Archive | October, 2019

Review of Reconstruction: A Concise History, by Allen Guelzo

29 Oct

The period of Reconstruction, following the Civil War, was one of the most tumultuous eras of U.S. history. From 1865-1877, the national government tried to reincorporate the former states of the Confederacy back into the Union and provide basic rights to the newly freed slaves. The halting, complicated efforts to accomplish those goals involved such political and social upheaval at the federal, state, and local levels that historians have long been challenged in how to summarize the era in an accurate but brief fashion. The era virtually defies simplification, and we have had relatively few historians even make the attempt. The groundbreaking work of Eric Foner (Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution 1863-1877 and A Short History of Reconstruction)—still easily the most recognized and the standard text for college courses around the country despite being over three decades old—are among the very few works on the subject which most readers of literature on the era have any familiarity. Allen Guelzo, author of Gettysburg: The Last Invasion and Fateful Lightening: A New History of the Civil War and Reconstruction, has attempted to explain these years in a new, brief, overview with the aptly titled Reconstruction, A Concise History. We commended him for the attempt sight unseen, and eagerly anticipated reading the book hoping it might help us and others make better sense of how and why Reconstruction unfolded as it did and where exactly its legacy fits in the continuum of American history.


Covering this topic is not easy. Doing it 130 pages of text seems impossible. But Guelzo manages to get it done admirably. We are not aware of another such dynamic and yet encompassing read with such brevity. (Even Foner’s Short History comes in at over 300 pages.) The author covers all the important topics in succinct and poignant fashion: Lincoln’s initial plans for a lenient readmission of the seceded states; Andrew Johnson’s designs on Reconstruction aimed at punishing the elite planters whom he blamed for war; Congressional, or “Radical,” reconstruction; Johnson’s impeachment; the passage of 14th and 15th amendments; the role of the courts; and finally, Reconstruction’s end with the presidential election of 1876.

Guelzo succeeds brilliantly in some areas but at times, the reader is left searching for more insight and information due to the brevity required in the undertaking, especially as it concerns differences in how events unfolded state by state. This book is inherently focused at the national level, a decision for which Guelzo can hardly be faulted and something that must be kept in mind in evaluating its strengths. Gulezo’s epilogue is in some ways the strongest part of the book. In it the author provides what amounts to a scorecard on Reconstruction, measuring its successes and failures in summary fashion with a brutally clear assessment of what it accomplished, what it did not, and how those outcomes influence us still today. Guelzo credits as among Reconstruction’s successes the restoration of the Union; the definitive determination that secession was invalid; the abolition of slavery; the passage of the 14th and 15th Amendments; and the absence of summary executions of former Confederate leaders. The shortcomings of Reconstruction, and they are many according to Gulezo, can be blamed on the woeful unpreparedness of the national government to undertake the monumental task which it confronted. Not only was there a glaring lack of leadership in the wake of Lincoln’s assassination, but a contentious resurgence of a Northern Democratic party at odds with many of the aims of the Republican administration which muted its effectiveness at best and negated it entirely in others. These failures include the shortsightedness of the courts in ensuring former slaves were granted the rights they were allegedly assured and the unwillingness to undertake a true military occupation which might have squelched the wholesale and persistent resistance of the white South to the mandates being imposed on it from Washington. His elaboration of these points in just a few pages of clear and concise text helps tie everything together in convincing fashion.

As its title conveys, Reconstruction: A Concise History provides a concise overview of this complicated but critical period. Anyone wanting a place to start in learning about these years should read this book first before moving to other works discussing individual locations, events, and individuals in more detail.


Review of Hardened to Hickory: The Missing Chapter in Andrew Jackson’s Life, by Tony L. Turnbow

22 Oct

Andrew Jackson’s rise from humble origins in the southeastern backcountry to become one of the most influential and popular political figures in all of American history is the stuff of legend. Readers familiar with the era which bears his name know the oft-recounted milestone events of his biography by heart: his defiance of a British officer’s command during the Revolutionary War and the resulting physical and emotional scars which became part and parcel of his nationalism; his ascendancy as a public figure on the rugged frontier in North Carolina and Tennessee; his devastating victory over the Red Stick Creeks on the banks of the Tallapoosa at Horseshoe Bend; his climactic triumph over the army of the world’s leading superpower at the time on the plains near New Orleans. All rank as iconic and well-studied landmark events which have been written about for the better part of two centuries as part of the making of one of the country’s transcendent leaders. Less understood and celebrated but perhaps even more immediate to the men whom he would lead in the military exploits which won him enduring fame is his march up the Natchez Trace at the beginning of the War of 1812 which sparked the nickname forever associated with him—“Old Hickory.” Here to provide perhaps the most in-depth chronicle of that pivotal episode is Tony Turnbow with Hardened to Hickory: The Missing Chapter in Andrew Jackson’s Life.


