Archive | August, 2019

Review of Shrouds of Glory: From Atlanta to Nashville, The Last Great Campaign of the Civil War, by Winston Groom

27 Aug

The Nashville Campaign is the story of the tragic denouement of one of the Confederacy’s largest and most accomplished fighting forces, the legendary Army of Tennessee. The primary Southern army in the war’s western theater throughout the conflict, it played a pivotal role in the outcome of the war, participating in battles from Mississippi to the Carolinas. Its story is filled with glory, honor, tragedy, and shame—all of which are on vivid display in spades in its final desperate campaign into the heartland of its namesake Tennessee in the fall of 1864. In fact the Army of Tennessee’s final major act in the grand drama of our nation’s Civil War seems almost tailor-made for a movie script, as it features larger than life characters with vastly different opinions about the army’s priorities, privation and death on a scale almost unequaled in the history of a war filled with both, inexplicably missed opportunities that doomed its enterprise, and a scarred and tormented leader hell-bent on accomplishing an impossible task despite hopelessly long odds. With all this in mind, we were certain that celebrated storyteller Winston Groom’s chronicle of this remarkable campaign, Shrouds of Glory: From Atlanta to Nashville, The Last Great Campaign of the Civil War, would be an engrossing tale and help us understand it in a new way. We were not disappointed.

Groom Shrouds of Glory

Winston Groom is of course best known for his legendary novel Forrest Gump, which was transformed into an award-winning movie starring Tom Hanks. In the years since, though, Groom has actually focused more on writing non-fiction, producing historical works on such varied topics as the Civil War battles of Shiloh and Vicksburg, the Battle of New Orleans, and icons of World War II fame. Shrouds of Glory was his first major attempt at this genre, and met with notable success when first released in 1995. The book provides a solid overview of the campaign by presenting it as a story of individual characters.

The background is familiar to even the most casual readers of Civil War history. Following the fall of Atlanta to Union forces under William T. Sherman in September of 1864, Confederate general John Bell Hood was faced with a narrow range of unsavory options. Knowing he simply couldn’t keep fighting Sherman’s superior force with any expectation of victory, Hood decided on a bold gamble to march northward into Tennessee to overwhelm isolated Union corps, threaten a raid across the Ohio River, and eventually reunite with Robert E. Lee’s forces in Virginia and turn the tide of the war. It was an audacious plan to say the least, but one that actually had opportunities for at least some measures of success which might have bought the Confederacy more time. An epic failure at Spring Hill, Tennessee, where an isolated Union force marched right by Confederates virtually under their noses, led to a disastrous assault at Franklin which claimed the lives of thousands of men and for all intents and purposes destroyed the Army of Tennessee. Seeing no other option at the time, Hood determined to proceed to Nashville where only weeks later, Union General George Thomas provided the coup de grace to his disintegrating force. Hood’s survivors fled southward back into Alabama and ultimately into Mississippi, ending the last Confederate offensive of the war.

As one might expect from the pen of an acclaimed novelist, Shrouds of Glory is an extremely well-written and engrossing book which focuses on individuals to drive a story filled with Shakespearian drama. In fact Groom’s focus on fleshing out the personalities of the key players in his story may work to frustrate more knowledgeable readers at first, many of whom will desire less background biographical and contextual information before getting into the main story. Readers may be surprised to find that in a book of just under 300 pages purporting to chronicle the Nashville Campaign, Hood’s army doesn’t cross into Tennessee and begin consequential military action until nearly page 150. Groom’s skill at developing a storyline based on real, complex characters will nonetheless draw readers in, and help even the most well-read appreciate the campaign in a new way. Whether through the saga of Hood’s doomed love affair with a South Carolinian debutante, the doomed, tragic assault at Franklin which put on display a degree of heroism rarely matched in all of American history, or the desperate gamble of longsuffering, sometimes shoeless and malnourished soldiers on the bitterly cold, windswept plains in front of Nashville, the reader can’t help but be moved by the surreal nature of the events being chronicled.

Shrouds of Glory is not an academic treatise on the Nashville Campaign, but Groom is to be given credit for the obvious diligence in researching his subject. Plus, he provides among the best and most even-handed assessments of Hood’s actions in the pages of the book. Sometimes still dismissed simply as a madman on a desperate gamble, Groom brings to light the facts surrounding his options and state of mind, asking pointedly what other options he had under the circumstances. While far from an exoneration of an ultimately disastrous offensive, it does help readers better understand the hopeless dilemma faced by the Confederate general at that moment. Historians looking for a more detailed, footnoted, account of this campaign will want to consult the work of other writers such as Wiley Sword (The Confederacy’s Last Hurrah: Spring Hill, Franklin, and Nashville) or James Lee McDonough (The Western Confederacy’s Final Gamble: From Atlanta to Franklin and Nashville). But, if you want a quick-moving and riveting account of one of the great campaigns of the war which unfolds as a personal drama experienced by characters right out of the pages of a novel, look no further than Shrouds of Glory.


