Archive | January, 2021

Review of World War One, A Short History, by Norman Stone

26 Jan

“The way was open for a second World War even more terrible than the first.”  This strong statement concludes World War One: A Short History with a prophetic warning and is just one of many excellent points by renowned author Norman Stone. Stone, whose works include the award-winning The Eastern Front 1914-1917 and the similar titled World War Two: A Short History, provides a concise and quick moving narrative about this horrendous conflict at the beginning of the twentieth century that unfortunately helped pave the way for a far more deadly one a generation later.

In only 190 pages of text, Stone provides a solid description of the events leading to war, the war itself, and its aftermath. Stone discusses Europe in 1914 and the tragic events that led to a global catastrophe. He skillfully discusses how war transformed from cavalry charges to the horrors of trench warfare and finally, the elements of modern war with tanks, aircraft and the offensive maneuvers that mirrored the future Blitzkrieg of World War II. Although the focus tends to fall upon the Western Front, he does not lose sight of the plight of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires, Italy’s struggles, and the eventual fall of Czarist Russia which gave Germany a chance to achieve victory before the United States fully mobilized. Germany’s last ditch effort to win failed, leading to a decisive treaty at Versailles, punishment for Germany, and a false, yet powerful notion that Germany was not really defeated, but prevented from winning. This belief allowed Adolph Hitler to promote his extreme nationalistic program. Stone interspersed the drama with wit and wisdom and left us some gems in quotes such as referring to the Zimmerman telegram that led the United States to entering the war as “Germany’s suicide note.”

Having listened to the work rather than read it provided some difficulties. Following the military action did get confusing at times as one could not look at maps. But overall, the listening experience, at just five hours, was highly enjoyable. However, this (audio) book provided an outstanding overview of the conflict for one not overly knowledgeable of it. Stone’s writing is superb, allowing for readers (or listeners) to plow through at a rapid pace.  One does wonder how much of this epic drama is lost when confined to under two hundred pages and someone wanting a more detailed study should look to the works of John Keegan and others.


Review of the Darkest Days of the War: The Battles for Iuka and Corinth, by Peter Cozzens

19 Jan

Mississippi Civil War historiography is dominated by the struggle for Vicksburg and control over the Mississippi River. The importance of Corinth, the strategic city in northeast Mississippi situated at the junction of two vitally important railroads, has not gotten nearly the attention it deserves.  Peter Cozzens, retired U.S. Foreign Services Officer and author of several books on the Civil War’s western theater, seeks to remedy that situation with The Darkest Days of the War, The Battles for Iuka and Corinth. Although published twenty years ago, this volume remains the most complete study of these important, but mainly little-known battles fought in the Magnolia State.

Following the battle of Shiloh and the Union capture of Corinth, Northern armies yielded the initiative to the Confederacy in the spring of 1862. Confederate General Braxton Bragg transported the main force that lost at Shiloh to East Tennessee to combine with Kirby Smith’s Southern forces to invade Kentucky during the lull in activity. Bragg committed a huge error, however, when he failed to establish unified command with the troops he left in Mississippi. Earl Van Dorn and Sterling Price both led separate armies that were not under one command and both interpreted Bragg’s instructions differently in terms of providing support for Bragg’s campaign. This led to Price acting independently and fighting alone at Iuka on September 19, where his force attacked one of two separate Union wings which were trying to converge upon him. Ulysses S. Grant failed to coordinate the forces properly and allowed Price to disengage after pushing his opponent back. Cozzens provides an excellent narrative of the small, yet bloody battle and explains in great detail the clash centering on the 11th Ohio Battery which was the focus of the battle.

Following Iuka, Price marched his men to join with Van Dorn’s forces to assault Corinth. Corinth had been ringed with strong fortifications begun by the Confederates during their occupation and improved by the Union once they garrisoned the place. His force, only slightly outnumbering the entrenched Union force at Corinth under the leadership of William Rosecrans, underwent a forced march with limited supplies and through extreme heat.  Cozzens describes how many of the solders marched wearily and without much hope knowing the solid earthworks that they would face. Confederate forces achieved some success on the first day’s battle on October 3 and according to Cozzens, perhaps could have captured the city had Mansfield Lovell’s division been more aggressive. The overnight hours allowed the Union forces to strengthen their lines and the Confederate attack the next day was beaten back with heavy casualties. Again, Cozzens’ narrative shines in his description of the battle, his portrayal of the action along Battery Robinett being especially compelling. Van Dorn eventually pulled his forces back and sought to escape. Again, poor coordination from Grant, who lacked his typical aggressiveness, prevented Van Dorn’s army from being destroyed. Rosecrans himself said he heard from Confederate officers who exclaimed “they were never so scared in their lives as they were after the defeat before Corinth.”

