Archive | October, 2020

Review of The Minutemen and Their World, by Robert A. Gross

27 Oct

It has been nearly forty-five years since Robert A. Gross’s landmark study of life in a Revolutionary War-era town, The Minutemen and Their World, first appeared in print. That it is still in print, still a mainstay in reading lists for college courses on the subject, and still recognized as the very epitome of the type of study it pioneered are all testaments to its importance in the historiography of early America. I recently got a chance to listen to an audio version of the Bancroft Prize-winning book, complete with a new introduction by noted historian Alan Taylor and an afterward by the author. It was enlightening and entertaining.

The book is essentially an intensive and wide-ranging study of the community of Concord, Massachusetts, the city in which the famed “shot heard round the world” was fired on April 19, 1775. Gross investigates daily life in the community at the time, helping readers understand citizens’ (and future soldiers) daily routines, worldview, and even hopes and dreams as he relates their relationship to the war in which the community they called home would soon be engulfed. He looks as well at the legacy of the war in the town, taking a brief look at its post-Revolution existence and place in American memory. The result is a well-rounded and lively account of a community before, during, and after the Revolution that is in many ways representative of those in which the movement was born, prosecuted, and later memorialized.

Gross’s work has stood the test of time and is well worth reading by anyone interested in Revolutionary War-era America. Gross is now professor emeritus at the University of Connecticut, where he taught for many years before recently retiring. In his afterward to the 25th anniversary edition of the book, he candidly admits that he, as a young historian a bit influenced by the counter-cultural movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, originally attempted to write a history of an iconic American town specifically without celebrating its martial heritage. He says he hoped to take a critical look at what life was really like for the farmers and traders seemingly forever deified as selfless patriots for their role in taking up arms against Great Britain, willing to perhaps deconstruct a standard part of the American myth if need be. What he ended up producing, though, has only amplified the importance of the remarkable role these common people played in one of the most unlikely and consequential events in world history. It is a good point to ponder given current circumstances, and helps make this a unique and important book.


Review of Island #10: Struggle for the Mississippi Valley, by Larry J. Daniel and Lynn N. Bock

20 Oct

The infamous Island #10, the tenth island in the Mississippi River south of the mouth of the Ohio, no longer exists, having long ago been swallowed up by the ever-changing course of the Mississippi River. That seems only fitting as the island’s significance in the Civil War has long since been forgotten as well. The position, once an important Confederate bastion blocking Union penetration southward along the river, was the target of a combined-forces siege in the spring of 1862 which remains among the war’s more forgotten campaigns. Larry J. Daniel and Lynn N. Bock seek to put the island and the battle for its control back in the spotlight in their book Island #10: Struggle for the Mississippi Valley.

Island #10 sat in a bend in the river near the borders of Kentucky, Tennessee, and Missouri. Confederates pinned high hopes on the island serving as a fortress to secure control of the northern reaches of the river passing through Southern territory. To that end they mounted one of the largest concentrations of artillery assembled in the west along its perimeter and garrisoned it with an army of nearly 4,000 men. Union forces led by John Pope sought to capture the island and the surrounding vicinity in early 1862. After capturing key points nearby such as New Madrid, Missouri, the fort became untenable and eventually fell after a twenty-three-day siege.  With the island’s capture, a strategically important Confederate position was surrendered, a large swath of Southern territory came under Union control, an entire rebel army sent off to prison camps, and important locations to the south, including Memphis and other key river ports, left vulnerable to attack.

The authors stress several important aspects of the campaign in their narrative. One is the failures of both contending naval forces. Union Admiral Andrew Foote had simply lost his nerve following the punishment his ships took at Fort Donelson and he refused to press the action. Daniel and Bock believe a stronger naval push would have ended the campaign much sooner. Confederate naval leader George Hollins likewise refused to risk his fleet as well and provided little to no support to the garrison. The authors also point out the glaring failures of Confederate leadership. Commander John McCown performed dismally at defending New Madrid and his replacement, William Mackall, took over too late to have much time to make any positive impact. P.G.T. Beauregard had simply hoped Island #10 could hold out long enough for a larger concentration of forces to win a major battle near Corinth which they could then use to relieve Island #10. Shiloh failed to provide a major victory, however, and the troops around Island #10 were sacrificed for little gain for the Confederates. The authors make their strongest argument at the end of the book when they point out the Confederacy’s repeated mistake of depending on armed fortifications at places like Donelson, Vicksburg, Arkansas Post, and Port Hudson to defend its lengthy borders. This led to the surrender of over 64,000 soldiers, manpower the South desperately needed to survive.

Island #10 is the most comprehensive study of this lesser known Union campaign in the effort to wrest control of the Mississippi River from the Confederacy.  It is expertly researched and readers gain an appreciation of the difficulties encountered by the soldiers and how this struggle fits into the total picture of war in the west. However, the book does not seem to flow as easily as others and simply fails to keep the reader engaged.  At times the complexity of the terrain being described and the surrounding area’s relationship to the Island’s position make it difficult to follow the action. In truth the book is so full of details on every aspect of the movement of troops and ships in the campaign that it at times is a dull read. It might have been rendered both more easily understandable and engaging had the authors kept the pace moving by summarizing extraneous events and focusing their blow-by-blow recounting of events on only those most pivotal to the outcome of the campaign. Nevertheless, historians should add this book to their collection to gain a complete understanding of the Union’s successful operation of a poorly-understood campaign that played an important role in, as Abraham Lincoln famously observed, seeing the Father of Waters go unvexed to the sea.


