Archive | December, 2020

Review of Dreams of Africa in Alabama: The Slave Ship Clotilda and the Story of the Last Africans Brought to America, by Sylviane A. Diouf

15 Dec

The recent discovery of the remains of the ship Clotilda in the murky waters of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta have rekindled interest in one of the most intriguing but melancholy chapters in Alabama history. The ship’s notorious voyage in 1860, noteworthy as the last documented arrival of African slaves into the United States, is a moving story laying bare the brutal nature of the slave trade despite its taking place entirely illegally. The ship’s owner, acting on a bet he could bring slaves to the shores of the Gulf Coast in defiance of longstanding federal prohibition on their importation, undertook to equip the ship for the covert mission both for potentially lucrative profits and no small measure of perverse satisfaction. He and his compatriots succeeded in the undertaking, and attempted to burn and sink the ship they used to bring over 110 Africans across the Atlantic and into the Mobile River on a dark and steamy summer night just months before the outbreak of the Civil War.

But instead of quietly disappearing as the orchestrators of the enterprise planned, the ship, its passengers, and the stories both tell continue to echo through the state’s history. Back in 2007, historian Sylviane Anna Diouf provided what still stands as the best account of the famed voyage and the lives of the passengers in Dreams of Africa in Alabama: The Slave Ship Clotilda and the Story of the Last Africans Brought to America. I recently had an opportunity to listen to an audiobook version of the publication. Diouf is currently a visiting scholar at the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice at Brown University and an authority on slavery and the African Disapora. Her award-winning book chronicles the story of the Clotilda and tracks the lives of those transported within its hold during and after the voyage. With gritty detail she relates how the effort to purchase them came about, their sale to Americans by other Africans, their heartrending experiences in the voyage across the Atlantic, and their years as slaves on south Alabama plantations prior to emancipation at the end of the Civil War. Over half of the book is devoted to telling the story of one of the most unique legacies of the shipmates in the form of a community some of them eventually established called African Town.

Located adjacent to and north of the city of Mobile, this community traces its origins to a small group of the formerly enslaved men and women who arrived in the area on the Clotilda. It survives today as a highway-bisected, heavily industrialized and rather nondescript suburb of Mobile known as Africatown. Still, it is a significant historic site whose origins speak of an era about as far removed from current circumstances as can be imagined. As candidly admitted by Diouf in the narrative, however, there are many details about it, its inhabitants, and to what degree they had any connections with other shipmates scattered across Alabama and beyond in the chaotic years of Reconstruction that are lost to history. What is known and related about the community in Dreams of Africa is nonetheless a compelling tale of perseverance and determination of a proud and confident small group of people. The true African-Americans featured in the book held fast to the culture of their native lands even after decades of life in America. They came from sophisticated societies and did their best to hold on to valued traditions despite their circumstances. The book is, in summary, an enlightening overview of an aspect of Alabama’s rich history that for too long has been scarcely known beyond its most basic sensationalized facts and surrounded in mystery or buried within inaccurate supposition. Diouf deserves credit for fleshing out this remarkable tale in comprehensible fashion.

The true value of Diouf’s book for historians may ultimately lie less in the attempt to piece together the fragmentary evidence of what life was like in the small community of African Town (whose cohesiveness as some sort of African exile in truth continues to be exaggerated) than in providing a contextual case study of what life was like for black people in the American South in the era. The narrative the author tells centers on a few key individuals whose documentary record is robust enough to build a story around. Through their biographies, put together via an impressive demonstration of research that involved combing seemingly every source imaginable including family lore, Diouf illustrates in rare form how former slaves transitioned into the quasi-freedom of late nineteenth century Alabama. The Africans at the heart of the story were clearly a unique subset of that population, viewed as outsiders to a degree even by other blacks during and after enslavement, but the trials and tribulations of the main characters in the book are a powerful testimony to aspects of shared heritage nonetheless.