Iuka and Corinth simply added to the growing list of Confederate failures in the west by the fall of 1862. Poor leadership was to blame, this time being provided by Van Dorn and Lovell. Bragg, although perhaps dubiously, claimed these losses contributed to his failed campaign in Kentucky. Cozzens’s account is well-written and researched and is supported by excellent maps.  Few Civil War books on battles equal his ability to succinctly, but in excellent detail, relay the fighting in such dramatic prose and style. We highly recommend this book to any seeking both a riveting account of a pivotal but overlooked battle and additional evidence of how Confederate ineptitude in the west squandered any possibilities for success. 


Review of Daniel Boone: The Life and Legend of an American Pioneer, by John Mack Faragher

12 Jan

Rarely have I enjoyed reading a biography as much as I did John Mack Faragher’s account of the life of American legend Daniel Boone. Daniel Boone: The Life and Legend of an American Pioneer, originally appeared in 1993. I recently got a chance to listen to an audiobook version of the publication. Faragher is currently the Howard R. Lamar Professor of History and American Studies at Yale University and an accomplished historian of America’s early westward expansion. At the time of the book’s publication, it stood as the first professional biography of Boone in more than fifty years.

In the pages of The Life and Legend of an American Pioneer, Faragher tracks Boone as he blazed his figurative iconic trail across the early American west in the late 1700s and early 1800s. From Boone’s birth in colonial Pennsylvania, his youth in the backwoods of North Carolina, his exploits in the vanguard of American settlement of Kentucky, to his last days on the frontier of Missouri, Faragher explores his subject’s life and times. The story is truly high drama, for Boone lived an extraordinary life filled with enough real heroics to make his experience incredible without the myths that, even during his own time, exaggerated it in its reality. Boone was a man who braved the wilderness alone for extended times even in is middle-age years and literally lived off the land, was captured by Indians and lived to tell the tale, fought in desperate Revolutionary-era battles, rescued his own daughter from Shawnee raiders, and yes, managed to slay quite a few bears in the process. He traveled widely, exploring on foot enormous tracts of western frontier on months-long hunting expeditions that made him as informed about the trans-Appalachian region as any man during his era.

Faragher pieces together his highly entertaining narrative by relying on diverse sources of documentation on Boone. He gathers scraps of information on the man from seemingly every documentary source available, and includes healthy doses of creditable lore but always is clear to separate verified fact from supposition. He places the whole adventure-filled story in the context of the times and gives attention to the formation of the Boone legend as a fundamental American prototype in the process. This includes a bit of dissection of Boone historiography which helps the reader understand the difference between fantastic tales and pure fantasy, but it also drives home the point that Boone’s life was quite literally the stuff of legend. The reason he was a larger than life figure even during his own time is because he was to some degree, in truth, supremely brave, determined, resourceful, and hearty. In an era of swaggering backwoodsmen and self-made men in the truest sense of the term, Boone stood out as among the most accomplished of them all.

But Faragher’s account is a balanced understanding of the man that candidly reveals his failures and shortcomings as much as his near-superhuman endurance. Boone dabbled in politics, surveying, land speculation, and a variety of business dealings over the course of his rather long life (he died at age 85), all to rather lackluster results. His last move, conducted in his late 60s from the state of Kentucky with which he is so associated, to Missouri, came about as much from his continuing pursuit of elusive financial stability as much as from a desire to again escape into an unsettled wilderness frontier. Through it all, Faragher demonstrates, Boone remained an American original. He was no saint—admittedly taking Indian land even as he professed to admire their culture and lifestyle—not successful in everything he undertook by any stretch, and our memory of him is still today embellished with no small measure of nostalgic legend. But he was and is the very embodiment of the type of independent, hearty pioneer who developed much of the American interior and transformed the land in his image. Today there are many accounts of the man’s life to choose from for those wanting to learn about its specifics, many of strong merit and based in solid research. Few, though, are written with more flair or a more comprehensive understanding of Boone’s place in early America than Life and Legend.


Review of The Deepest South of All: True Stories from Natchez, Mississippi, by Richard Grant

5 Jan

“Natchez is unlike any place in America, existing almost outside time.” This quote by author Greg Iles perhaps best describes the small, yet eccentric Mississippi River town struggling to come face-to-face with its past. Renowned author Richard Grant would agree with Iles’s assessment. Grant’s latest study The Deepest South of All, True Stories from Natchez, Mississippi paints a fascinating picture of this fascinating Mississippi community in a similar fashion as he did for the Mississippi Delta in his previous award-winning book Dispatches from Pluto.

