoughts of former slaves in their own words ever published, and remain vital in understanding their experiences.


Ward is to be commended for transforming slave testimony into a readable narrative. Perhaps only fellow historians will be able to truly appreciate the difficulty involved in what Ward has undertaken to do, but knowledgeable readers of literature on the war will without doubt be impressed. It is not always a book of flowing prose, but it is conveyed as a developing story that roughly parallels the progress of the war. Ward’s substantial experience as writer, involving years of work as an essayist for the Atlantic Monthly and the Washington Post plus authoring several award-winning historical books including Our Bones Are Scattered, Dark Midnight When I Rise, and River Run Red, is on full display in this regard. He takes readers along for journeys onto battlefields and campaign routes, into camps and slave quarters, and all manner of points in between for a gripping account of the most tumultuous era in our nation’s history.

Perhaps the most salient point readers will take away from the book is the range, depth, and diversity of the responses to the upheaval enslaved men and women expressed during and immediately after the war. There are savvy assessments of what the war portended for slaves; stunning accounts of the brutal actuality of combat from eyewitnesses; near-comical assumptions of what was occurring based on misinformation; emotional descriptions of the ugly reality of slavery and the desire for freedom, and heartrending accounts of the dire circumstances of life for slaves both during and in the chaotic aftermath of the conflict. There are accounts of slaves who hated their masters and sought to do them harm and stories of slaves who desired freedom but had genuine compassion for masters who they believed to have treated them well. There are stories of slaves forever separated from their families and there are those of former bondsmen who, against all odds, managed to reunite with scattered loved ones after the war. There are stories of heroism and those of opportunism, of luck and misfortune.

It goes without saying there is much here which will help readers understand the institution of slavery. But just as importantly, there is a great deal which helps us understand what it was like for everyone who lived through the cataclysm that was the Civil War. The Slaves’ War is an enlightening book and one that has long needed to be written. It is certain to be a vital reference source on the topic for years to come.


Review of The Longest Siege of the American Revolution: Pensacola, by Wesley S. Odom

16 Jul

The Revolutionary War’s Battle of Pensacola (1781), reputedly the longest siege of the war, was the final stand for the British in their contest against Spanish forces for control of the province of West Florida. It was a long, bloody, and decisive affair, involving combined army and navy forces and pitting British and Spanish regulars, militia, slaves, free blacks, and Indians hailing from Europe, American, and the Caribbean against one another. For the leader of the victorious Spanish forces, the daring young Bernardo de Galvez, governor of the colony of Louisiana, it was a crowning achievement that brought enduring fame and recognition—the Spanish government even had his prestigious family’s coat of arms altered to include the phrase “Yo Solo” (I Alone) in honor of his triumphant entry into Pensacola Bay at the onset of the siege. As a direct result of the capture of Pensacola and the longer campaign which preceded it, British West Florida officially transferred from British to Spanish hands, and a new era in Gulf Coast history began. It still stands as the largest military battle fought in the state of Florida.


Despite all this, the siege is relatively little known even in the city where it occurred, and understood by very few. In no small part, one of the reasons for this general lack of awareness of this most compelling Revolutionary War drama is due to a dearth of books on the topic. There have been occasional booklets and chapters on the battle published from time to time and a smattering of chapters devoted to it and the larger campaign of which it was a part, but aside from a Spanish-language composition focusing on the actions of Galvez, there has been no readily-available book-length study of the battle until the appearance of Wesley Odom’s The Longest Siege of the American Revolution: Pensacola. For all this and more, it is therefore a very welcome addition indeed to regional historiography.

Incredibly detailed with literally a day by day account of the siege as it progressed from March to May of 1781, the book contains a wealth of previously unpublished and custom-designed maps showing the positions of the contending forces and fortifications at various points in the action. Odom’s careful research and wealth of the knowledge on the subject are evidenced throughout, as he chronicles events as they unfolded and details many parts of the contest that have never received much attention, such as the design and color of the uniforms of the opposing forces. This is not an engrossing narrative however, and it does throughout refer to black troops and slaves with the dated term “Negro,” but as a reference source on the battle it is unmatched and a must have for anyone with an interest in the understudied but fascinating Revolutionary War on the Gulf Coast.


Review of The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels, by Jon Meacham

9 Jul

In the introduction to The Soul of America, Jon Meacham makes it clear the origins of his most recent book investigating the power of the moral leadership of the American presidency lie in the toxic political atmosphere and farcical effort at leadership in Washington today. Citing specifically the blundering demagoguery and occasional subtle appeal to the darker impulses of the electorate by our current president, Meacham says he seeks to remind us all that while visionary leadership in America has always moved the country forward in the realization of its most esteemed values, the progress has never been linear. In fact the contemporary dysfunction we are witnessing is probably more the norm than the exception in our national experience according to him. The good news is that we always have found our way through and even in the toughest of times, dealing with the most divisive of circumstances, and led by the most inept of politicians. Meacham’s volume is timely whether or not you share his overtly jaded view of the juvenile behavior our leaders frequently exhibit, for one not need be partisan to question what shared goals and national ideals we are working toward together these days.


Given that historians are perhaps ideally positioned to talk us pessimistic observers down off the proverbial ledge of despair, by virtue of his accomplishments and grasp of the subject Meacham is perfectly situated for the task. Author of acclaimed biographies of Thomas Jefferson (Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power), Andrew Jackson (American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House), George H.W. Bush (Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush) and of late a leading authority on the American presidency in general, Meachem is a Pulitzer Prize winner and frequent contributor to a number of periodicals to boot. In Soul of America, he provides an upbeat reminder that America’s core values have been threatened in every generation, but instead of deviating from them, at critical times our nation’s preeminent leaders have usually chosen to expand the definition of freedom and caused us to live up to our loftiest ideals when we might just have easily fallen short of them.

In the book we see Abraham Lincoln attempting to unite a divided country with soaring oratory that has become an enduring part of our shared saga, Ulysses S. Grant effectively cracking down on the outrages of the Ku Klux Klan, Theodore Roosevelt bucking convention by inviting Booker T. Washington to dine at the White House, and Lyndon Johnson going against the grain of his home region and party to ensure the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Meacham exposes the ridiculousness and narrow-mindedness of the reactionary thought all these and other leaders at one time or another fought against, and offers that staying true to national ideals has often required leaders speak out against the politics of fear and discrimination masquerading as populism. Clearly, he believes we are at another critical moment by intimating a rising conservative tide carries with it a potential restriction rather than expansion of liberty in the country. Personally, I think he overreaches in setting the stage in this manner, but the history presented here is solid and the profiles informed, revealing, and even inspiring.

If there is something negative to be said about Meacham’s approach it would be that the rather narrow focus primarily on issues of race—while admittedly a central factor in the American experience—will no doubt leave readers wanting more examples of how leadership in the oval office has guided the country in other matters. Even so, there is much important information presented in the volume, with the biggest takeaway perhaps being that the willingness to do what is right and think beyond party has always been at the heart of American advancement, not strident adherence to partisanship or the status quo. Soul of America is at once an optimistic and thought-provoking book that manages to speak to current issues as much as historical events, and worth the read for those who have an interest in both.