Archive | February, 2020

Review of An Ornament to the City: Old Mobile Ironwork, by John S. Sledge with photography by Sheila Hagler

25 Feb

Today I provide the second installment of a series of three short reviews of a trio of books on aspects of Mobile, Alabama history by noted historian  John Sledge.

Published in 2006, An Ornament to the City: Old Mobile Ironwork offers an original reflection on one of the hallmark elements of Mobile’s celebrated architectural scene. Decorative ironwork, still closely associated with the city’s plentitude of ornate Victorian structures but once present almost to ubiquity on homes and businesses flanking Mobile’s streets, was at one time a highly prized and essential architectural embellishment in the Port City. A veritable proliferation of this accessory once leant the heart of the downtown area a feel akin to New Orleans, but only traces of its elegance linger today. Changing tastes, twentieth century wartime scrap metal drives, urban renewal, and neglect have left us with only glimpses at what was once one of the city’s defining aesthetic features.

Ornament to the City

Sledge’s book is both celebration and explanation of the rise, decline, and rediscovery of ornamental ironwork in Mobile. An Ornament to the City gives readers an insightful overview of the widespread popularity of ironwork in Victorian America and chronicles the stories of the individuals and businesses, both agents and producers, which made it so accessible. Rather than being an arcane study celebrating the ironwork as merely artwork, the book integrates its story into the larger story of Mobile’s nineteenth century development and the belated rise of its preservationist sentiment in the twentieth. As all of this is accompanied by hauntingly beautiful photographs contributed by Sheila Hagler, the volume is a solid and attractive piece of scholarship on Mobile history which can be enjoyed by both the lay historian and the most knowledgeable specialist in historical architecture.

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Review of Cities of Silence: A Guide to Mobile’s Historic Cemeteries, by John S. Sledge and Sheila Hagler

18 Feb

Mobile is a city dripping with history. Founded in the early 1700s and having experienced successive occupations by the French, British, and Spanish prior to becoming a part of the U.S. plus possessed of a rich and dynamic antebellum and Civil War heritage, the city is unique in Alabama for its unparalleled three hundred-plus years of history. Along with that deep and diverse historical background comes a special sense of place defined by shared experience, much of which has been chronicled in a distinguished canon of literature on the city. Among the notable works in Mobile’s historiography are Peter J. Hamilton’s Colonial Mobile, Jay Higginbotham’s Old Mobile: Fort Louis de Louisiane, Harriet E. Amos Doss’s Cotton City: Urban Development in Antebellum Mobile; Elizabeth Barret Gould’s From Fort to Port: An Architectural History of Mobile; Arthur Bergeron’s Confederate Mobile; and Michael V.R. Thomasan’s Mobile: The New History of Alabama’s First City among a long list of great books shedding light on the many colorful eras of the community’s past.

To these we must add a trio of attractive coffee-table books by one of its foremost contemporary authors, John Sledge: Cities of Silence: A Guide to Mobile’s Historic Cemeteries, An Ornament to the City: Old Mobile Ironwork, and The Pillared City: Greek Revival Mobile. These books, published in collaboration with talented photographer Sheila Hagler between 2001 and 2009, draw attention to and document some of the most visible reminders of its built environment in the form of its architecture, prolific ornamental ironwork, and historic cemeteries. Sledge’s wealth of knowledge and passion for Mobile’s past combine with his trademark melodic prose and talent for weaving personal experiences into compelling stories in these books. Lavishly illustrated and fast-paced but authoritative, they are essential reference sources on their subjects and will remain so for many years. Over the next three weeks I will provide short reviews of each of these.

Cities of Silence

Cities of Silence: A Guide to Mobile’s Historic Cemeteries, the first of the trilogy to be published (2001), provides overview histories of several of Mobile’s most prominent and venerable historic cemeteries—including Church Street Graveyard, Magnolia Cemetery, Old Catholic Cemetery, and two historic Jewish burial grounds. Sledge provides intriguing details on burial traditions in America and how Mobile’s historic cemeteries fit into that continuum before addressing the unique stories of each cemetery featured. He provides information of the origins of each graveyard, its role in city history, notable burials and ornamentation, and its place in the modern city. Along the way readers gain an appreciation for the core values and dreams of Mobile’s populace over the years and are offered an opportunity to reflect on these iconic touchstones of community history as virtual time capsules packed with stories, commemorations, and beauty. In Sledge’s hands the weathered inscriptions on the tombstones of Mobile’s historic cemeteries reach out across the ages to speak to us today, communicating to us something of previous eras and encouraging us to explore these silent spaces to discover the echoes of Mobile’s vibrant past they contain.

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Review of Banners to the Breeze: The Kentucky Campaign, Corinth, and Stones River, by Earl Hess

11 Feb

The Confederacy suffered many defeats in the Western Theater in early 1862. The losses of Forts Henry and Donelson along with Nashville and Memphis cost the South vast amounts of territory. The lull after Shiloh, however, would soon provide the South with opportunities to offset these reverses. In Banners to the Breeze: The Kentucky Campaign, Corinth, and Stones River, Earl Hess examines the failure of three Southern campaigns to reclaim this lost territory, regain the initiative, and change the momentum of the war.

Hess

As part of the Great Campaigns of the Civil War series, Hess seeks to explain more than the military campaigns during this critical time in the West. He also discusses important social and political outcomes and events. The addition of material such as the Emancipation Proclamation, the possibility of European intervention, the importance of East Tennessee, and the rise of the Copperheads educates the reader on how the battles of Perryville, Corinth and Stones River fit into the total context of the Civil War.