African Town existed as a unique settlement, if not an organized town in the American sense, for as long as its founders lived. It seems that the community ultimately came to the attention of the wider world as its pioneers were passing off the scene. In stories recorded by writers such as the noted Zora Neale Hurston in the early twentieth century, African Town became a curiosity viewed as an abstract physical connection to a troubled past. It intrigues still to this day, due in no small part to two especially resonant tangible aspects of its special saga; the few seconds of grainy footage of African Town’s most famous resident, Cudjo Lewis (Kossola), shot in 1928, and the recent discovery of the ship that brought him here. African Town’s story promises to be more widely known and commemorated than ever in the years to come. Certainly other historians will take a look at what Diouf has chronicled, and perhaps they will be also able to add to our knowledge in their own way. But Dreams of Africa is a landmark publication that promises to be essential reading for anyone interested in the Clotilda, African Town, or post Civil-War Alabama for many years.


Review of Civil War Baton Rouge, Port Hudson, and Bayou Sara: Capturing the Mississippi, by Dennis J. Dufrene

8 Dec

Seeking a book to discuss the Civil War battle of Baton Rouge, we chose Dennis Dufrene’s Civil War Baton Rouge, Port Hudson and Bayou Sara; Capturing the Mississippi. Part of the History Press’s Civil War Sesquicentennial Series, we hoped to read a solid, concise overview of the battles and campaigns fought in Louisiana to determine who would control the all-important Mississippi River.  Unfortunately, this book provided only a disjointed narrative about the war in Louisiana that left us with no more understanding than we had before we read it.

Dufrene, a former ranger at Audubon State Historic Site, obviously shares our strong passion for history and sought to provide an overview of the fighting along the lower Mississippi River from the campaign to capture New Orleans in the spring of 1862 all the way through the fall of Port Hudson in 1863 and the final skirmishes in the area in 1864. He states there were at least twenty-three times the Union and Confederate forces met in combat throughout Louisiana and he seeks to focus on the ones that impacted who would control the Mississippi River. After a brief overview of the Union capture of the Crescent City, he focuses more on the fights to control Baton Rouge and Port Hudson while also discussing other smaller affairs at places like Donaldsonville. Bayou Sara, and Labadieville.

Not being overly familiar with these areas, we were expecting Dufrene to provide some historic or custom maps to help us place these affairs in geographical context. In this regard we were sorely disappointed. As a consequence of this glaring omission, we felt we had a poor grasp on the story the author was attempting to tell from the start. But even more importantly, we felt lost in trying to understand how all the smaller affairs Dufrene touched on fit into the bigger picture of the war on the lower Mississippi. Containing numerous chapters of as few as two pages of text, the book skips around to various events large and small and was sometimes cursory in the extreme in its content. Rather than demonstrate the interconnectedness of the various events discussed, the author provides only vague overviews and in numerous instances provides virtually no analysis at all or states in straightforward fashion that they were of little consequence. In too many cases, he seems to state that why troops were at a given place at all is unknown or unclear. Overall, the book is a rather perplexing production, lacking clear scope and purpose, offering summaries of campaigns so shallow as to leave many more questions than answers, and failing in the most basic respects to inform readers about the subjects it purports to chronicle.

We salute the author’s initiative in attempting to provide an overview of one of the Civil War’s most overlooked theaters, and believe he is more informed about the subjects of the book than the publication suggests. We do not think the overall poor quality of the book is his fault alone. Admittedly, the History Press (an imprint of Arcadia Publishing) is not an academic outfit and gears many of its publications to a general reading audience. It also relies more heavily on authors to edit their own work than some other publishers. We have published with them previously and been pleased with the results. But how this particular book made it past any team of editors is a mystery. It has the appearance of a raw, unedited manuscript with little attention paid to proofing or obtaining illustrations that would actually help tell the story it relates. There are numerous typographical and grammatical errors, repetitive sentences, and a host of other missteps which should have been caught by the publisher and would have improved the book’s presentation. As authors ourselves, we know the amount of work that goes into the production of any manuscript and regret that the author of this book was not given more guidance and assistance. Owing to a host of shortcomings, we are unable to recommend this to anyone. While the historiography of the Civil War along the lower Mississippi is rather thin, readers seeking an understanding of how the contest unfolded there must still look elsewhere.


