Archive | May, 2021

Review of Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America, by Walter R. Borneman

25 May

I have always thought, perhaps wrongly I will admit, that America’s presidents of the 1840s and 1850s were a relatively undistinguished lot of leaders. At a time when our nation was gradually drifting towards a cataclysmic sectional war, the country clearly needed dynamic statesmen who could form consensus on pressing issues and keep the nation together. What we got instead was the likes of John Tyler, Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, and James Buchanan—all no doubt talented men in their own right and each contributing something to the nation’s growth, but hardly ready candidates for a top ten list of American presidents. Seeking to learn more about the leadership of a pivotal era of growth and divisive sectionalism in the United States, I decided to listen to an audio version of Walter Borneman’s acclaimed biography of James K. Polk. Entitled Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America, this book boldly claims its subject to be deserving of a place of esteem as among our top tier of presidents.

Part of the reason I selected the book is the track record of the author in producing intriguing narratives on important parts of America’s history. Including volumes on the French and Indian War, the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and World War II, his books have frequently been best-sellers. Having read or listened to three of his works previously, I expected to find a well-written and balanced narrative. I was not disappointed.

Polk is an authoritative biography of a rather remarkable man mostly still remembered vaguely as a “dark horse” presidential candidate who served a single but enormously consequential term. Borneman reveals much about what we think we know about Polk to be incorrect, starting with the notion he was an unlikely or unexpected candidate for the presidency. A protégé of Andrew Jackson, he was accomplished and nationally known prior to his election and in fact had rather carefully orchestrated his bid for the nation’s highest office. Not only had he served in important leadership roles in Congress, but he had also served as governor of Tennessee. But in addition to being more well-regarded at the time than we generally give him credit for today, Borneman points out he should be remembered for the successful accomplishment of one of the more ambitious agendas of any president before or since. Polk oversaw controversial tariff reductions, reestablished an independent Treasury, and under his guidance brought millions of acres of new land into American control, nearly doubling the size of the nation. He brought Texas into the Union, skillfully negotiated the acquisition of Oregon, and took for America California and much of the Southwest. A bold expansionist, the Polk in Borneman’s book is a versatile and able statesman with a clear vision for the nation’s future. He was also a micro-manager and a workaholic who Borneman believes quite literally may have worked himself to death at the age of just fifty-three.

Much of book focuses on what most regard the pivotal event of his presidency, the Mexican War. In truth the central chapters of the volume are essentially a history of that contest, detailing the political maneuvering which brought it about and chronicling its major military campaigns in overview fashion. Borneman ties it all together nicely, helping readers better understand a pivotal era of dynamic, if sometimes controversial, growth which forever changed America. What all this expansion meant for the nation and how it would play a role in the coming divisive era defined by sectionalism and civil war is not touched upon even in the conclusion. This is perhaps because Borneman wants Polk, a shadowy but clearly consequential political figure if ever there was one, to have his tenure evaluated on its own merits. By any measure, his was one of the most effective relative to its goals and one of the most important relative to national growth. Polk is a good read (listen) and an intriguing introduction to a man and an era most of us still know all too little about.


Review of The Vicksburg Campaign, March 29-May 18, 1863, edited by Steven F. Woodworth and Charles D. Grear

18 May

Union General Ulysses S. Grant’s rapid and successful campaign across Mississippi that culminated in the siege of Vicksburg has been referred to as the “Mississippi Blitzkrieg.” After several failed attempts to get at the city, Grant finally decided to march his troops southward along the river in Louisiana to eventually cross over so he could finally operate on Mississippi soil. From there, his men cut a swath across the Magnolia state, marched hundreds of miles, won five battles, captured the state’s capital and eventually besieged the “Gibraltar of the Confederacy.” Over a span of three weeks, Grant’s triumphant Vicksburg Campaign led to perhaps the war’s greatest victory.  In a volume of the Civil War Campaigns in the Heartland series, editors Steven Woodworth and Charles Grear present essays that detail this remarkable feat in The Vicksburg Campaign, March 29-May 18, 1863.