Review of We The People: Alabama’s Defining Documents, an exhibition catalog by Scotty E. Kirkland, Alabama Department of Archives and History

20 Aug

As the final year of Alabama’s three-year celebration of the bicentennial of its statehood draws to a close, the pace of its products has only quickened. The anniversary has sparked an outpouring of public history projects large and small across the state, including exhibitions, workshops, presentations, historic markers, parks, artwork, and a number of excellent books. In what will without doubt be one of the lasting memories of this extended extravaganza, the Alabama Department of Archives and History has endeavored to produce a special multi-venue exhibition showcasing the state’s six constitutions. (These are the first state constitution passed in 1819, the 1861 constitution created after secession, the 1865, 1868, and 1875 constitutions passed during the Reconstruction era, and the 1901 constitution, still in effect.) Entitled We The People: Alabama’s Defining Documents, the exhibit kicked off earlier this summer in Huntsville and will be on view in Montgomery through the end of 2019. Front and center are the painstakingly-conserved original documents along with a variety of other unique artifacts associated with the individuals that created them. The exhibition is accompanied by a catalog of the same name, authored by accomplished scholar and staff member Scotty Kirkland and designed by fellow staffer Georgia Ann Conner Hudson, with an introduction by department director Steve Murray.

WTP cover

The catalog is far from a mere exhibition souvenir. Combining top-notch scholarship, concise narrative, and copious illustrations, the publication is a superb analysis of how and why Alabama’s governing documents came into being and to what effect they figure in the overall cultural history of the state. It would be easy, even expected, for such a composition to consist of a dry summary of the respective conventions and their members. It is to Kirkland’s credit that his handling of the material involves a much more comprehensive approach which breathes life into these documents, treating each as both historical artifact and evocative statement on the political, societal, and economic context of their creation. Within the pages of the catalog readers become acquainted with not only the mechanics of Alabama’s constitutional development, but gain insight into the key figures that guided their writing and the local and national issues which influenced the form they took. Readers learn of aspirations and ideals, rivalries and partnerships, partisan wrangling and popular mandate, and how all of these combined to produce these six unique snapshots of Alabama.

Every thoughtful assessment of the sort found in the pages of this catalog gives readers a chance for reflection, and so it is with We The People. Kirkland maintains a professional neutrality in his narrative, but it is hard to not conclude some sort of pervasive dysfunction to be part and parcel of state politics in the modern era when one considers the fact that the last of Alabama’s constitutions, that passed in 1901, is still in effect—albeit amended an astounding 946 times and currently standing as the longest governing document of its type in the world. It is particularly sobering to see how the issue of race, or more specifically white society’s unvarnished, pervasive, attempt to deprive the state’s black population of fundamental civil rights, shaped Alabama’s political development during its first eight decades of statehood and beyond. The issues concerning the place in society of slaves, freedmen, and people of color in general were not unique to Alabama in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by any means, but one gains a clear understanding of their omnipresence in the state’s collective conscience during the era in which its constitutions were written in the catalog. It is of course a legacy of bigotry that haunts the state and larger region of which it is a part still today.

But there is more to the stories of Alabama’s constitutions, and the We The People catalog, than a narrow examination of institutionalized racism. Despite its format and limited print run, the catalog will surely remain an important reference source on its subject for years to come. It will likely be found on the shelves of research and rare book libraries across the state for generations, alongside the older examination of the topic by Malcolm McMillan (Constitutional Development in Alabama) and other histories of nineteenth century politics in the state from which it draws heavily. Should you have an interest in the state’s history, especially that of its founding, Civil War experience, and Reconstruction era, you should pick up a copy during the short period in which it will be readily available.


Review of Daniel J. Crooks, Jr., Lee in the Low Country: Defending Charleston and Savannah, 1861-1862

13 Aug

While just about anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Civil War history can tell you that Robert E. Lee commanded the Confederacy’s most accomplished army during the course of the conflict, relatively few have much awareness of his contributions to the Confederate war effort prior to assuming command of the famed Army of Northern Virginia in the spring of 1862. Yet Lee spent the first year of the war in a variety of unheralded posts from West Virginia to Charleston, a great part of that time serving as a military advisor to Confederate president Jefferson Davis. Attempting to delineate this chapter in Lee’s Civil War story is historian Daniel J. Crooks, Jr., with Lee in the Low Country: Defending Charleston and Savannah, 1861-1862, published by The History Press in 2008 as part of the publisher’s Civil War Sesquicentennial Series.


