Archive | September, 2019

Review of Brave Companions: Portraits in History, by David McCullough

24 Sep

David McCullough has a well-earned reputation as a master of the craft of narrative history and is regarded by many as America’s most beloved historian. Author of several bestsellers on a variety of subjects ranging from the Revolutionary War (1776) to the Brooklyn Bridge (The Great Bridge) and presidential biographies (John Adams, Truman) to Americans abroad (The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris), he has brought to our attention some of our nation’s most compelling stories in brilliant, gripping prose. While I am embarrassed to say I have read only a few of his many books cover to cover, I continue to try to work my way through his writings as I get the opportunity. When I saw a copy of an audiobook version of one of his earlier pieces, Brave Companions: Portraits in History, read by author himself, available at a local library, I of course picked it up.

Brave Companions

First published 1991, the book is an assemblage of essays which appeared in a variety of magazines and periodicals he at different times wrote pieces for to excerpts adapted from some of his books published or in process by that time. Their range, like McCullough’s own subject matter in his writing, is surprisingly broad. Presented here are fascinating stories of the lives, aspirations, and accomplishments of figures of enduring fame such as President Theodore Roosevelt and writer and activist Harriet Beecher Stowe, along with less familiar characters which were once household names such as noted Wild West artist Frederic Remington and naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt. All of their stories are in one way or another extraordinary, the common links being their exceptional experiences and McCullough’s conviction we as Americans should know more about them.

On display throughout the book is the trademark, engrossing, narrative style which made McCullough a star in the non-fiction publishing community in more recent years, as well as his ability to help readers understand even the largest of construction endeavors involving thousands of men and machines as a personal, human undertaking. All of his stories are in the end human dramas, related on an individual scale. In any book of disparate essays there are a variety of inequalities; some are faster-paced and more tightly focused than others, and some more conventional historical biographies than others. One or two in truth seem out of place, presented as contemporary pieces on environmental activists such as Kentucky strip-mining opponent Harry Monroe Caudill, but overall they work together to make one big point. America, in McCullough’s understanding, is a unique, fascinating place with some of the most riveting personal stories imaginable part and parcel of its national character, and we can only move forward as a nation if we have a healthy understanding of what our forebears endured and accomplished. As is the case with virtually anything published by McCullough, Brave Companions is an enriching and entertaining book which will inspire a deeper appreciation of the American past in readers.


Review of the First World War, by John Keegan

17 Sep

World War I has always fascinated me more than the Second World War. Although unsure of the exact reasons, I was always captivated by those black and white images and film footage of soldiers emerging from trenches to enter “No Man’s Land.” Regardless, I always enjoy learning about the conflict so I recently read John Keegan’s The First World War. Perhaps the world’s premier military historian, Keegan provides a panoramic view of the war in an epic format while still providing the necessary details that show the conflict from a more up close, personal view. Originally published in 1998, The First World War remains one of the best overviews of this monumental event.


To call World War I a complex event is an understatement. The vast number of European countries and empires connected through a series of entangling alliances and treaties was a recipe for disaster. Keegan masterfully guides the reader through it all. He provides the necessary background of the European state of affairs, the war plans that countries had developed beforehand, and the web of alliances that had been formed. So, when the Austrian-Hungarian heir to the throne was assassinated by a Serbian nationalist, all the pieces fell into place for Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire to go to war against England, France and Russia. Through it all, readers grasp the inherent sadness of the war as it seemed completely preventable.

When the fighting starts, Keegan truly shines as he leads the reader through the bloody campaigns of the war. He masterfully covers Germany’s failed Schlieffen Plan that eventually resulted in the nightmare of trench warfare along the Western Front as well as Germany’s war with Russia in the East. Keegan also takes time to discuss other fronts such as the Ottoman Empire’s battles against Russia in the Caucasus, the fights in Africa as Germany tried to hold on to its fledging colonies, and even the naval war highlighting the effectiveness of German U-Boats. Readers encounter places that are now legendary: the Somme, Verdun, Passchendaele, Gallipoli and Jutland. Keegan presents it all in its horrible detail. However, common to most of my reviews of military history books, there are never enough maps to chart the campaigns and battles.

Eventually, as Keegan describes, the war caused empires to crumble. Russia collapsed into revolution and withdrew and the Austria-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires fractured into smaller entities. After Russia collapsed, Germany transferred thousands of soldiers from the East to the West in a last ditch (no pun attended) effort to win the war before the United States could fully mobilize. This attack failed and the doughboys from America proved to be insurmountable as Germany did not have the manpower reserves to overcome it. Germany became the last empire to crumble as the Kaiser abdicated and a new republic was formed. The total cost of war was millions of casualties, the continent left in ruins, and a generation nearly wiped out.

Sadly enough, the armistice and treaties established only set the stage for a bigger conflict to come. The war accomplished nothing. One of Keegan’s strongest statements comes near the end of the book when he says, “Why did a prosperous continent, at the height of it success as a source and agent of global wealth and power and at one of the peaks of its intellectual and cultural achievement, choose to risk all it had won for itself and all it offered to the world in the lottery of a vicious and local internecine conflict?” This quote typifies the entire tone of the book, a feeling of sadness and despair. Most military books provide moments of glory and grandeur, but not this one. Just a feeling of sadness and loss. A war with no real meaning. Nevertheless, The First World War belongs on any military enthusiast’s bookshelf; another fine piece of scholarship by Keegan.


