Archive | January, 2020

A Tour of Bicentennial Park in Montgomery

28 Jan

We have written at length in this space about the many worthwhile publications inspired by Alabama’s recently-concluded bicentennial celebration. Today I would like to highlight one of the more unique physical reminders of the celebration which was unveiled in Montgomery during the culminating celebration of this three-year long extravaganza—the new Bicentennial Park. Located on either side of famed Dexter Avenue directly in front of the Alabama State capitol, the park occupies some rather prominent downtown real estate. It consists of a series of stone monuments on which are mounted interpretive plaques and three-dimensional castings depicting Alabama’s history era by era. The interpretation is solid and concise, the castings detailed and expertly crafted, the setting accessible and grand; a refreshingly old-school and beautiful introduction to state history that will endure for generations. Well done.

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Review of In the Realm of Rivers: Alabama’s Mobile-Tensaw Delta, by Sue Walker and Dennis Holt

21 Jan

Alabama’s Mobile-Tensaw Delta a unique natural treasure, a timeless and mysterious landscape which is truly unique, wild, scenic, and chock full of history. Visitors to the region cannot help but be affected by its size, untamed state, and rich cultural and natural heritage. Many have attempted to put into words the emotions a visit to this iconic region conjures up over the decades in the form of an assortment of published works: novels and a range of pieces of fiction set in the area, a variety of memoirs, biographies, and local histories, and a few scientific surveys of its legendary abundance of flora and fauna and other resources. Few come close to capturing the real spirit evoked by experiencing the place with the flare of In the Realm of Rivers: Alabama’s Mobile-Tensaw Delta.


Originally published in 2004 by NewSouth Books with support from the Alabama Coastal Foundation, the book is a rather unconventional assemblage of ways to view and understand the Delta and its importance. Primary authors are Dr. Sue Walker, former poet laureate of the state of Alabama and longtime professor of creative writing at the University of South Alabama, and accomplished photographer Dennis Holt, but they are assisted by a team of capable contributors from a variety of backgrounds—ranging from archaeologists to environmentalists—who share a common interest and connection to this natural landmark. The book features an introductory narrative chronicling the region’s special history, descriptions of its natural environment and stories from those who live in, study, or are actively involved in working for the preservation of the Delta. The book includes narrative prose history, short pieces of fiction inspired by local folklore, journalistic profiles of people and organizations, personal remembrances of life and work, and poignant poetry combined with compelling imagery.

As is appropriate for its subject, In the Realm of Rivers is a book with soul; an evocative description of a region that defies simple definition, is much more than the sum of its parts, and is at once many things to many people. If you have an appreciation for Alabama’s wild natural lands, its storied cultural history, or the literary arts, you should know about this book.


Review of The Rise of Andrew Jackson: Myth, Manipulation, and the Making of Modern Politics, by David S. and Jeanne T. Heidler

14 Jan

Andrew Jackson’s ascent to political power is one of the most remarkable and consequential in all of American history. Featuring a remarkable rise from humble origins to America’s highest office to impact the trajectory of nothing less than the nation’s development, Old Hickory’s political career has been chronicled by countless historians. Many have focused in particular on his divisive presidential campaign of 1828 as emblematic of the ways in which the movement he inspired effectively ushered in a new era in American politics, featuring as it did an unprecedented groundswell of public and party support inspired by a specific vision of what democracy should be, and the introduction of a partisan press into political rivalry on a new scale. Here with a fresh, provocative new study of that election and its import in American history are veteran historians of the Jacksonian era David S. and Jeanne T. Heidler with The Rise of Andrew Jackson: Myth, Manipulation, and the Making of Modern Politics.


The Heidlers are imminently qualified for the job, having authored numerous books on the seminal events of Jackson’s time including Old Hickory’s War: Andrew Jackson and the Quest for Empire, Washington’s Circle: The Creation of the President, and Henry Clay: The Essential American. Here they delve into a presidential campaign they believe fundamentally changed the nature of public political discourse in America and the incredible ambition of the man at its center. It is a rather slow paced but insightful read which argues that Jackson’s rise essentially set the stage for American political campaigning as we know it.

We sometimes forget how over the top the campaign was for its time, featuring as it did outrageous accusations of Jackson being the son of a former slave and prostitute, scandalous discussion of the circumstances of his marriage, and no little vitriol and fabrication for and against the man. The sheer viciousness of the partisanship, the willingness to fabricate from whole cloth lies meant to defame, and the facility to combat slander with an effective positive publicity machine the likes of which had never been seen before in America were all novel new tools for politicians with national aspirations at the time. Behind those sensational and very public arguments were committed and organized interest groups aligned for and against the broad vision of democracy Jackson represented and intensely interested in the immediate gains that might accrue to either side via what we now call political spoils. If it all sounds familiar to the way American presidential campaigns are conducted today, it is because it should.