Brooks provides overviews of Lee’s largely frustrating military experience in the first year of the war in a series of short chapters chronicling each of his postings. He explains his early setback at Cheat Mountain in West Virginia which earned him the unflattering nickname of “Granny Lee,” and examines how it was that he came to play a major role in early efforts to defend Charleston and Savannah in the fall and winter of 1861-1862. As far as the overall progress of the war is concerned, his service in the South Carolina and Georgia low country amounted to little of enduring consequence. Lee did exhibit flashes of the technical skill and grasp of military situations which would later make him a celebrated martial hero, but there was little in the shoring up of the defenses of blockaded coastal cities to garner much public attention. To his credit, the author does explore the complicated larger story of the war in the region as it progressed there during Lee’s time in the coastal cities, helping make this forgotten chapter of his story more understandable. Traditionally, his time on the southeastern coast has only been mentioned in reference to the fact that it was here that he acquired the horse that would thenceforward be inextricably linked with him in the field—Traveller—and it was during this time that he finally visited the Cumberland Island grave of his father, Revolutionary War hero “Light Horse Harry” Lee. Crook gives attention to both these incidents and more.

Readers of Lee in the Low Country should know the book provides an account of Lee’s service during the time period through a mixture of traditional narrative and a series of long quotes taken from his letters and those of his contemporaries—sometimes directly associated with Lee and his experiences and sometimes more generally about the progress of the war. There are so many of these quotes interspersed throughout the text, in fact, that in some ways it might be properly described as a story told in the words of participants and contextualized by the author. In the end, though, this extensively illustrated book is a unique chronicle of a forgotten period in the life of one of the Civil War’s most noteworthy leaders, but it will probably only ever have appeal to those such as myself with a particular interest in the life of the man or of the low country region’s Civil War experience.


Review of The Few: The American “Knights of the Air” Who Risked Everything to Save Britain in the Summer of 1940, by Alex Kershaw

6 Aug

To me, the extended air war between British and German forces in the summer and fall of 1940 known as the Battle of Britain is by far the most compelling campaign of the second world war. I have written about it in this space on several occasions, including some general thoughts on the significance of the battle, in a review of a biography of Winston Churchill, in a history of the battle itself, and in a history of its precursor, the Battle of Dunkirk. The battle, the largest in the history of aviation, is truly one of the epic turning points in history. It featured a thin force of approximately 3,000 determined Royal Air Force fighter pilots which held off the might of the German war machine, forestalled the complete domination of all of Europe by Hitler, and bought precious time for the United States to begin to wake up to enormity of the threat posed by his totalitarian regime. The skill and valor of those outnumbered pilots, day after day ascending into the heights over England and the English Channel in their Spitfires and Hurricanes to intercept massive convoys of bombers and the incredibly capable ME-109 fighters, is a source of unending wonder for me. I am also amazed at how the British citizenry handled the threat and the bombing of London with a business-as-usual approach remembered in the matter-of-fact spirit of “Keep Calm and Carry On” that has become something of a national motto for Great Britain.


While the Battle of Britain is a high point in the storied history of British arms, it is one at least in part made possible by the assistance of volunteers from a number of other countries. This seldom-considered aspect of the fight does not diminish British achievement in any way, but it does add a depth and richness to the story of the defense of the country that has long needed to be told. More than 500 pilots, at least 20% of the total RAF force engaged in the battle, hailed from other countries including Canada, Australia, Poland, and even Jamaica. The handful of Americans who volunteered to fight for Britain in defiance of their home country’s neutrality laws and risked at least the loss of their citizenship if not more, is ably chronicled by Alex Kershaw in his welcome book which first appeared in 2006, The Few: The American “Knights of the Air” Who Risked Everything to Save Britain in the Summer of 1940. At least eight Americans volunteered in the Battle of Britain and in the months following, more than 200 Americans continued to serve in the RAF’s three “American Eagle” squadrons which later became part of US Army Air Force. Men such as Billy Fiske, Shorty Keough, Eugene Tobin, others are brought to life in the pages of the book as virtual daredevils with unusually strong idealistic convictions. One can’t help but think of them as heroes. Certainly, to the British they remain so today.

Kershaw is a talented writer, having to his credit a number of celebrated volumes on World War II history including The Bedford Boys, The Longest Winter, and The Liberator. He brings his skills to bear in The Few with flair, chronicling in thrilling detail the accounts of dangerous sorties and daring dogfights the pilots engaged in on a daily basis in the summer and fall of 1940. He also showcases a few of the German aces they had to contend with, giving readers a great deal of insight into strategy, tactics, aircraft capability, and the raw skill and talent of the pilots on both sides of the fight. The Few is an engaging tale of high adventure which anyone with an interest in Britain’s defiant solo stand against Nazi imperialism at the onset of WWII will find a pleasure to read.