Archive | March, 2021

Review of With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa, by Eugene B. Sledge

30 Mar

Referred to by some as perhaps the best memoir of its type in American military history, With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa is a personal and poignant account of World War II in the Pacific. The book was compiled by its author, Mobile native Eugene B. Sledge, years after the trial of combat from notes and memory and first published in 1981. I was able to listen to an audiobook version of the title recently, introduced by none other than acclaimed actor Tom Hanks and featuring one of the best readings (by Joe Mazzello) I have had the pleasure to listen to. So much has been written about the volume, which has sold hundreds of thousands of copies and famously informed such noted documentaries as Ken Burns’s The War and the HBO miniseries The Pacific, that I will keep my comments here brief.

This book is powerful and subtly eloquent. It brings what the desperate combat on isolated Pacific islands against a determined enemy was really like with a crystal-clear and emotional clarity in a style only the best writers can hope to duplicate. It is brutally honest, describing in detail scenes too terrible to contemplate as the war brought out an almost inhuman type of barbarity; gruesome injuries, troops laboring amidst the stench of decomposing bodies under the realization any moment might be their last, and the heartrending spectacle of men breaking down when pushed beyond the brink of what they could mentally endure. Yet at the same time the extraordinary heroism which is so frequently on display amongst young men thrust into the awful responsibilities of war is recognized in the pages of the book—refusal to leave an injured buddy on the field and the willingness to put one’s life on the line when almost certain death awaited the deed. If you are unmoved by the material recounted by the author in this book, you must have no soul. 

What the book is not is sentimental or didactic. Sledge, nicknamed “Sledgehammer” by his Marine compatriots, offers an unvarnished and straightforward account of his experiences that allows readers to make their own of what it means in the bigger picture. He chooses not to ring his combat record in the aura of patriotism or noble duty fulfilled. This does not mean he is dispassionate, however, as he provides liberal doses of descriptions of moments of exhilaration and pathos which help the reader understand fully events being described. Neither is he boastful, either, freely admitting the crippling fear he, and others at one time or another, felt during the vicious and disorienting fighting when air, sea, and land were all consumed by the maelstrom of combat. Sledge offers few overt moral lessons to be gleaned from his narrative, save for perhaps a general disillusion with the effectiveness of warfare. If you want a clear-eyed account of the reality of war and the strength of the bonds of camaraderie, With the Old Breed should be on your reading list. You will be better off for the experience.


Review of The Story of French New Orleans: History of a Creole City, by Dianne Guenin-Lelle

23 Mar

New Orleans revels in its French heritage and is famously America’s most European of cities. Its unique cultural history has translated into a special niche in tourism and almost an entire field of cultural study unto itself. But history fails to give us a straightforward answer as to why New Orleans retains the aura of being a bastion of French culture amidst a sea of English and Spanish influence in the broader region of which it is a part. True, it was founded by French colonists and remained a French city in its early years, but that experience was well in its past by the time it began to grow into a substantial city in the late 1700s. New Orleans underwent more growth as a Spanish colonial city than it had under French rule, and its development as a part of the early American republic was much more pronounced than either of those colonial interludes. In truth there is almost no physical manifestation of the French period in New Orleans today; the architecture of the famous French Quarter is actually Spanish and American.

Wrestling with the city’s longstanding identity with its earliest and numerically smallest European founders is Dianne Guenin-Lelle in The Story of French New Orleans: History of a Creole City. The book was originally published by the University Press of Mississippi in 2016. Guenin-Lellereceived her PhD in French literature from LSU, and is currently professor of French at Albion College. Previously, she co-authored Prison Narratives of Jeanne Guyon and Jeanne Guyon: Selected Writings.

In her book, Guenin-Lelle takes a broad look at how French culture came to so permeate life in New Orleans by examining a range of factors including race, religion, and governance. Interestingly to historians of the region, she points to the arrival of refugees from Haiti in the nineteenth century as likely playing as important a role in the city’s enduring French identity as its French-Canadian founders of the eighteenth century. But readers beware, this is no narrative history of cultural heritage in lower Louisiana. It is an academic treatise as much philosophical as literal, and over half of the book is simply an overview of regional literature. It is a slow and difficult read (or listen—I checked out the audiobook version), and ends up venturing far indeed from any traditional thesis on cultural identity as it becomes more of a literary review after the opening chapters. The book no doubt will be regarded as a major contribution to the study of Francophone literature and cultural arts by the narrow group of academics engaged in that field, but for historians looking for a comprehensible narrative about the region’s enduring celebration of its seemingly thin French heritage based in historical facts, I advise you to look elsewhere.