Turnbow, a Tennessee lawyer who has studied Natchez Trace history for more than three decades, written extensively about the route and complex past, and been involved with numerous educational programs at historic sites along its course, has accumulated an impressive amount of resources from which to weave his narrative. While of course drawing on a wide range of standard sources on Jackson’s life and times, Turnbow also relies on a variety of previously unpublished documents and personal accounts which add an unprecedented level of insight to the story he tells. The book is at once a unique portrait of Jackson and a detailed study of the transformational event which, in Turnbow’s opinion, changed the course of his life and his estimation in the eyes of his contemporaries. It is above all a labor of love and the culmination of long years spent in pursuit of learning about Jackson.

At the outbreak of the War of 1812, Jackson jumped at the opportunity to raise a group of militiamen and lead them into service against the British, for whom Jackson always seemed to have a special personal animosity. At first ordered to New Orleans to coordinate with General James Wilkinson in defense of the city, Jackson organized an expedition to the lower Mississippi Valley in the dead of winter that revealed glimmers of his steely determination and grasp of command. But it would instead be the return trip—under unexpected and perilous circumstances seemingly designed to bring about his ruin—that Jackson the leader emerged in Turnbow’s telling. Before he could reach his destination, Jackson was ordered to halt and disband his force along the lower reaches of the Natchez Trace by Gen. Wilkinson in a bizarre series of orders the true purpose of which continue to be examined by historians today. Essentially stranded hundreds of miles and a howling wilderness from home with few supplies and inadequate equipment and left to his own devices, Jackson faced the prospect of ruin and ignominy and his men the very real prospect of death. Instead of collapsing in the adverse situation, Jackson led his men back up the trace to their Tennessee home with a determination and vision which launched a career rather than ending it. Sharing his men’s privations along a harrowing return through an unforgiving frontier and catapulting himself right back into a war the nation’s top brass seemed determined to keep him out of, the man who had left Nashville as a promising but unpredictable backwoods firebrand returned as an indomitable leader reputedly as tough as hickory wood.

Turnbow finds the animosity between the polished, duplicitous Gen. James Wilkinson and the rough-edged, straightforward Jackson to be the root cause of the entire affair. While providing contextual information helping readers understand the surrounding events and how Jackson’s legendary march fits into them, the bulk of the narrative centers on this personal rivalry and all it represents. Turnbow believes the Jackson-Wilkinson imbroglio to be the pivot point on which events of great significance in American history hinged, as it grew well beyond a personal dispute into one embodying the place of the common man among the ranks of leadership in American society. In his estimation, had Wilkinson succeeded in his effort to humble and discredit Jackson, he might just have remained a relatively unknown figure and never gotten a chance to influence regional events. Further, the phenomena known as Jacksonian Democracy might have been long delayed if it occurred at all.

Hardened to Hickory is an incredibly detailed book which sheds new light on Jackson’s remarkable preservation of an abandoned army and places the effort in the context of tumultuous frontier politics and an international war which Americans still have trouble understanding in their actuality. It must be noted, however, that in the process of providing this level of specificity, Turnbow’s narrative can at times be tedious. It is certainly repetitive, containing summary passages essentially restating major conclusions at several points in the book. It seems at first blush it might have been shortened by as much as a third without sacrificing the substance of any of its major points. Considering that the self-published volume weighs in at a whopping 602 pages, it is clear the manuscript might have benefitted from a little more focus, brevity, and a bit more copyediting if it was to become a widely-circulated part of Jackson historiography. But few readers wanting to know more about this subject are likely to be put off by the book’s page count, for if one has an interest in the title they probably have a fairly intimate knowledge of the time period and will recognize the publication as what it in truth is at once; a valuable and unique resource on an overlooked episode in the life of one of the nation’s more compelling figures which took place in one of its more intriguing eras, all provided by perhaps the foremost authority on its narrow subject. If you find yourself among that relatively small group, you need familiarize yourself with this book. Just be prepared for a long, slow-moving read.


