Archive | April, 2021

Review of Home of the Infantry: The History of Fort Benning by Peggy A. Stelpflug and Richard Hyatt

27 Apr

This review originally appeared in the Summer 2008 edition of the Georgia Historical Quarterly

Home of the Infantry is the first narrative history of one of the oldest and largest military outposts in the world to be published. Historians are indebted to the Historic Chattahoochee Commission, the National Infantry Association, and Mercer University Press for the joint effort to arrange its publication. Part masterful storytelling and part ledger, the book is a comprehensive chronicle of the life and times of one of the most important military installations in the world.

The book details Fort Benning’s history from its rough-and-tumble beginnings in 1918 as a small training station on the outskirts of Columbus, Georgia to one of the largest and most sophisticated installations operated by the United States Army. Everything readers would hope to find regarding the crucial role of the fort in training hundreds of thousands of soldiers to fight in every conflict since World War II is contained in the volume in sixty short, tightly focused chapters. Refreshingly, though, the authors step beyond that most basic of stories and attempt to place Fort Benning in the context of the national and international events to which it was called on to respond. They also explore the post’s role as a proving ground for weapons platforms and technology that are ubiquitous in the heritage of the U.S. Infantry, such as the jeep, the Bradley fighting vehicle, and helicopters. Equally important, the authors detail the role played by Fort Benning in pioneering the Airborne and Ranger training that have become its hallmark.

Stelpflug and Hyatt’s narrative is not strictly a military history, however. Through analysis of the fort’s evolving mission to train soldiers over the course of ninety years, they explore the many ways Fort Benning has become a participant in some of the more consequential struggles that transcend the base itself. The role of women and blacks in the military, and by extension American society in general, is given attention in this history. Likewise, questions about America’s influence in the modern world are reflected in candid and objective discussions of the connection between Fort Benning and the controversial School of the Americas, the Vietnam War, and America’s military involvement in the Middle East.

Despite the scope of their work, the authors never lose sight of the fact that this is in the end a history of a single military installation. By skillfully interspersing accounts of on-post events with those of the larger world, readers learn just how far Fort Benning has come from its early days, when it held a notorious reputation for having some of the most primitive conditions of any military post in the U.S., to become an installation that routinely wins awards for overall effectiveness and working conditions. Luminary figures in American military history including Omar Bradley, Dwight D. Eisenhower, George C. Marshall, George Patton and Colin Powell are integrally involved in Fort Benning’s past and occupy prominent spots in Home of the Infantry. These leaders are just a few of the most well-known with connections to Fort Benning through which the authors relate the post’s story.

It is no coincidence that the authors are actually at their best when relating the history of the fort through the lives of the soldiers, civilian employees, and government leaders associated with it. A self-proclaimed “military wife” and English teacher, Stelpflug is well-acquainted with the trials of military families, and Hyatt is an award-winning Columbus journalist with over forty years of experience. As a result, the book is written in a lively journalistic style that unfolds more as a series of short and insightful stories than a continuous narrative; a technique that makes the five hundred sixty seven-page book a much less intimidating read one might ordinarily expect.

Precisely because of this approach, those interested in American military and Georgia history especially will find much of interest in Home of the Infantry. The authors provide a thorough account of the essentially local struggle to establish and maintain the post, and throughout the book they highlight the symbiotic relationship between Fort Benning, the city of Columbus, and the state of Georgia. In this light, stories of everyday life on post that include the perspective of civilian employees and the linking of the development of the base with its host community make the book every bit as much a Georgia story as a national one. In similar manner, discussion of the origins and development of Fort Benning’s National Infantry Museum highlight the ways local citizens have helped shape the interpretation of a national institution. In addition, the book contains an extensive collection of photographs, documenting everything from on-post training and sporting events to visits by leading government officials, that forms an intriguing album of a part of Georgia’s history in itself. Home of the Infantry is a welcome addition to Georgia’s historiography that is sure to remain the standard on its subject for years to come.


Review of The H.L. Hunley: The Secret Hope of the Confederacy, by Tom Chaffin

20 Apr

This review was originally published in the July, 2009 issue of The Alabama Review

On the night of February 17, 1864, the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley sank the U.S.S. Housatonic with a torpedo, becoming the first boat of its type to sink an enemy warship. It quickly assumed legendary status, as much for its accomplishment as the fact that it also disappeared that night and was not recovered for more than 130 years. There has been no shortage of writing about the Hunley since that time, but all too much of it has been filled with errors and based on speculation. In The H.L. Hunley: The Secret Hope of the Confederacy, author Tom Chaffin gives the remarkable craft’s saga the depth, life and accuracy it has deserved for so long.