The Heidlers demonstrate with unprecedented clarity the connection to our modern political system and the 1820s through lucid discussions of the individuals and groups involved in this legendary campaign for the presidency. Along the way readers gain a rich understanding of the context of the times as can only be communicated by those with incredible familiarity with the era. The Rise of Andrew Jackson is well worth the read for those interested in the era which still bears his name and the many connections between that influential period and life in America today.


Review of The Greatest Fury: The Battle of New Orleans and the Rebirth of America, by William C. Davis

7 Jan

At one point, the United States celebrated only three holidays; Independence Day, George Washington’s Birthday, and January 8, the date of the victory over the British at the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812. Since that time, Andrew Jackson’s triumph has faded from memory and is no longer celebrated nationally. Prolific author William C. Davis seeks to remind us of the important role the battle played in our national development with his latest work, The Greatest Fury, The Battle of New Orleans and the Rebirth of America.


The Greatest Fury provides perhaps the most detailed account of the battle ever written. Davis has obviously conducted thorough research as he provides details and perspectives not seen before in studies of the campaign and brings the events before, during, and after the battle into unprecedented focus. His endnotes indicate he perused a vast number of resources to tell a complete picture. With his considerable research, Davis guides the reader through British strategy and leadership, the movements of its army and navy, and their plans for taking the important city. At the same time, Davis presents the iconic Jackson and discusses his efforts on land and water to safeguard the city. Davis also discusses all the intriguing personalities involved in the campaign, including a host of leaders and a number of individual soldiers whose thoughts on the action have rarely been seen in print. Never before, and perhaps never since, had such a diverse group (Tennessee and Kentucky militia, regular army soldiers, elite New Orleans battalions, Baratarian pirates, Choctaw Indians, and free men of color) been gathered in this country to form a fighting force. The stories of the several battles of the campaign are meticulously told and explained, putting the reader in the thick of the action. Dynamic quotes from participants help illustrate the anticipation and horror of war. Davis is at his best in explaining the overall strategy of the contest from both the American and British viewpoint with clarity and ease, while simultaneously immersing readers in the chaos of battle. His is the most riveting account of the desperate fighting on the plain of Chalmette we have read.

We appreciate several points of emphasis placed in the manuscript by the author. Davis chronicles Jackson’s night assault on December 23 after the British had landed in great detail. This frenzied, confusing battle turned out to be a draw tactically, but halted the British advance to the city, giving Old Hickory time to build an impenetrable defense at Line Jackson. Secondly, Davis takes special notice of the battle on the West Bank, which was a disaster for the Americans. Unfortunately, no historians we are aware of have attempted a convincing explanation as to why British General Pakenham did not wait to launch the main assault at Line Jackson until after British had captured the American line at the West Bank. Better timing could and perhaps should have led to a victory by the British. Finally, Davis discusses the campaign’s importance in relation to the treaty negotiations going on in Europe. The Greatest Fury should put to rest once and for all the faulty but pervasive theory that the battle did not truly matter since it occurred after a treaty was signed.

It is hard to find many faults in this compelling book, which is destined to be the definitive account of the Battle of New Orleans for many years to come. Davis did give short shrift to the preliminary parts of the operation at Mobile and Pensacola, which are crucial to understanding the entire campaign, and in describing briefly the fighting at Fort Bowyer after the battle mistakenly places the location of that installation on Dauphin Island. The one issue we would raise with the publication is that there are not as many maps to accompany the narrative as we would like, and the ones that are included are printed so small as to make the text on them exceedingly difficult to read. This aside, we complement Davis for adding to his impressive array of books by writing this new and definitive history of the Battle of New Orleans. Davis sums up his narrative by providing some brief but profound comments on the way the battle helped shape the nation both geopolitically and culturally by transforming the way we and others thought about the American backwoodsman, an icon of our heritage given perhaps even more credit than he is actually due for the stunning, lopsided victory over the world’s finest fighting force at Chalmette. Perhaps this book will serve to remind us all that this monumental victory by a truly diverse force of individuals can be understood as the final act in securing America’s independence as a nation. January the 8th definitely sounds worthy of a holiday to us!