Archive | March, 2020

Review of The War of 1812 in the West, From Detroit to New Orleans, by David Kirkpatrick

31 Mar

Historical studies of the War of 1812 tend to focus on events in New York and battles at Bladensburg and Baltimore. Recently, I came across a new book entitled The War of 1812 in the West, From Detroit to New Orleans by new writer David Kirkpatrick and eagerly acquired it to learn more about the war west of the Appalachians. This concise book provides a nice narrative of the conflict, but its focus was unexpected.


Kirkpatrick, former archivist at the Kentucky Department for Archives and Library and currently genealogy/reference librarian for Mercer County Public Library, has crafted a well-written narrative of the War of 1812 from the perspective of the Bluegrass state. Tracing the events of the war in the west from the fall of Detroit, the massacre at Frenchtown (Remember the Raisin), sieges at Fort Meigs and Stephenson, and finally the climactic battle of the Thames, Kirkpatrick emphasizes Kentucky’s role in the war. From recruiting soldiers and supplying them, to their marches northward to reach the battlefields in Ohio, Michigan Territory and beyond, as well as covering the homefront, Kirkpatrick tells the stories of the men who fought and persevered through the conflict. Revolutionary war hero Isaac Shelby shines brightest as he leaves retirement behind to become Governor and eventually lead troops northward, participating in the battle of the Thames.

Kirkpatrick’s coverage of the war ends with the New Orleans campaign and as expected, Kirkpatrick focuses heavily on the troops from Kentucky. His explanation avoids the preliminary, yet highly critical, portions of the campaign including Andrew Jackson’s nighttime attack on December 23 to only discuss the British assault on January 8, 1815.  The author then goes out of his way to provide evidence to defend the actions of Kentucky troops on the west bank of the river who retreated, too hastily according to Jackson. Kirkpatrick simply tries too hard to always paint his native state in positive light. Also, it is interesting that the book is called the The War of 1812 in the West but he fails to cover any of the important conflict with the Creek Indians that proceeded the New Orleans campaign. One assumes that this is because Kentucky troops did not participate.

Most of what I consider faults of the book could have been avoided by choosing a more appropriate title such as “Kentucky in the War of 1812.” I assume editors pushed the title to gain more readership. Kirkpatrick is a strong writer who has created a fine piece of scholarship. This reviewer simply wanted a more comprehensive overview of the events of the war in the west without such a Kentucky focus.


Review of The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of Little Big Horn, by Nathaniel Philbrick

24 Mar

There is perhaps no more iconic moment in U.S. history than Custer’s last stand at the Little Big Horn in 1876.  Knowing very little of this affair but being curious, I chose Nathaniel Philbrick’s The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of Little Big Horn for my latest audiobook. Philbrick, whose recent works include books on the Mayflower and various key moments and people during the American Revolution such as Bunker Hill, Yorktown, and Benedict Arnold, seemed a perfect choice to explain this momentous event. And like his previous studies, he did not disappoint.

Last Stand (1)

The Last Stand focuses on the larger than life personalities of cavalry commander George Armstrong Custer and the Lakota Sioux leader Sitting Bull and their eventual confrontation in the Montana Territory. The discovery of gold in the Montana hills led the 7th Cavalry regiment to confront Native groups who had left their reservations. Philbrick not only highlights Custer but the other cavalry leaders such as Marcus Reno, John Gibbon, Alfred Terry and Frederick Benteen, all of which seemed to relish capturing glory and were fearful of other leaders gaining it first. There were even thoughts of Custer becoming a dark horse candidate for President if he could only achieve one more dramatic victory over the Indians. These thoughts would only lead to trouble.

The highlight of the book is the dramatic narrative of the fight itself, which centers mainly on the efforts of Reno and Benteen. Since they survived the Sioux attack, there is more of an historical record of their heroic stand although Philbrick does severely criticize both leaders. Philbrick’s narrative of what happened to Custer’s men is more succinct due to the lack of definitive answers. But readers, or in my case, listeners, are riveting of the detailed narrative of the participants during these fateful hours and days in June of 1876. Philbrick provides accounts from a variety of sources, from the cavalry’s leaders to the enlisted men, Indian scouts and the Sioux and Cheyenne warriors.

A heightened sense of hubris doomed Custer and his men and led to this impressive Indian victory. But like many Indian triumphs over the years, it was only fleeting. In fact, Philbrick calls Little Big Horn the last stand for the Sioux and Cheyenne as well since this defeat led the United States to use its overwhelming resources to wrangle the natives back to their reservations. The Last Stand is an engaging audiobook that kept my attention. Obviously, listening to a book is much different than reading a book which allows for a more detailed examination, but like other Philbrick works, I highly recommend it.


