Archive | May, 2020

Review of The Gulf of Mexico: A Maritime History, by John S. Sledge

26 May

Dangerous, mysterious, but beautiful, the Gulf of Mexico is the southern coast’s watery connection to a legendary international maritime heritage. Across its blue-green waters have come explorers and pirates, warships and leisure cruises, lucrative trade and devastating hurricanes—all of which and more have made an enduring impression on the development of the region bounded by this sea. Involving tales of everything from mighty ancient chiefdoms to cutting-edge contemporary science, the Gulf figures prominently in the cultural history of the United States, Mexico, and Cuba especially. That it has not been widely understood as a symbiotic basin with an interconnected heritage is a singular curiosity in the historiography of the nations it borders, and one addressed with unusual passion and talent by John S. Sledge in The Gulf of Mexico: A Maritime History.

Sledge Gulf of Mexico

The Gulf basin has never seemed more connected than it does in Sledge’s capable hands. A master of prose whose several books on regional history have been reviewed previously in the blog (The Mobile River, These Rugged Days, An Ornament to the City, Cities of Silence, The Pillared City) Sledge takes a broad view of the Gulf of Mexico’s endlessly fascinating story in the book, taking it as his goal to communicate the basin’s rich shared heritage through personal stories of substance and resonance. With his trademark flair for weaving a good tale and depth of knowledge on his subject, he takes readers along the shores and into the swells of the rolling waters for a rollicking story of sophisticated native civilizations, daring conquistadors, swashbuckling buccaneers, bold naval captains, steady-handed fishermen, and tough leathernecks. The story moves fast, unfolding in a series of focused chapters which highlight key people and incidents Sledge views as emblematic of the incredible saga he attempts to cover in just under 300 pages of text. The book is appropriately chock-full of the lexicon of the mariners that figure so prominently in Sledge’s tale—lee and windward islands, topsail and freeboard, northers and gales—but never leaves the casual reader lost in technicalities. The focus is on the people who have given the basin its unique sense of place. Here are the stories of such diverse and memorable historical figures as Cortes, Lafitte, Semmes, and Agassiz, put in the context of epochs and landmark events from the age of exploration to the Mexican War to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

The Gulf of Mexico is a thoroughly interesting and engrossing narrative, and one which presents the clearest picture yet painted of the centrality of the Gulf to American history and the shared heritage of the broader basin. The book stands as essential reading for those seeking to learn more about the broad area where its waves lap ashore, and the people who call it home. Another stellar contribution to the historiography of the Gulf South by Sledge.


Review of The French and Indian War: Deciding the Fate of North America, by Walter R. Borneman

19 May

Basically cast aside as nothing but a precursor to the more famous American Revolution, the French and Indian War has long deserved recognition in this nation for changing the course of history. Walter R. Borneman, author of 1812: The War that Forged a Nation and American Spring: Lexington, Concord and the Road to Revolution, has written a superb synopsis of these critical years that should elevate this forgotten conflict to the place it so richly deserves. The French and Indian War, Deciding the Fate of North America examines this conflict as the first true world war which dramatically altered the political landscape of the western hemisphere.


The last of several colonial wars fought between France and England, the French and Indian War (1754-1763) would finally determine who would reign supreme in North America. These two European countries fought not only on their own continent but across the globe as well with encounters in India, Africa, and the Philippines. Great Britain would eventually overwhelm the French forces in North America mainly because they devoted more resources to that portion of the conflict. French authorities were simply pre-occupied with European affairs while British Prime Minister Lord Pitt emphasized this hemisphere. In fact, while British forces grew stronger as the conflict wore on, French Canada was mostly starving.

Borneman captures the essence of the conflict by narrating the important events. All the iconic moments are here: Fort William Henry of Last of the Mohicans fame, the citadel of Louisbourg, and the climactic battle for Quebec fought on the Plains of Abraham. Legendary figures such as ranger Robert Rogers and illustrious commanders Montcalm and Wolfe take center stage as well. The conflict is told masterfully in a free flowing prose that almost makes the pages turn themselves.  The only minor quibble is that George Washington’s initial encounter at Jumonville’s Glen and Fort Necessity are either not mentioned at all or barely touched upon.