Chaffin, author of Sea of Gray: The Around-the-World Odyssey of the Confederate Raider Shenandoah,begins by providing perhaps the most-thoroughly researched biographies of the key individuals whose ambition launched the effort to create a functional submarine for the Confederacy: Horace L. Hunley, James McClintock and Baxter Watson. Following them from the New Orleans machine shop where their quest began, he chronicles a journey that eventually included numerous collaborators, several high-ranking military figures and three different submarines. The first boat the group developed, the Pioneer, was scuttled in New Orleans shortly before the city fell into Union hands. A second, the American Diver, sank in Mobile Bay.  

One of the primary strengths of Chaffin’s book is its scope. He provides an informative summary of developments in submarine technology prior to the Civil War and helps readers better understand the difficulties faced by the maritime pioneers he chronicles. Submarines were not easy to build, especially in the Civil War South, and most military authorities had strong reservations about the appropriateness of this new mode of warfare. Chaffin details both the political and technological battles the designers had to overcome in refreshingly clear fashion, and readers will marvel as much at the persistence of the designers as the surprising level of sophistication of the boats they built.

Serious scholars will appreciate that Chaffin’s careful research underpins his effort to rescue a story that has become “encrusted with the barnacles of accumulated lore” (xvii). He relies heavily on seldom used primary sources in his writing, shedding light on the many misunderstood details of the story while simultaneously revealing candidly those aspects of the tale that are unlikely to ever be known. Perhaps most crucial to the book’s unprecedented accuracy, Chaffin uses findings from the ongoing archaeological investigation of the Hunley to provide a thorough account of the boat’s construction and operation. His in-depth discussion of the many legends associated with the submarine, such as the famed blue light which was supposedly flashed from its conning tower after sinking the Housatonic, stand out and do much to separate the book from previous scholarship.  Readers of Alabama history will find especially interesting Chaffin’s fleshing out of the connection between the submarine and the city of Mobile. The city to which Hunley and his compatriots fled after the fall of New Orleans, Mobile figures prominently in the story by virtue of being the location where both the American Diver and Hunley were constructed and tested.

Though Chaffin’s narrative is laden with detail, the book unfolds as a compelling tale that readers will find difficult to put down. Combining a masterful command of his subject with a novelist’s flair for weaving a good story, Chaffin takes readers on an intriguing journey centered on one of the landmark events in maritime history. His narrative shines most brightly in the second half of the book, where he recounts the Hunley’s time in Charleston, South Carolina. With captivating style and vivid detail, Chaffin brings to life the experiences of those who labored and died aboard the boat. He dramatically sets the stage for the boat’s fateful voyage into naval history and helps readers understand the confusion that reigned in the wake of its disappearance by explaining what information was available at the time. To his credit, Chaffin brings the story of the Hunley full circle by including information on its 1995 discovery and subsequent recovery and investigation. 

The H.L. Hunley: The Secret Hope of the Confederacy is much more than yet another account of one of the most unique occurrences of the Civil War. The book provides the most detailed portrait to date of the remarkable boat and places it in the context of worldwide submarine development. Even though Chaffin is admittedly unable to explain every mystery surrounding how “amid the ragged vagaries of a desperate war, its builders managed to design and assemble such a sublimely elegant craft” (p. 255), the attempt currently stands as the preeminent volume on the subject.


Review of Rough Riders: Theodore Roosevelt, His Cowboy Regiment, and the Immortal Charge Up San Juan Hill, by Mark Lee Gardner

13 Apr

Despite the fact that we collectively actually know so little about it, Teddy Roosevelt’s charge up San Juan Hill endures today as an iconic moment in American history. Most people have probably heard of the Rough Riders, but I would venture to guess that a very small portion indeed of our nation’s population can tell you where San Juan Hill is or when or why they were there. A pivotal fight in the short, ten-week long war with Spain which came about over the issue of Cuban independence, the Battle of San Juan Hill was an overwhelming American victory. Here to chronicle the event in a definitive historical narrative is Mark Lee Gardner with Rough Riders: Theodore Roosevelt, His Cowboy Regiment, and the Immortal Charge Up San Juan Hill. I recently listened to an audiobook version of the title.