Review of The Capture of New Orleans, 1862, by Chester G. Hearn

1 Dec

The Confederacy suffered numerous defeats throughout the Civil War, all of which figured in varying capacities to it ultimately losing its bid for independence. One that occurred relatively early in the conflict, but which has never gotten the recognition it deserves for its contribution to Confederate defeat, was the capture of New Orleans in April of 1862. New Orleans at the time was the South’s largest city and second to only New York City in terms of volume of commerce. Its loss was a crushing blow to Southern independence. Chester Hearn, a recently deceased historian and writer of over thirty books, chronicles the Union’s effort to capture the city and the South’s feeble attempt to secure it in his well-written and authoritative account of the campaign, The Capture of New Orleans, 1862.

Both Federal and Confederate forces understood the importance of New Orleans to the Southern economy and morale, but Confederate leadership seemed confused about how to go about defending it. Early in the war, Southern leadership did not seem overly concerned for the city’s safety as troops gathered there to defend the region were sent elsewhere to more threatened sectors. As the war progressed, officials thought the biggest threat to the city came from the northern reaches of the river where newly built Union ironclads caused great fear. Forts Jackson and St. Philip guarded approaches from the south although many, including P.G.T. Beauregard, feared the forts were not strong enough to prevent intrusion from the Union navy.  Few seriously contemplated an expedition from the Gulf aimed at capturing the city, though. Jefferson Davis himself believed the Union’s large, wooden, ocean going vessels could not navigate against the river’s current and never ordered adequate plans made against such a maneuver. These assumptions and mistakes would all prove devastating.

Admiral David Farragut would lead the Union forces to capture the city. The plan, developed in part by his ambitious foster brother David Porter, involved transferring his naval ships from the Gulf of Mexico into the Mississippi River, passing the two forts, then steaming further upriver to capture the city. Porter would use mortar boats to blast the forts into submission or at least weaken them severely for Farragut to make his daring passage. Benjamin Butler would command ground troops to storm the forts from the rear if necessary. The climatic passage took place at night on April 24 after Porter’s mortar boats bombarded the forts for several days. In a smoke-filled, artillery-pierced and confused action amongst warships and land-based batteries pieced together in a clear and engaging narrative by Hearn, Farragut’s ships made a triumphant passage through a chain barrier strung across the river by the Rebels, shook off fire from the forts and pushed aside a small makeshift Confederate fleet to bypass the primary obstacle before New Orleans. It is a shame the action below New Orleans is not more well known among readers of Civil War history, for it is as dramatic and harrowing a chronicle as occurred in the annals of the war on the waters. Hearn’s attention to detail provides the reader with a blow-by-blow account of those dramatic moments. Farragut’s ships reached the city shortly afterward and after some tense moments, gained the defenseless town’s surrender.

Hearn’s account contains not only the thrilling minute-by-minute details of the military action at Forts Jackson and St. Phillip, but also the intriguing in-fighting among the Union and Confederate leadership. Both jockeyed for shares of the laurels of victory and to avoid the stigma of blame for defeat. Hearn includes details of the feud between Butler and Porter, who fought for years to be recognized for their roles in the affair. He also includes a brief discussion of the results of the court of inquiry for Mansfield Lovell, the Confederate commander who sought vindication as he had been vilified by Davis and the rest of the South for losing the city. In this discussion he pinpoints some of the most damning evidence of Confederate decision-making as contributing to the defeat. Not only did the Southern Navy fail to make its two ironclads then under construction, the Mississippi and the Louisiana, serviceable, but it failed to use the forces at its disposal to best advantage. The Confederates ultimately were forced to scuttle both unfinished ironclads to prevent capture, their flaming hulks becoming powerful symbols of ineptitude. Similar to other Confederate defeats in the western theater of the war, there was plenty of blame to go around.

At the end of the day after the fall of New Orleans, the Union had full control of the southern portion of the mighty Mississippi River, completely stifling trade opportunities, crippling commerce, and rendering a devastating blow to morale among civilians. Perhaps more importantly, the loss of the city kept European nations neutral at a time when many of them had seriously considered intervention. Hearn’s narrative expertly illustrates this campaign and the devastating loss it was to the Confederacy and is the definitive study of this often-overlooked chapter in the war. The fall of New Orleans was one of many failures suffered in the western theater; disasters that eventually led to the South’s capitulation.