When the fighting ended, Great Britain had become the British Empire with colonies around the world and a navy feared by everyone. The Treaty of Paris officially removed France from North America and the Proclamation of 1763 and sowed the seeds of discord by preventing colonists from gaining access to the land that ignited the conflict in the first place. This along with new taxes placed on the colonies to pay for the conflict sparked the flames for revolution. The famous French philosopher Voltaire seemed to echo the French royal court when he said, “what have we lost-a few acres of snow?” But ironically enough, one of Borneman’s last points is that “the French navy which had lost a continent helped win one for the American nation.”  In the end, it would be the Native Americans who truly lost.

Borneman, with two degrees in history as well as a law degree, seems to be another example of historians who do not follow the recent trend of academia with producing books that are excessively researched but struggle to provide relativity. Instead, Borneman concentrates on the narrative to tell a fascinating and gripping story for the general public. His own website exclaims that “My overarching goal in writing history has been to get the facts straight and present them in a readable fashion.” If only other historians would follow this simple mantra?


Review of America’s Buried History: Landmines in the Civil War, by Kenneth R. Rutherford

12 May

The Civil War is perhaps the most thoroughly studied historical event in America’s storied past. Detailed accounts of virtually every battle and campaign have been written, biographies of almost all significant officers in blue or gray published, and thorough studies made of everything from morale and patriotism to conscription and even the effect of weather on the course of military events. Sometimes it seems that for historians the question is less one of writing about something new in Civil War historiography than presenting familiar information in a new way. Rare indeed is the book that does a little of both. Kenneth R. Rutherford’s recent volume, America’s Buried History: Landmines in the Civil War, offers a novel new study of an important topic rarely discussed in depth while at the same time reframing interpretation of some very familiar Civil War campaigns and strategic thinking.


The book springs from Rutherford’s longtime interest in the Civil War and his deep personal connection to the role of landmines in warfare. A professor of political science at James Madison University, Rutherford is also a cofounder of the Landmine Survivors Network, a past director of the Center for International Stabilization and Recovery, and the winner of a 1997 Nobel Peace Prize for his work in helping eradicate land mines. He is also a veteran who lost his legs to a mine in Somalia, and brings some unique insight into the use of landmines in warfare. The Civil War, as he thoroughly documents in the pages of Buried History, was the first war in which such devices were widely used, and the Confederacy holds the dubious distinction of establishing a great deal of the technology and strategy which lay behind landmine usage in war for decades to come. In fact the Confederate government created an “Army Torpedo Bureau,” the first such military arm in the world, to develop mines and plan for their most effective usage on land and water.

Some of the results are familiar to both scholars and amateur Civil War history buffs, such as the deployment of floating mines in Mobile Bay which led to the famous sinking of the Tecumseh, and the usage of land mines at places such as Fort Fisher, Port Hudson, and Fort Blakeley. But how and why mines were created, the thinking behind their placement and concealment, and the evolution in thought about their proper usage during the war—from cowardly device of wanton destruction to valuable asset to overmatched garrisons—are much less well understood. Rutherford puts Confederate General Gabriel J. Rains, the leader of the Confederate effort to develop mines who became involved in land and water-based mining endeavors across the South, at the center of his story. Rains had experimented with explosive devices for military use as early as the Seminole Wars in Florida, and became virtually fixated on them during the war. He in fact developed a reputation for habitually cornering unsuspecting people he met and elaborating on the topic of mines until they made their escape. He was an eccentric to be sure, but Jefferson Davis believed his contraptions held the key to helping equalize the disparity in manpower between Union and Confederate forces and pushed his work forward even when some of his top generals, such as Joseph E. Johnston, did their best to discourage him.

Rains is not the only major player in a story which encompasses the Confederate war effort from battlefields in the interior of Virginia to the coasts of Texas, however, as Rutherford introduces readers to a host of individuals who developed, advocated, and placed mines of various sorts during the war in the pages of his book. Individuals involved in the Peninsula Campaign, Sherman’s March and the skirmishing around Savannah, and operations around Fort Fisher, Port Hudson, Petersburg, and Mobile all get thorough treatments for their association with mine development and usage. The result is a well-researched and fast-moving book that sheds light on an important but generally understudied aspect of Civil War fighting and military strategy. America’s Buried History is a welcome and unique addition to the voluminous historiography of our nation’s pivotal national drama and the standard work on the subject at the moment.