Review of How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe, by Thomas Cahill

13 Oct

I recently listened to an audio version of a book that was first recommended to me by a college professor some twenty-five years ago. I think what took me so long to get around to it, in addition to all the normal things that always delay us from doing something we intend to do, is that I so thoroughly knew the main point of the book before I ever opened it. I am not a scholar of European history and in truth barely conversant in some of the major books on the historiography of early Western civilization, but it would be hard indeed to take any sort of college-level course on the subject in the past several decades and have not at least heard of Thomas Cahill’s groundbreaking and award-winning book, How the Irish Saved Civilization. The book ranked on the New York Times’ bestsellers list in nonfiction for an extended period after its publication in the 1990s and continues to enjoy robust sales today as it finds its way into reading lists in courses on world history. According to the publisher’s website, as of 2020 it is sold nearly 1.5 million copies! Cahill’s thesis is that Irish monks, by their dedicated work in copying books and preserving scholarly pursuits as the Roman Empire fell apart and Europe was descended  into the chaos of the Dark Ages, did nothing less than preserve some of the most treasured, foundational pieces of literature to be produced in the course of western civilization.

To say that these reclusive scholars made for an unlikely set of heroes is an understatement, and no small point of pride for a nation that has historically been on the short end of things. What is now Ireland stood of the very fringes of the mighty Roman Empire at the time of its decline, a lush but forgotten land viewed by sophisticated Romans as inhabited by people who were mere savages. Yet Christian monks in the 500s and 600s AD, following in a tradition of placing a high value on learning initiated by the legendary Roman-born Christian missionary, St. Patrick, dedicated themselves to establishing places of learning and to the preserving of nothing less than world literature as they knew it. Their work included copying all worthwhile known history, poetry, philosophy, and commentary gathered from the libraries of Europe and the Middle East.

Cahill spends a good portion of the book introducing readers to the world in which all this happened. Nearly half the book, in fact, is essentially a sketch of the Roman world as it began to descend into chaos. Speaking broadly, the book communicates the stage of enlightenment which had been reached in the western world by the time of the fall of Rome, and the quickness of its descent into prolonged barbarism in the aftermath. The volume is full of references to ancient literature and poetry, and at times seems to make slow progress indeed in getting to the main point. When it does, though, the argument is thorough, straightforward, and compelling. How the Irish Saved Civilization is certainly worthy of its position as essential reading for those interested in understanding the long arc of western civilization.


The Loss of Two Icons

6 Oct

The historical community recently lost two major contributors to our field with the passing of Civil War writer and tour guide legend Ed Bearss and author/historian Winston Groom.

Edwin Cole Bearss (1923-2020) was a veteran of World War II, seeing action in the Pacific Theater.  Following the war, he gained a B.S. degree in Foreign Service studies from Georgetown and later M.A. in history from Indiana University.  He quickly learned that he rather interpret his beloved Civil War history while in the field than in a classroom and became historian with the National Park Service at Vicksburg in the 1950s.  While there, he helped locate the sunken Union ironclad Cairo as well as lost forts at Grand Gulf. He served as Chief Historian of the NPS from 1981 to 1994. And when he retired in 1995, he was given the title of Chief Historian Emeritus.

Bearss is best known for his sensational tours at these battlefields. His passion, flair for the dramatic and distinct voice made his tours and presentations experiences that audiences would never forget. History enthusiasts would hang on every word while even those with only a precursory interest were mesmerized. There is no telling how many came to study the great conflict simply due to witnessing his theatrical displays. His contribution to the field is unparalleled with a number of books and too many awards and honors to recount here. 

The death of world-famous author Winston Groom (1943-2020) is a huge loss for those of us who both write and study history. While he is closely associated with his novel, Forrest Gump, which was adapted into the acclaimed movie of the same name, Groom actually wrote more works of nonfiction than novels. He had a unique flare for storytelling which made his books the sort of compelling reads most historians aspire—or in our opinion should aspire—to write.

We have reviewed some of Groom’s outstanding historical works in the pages of this blog, including Shrouds of Glory: From Atlanta to Nashville, The Last Great Campaign of the Civil War, and Shiloh, 1862. We both consulted his engrossing account of the Battle of New Orleans, Patriotic Fire: Andrew Jackson and Jean Lafitte at the Battle of New Orleans while researching our own book on the Creek War and War of 1812, and we look forward to one day reading his Vicksburg, 1863. But Groom also wrote about the World Wars, among other topics in the American past, to acclaim: A Storm in Flanders: The Triumph and Tragedy on the Western Front, 1942: The Year that Tried Men’s Souls, The Generals: Patton, MacArthur, Marshall, and the Winning of World War II, and The Allies: Roosevelt, Churchill, Stalin, and the Unlikely Alliance That Won World War II.

Both men increased our understanding and appreciation of our nation’s history and we all owe them a debt of gratitude for their influence. They both made the past come alive for the general public in a way few academics, who often miss the big picture in their search for obscure details or comparisons, could ever achieve. At heart, that is why all historians study and write about the past, but few did it as well as them. Rest in peace, Mr. Bearss and Mr. Groom.