Review of No Better Place to Die, the Battle of Stones River, by Peter Cozzens

16 Mar

Following the first day of battle along Stones River near Murfreesboro, Tennessee, Union General William Rosecrans met with his troop commanders to determine if their army should retreat after getting mauled by Confederate troops. One of those subordinates, George Thomas reportedly exclaimed, “General, I know of no better place to die than right here.” Historian Peter Cozzens not only included this powerful quote in his narrative of this key Civil War clash, he used it as his title.  In No Better Place to Die, the Battle of Stones River, Cozzens provides a detailed analysis of yet another horrific clash in the Western Theater where failures in Confederate leadership contributed to Union success.

Following his failed Kentucky campaign in the fall of 1862, Confederate General Braxton Bragg stationed his forces near Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and awaited the next move by Union forces. Morale in the army had plummeted and serious doubts from solders and his lieutenants about his leadership arose. Cozzens explains that Confederate President Jefferson Davis’s decision not to remove Bragg from command at the time had dire repercussions for the fight at Stones River. Besides leaving a man in command the army did not trust, Davis also negatively impacted the upcoming campaign when he transferred 7,500 men from Bragg’s army to Vicksburg to thwart an impending attack in that sector.

Opposing Bragg in the coming battle was newly installed General William Rosecrans, who had replaced the ineffective Don Carlos Buell. Rosecrans was pushed to action by leaders in Washington so Rosecrans marched out in late December of 1862 from Nashville. As the armies neared each other, both commanders made plans to attack his opponent’s right flank. Bragg’s attack simply launched sooner and his men succeeding in pushing the Union troops back when the armies initially engaged on December 31, 1862. Only determined resistance led by Philip Sheridan and Rosecrans himself, who was seen prominently on the battlefield, prevented a complete collapse of the Federal force. Lack of additional troops to perform one final push at the crucial place on the battlefield prevented Confederate forces from gaining complete success. Shockingly, Cozzens does not mention those transferred 7,500 men who might have proven significant. But that is assuming Bragg would have used them wisely in the first place. Regardless, the first day ended with Confederate forces controlling a large portion of the battlefield. Bragg thought the Union forces would soon retreat; they did not, leading to disastrous results for the Confederate two days into the New Year.

On January 2, 1863, Bragg felt he had to continue pressing and decided to attack the untested Union left. Rosecrans made another wise decision to shore up this portion of the battlefield with troops. Although Bragg’s subordinates, especially John Breckenridge, pleaded not to attack this positon, the assault did achieve initial success until over forty Union cannon decimated Confederate attackers as they tried to cross Stones River, putting an end to the attack.

Bragg now faced the same decision that Rosecrans had faced earlier, remain or retreat. He polled his subordinates, most of whom either supported retreat or recommended it themselves. Bragg therefore made the decision to retreat, gaining more enmity from those around him and in Richmond. Most of his soldiers were stunned since many had thought they had whipped the Yankees. It had become a familiar pattern to these soldiers after Perryville and now Murfreesboro; launch an assault and push the enemy back only to retreat afterwards.

Cozzens focuses great attention during the book on the Confederate high command. Whether it was the fractured relationship between Bragg and John C. Breckenridge, poor leadership during the battle by a drunken Frank Cheatham, or Leonidas Polk’s launching of piecemeal attacks at a fortified position, Cozzens provides plenty of examples of failures in Confederate leadership. Cozzens definitely places failure to win a substantial victory on Bragg and then afterwards, discusses the intrigue surrounding attempts to replace him as leader of the Army of Tennessee following Stones River. It is obvious to these reviewers that regardless of where ultimate blame needed to be placed, it seemed foolish to leave Bragg in command following the Kentucky campaign and Stones River. The soldiers and more importantly, upper leadership, had no faith that Bragg could lead the army to victory. As one Confederate soldier put it, “Bragg’s army? He’s got none; he shot half of them in Kentucky, and the other half got killed up at Murfreesboro.”

Cozzens has written a thorough account of the battle which at times is almost too detailed. His narrative is so exhaustive in the tracking of troop movements all the way down to the regimental level that it at times leaves the reader overwhelmed and confused to the point they may miss the bigger picture of how the battle developed as they fumble through enumerations of regiments and commanders.  There are several maps accompanying the text, but they never seem to be as many as are needed or clear enough to allow the reader to determine exactly how the action is transpiring. Cozzens’s analysis of command issues, especially after the battle is top notch. He does jump immediately into this analysis, without fully completing an evaluation of the battle itself. For instance, there are not even casualty figures listed. Although published over thirty years ago and notwithstanding these critiques, No Better Place to Die remains the authoritative account of this crucial battle.