Review of Decisions of the 1862 Kentucky Campaign: The Twenty-Seven Critical Decisions that Defined the Operation, by Larry Peterson

5 May

The University of Tennessee Press has recently launched a new series of books entitled “Command Decisions in America’s Civil War.”  This series of books does not provide basic campaign or battle narratives but instead focuses on the command decisions made by Confederate and Union leaders that impacted the campaign or battle’s outcome. Finding this an intriguing concept, I chose Larry Peterson’s Decisions of the 1862 Kentucky Campaign, The Twenty-Seven Critical Decisions that Defined the Operation to see how this model works in examining important actions of the Civil War.


Peterson, a retired employee of United Airlines, spent several years as a National Park Service ranger and has written on his ancestor Confederate General Alfred J. Vaughn Jr., which drove his interest on the Civil War. He wrote the volumes of this series on Chattanooga and the Atlanta Campaign which led him next to examine the leadership decisions involved in the Confederacy’s attempt to reverse the course of the war and invade Kentucky with hopes of bringing Bluegrass soldiers under their banner.  Peterson uncovers twenty-seven separate decisions which he feels impacted the course of the campaign and broke them down into six chapters. Those six chapters are Before the Campaign, The Kentucky Campaign Begins, The Battle of Richmond, The Kentucky Campaign Continues, The Battle of Perryville, and Retreat out of Kentucky. For each decision, Peterson sets the stage with a discussion on the Situation, then presents the Options, the Decision/Results, and finally an Alternate Scenario.  He follows these discussions with an aftermath and conclusions.

Peterson’s narrative reveals numerous interesting arguments but several impacted the campaign more than others. Perhaps the most critical decision of them all occurred prior to the campaign itself when Union General Henry Halleck decided after the fall of Corinth, Mississippi, to split up his large army to consolidate Union gains in the spring instead of pressing after the defeated Confederate army or even moving towards Vicksburg. This allowed the Confederacy to seize the initiative and launch its campaign into Kentucky in the first place. The other key decision was Jefferson Davis not consolidating Braxton Bragg’s army with that of Kirby Smith’s and allowing these two forces to operate separately. Smith vowed to coordinate with Bragg, but throughout the campaign, Smith continued to operate independently and these two forces never fully cooperated.

Of course, Braxton Bragg deserves his share of blame for many of his decisions made during the campaign. For one, he placed too much emphasis on inaugurating a Confederate governor at Frankfort instead of concentrating on the Union Army’s movements. Secondly, his failure to prevent Union General Don Carlos Buell from reaching Louisville, Kentucky, was a mistake as well. Bragg had opportunities to use his army to block Buell’s path and force the Union force to attack him in a strong defensive position. Instead, Buell reached Louisville, resupplied his army and gathered reinforcements. Kentucky men never flocked to the Confederate banner in the numbers that Bragg and Smith had hoped and one reason was that Bragg should have known winning a victory over the Union Army would do more to entice potential soldiers than installing a puppet governor who had no real power as long as Union forces were in place. Failure to increase their army with Kentucky recruits was the primary reason for the campaign and this huge disappointment doomed the campaign and forced Bragg and Smith to retreat back to Tennessee.

Peterson concludes his book with a driving tour of the campaign. Considering these actions took place over several hundred miles, the idea of a driving tour seems odd. Secondly, the tour does not focus on the sites itself but rather as a place to simply rehash the decisions based upon the area of where those decisions took place. In the narrative, Peterson uses each tour stop to provide selections of officer’s reports taken from the Official Records along with sections of texts from noted authors of the actions such as Kenneth Noe and James Lee McDonough. While I agree with Peterson’s statement “there is no better way to grasp the enormity of a critical decision than to stand in the same location where it was made,” this section seemed awkward and repetitive.

Overall, I enjoyed Peterson’s analysis of this campaign by critiquing nearly thirty important decisions made by its leading participants. This different method of examination was worthwhile and led me to evaluate the campaign from different angles. As an avid reader of the war, I did not necessary learn anything new, but it did re-enforce several notions and opinions of this campaign that I already had. I do look forward to reading other volumes of this series.