Eleven essays cover several topics over the time period between when Grant sent Union ironclads and supply boats south of the city to after the battle of Big Black River Bridge which led to Confederate General John Pemberton’s army retreating back within the city’s defenses.  Some of today’s most respected historians are featured in this collection and their essays explain and evaluate various aspects of Grant’s successful campaign. Gary D. Joiner discusses the navy’s contribution such as running the gauntlet of guns to providing logistical support. Not only does editor Grear discuss Benjamin Grierson’s Union cavalry raid that pre-occupied Pemberton, but discusses how the raid has been remembered throughout the years. Jason Frawley, Woodworth, and Timothy Smith discuss the three battles of Port Gibson, Jackson, and the Big Black River Bridge respectively. J. Parker Hills discusses Grant’s march from Port Gibson to Raymond and the choices he faced regarding the direction his army needed to move. Personalities, relationships, and strategy are explored by several writers. Michael Ballard discusses Grant and his troublesome subordinate John McClernand and John Lundberg discusses the failures of Confederate General Joseph Johnston. Other essays detail the role of intelligence gathering (William B. Feis) and soldiers and civilians (Steven Dossman.) The last essay by Paul Schmelzer examines Grant’s campaign in terms of the philosophy of Carl von Clausewitz.

As with any book of essays, the appeal of each is probably based upon each reader’s individual interest. Hills’s essay answered a long-time question of ours on why Grant did not immediately march northward to Vicksburg after winning at Port Gibson. Hills states Grant wanted to get astride the east/west railroad (Southern R.R.) and come in from the east and prevent reinforcements from making it to Vicksburg.  Ballard’s essay on the McClernand/Grant relationship was fascinating as although Grant mainly distrusted his subordinate, he did trust him enough for his corps to lead the army across the river and fight the first major battle. Conversely, Schmelzer’s essay on Clausewitz did not speak to either of us. Regardless, these essays all add to our understanding of this momentous campaign. This Vicksburg edition of the Civil War Campaigns in the Heartland series joins a fine list of other volumes that provide a great outlet for essays on battles that are quick and easy reads for the historian or laymen alike to learn more about the war’s important battles out west.  


Review of A Storm in Flanders, The Ypres Salient, 1914-1918: Tragedy and Triumph on the Western Front, by Winston Groom

11 May

In Flanders fields, the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row,

That mark our place; and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scare heard amid the guns below.

World War I has given us perhaps the most famous military-themed poem of all time with John McCrae’s In Flanders Fields. Famed writer and novelist Winston Groom’s foray into the “War to End all Wars” includes the history of this poem and much more in his epic A Storm in Flanders, The Ypres Salient, 1914-1918: Tragedy and Triumph on the Western Front.  Groom utilizes larger-than-life storytelling to narrate the horrors of war in Belgium while placing it in the larger context of the war.

All soldiers who fought in World War I experienced terrors unknown to men at that time.  Improvements in military technology such as machine guns, artillery, tanks, flamethrowers, and poison gas allowed armies to kill their enemies in numbers undreamed of before this conflict, leading to trench warfare that dragged on for years without either the Central Powers or the Allies gaining an upper hand. The fighting on the northern end of the western front in Belgium typified this warfare and Groom narrates it superbly. For four years, the two sides fought over land in terrain that could only be described as nightmarish as constant rain and artillery bombardments ripped the ground to shreds.  There were four major battles around the Ypres Salient over those years, but men fought and died on daily basis, littering the land with thousands upon thousands of corpses with neither side gaining any true advantage. Men fought on with no real hope of success, suffering from plummeting morale and dwindling hopes of survival.  Groom presents it all in clear and vibrant language, filling the reader with the hopelessness of it all. From providing stories of the front line soldier to the intrigues of generals devising their plans for achieving the breakthrough that would end the war, Groom lays it all out until the war finally comes to a merciful conclusion.

Experiencing this as an audiobook brought the horrors of this conflict even more to life. A shout-out to narrator David Baker who read Groom’s prose superbly. Not being an expert on the fighting in Flanders, I am unable to fully critique Groom’s work, but I know his narrative included plenty of first-hand accounts that brought the conflict to life.  He also offers the obvious critiques of generalship such as when he faults British General Douglas Haig for the fighting at Passchendaele; one of the book’s most memorable moments came after a British general surveyed the battlefield afterward, staring in disbelief about sending troops to advance in that quagmire of mud. 

