Archive | November, 2020

Changing of the Mississippi State Flag

17 Nov

Mississippi made headlines recently with the approval of a new state flag.  For years, the flag had become a controversial issue as it contained the Confederate battle emblem that many thought offensive. The story of Mississippi’s official banner is an interesting one to say the least.

Mississippi had no official state flag until 1861. At the secession convention where delegates voted to secede from the Union, the Bonnie Blue flag was prominently displayed and was actually raised over the state capitol. That unique emblem, with a fascinating history of its own which traces its origins to the West Florida Rebellion of 1810, never did become the official state flag. Months later, a state convention chose the “Magnolia Flag” to represent the state.  It lasted until the end of the war, when a new convention officially nullified many of the ordinances and resolutions that were passed in 1861, including the one that provided for a “Flag for the State of Mississippi.” From 1865 to 1894, Mississippi did not officially have a state flag although many still consider the Magnolia flag’s tenure to be from 1861 to 1894.

Mississippi adopted its second official state flag in 1894. The new design, which has served as the state’s emblem until the summer of 2020, contained three stripes, blue, white and red and a canton containing the Confederate battle flag. The flag was emblematic of the Lost Cause, the belief held by many white Southerners who proudly paid homage to the gallant Confederate soldiers who heroically defended their homeland and way of life from Northern hordes who only won due to their overwhelming advantages in numbers. Adopted also during the age of Jim Crow, many felt it mainly represented state sponsored segregation and white supremacy.

A strong effort to change the flag did not take place until 2001.  A referendum to change the flag to a new design failed with 64% of votes casting ballots choosing to keep the existing design. When Georgia changed its flag in 2003, Mississippi became the only state to still feature the Confederate emblem on a state flag. Over the next twenty years, the flag continued to be a contentious subject and gradually, the call for its removal strengthened.

By the summer of 2020, the Mississippi Legislature removed the state flag and established a commission to design a new flag that would be put to the voters in November. The public was asked to submit designs and the commission sorted through over 2,000 entries. The commission’s selection, known as the “In God We Trust” flag, was overwhelmingly approved by the voters. The design features a circle of twenty stars illustrating Mississippi’s entry as the 20th state of the Union and a gold five pointed star, representing the state’s indigenous Native Americans. The magnolia at the center is a long-used symbol representing the state’s hospitality.

Many were shocked the new flag passed by such a large majority.  Opinions vary on the reasons why but this blogger feels that most Mississippians were ready to move away from such a divisive flag. I also think large numbers were ready to be done with this contentious topic and ready for the state to focus on more pressing issues. Only time will tell if this flag will last or if there will be additional calls for examining the state’s official banner once again.


Review of The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West, by David McCullough

10 Nov

Legendary historian David McCullough’s latest effort is an inspiring tale from America’s past that intrigues, educates, and entertains as it unabashedly celebrates our nation’s early westward expansion. The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West, published in 2019, is a classic story of idealism and rugged determination in the carving of new communities out of the wilderness. The book is a history of the origins and early development of the Northwest Territory which centers on its first major settlement at Marietta in what is now the state of Ohio. I recently listened to an audiobook version of the book, and found it, as is always the case with McCullough’s work, to feature a compelling and engaging narrative.

Notions of sturdy pioneers braving the odds and taming the wilderness to move America’s boundaries steadily westward have long been among the most cherished tales from our nation’s founding era. Even if that narrative has come into question in recent decades for the way it overlooks native groups, the enslaved, and other minorities, the adventurous saga of how America pushed its boundaries from the Atlantic Coast to the Pacific remains a critical part of its heritage. Still, it is a bit surprising to find a contemporary book of history that overtly celebrates the accomplishment for a variety of reasons academic and political. McCullough has chosen to frame his narrative of American expansion into the Northwest Territory in a familiar vein not directly to counter modern notions of inclusiveness and idealism, however, but in some way directly in tribute to them.

The establishment of the Northwest Territory and its subsequent evolution into the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin (and parts of others) is worthy of unfiltered praise, according to McCullough, owing to its deliberate exclusion of the institution of slavery and the high ideals and moral character of some of its original leading lights. The Northwest Territory, in the author’s eyes, represented an ideal of what America could be when it actually strived to meet its noblest ideals. It should come as no surprise, then, that the story he tells is driven by a variety of high-minded individuals who attempted nothing less than a figurative transplanting of American concepts of civilization beyond the Appalachians just a few years after the end of the Revolutionary War.

Men such as clergyman, lawyer, scientist, educator, and politician Manasseh Cutler and military figure, surveyor, and community leader Rufus Putnam are the central characters in McCullough’s chronicle of the Midwest’s American origins. In truth the story is so focused on these people and their families that it seems as much biography as regional history. But as McCullough has always found ways to communicate history as a series of events caused by and impacting real people, this hardly detracts from the story he tells and in some ways makes it all the more interesting. His masterful ability to engross readers with the stories of lives past is perfectly complemented in the pages of the book by his ability to describe in words places and scenes that figuratively put the reader in the steps of his subjects. One cannot read this book without forming a rich and well-informed mental picture of the verdant wildnerness of the Ohio Valley, the beauty of the peaceful waters of the Muskingum, or the rustic simplicity of the first beachhead of American settlement at Marietta.