Review of In the Hurricane’s Eye: The Genius of George Washington and the Victory at Yorktown, by Nathaniel Philbrick

15 Oct

Nathaniel Philbrick is one of America’s most popular historians and bestselling authors for good reason. He writes compelling books on interesting subjects, many of which are integral to the story of America’s founding era. I have reviewed three other of his books in this space previously; Bunker Hill, Mayflower, and Sea of Glory. In the Hurricane’s Eye: The Genius of George Washington and the Victory at Yorktown is the third in a trilogy of books by Philbrick on the American Revolution, focusing on the climactic campaign of Washington’s army which led to final victory in the war. When I saw a copy of it available in audiobook form from a local library, I snapped it up immediately expecting a thoroughly engaging story with the author’s characteristic unique insight. I got a little more than expected from a standpoint of content and a little less than I expected from the standpoint of readability.

Hurricane's Eye

Judging from the title alone, one might expect the book to be a chronicle of the famed siege which marked the beginning of the ending the Revolutionary War with a strong emphasis on the actions of Washington. But colorful figures such as Lafayette, Rochambeau, and Clinton also figure into a narrative which in many ways is a study of the actions and personalities of a host of interesting individuals whose decisions altered the course of American history. It is far more than a series of biographical sketches, however, as Philbrick does trace several critical events leading up to the clash at Yorktown. He points out how far from inevitable victory was even late in the war, and how easy it would have been to conclude the revolution had failed even in 1781. He makes a strong argument for the importance of the role of the French Navy in the winning of America’s independence in the course of the book, so much so that the role of French warships in the contest will probably be the biggest takeaway most readers will remember.

Yet the book’s detail of long spells of naval activities with little action and corresponding military movements and political developments can be a little tedious at times and sometimes leaves one with the sense there are perhaps too many moving parts. Maybe some of the events would be a little easier to follow with a print book and the maps I have learned it features, but at times I had some difficulty following all of the action in audiobook form. In fairness the final chapters chronicling the race to pen up Cornwallis on the Yorktown peninsula are highly entertaining and written in gripping fashion, but readers should know this is not the focused drama in the vein of Bunker Hill. Nor is it quite the introspective study of the leadership of George Washington which the title of the book implies. In the Hurricane’s Eye is in final estimation an enjoyable book written by one of the nation’s preeminent historians raising awareness of an underappreciated aspect of our national founding saga. Even if it is not Philbrick’s most compelling work, it is far from an unimportant one and deserves the attention of those with an interest in how America’s war for independence was fought and won.


Review of Holly Springs: Van Dorn, the CSS Arkansas and the Raid that Saved Vicksburg, by Brandon Beck

8 Oct

Earl Van Dorn was a Confederate general during the Civil War who is best remembered for being shot and killed by a jealous husband rather than his military exploits. His Civil War career was filled with its share of defeats, but his greatest achievement actually put a halt to one of Ulysses S. Grant’s attempts to capture Vicksburg. Brandon Beck discusses Van Dorn and other Union attempts in 1862 to capture Mississippi’s famous Gibraltar with his book Holly Springs: Van Dorn, the CSS Arkansas and the Raid That Saved Vicksburg.


Part of the History Press’s Civil War Sesquicentennial Series, Beck’s book provides an overview of several key events in 1862 when Union forces attempted to capture Vicksburg, the Confederacy’s bastion along the Mississippi River. One attempt deals with the Union Navy’s attempts in the spring and summer of 1862 to bombard the city into submission. The Confederate ironclad Arkansas was scrapped together and in one amazing afternoon in July, steamed down from the Yazoo River into the Mississippi and fought off the entire Union Navy. Beck implies that the Arkansas’s accomplishment was the primary reason the Union Navy soon abandoned its hopes of capturing the city without the army’s help. Unfortunately for the Confederacy, the ship’s career lasted only a month as it had to be scuttled on a trip to Baton Rouge that August due to its faulty engines.