Mississippi’s most historic city, Natchez is named after the “Notchee” Indians, who lived in the area for hundreds of years. Upon European contact, the French, English, and Spanish all took turns attempting to rule the regon. But the area is most known for its antebellum years where the region’s rich soil led to the cotton boom where wealthy planters built grandiose mansions in and around town. Of course, the enormous wealth was built upon the backs of enslaved blacks who reaped none of these benefits. The area did not support secession and when Union forces approached the town, city leaders quickly surrendered to protect their homes and possessions from destruction. Post war years had not been kind to the town which was in dire straits until prominent ladies in the 1930s decided to open their deteriorating houses to the public to showcase their version of the Old South, complete with ladies in hoopskirts and black maids dressed like mammies. This one-sided interpretation proved to be an overwhelming success by funneling much needed tourism revenue to help not only the struggling town, but provide money to preserve the homes themselves.

Fast forward to more recent years and these annual pilgrimages of homes and the Tableaux, a large dramatic production highlighting the history of the town and its way of life, are struggling with diminishing crowds and interest in this “old school” interpretation. Enter Grant who spent a considerable amount of time in the town, meeting many key, captivating personalities whose extraordinary tales practically wrote the book itself for Grant.  Competing garden/pilgrimage clubs who vie to control pilgrimage and Tableaux. Outrageous antebellum home owners telling wild and bizarre stories of their homes and visitors.  Even the story of former Natchez madam Nellie Jackson who ran her “business” with no interference from the law. These tales seem so crazy they can’t be true. Grant concludes that Natchez is mainly matriarchal; the women run the town. Men are mostly irrelevant. The prevalence of alcohol at all societal functions, big or small, makes one wonder if anyone is ever sober. Eccentricity runs deeper than deep. One resident simply described the atmosphere by saying, “We don’t hide our skeletons in the closet. We set them down on the front porch and tie a bow on them.”

More telling is the issue of race. Natchez has survived off the telling of the grand Old South with hardly a mention of slavery. Personalities like African American Museum Director Darrell White and Ser Seshsh Ab Heter-CM Boxley are trying to change that, but it is a difficult and tough road. Boxley was the driving force for the interpretation of Forks of the Road Slave Market, which at one time was the South’s 2nd largest slave market but for years was hardly identified and contained zero interpretation. Many residents, however, still shy away from the subject with many homeowners not wanting to include the story of slavery as part of their tour. Some visitors have exclaimed, “We all know it happened, so why do they keep shoving it down our throats? We’re on vacation, can’t they just let us enjoy the pretty old buildings?”  As Grant narrates, change is occurring, but like many things in Natchez, it happens ever so slowly.

Grant chooses to intersperse throughout his overall narrative the story of Abdul-Rahman ibn Ibrahima Sori. Grant based his information upon Terry Alford’s Prince Among Slaves, which Grant calls the best book ever written on Natchez. Ibrahima’s story is a sad, yet fascinating tale of a royal prince from Guinea who is captured and transported across the ocean to eventually become the property of Thomas Foster in Natchez. In an odd twist of fate over thirty years later, Ibrahima is recognized by someone who encountered him in Africa years before and eventually, with the local help of Washington political players Henry Clay and John Quincy Adams, is purchased, along with his wife, and set free.  Ibrahima eventually makes his way back to Africa, but sadly, he dies before freeing his children and returning to his native community. Grant is obviously very moved by this tragic story and uses it as a backdrop for his entire narrative of the town’s difficult past with slavery.

The Deepest South of All is a compelling story and Grant’s easy writing style allows the reader to proceed at a brisk pace. Grant admits the town and its continuing saga has “hooked” him as his fascination continues to grow. He and his wife contemplated moving there to soak in the magnificent view from the bluffs, the lovely houses on pretty streets as well as the wonderful hospitality and stories. They decided against it mainly due to the poorly performing schools and as the wife put it, “It’s a small town in Mississippi. They act like it’s the center of the world. If you’re not from here, or writing about here, or talking about here, you don’t count.” As someone who travels to the area frequently for work and pleasure, I completely understand these thoughts. Natchez is a wonderful place to visit and soak up its unique culture. Grant’s narrative provides a great glimpse for others who do not have the opportunity to visit. It is a journey not to be missed.