While the book is a focused and straightforward narrative with a clear thesis and purpose, it is to be expected that some will likely quibble with the rather traditional framework for the story McCullough tells in The Pioneers. The book is not a deep dive into the life of native groups within the Territory (they were dispossessed of their land in the process of American settlement), nor is it an exposition on the role of women in early America (they did not enjoy social equality), attitudes about race among early western settlers (slavery was prohibited in the territory but Southern masters were routinely allowed to reclaim escaped slaves there), or a myriad of other types of forays into historical realities of the era which, when not treated in context, often tend to do more to cloud our view of the big picture than render it clearer. The Pioneers is a simple but powerful story of development of a region by determined founders who not only persevered but whose imprint is still felt on the land today. Entertaining and informative, it is an important tale that could scarcely have been placed in better hands.  


Review of Shiloh and the Western Campaign of 1862, by O. Edward Cunningham

3 Nov

Who would have thought that an unpublished dissertation would provide the best account of one of the most important battles of the Civil War? Historians Gary D. Joiner and Timothy B. Smith believe that to be the case as they have edited and presented Otis Edward Cunningham’s groundbreaking study, Shiloh and the Western Campaign of 1862.  Written in the 1960s but not published until 2007, Cunningham’s work provides one of the most detailed and well-written accounts of the climatic clash and provided insight well ahead of its time.

Joiner and Smith explain the book’s importance in an excellent introduction that provides an overview of the historiography of the battle. They cite only four main works on this pivotal campaign (Smith’s own Shiloh: Conquer or Perish was published in 2016, nine years after this book’s publication) and discuss in detail the various schools of thought on Shiloh such as the importance of the iconic locations of the Hornet’s Nest and the death of Confederate General Albert S. Johnston as the battle’s turning point. More recent analysis has emphasized the battlefield’s terrain as the key factor in determining the battle’s ebb and flow as well as its outcome. Cunningham completed his dissertation in 1966 and had already come to many of these more recent conclusions. As Joiner and Smith say, “Shiloh historiography is just now catching up with Cunningham.”

Cunningham’s narrative is then presented with only minor alterations. The editors explain any edits they made in footnotes as well as add more recent scholarship in the citations. Prior to the April 1862 battle, Cunningham explains succinctly but with adequate detail how the forces arrived to fight along the Tennessee River. He describes Fort Donelson as one of the worst disasters of the war for the Confederacy and casts blame on Johnston for allowing it to occur. By late March however, Johnston had gathered a strong force, albeit mainly raw, inexperienced soldiers, from across the South and struck at the Union Army which was not prepared for a Southern offensive.

Cunningham provides a detailed and lively account of the battle itself. He expertly traces the forces as they clashed in horrendous combat. He never loses sight of the larger picture of the battle while still providing detail of the individual soldiers themselves. Unlike other battle narratives, Joiner and Smith have provided ample maps to the text to trace the movements of troops. As stated earlier, Cunningham questioned several long-time themes of the battle such as the number of Confederate assaults made against the Hornet’s Nest, how many guns did Confederate General Daniel Ruggles actually compile for its famous bombardment, and whether or not the Sunken Road was indeed sunken. The first day’s battle ended without the Confederacy gaining the complete victory it had so desired mainly due to a faulty plan that pushed Union forces back to Pittsburg Landing and its reinforcements and not away from it, not because P.G.T. Beauregard failed to launch a final push at a heavily fortified line in the dark of night.

Like most studies, Cunningham quickly runs through the battle’s second day when a reinforced Union army counterattacked and pushed the Confederate force off the field and back to Corinth. (Tim Smith’s Shiloh study provides much more detail on the lesser known day at Shiloh.)  And unlike other studies, Cunningham decided to end his study with the Union’s successful siege of Corinth which is fitting since that town with its important juncture of railroad lines was the main target of the Union high command.  As Cunningham states, the Southern army failed to win a momentum-turning battle at Shiloh but the failure of the Union army to bag the Confederate army at Corinth allowed it to remain a potent fighting force that it would encounter over the next few years at places like Perryville, Stone’s River and Chickamauga.

As Cunningham states, Shiloh is one of the most “iffy” battles of the war with so many possibilities that historians and history buffs have debated and analyzed over the years.  What if the Confederates had attacked a few days earlier as originally planned? What if Johnston had not been killed? What if Union patrols had not been sent out? What if the Confederate battle plan had been different? Cunningham explores these hypotheticals and others in his well-written narrative and provided insight on the answers to these questions over forty years ago.  Kudos to Joiner and Smith for taking the initiative to place Cunningham’s work before the public and get its just due. Cunningham’s name deserves to be placed at the head of other Shiloh experts such as Wiley Sword, James Lee McDonough, Larry Daniel, Stacy Allen and Timothy Smith himself.