Grant’s campaign down the railroad takes up the remainder of the book and provides Van Dorn with his finest moment of his military career. Stockpiling huge amount of supplies in Holly Springs, Grant methodically moved southward, forcing the Confederate force to retreat in its path. Van Dorn was given command of a cavalry unit assigned to raid and destroy that stockpile which it did on December 20, 1862. Over $1 million in supplies went up in flames, forcing Grant to retreat northward in search of supplies, thereby ending his campaign. The Civil War is replete with many impressive cavalry commanders and impressive feats, but the Holy Springs Raid is often overlooked although its actions alone forced the end of a major military campaign. This marked the high point in Van Dorn’s career as he would be killed by a jealous husband in Spring Hill, Tennessee. Throughout the book, Beck discusses Van Dorn’s tarnished reputation, which again, overshadowed one of the greatest accomplishments of the war.

Holly Springs is an entertaining, quick read (99 pages of narrative) that touches on a fascinating part of Civil War History. It features some great tidbits of information such as Van Dorn being a great nephew of Andrew Jackson and the Holly Springs gravesite of J.L. Autry, the Confederate who famously exclaimed that Mississippians refused to learn about surrender. On two occasions however, it was disconcerting for the author to attribute the battle of Shiloh to be April 5-6, 1862 instead of April 6-7, 1862.

The book’s biggest issue is its overall concept. Combining the naval aspects with the Holly Springs Raid seems a strange choice. It would seem a better choice to either focus solely on the Arkansas and naval history at Vicksburg or discuss Grant’s entire Mississippi Railroad campaign with that of William T. Sherman’s assault at Chickasaw Bayou, which occurred simultaneously. By the end of the narrative, Van Dorn seems to be the main catalyst of the book, which again makes the discussion on the Arkansas seem out of place. Personally, I wished Beck had focused the majority of the book on the Holly Springs Raid which deserves a much more in-depth treatment.


Review of The Old Federal Road in Alabama: An Illustrated Guide, By Kathryn H. Braund, Gregory A. Waselkov, and Raven M. Christopher

1 Oct

Alabama’s bicentennial has proven to be the catalyst for an impressive range of scholarly endeavors created especially for the general public and illuminating the state’s past as never before. A delightful new study of one of early Alabama’s most important transportation routes, The Old Federal Road in Alabama: An Illustrated Guide, is among the best of them. Bringing attention to a vital but poorly understood link to our shared past with brevity, a conversational tone, and an intrinsic connection to the places where history happened, the book is grounded in serious scholarship and informed by archaeological investigation. Richly illustrated and handsomely designed to boot, the book promises to appeal to a diverse audience.

Federal Road

The Old Federal Road in Alabama showcases the work of an impressive team of scholars in their study of a most deserving subject. Dr. Kathryn Braund is one of the premier scholars of the Creek Indian people writing today; Dr. Waselkov unquestionably the most widely-respected and well-known authority on Gulf Coast archaeology; Raven Christopher a respected scholar in her own right whose experience on the archaeological survey of the Federal Road has given her an unusual depth of knowledge on the historic route. The Federal Road clearly is central to understanding Alabama’s territorial and early statehood years, as it was both a physical and symbolic thoroughfare which cut a swath of shattering change through the land and cultures it traversed. The road brought fundamental change to Alabama, altering the course of its development by playing a significant role in sparking a cataclysmic war, facilitating unprecedented American immigration, and enabling an associated radical transformation of the land itself. Despite a respectable and slowly growing body of scholarship focusing on the route, its existence and importance remain inadequately understood aspects of state history. The venerable route languishes hazily in the public consciousness as an amorphous, vaguely defined thoroughfare with ill-defined purpose and consequence. This is a shame in no small part owing to the fact that so much of the route stands even today ready to be discovered.

The focus on the physical route of the road and the backstory of its creation, then, are obvious noteworthy strengths of the book. The authors vividly reconstruct the course of the road in detail, beginning with its origins and tracing the subtle changes in its path all the way through to its decline as a primary artery of travel. Along the way they even give attention to the very terrain it traversed, bringing to life what traveling the road must have really been like and illuminating its story in a way few others have ever attempted. The authors deftly weave in descriptions of the people and places travelers might have encountered along its path throughout their narrative, and a wealth of well-chosen illustrations demonstrating thorough familiarity with resources to be brought to bear in understanding the time period substantially assist in making the book engaging. In short, the book’s scope, pace, and attention to historic sites will undoubtedly work to make it a practical and authoritative guide to discovery of the Federal Road and vital reference source on Alabama history for years to come. The book should have a rather wide audience including professional scholars, history buffs, and heritage tourists.