Tour of the Civil War’s Nashville Campaign

10 Sep

We recently had the opportunity to visit sites associated with Confederate General John Bell Hood’s Nashville Campaign during the Civil War. Launched in the fall of 1864, the campaign featured Hood’s desperate attempt to reverse the tide of war in the west after the fall of Atlanta to Union forces led by General William T. Sherman. Determining not to attack Sherman’s numerically superior force, Hood decided to make a bold march into Tennessee and threaten Union-held Nashville. Hood began by marching his army west into Alabama looking for a place to cross the Tennessee River. Failing to dislodge Federals at Decatur, Hood eventually crossed at Tuscumbia on a pontoon bridge to begin his northward movement.

Hood’s first goal was to attack and destroy an isolated Union force under John Schofield before it could reunite with the main force stationed in Nashville. Hood managed to get in between Schofield and Nashville at Spring Hill on November 29, 1864, but failed to cash in on the golden opportunity when Union troops literally marched right past Confederate bonfires unopposed and escaped the trap.


The failure at Spring Hill led to a suicidal attack at Franklin the next day. Featuring some of the most vicious fighting in the entire Civil War, the failed late afternoon assaults on a strong Federal line on November 30 decimated Hood’s army.

Left with no other option, Hood limped on to Nashville one step behind the Federals he had encountered at Franklin to besiege a city protected by an army larger and much better supplied than his own. After a short standoff during a bitterly cold winter, the now-united federal force under George H. Thomas moved out of its entrenchments to attack Hood on December 15, 1864. Hood’s line barely held, but when the attack renewed on the 16th the once proud Army of the Tennessee was routed and retreated into oblivion.

We traced Hood’s army from Decatur all the way to Nashville. We were surprised at the amount of interpretation that exists. Spring Hill has a nice driving tour and Franklin ranks as one of the best Civil War preservation stories of the last several decades, as key parts of a battlefield has literally been rescued from development. It was only a few years ago that a fast food restaurant sat where some of the most poignant events of the war in the west unfolded. Thanks to the diligent work of the Civil War Trust and numerous like-minded local groups, visitors can now better appreciate the ebb and flow of an epic battle. Urban sprawl in Nashville has claimed most of the Civil War sites in the area, but there are a few places that contain surviving earthworks and markers and proved well worth the effort to find them. We highly recommend this tour to anyone interested in the war in the West.


Review of Hood’s Tennessee Campaign: The Desperate Venture of a Desperate Man, by James R. Knight

3 Sep

Confederate General John Bell Hood’s 1864 Tennessee Campaign has long fascinated us. His bold attempt to reverse the fortunes of the war by taking a ragged army which had already suffered a series of defeats on a risky offensive march against a better equipped and numerically superior enemy bordered on reckless. The desperate campaign is remembered by horrifying battles and ended in colossal failure, yet the stories of individual bravery and botched opportunities is the type of tale that intrigues Civil War historians and we believe the Nashville Campaign is one of the most poignant and interesting of the war. As we prepared for a summer tour to trace the movements of the armies and the places they fought, we chose to read James R. Knight’s acclaimed Hood’s Tennessee Campaign: The Desperate Venture of a Desperate Man as a brief overview of this climatic campaign. We were not disappointed.


Knight’s book is part of the History Press’s Civil War Sesquicentennial Series of books that were published to commemorate the conflict’s 150th anniversary. These publications provide concise overviews of the war’s important campaigns and battles. Containing fewer than 150 pages of narrative and interspersed with several images and original maps, Knight provides a sound and beneficial summary of this incredible campaign. He explains the reasons Hood undertook the effort and his goals, traces his army’s movements and the responses of the Union forces arrayed against him. Readers get a sense of the rashness of Hood’s moves and his narrative showcases the difficulties the armies and men faced marching and fighting in the inclement winter weather. Knight chronicles the Confederate failure to block the Union army at Spring Hill—perhaps its best opportunity to wring a measure of success from the campaign—as well as the devastating, doomed assault at Franklin and Union General George Thomas’s sledgehammer attacks on Hood at Nashville. Also covered are the numerous smaller fights which occurred as the army made its way to and from the Tennessee capital city. It is an insightful and gripping story of the dissolution of a once-proud army.

There is not much to criticize in this overview as Knight achieved his purpose admirably. Anyone seeking to gain a basic understanding of this last major Confederate offensive will walk away with a better understanding of the topic. We must point out that one of the book’s strongest features is its abundant, well-designed maps which allow readers to easily follow the action in the text, as this is something so many books of this type fail to include. Knight also provides a fair and balanced examination of Hood’s leadership, explaining his rationale through an explanation of his options as he understood them at the time rather than reducing the entire campaign to the ravings of a madman as so many other studies of this campaign have done. While readers desiring a more thorough examination of the campaign will need to look elsewhere, but Hood’s Tennessee Campaign is an excellent starting point for studying this fascinating Civil War story.