There might be more accurate and detailed books on war in this portion of Europe, but none that fully capture the horror and futility of the fighting in World War I. Coined by a British psychologist as “Shell Shock” and known today as PTSD, readers, or in my case listeners, can fully understand about the breaking point of soldiers when they are asked to do too much.

A Storm of Flanders is yet another exceptional book by Groom whose historic works have brought iconic moments in history to life for the general public; a highly recommended read.

We are the Dead. Short days ago.

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved and were loved, and now we lie

In Flanders Fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw

The torch; be yours to hold it high.

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though Poppies grow

In Flanders fields.


Review of Vicksburg, 1863, by Winston Groom

4 May

“The fate of the Confederacy was sealed at Vicksburg.” None other than Ulysses S. Grant wrote those words following the conclusion of perhaps the war’s most intriguing military campaign. Celebrated author Winston Groom echoes Grant’s statement in his account of the actions surrounding the capture of the South’s most important city on the Mississippi River. In Groom’s Vicksburg, 1863, the noted novelist discusses the numerous attempts to capture the city and theorizes that after Vicksburg’s fall, the war’s two remaining bloody years should never have occurred.

Groom, made famous for his creation of Forrest Gump, has also written historical accounts of important battles of World War I, the War of 1812, and the Civil War. Vicksburg, 1863 was his second entry on the Civil War, after his initial Shrouds of Glory, which chronicled the doomed Confederate Nashville Campaign of 1864. In this study, Groom claims his purpose is “to tell the story of the Battle of Vicksburg and the events leading up to it, as well as its aftermath.”  Groom is true to his word in spending two hundred pages detailing events prior to even getting to 1863. He discusses the nation’s two regions and how they differed, the events leading to war, and mini-biographies of key players such as Grant, William T. Sherman, John C. Pemberton and countless others plus analyzes all the battles and campaigns that preceded Grant’s numerous attempts to take the city. This format is curious considering the inclusion of 1863 in the book’s title would lead the reader to think the book’s focus was on that year.

Groom details the Union’s eight failures prior to launching his successful effort. These failures include Admiral David Farragut’s initial threat to the city, the first attempt at a canal to bypass the city, Grant’s overland campaign defeated by the Confederate Holly Springs Raid, Sherman’s failed attack on Chickasaw Bayou, the second canal attempt, the Lake Providence Route, Yazoo Pass and Steele’s Bayou. Although failures, these attempts kept Grant’s men active and Confederate General Pemberton guessing. Finally, Grant gambled and landed his men south of the city to come up at Vicksburg from that direction. He succeeded, winning several battles, and eventually bottling up Confederate forces in the city, “shut up as in a trap,” as one Vicksburg citizen put it. Groom refers to the city then as nothing more than a “corpse factory” until Pemberton had no choice but surrender. Groom’s narrative is well-written but offers nothing much different than the countless other books on the topic. His best analysis is the Confederate lack of cavalry being a huge detriment to Pemberton trying to ascertain Grant’s intentions throughout the campaign.

Groom’s concluding thesis is the strongest aspect of the book. The loss of Vicksburg doomed any chance the Confederacy had of winning the war and the South would have been better off negotiating for peace at that point. Groom postulates Lincoln might have granted better terms and that the last two years of bloodshed would not have occurred along with the additional destruction that the South suffered which made the post war years so much more difficult. Continuing the fight was simply stubbornness and that Jefferson Davis, whose hatred of the North overcame better sense and judgment, was to blame.

Overall, Groom provides a solid narrative of the Union effort to capture Vicksburg. Too much space was spent on events prior to the main campaign but we assume Groom wrote this book for the general layman so extra effort was placed to put the campaign in context of the entire war. So, this book would be good for anyone not familiar with Vicksburg or the war as a whole. Anyone else would be better served with other studies by experts like Timothy Smith, Michael Ballard, or the more recently reviewed Vicksburg, Grant’s Campaign that Broke the Confederacy by Donald Miller.