Gardner comes to the task with an impressive track record of popular books on western history including To Hell on a Fast Horse: The Untold Story of Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett and Shot All To Hell: Jesse James, the Northfield Raid, and the Wild West’s Greatest Escape. In this volume he turns his attention to a legendary event which yet lies in a fog of confusion for even many well-read historians. The book is fast moving, but readers should be aware this is a history of the famed Rough Riders—a unit of western cavalrymen with a smattering of east coast recruits—and their involvement in the Spanish-American War. Therefore over a third of the book is devoted to the process of their organization, training, and travel to the scene of action in Cuba where they would win their immortal fame. Gardner relates their experiences with clarity and rich detail, drawing on a number of first-hand accounts to produce a solid and entertaining narrative of a significant campaign in the Spanish-American War.

Central to the story, of course, is Theodore Roosevelt. The then-thirty-eight year old Teddy would use the fame derived from his exploits in Cuba to assist his rise to become governor of New York and eventually win the presidency. While Roosevelt was such a robust and accomplished man that it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between fact and myth in his life, the truth of his actions on San Juan Hill in July of 1898 is both verified and stunning. Astride his horse, Little Texas, Roosevelt was in the thick of the fight, even personally gunning down a Spaniard with a revolver. For his bravery and leadership he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor—the only president in our history to be so recognized. Gardner brings the fighting on the hills of Cuba to life in his book, conveying the sights, sounds, and chaos of the scene in satisfying fashion. He also addresses, by the way, the longstanding misnomer that the famed charge was actually up a nearby height called Kettle Hill, affirming the battle is indeed appropriately named. Rough Riders is an interesting and detailed account of a legendary event and well worth your time.


Grant’s Nine Lives?

6 Apr

Beginning last spring, Mike and I began a chronological journey of the Civil War west of the Appalachian Mountains.  We started with Wilson’s Creek and are currently in the middle of the Vicksburg Campaign. We have read some outstanding works by many of the leading scholars in the field. General Ulysses S. Grant figures prominently as the key factor in leading Union forces to victory in the West and eventually the war.  Reviewing these battles and campaigns has illustrated that although ultimately successful, Grant suffered near defeat on many occasions, but some luck, inept leadership from his opponents, and his determination staved off defeat.

At his first battle at Belmont, Missouri, his forces initially drove back Confederate forces, but additional southern reinforcements led to a counterattack that overwhelmed Grant’s command. Grant himself barely made it back upon his boat transport to escape, leaping his horse onto its planks barely avoiding capture or worse. 

At Fort Donelson, after Union ironclads failed to silence the fort, Confederate forces launched an attack that pushed back Union forces. Only inept Confederate leadership prevented a larger Confederate victory or at minimum, allowing the Southern force to escape capture.

At Shiloh, Grant camped close to the enemy, but failed to enact any defensive measures. Confederate forces attacked his vulnerable position, driving Grant’s men back throughout the day.  Union reinforcements, a poorly conceived Confederate battle plan, and rainy conditions that postponed the attack a few days saved Grant’s army. 

During the Vicksburg Campaign, Grant went through quite a few lives with multiple failures to capture the Gibraltar of the South. These failures include the overland railroad campaign of late 1862, the failed attack at Chickasaw Bayou, and multiple attempts to either bypass the stronghold by several bayou and other river experiments. This combined with the persistent rumors of Grant returning to his drinking ways almost led to his removal on several occasions.

But Grant did survive these setbacks. His dogged determination, willingness to adapt, and aggressiveness were the main factors to eventually achieving victory. What is interesting is how many times Grant was almost removed from the chessboard of war. I have always considered leadership to be the most significant reason for winning the conflict and not simply the North’s superior advantages in men and materials. Finding the right people to fully utilize those advantages to overwhelm the South into submission was the key ingredient to success. Grant won the war, in part because the Confederacy failed to deliver a knockout blow to him, especially early in the war when they had opportunities. Abraham Lincoln also deserves credit for standing by him and not relenting to outside pressure to remove him. Of course, Grant did benefit from facing inadequate leadership on the other side in the forms of generals like Leonidas Polk, Gideon Pillow, John Floyd, and John Pemberton.  But Grant survived and flourished, taking advantage of his catlike ability to survive long enough to achieve ultimate victory.