Review of Baldwin County: Our People, Our Places, Our Stories, by Colette Boehm

17 Mar

If it seems like we have reviewed a never-ending list of products of the Alabama Bicentennial celebration, it is because there have been quite of few of them. Most of what we have highlighted to date have been products with a statewide focus, but several county-wide bicentennial committees made their own contributions during the three-year extravaganza. Baldwin County, Alabama’s committee, of which I was privileged to be a part, was particularly active. We were able to create special county history-focused curriculum guides for use in local schools, create a variety of educational programs and tours and be a presence in numerous community events, and help facilitate the creation of a unique series of three original paintings commemorating some of the important battles of the Creek War, War of 1812, and Civil War fought in the county. The final product of our work was a book highlighting the county’s unique history and heritage.


Baldwin County: Our People, Our Places, Our Stories, written by freelance writing, photographer, and publicity specialist Colette Boehm with assistance of the Baldwin County Bicentennial Committee, is a hardback, coffee table-style publication. Lavishly illustrated, it celebrates the county’s special sense of place by providing snapshots of some of what makes the county unique. In seven chapters featuring information on the county’s history, communities, traditions, and businesses, the book provides an introduction to the people, places, and events that define the county. The book’s attractive layout belies the difficulty with which the selection of what to include was made. One of the largest counties in the country, covering an area larger than the state of Rhode Island and stretching over eighty miles from the banks of the Alabama River to the beaches of its famed Gulf Coast, there are a great variety of communities within its borders with diverse stories to tell. The book introduces readers to some of the most prominent and important of these, ranging from Native American mound centers to Civil War battles and from an economy once dominated by agriculture and logging to one of the most vibrant tourism markets in the region. At once a scrapbook of historical vignettes, a tourism guide, and a chamber of commerce piece, the book is an entertaining look at one of Alabama’s most compelling communities and a fitting way to end the celebration locally.


Review of Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves During the Civil War, by Bruce Levine

10 Mar

The Confederacy was built on the institution of slavery. Regardless of the well-documented individual motivations of those who fought in its armies and the fact that a majority of Southern soldiers held no slaves of their own, the people of the South could scarcely have imagined an independent Southern nation devoid of slavery. The labor system was part and parcel of the very idea of the Confederacy, a basic part of life in the region, at the root cause of secession, and, as the war dragged on, became one of the fundamental questions about American government and society which were to be decided by the conflict. In working to preserve the institution, Confederate authorities leveraged that unique source of manpower in almost every way it could during the long, consuming war it waged for its independence. It relied on slave-based agricultural production to help keep its armies in the field, drafted slaves into service as laborers to construct many of its defensive positions, drew heavily upon slave labor in moving and supplying its armies, and in the waning days of the war actually seriously considered pressing them into service as soldiers.


The question of whether or not to arm slaves was one of the most tortured of debates of the war for the South, and its mere existence reveals the desperate straits in which the Confederacy found itself in the conflict’s last year. How and why it came about, the degree to which the idea found acceptance among Confederate leadership, and the ultimate half-hearted implementation of the effort in the last days of the war are all part of one of the most fascinating but little understood aspects of any study of the Confederacy. Here to chronicle it is historian Bruce Levine in Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to free and Arm Slaves During the Civil War. Levine is an award winning professor emeritus of history at University of Illinois and author of several notable books, including The Fall of the House of Dixie: The Civil War & the Social Revolution that Transformed the South and Half Slave & Half Free: The Roots of Civil War. As a serious and well-regarded historian, he is well positioned to undertake the study of the controversial subject at the core of Confederate Emancipation. This is an important point to make clear in evaluating the book, for there is a virtual cottage industry still advancing the crackpot notion that blacks in significant numbers willingly aided the Confederate cause. Levine’s work, in contrast, is a piece of credible scholarship which provides a thorough and well-documented treatment of the Confederate plans to arms slaves, such as they were.

The book reveals the circuitous path to the actual passage of an act by the Confederate congress in March of 1865 formally allowing the enrollment of slaves as soldiers. It was passed by the narrowest of margins by a legislative body in desperate circumstances. While it sounds revolutionary on the surface, in truth it offered no promise of emancipation and was so contentious and half-baked that it yielded almost no results. Only a few dozen black recruits, primarily hospital orderlies in Richmond, were somehow coerced into the first company of black soldier trainees in the last days of the war but not enrolled in the regular army. There service record is vague indeed. If the Confederacy had a potential source of untapped manpower in the form of millions of slaves at its disposal, though, then why did it take so long to produce such a weak effort at utilizing them in its bid for independence? The answer is obvious, as revealed throughout Levine’s book in an avalanche of testimony from citizens, soldiers, and political leaders. The Confederacy simply could not come to terms with the idea of black soldiers, for it called into question some of the foundational principles on which the nation was built. Even as it faced certain defeat and ruin, the idea of giving up slavery was too much for most.