After Shiloh, Union Maj. Gen. Henry Halleck decided to consolidate the gains of the past few months rather than pushing further southward. This decision, which Hess defends, allowed Southern forces the opportunity to take the offensive. Confederate Generals Edmund Kirby Smith and Braxton Bragg soon marched northward into Kentucky with hopes of gaining valuable troops and supplies for the Confederacy. In doing so, the South’s principal western army reversed 1862’s early trend of defeats and retreats and brought the war in the West to the banks of the Ohio River. Unfortunately for the Confederacy, poor command structure ultimately doomed any hopes of prolonged success.

Smith and Bragg acted separately and their failure to unite and fight Union Maj. Gen. Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio on equal terms prevented victory. Bragg and Buell’s men met at Perryville on October 8 and without Smith’s force, Bragg’s outnumbered men launched a furious attack on a Union corps that brought about no appreciable gains. Bragg, despondent over the failure to unite with Smith and acknowledging that few men were joining his ranks, eventually retreated out of the Bluegrass.

While the Kentucky campaign neared its conclusion, events in Mississippi followed an ironic similarity. Confederate Maj. Gens. Earl Van Dorn and Sterling Price also conducted isolated campaigns that nearly caused Price’s destruction at Iuka on September 19. By the time their forces united to attack Corinth, Federal troops were ready. Two horrific days of Confederate assaults on October 3 and 4 failed to capture the town and Southern forces barely managed to escape to fight another day.

The Union hero at Corinth, Maj. General William S. Rosecrans, would now have his opportunity to face Braxton Bragg. Rosecrans, having replaced the slow-moving Buell, marched his force southeastward from Nashville and met the Confederates at Stones River, near the town of Murfreesboro, Tennessee. On December 31, Bragg launched devastating attacks on Rosecrans’s right flank; ironically defended by the same corps almost routed at Perryville. Although Confederate forces damaged the Union army, they failed to destroy it. A subsequent attack on the Union left two days later only increased the casualty lists. Bragg’s men retreated, his men upset at their commander after their wasted efforts in Kentucky and at Stones River.

At first glance of the book, readers might wonder how the Kentucky campaign and actions in Mississippi relates with the battle of Stones River. Hess quickly eliminates any doubts with his well-written narrative that describes these Confederate attempts to reverse the trend of the war in the West. The bloody battles at Perryville, Iuka, Corinth, and Stones River displayed the rugged, fighting spirit of the South’s western troops even though inadequate leadership helped produce no tangible results except high casualties that the South could ill-afford. Although Banners lacks detailed citations, the book will hopefully encourage further research to raise interest to these worthy campaigns.

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Review of Gone to the Swamp: Raw Materials for the Good Life in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta, by Robert Leslie Smith

4 Feb

Many smaller communities throughout America are blessed to have among their numbers that one special person who serves as an informal keeper of local history. Historians will instantly recognize the type I am alluding to—the active member of the historical society or civic club who, by virtue of their unusual enthusiasm for local history and their (or frequently their family’s) long association with a particular locale, have become the living link to the stories of those who came before. In the hinterlands of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta, in rural north Baldwin County, Alabama, until very recently there lived the very definition of just such a person in Robert Leslie Smith. Mr. Smith was a veritable institution in his home area, and for 99 years the living, breathing personification of the hearty Delta dwellers from whom he was descended.

Smith

Mr. Smith researched, wrote, and talked about the area’s unique heritage for decades. When he was not exploring its hidden recesses in search of the physical remnants of its past, he was active in some civic endeavor, always helping locals to better understand their heritage. He was well qualified for the pursuit, having been born and raised in the Delta region and having spent much of his life working the “swamp” as a logger in various capacities. His career spanned the generation which witnessed the last of the cross-cut saws and oxen teams which hauled logs from the bog to the river to be floated downstream to Mobile in rafts to the advent of the mechanized equipment which changed the nature of the business altogether. His experience, knowledge, and sheer longevity combined to make him a rare resource for the appreciation of the past. Luckily for the residents of his homeland and all of us interested in the cultural history of the Delta, he left us a written record of his remembrances in the form of a book; Gone to the Swamp: Raw Materials for the Good Life in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta. His recent passing reminded me to finally read his book, which had sat on my shelves as an occasionally consulted resource on various projects, cover to cover. I am glad I did.

Published in 2008 by the University of Alabama Press, the book is an entertaining but unconventional read. It consists of over three dozen short chapters, discussing such topics as how logging in the Delta was done in the past to discussions early eighteenth century flat boat construction. There are even chapters on his discovery of the remnants of such a craft in an exposed riverbank in his later years, and stories on logging at the site of the Battle of Fort Blakeley—local mills refused much of the lumber owing to the fact it contained copious amounts of saw-destroying bullets and shell fragments. Combining liberal helpings of local history, folklore, family history, pioneer know-how, and adventurous explorations into one of America’s most unique and storied landscapes, Gone to the Swamp is a veritable guidebook on how people once lived and worked in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta. All this is delivered in short, sometimes seemingly random, doses, but the individual elements work together to paint a portrait of a region and a bygone way of life that is compelling and helps provide the area with a special sense of heritage and place. I am heartily glad he was persuaded to put it together over a period of years, for it is information readers will literally find nowhere else, and helps define the Delta as a place apart. As so many of his peers never find the time, it is also a reminder of how many stories we lose when their tellers pass away without leaving a permanent record of their experiences.

JMB