A Royal Pain-Revisited

9 Mar

The British Royal Family is in the news again for all the wrong reasons following an interview of Prince Harry and his wife Meghan Markle by Oprah Winfrey. Several disconcerting allegations of how the two have been treated since getting married are at the heart of the discussion, as well as hints of racism. It is all another sordid chapter in a story than inexplicably continues to enthrall Americans.  We touched upon this ridiculous infatuation with an entry in this blog back in 2013 when Prince Harry and Kate had their first child.  We feel it only appropriate to re-share the blog again now as a timely commentary on the continuing irrelevance of an archaic, and apparently very flawed, monarchy. The very monarchy, we like to remind readers, that our forebears fought to establish their independence from over almost two and a half centuries ago.

Original posting of July 24, 2013:

We guess we should join the hordes of people and offer our congratulations to Prince William and Princess Kate on the birth of their first child. We acknowledge and offer our blessing to them as much as we would any others on the joy it is to bring a new life into this world.  The great hysteria and unbelievable fanfare over this event, however, borders on the ridiculous. We are amazed and stunned that so many people are so infatuated by this birth as well as the other comings and goings of the British Royal Family, a dysfunctional and archaic lot if there ever was one. Are our personal lives so pathetic that we only find meaning in the lives of these privileged few whose obsolete and meaningless titles are their only claim to fame?  We equate this infatuation with those who follow every move of the Kardashians. To borrow an often used colloquialism, I think there are many people who simply need to “Get a Life!”

Royal watcher

Examining this fascination from an historical aspect is even more confusing. Our nation owes its existence to the courageous efforts of patriots who eschewed birthrights and royal entitlement in favor of self-sufficiency and a chance to achieve greatness on your own ability. We won our independence from the British in the American Revolution and then 30 years later secured it during the War of 1812. We later saved England two times during the World Wars in the 20th century. And yet many of our citizens still focus their attention on the other side of the Atlantic and the Royal Family as if anachronistic nobility, funded in their lavish lifestyles by taxpayers, still has either merit or relevance. It should make us cringe to hear the repeated references to “nobility” and “commoners” being bandied about in reference to the royal family. Maybe it is the Cinderella fairy tale aspect of it or simply a desire to look toward those we feel are somehow greater than us, or maybe, as noted in an earlier blog, we are just searching for heroes.  If that is the case, we should search elsewhere, because the Royal Family does not offer anything to truly admire to an American! The very notion of royalty flies in the face of the principles upon which men like Washington and Jefferson founded this country, and those such as Jackson and Lincoln championed.


Review of Mr. Lincoln’s Brown Water Navy: The Mississippi Squadron, by Gary D. Joiner

2 Mar

The contribution of the Union Navy in achieving victory over the Confederacy has long been underappreciated. As a whole, scholars have focused their studies on armies, commanders, and land battles rather than on the naval aspect of war. The blockade of the Southern coastline and the famous Monitor/Virginia ironclad duel has received some attention, but the efforts of the inland navy which helped the Union win many victories along the rivers has not gotten the full credit it deserves. Gary D. Joiner traces those efforts in Mr. Lincoln’s Brown Water Navy, The Mississippi Squadron.

General Winfield Scott’s famous Anaconda Plan provided the blueprint for Union victory in the war. Scott proposed to blockade the coastlines and penetrate the southern interior via the rivers to split the Confederacy asunder which would force the South’s capitulation. At the start of the war, however, the Union possessed no ships capable of riverine duty. Several key individuals helped create a force from scratch. Joiner gives special attention to James B. Eads and Samuel Pook, whose efforts helped create the formidable ironclads that gave the Union a war-winning advantage. Along with timberclads, tinclads, and rams, this eventual Mississippi Squadron would eventually dominate the western waters, reducing the effectiveness of fortifications that the Confederacy had built for defense as well as overwhelm the few naval vessels the South could muster.

After the fleet’s creation, Joiner narrates the gunboat flotilla’s role in the campaigns along the western waters. Starting with the decisive victories at Fort Henry and Donelson, he continues through the war in chronological fashion with accounts of actions at Shiloh, Island #10, New Orleans, Arkansas Post, Memphis, Vicksburg and the Red River campaign. Not surprisingly since Joiner has written the definitive book on the latter action, one of the better chapters in terms of narration and detail is that on the efforts along the Red River. The book reads smoothly, informing the reader of the navy’s role in these campaigns in straightforward, matter-of-fact prose. The book contains 175 pages, which includes endnotes and numerous maps and illustrations.

Joiner adequately, and at times definitively, describes all the actions he chronicles, but most of the information is contained in other studies of these individual battles and campaigns. We were hoping for a bit more of an overview analysis that reinforces the thesis that Union naval efforts were paramount to winning the war. The book’s last paragraph does state the war in the West could not have succeeded without the brown water fleet, and perhaps the facts speak for themselves, but a stronger conclusion which outlined how the squadron figured into the overall success of the Union war effort would have made a solid book even better in our opinion.