This does not mean that there were not Southerners who urged sacrificing slavery, or at least freeing some slaves, for independence. Seeing the thousands of blacks, the majority of which were former slaves, flocking to Union arms as the war progressed, many concluded that if the South did not find a way to use them in their armies they would surely be used against them. Those making such arguments were always a distinct minority, but there numbers grew as the war went on, and to read some of their thoughts will strike contemporary readers as bizarre indeed. General Patrick Cleburne famously endorsed the idea in 1863, but endured only ridicule for his outspokenness at first. In the last months of the war, however, the idea of black Confederate soldiers was endorsed by figures such as General Robert E. Lee, General Richard S. Ewell, Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin, and Confederate President Jefferson Davis, along with several other prominent leaders.

Their endorsement was, as a rule, tepid and highly conditional, though. Few were bold enough to admit that if individual slaves could be enticed to fight for the South, they would surely have to be offered their freedom as a prize. But what about their family members? How could they be asked to fight to keep their kinsmen enslaved? How were owners to be compensated if they were freed? What would keep them from turning arms on their fellow Southerners to free other blacks by force once armed? None of these questions were addressed clearly, and in fact led to some rather convoluted arguments in which some seemed to advance the theory that slaves would fight without freedom or that if some were freed as a matter of convenience that the institution could remain in place after the war even though fundamentally altered and surely set on a path towards eventual extinction. What is perhaps most interesting to see in the debate over whether or not to attempt to use slaves as soldiers is that those endorsing the plan were simultaneously admitting that enslaved individuals were indeed able to be trained as soldiers and willing to choose to lay their lives on the line in exchange for their freedom. This of course flies into the face of the narrative of the content, incompetent, slave on which Southerners had so long deluded themselves. To read how the debate of all these questions played out in the wartime South is fascinating for anyone desiring a better understanding of Southern society during the war, and revealing of some uncomfortable truths about the ideals of the Confederacy which we still wrestle with today.

Confederate Emancipation is nonetheless a relatively tedious and slow-moving read which is less chronological narrative than thorough topical analysis. Levine essentially covers every angle of the internal debate over the idea of Southern slave-soldiers by explaining how the concept was viewed from multiple perspectives and the ways in which it was presented. He tracks the debate as it played out in newspapers, private correspondence, and legislative records in what is without doubt the most complete chronicle of this particular subject to be published. It is a solid contribution to our collective understanding of the Southern war effort and a definitive statement on its subject.


Review of The Pillared City: Greek Revival Mobile, by John S. Sledge and Sheila Hagler

3 Mar

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

No architectural style is more closely linked with the Old South than the Greek Revival. Instantly recognized by its boxy, bulky, buildings featuring iconic columns, distinctive pediments, and symmetrical design, it was all the rage in antebellum America. Greek Revival architecture represented more than just good taste in its heyday; it projected the core identity and deepest ambitions of a good portion of the country, being as it was inspired by the monumental structures of the ancient civilizations of Greece and Rome and perceived as a virtual physical manifestation of the concepts of republican government and liberty which they were associated. Its ubiquity in the nouveau-riche pre-war South, where it became a mark of refinement and wealth, has rendered it virtually synonymous with both rural plantation life and the mid-eighteenth century urban experience in the region. In Mobile, a city blessed with more than its fair share of reminders of that distant era, there are dozens of beautiful expressions of Greek Revival architecture extant in the form of homes, churches, schools, and businesses.

Pillared City

In The Pillared City: Greek Revival Mobile, accomplished historian and author John Sledge offers a powerful and entertaining review of the architectural style in the city. This is no mere primer on style, although the book contains a thorough overview of Greek Revival’s rise in early America and plenty enough of technical terms and jargon in the text to demonstrate the author knows whereof he speaks as a historic architecture specialist. What makes the book a must-read for anyone interested in regional history, however, is how The Pillared City serves a sort of history of Alabama’s antebellum Port City, a place that was and still is a community unto itself culturally and physically. Its rich architectural heritage comes alive in a unique way in Sledge’s approach, as iconic buildings become not simply objects, but rather places where people lived, worshipped, learned, and attempted to project something of their hopes and dreams in the built environment. The book is at once chronicle, celebration, and eulogy of the architecture of a bygone era, and a fitting culmination to a powerful trilogy on Mobile’s history.