Archive | July, 2021

Review of Steamboats and the Rise of the Cotton Kingdom, by Robert Gudmestad

27 Jul

Outside of the cotton gin itself, there is no technology more closely associated with the rise of the antebellum South’s cotton trade than the steamboat. Developed at the very time in which some of the richest cotton lands on the planet were being put under cultivation for the fiber which stood in unprecedented demand by northeastern and European markets, the steamboat played a key role in the economics of the region. Providing an insightful overview of the importance of steamboats in the development of the Deep South is Robert Gudmestad with Steamboats and the Rise of the Cotton Kingdom. The book, which I recently listened to in audiobook format, is a rather wide-ranging study that investigates these iconic boats in their reality as machines, economic tools, and extensions of antebellum Southern society.

Gudmestad clearly has a love of his subject, and communicates the importance of steamboats to the antebellum South with rare thoroughness. Examining everything from the technicalities of their machinery to life for workers aboard them, the book is a look at steamboats and their role at a time and place from seemingly every angle. The most interesting passages are Gudmestad’s depictions of travel aboard steamboats from the perspective of travelers and workers. Notions of ease and grandeur surround river travel of the time even today, but Gudmestad takes readers into the cabins, boiler rooms, and pilothouses of steamboats on Southern rivers to explore it in its gritty reality. Crowded, dirty, rigidly segregated, and featuring frequent stops to take on as much cotton as could be packed aboard, steamboat travel was far from glamorous. The hazards of navigation, lack of regulations that made their operation relatively dangerous, and fierce competition for lucrative business are all explored. Sometimes this information is explained from multiple perspectives, however, and at points there is some repetition of information. Less satisfying are the author’s attempts to conflate steamboat travel with wider trends in Southern history, such as devoting a chapter to their role in transporting Native Americans west during forced Removal. His reflections on steamboat’s impact on the environment yield some surprising details on the level of deforestation that accompanied the operation of their wood-fired boilers and the amount of raw sewage they dumped into rivers in the course of their operation. But these passages feel less well developed and relevant to the main story as do other chapters.

Overall the book is an entertaining and enlightening read, informed by the author’s evident deep research into every account he could find on the operation of and travel on steamboats. Gudmestad communicates clearly his primary point—that steamboats facilitated the rise of the “cotton kingdom” by providing ready transportation of goods to market and people to places, and spurred the development of the interior South at a faster pace than it might otherwise have been accomplished. In his view, steamboats placed the interior South at the very forefront of modernization in antebellum America, a surprising contention but one meriting consideration as it involves commercial networks. In final analysis, the book probably attempts to do a little too much by placing the steamboat at the center of everything in the antebellum South, and perhaps would be more useful with a tighter focus. Still, for anyone interested in one of the primary technologies which influenced how and where the Old South’s economy grew and all that made it tick, this short book will be an enjoyable read.


Review of Presidential Archivist: A Memoir, by David Alsobrook

20 Jul

David Alsobrook’s recently published memoir, Presidential Archivist, is a candid and thoughtful reflection on the distinguished career of a public servant by one of the most successful and influential members of his profession. Alsobrook, an Alabama native, played a central role in the creation of three presidential libraries in addition to serving in a variety of other positions in the federal government and in cultural heritage institutions in his home state during his working career. His recollections of a remarkable life’s work are a unique window not only on his personal experiences but on how the archival profession has developed over the last several decades.

Those who have met or known Alsobrook—and his connections are extensive throughout the nation and especially in Alabama—are aware his easygoing, affable nature belies his rare talent, ability, and experience. Anyone who can successfully navigate the treacherous political waters of party factionalism at the federal level over a period of decades and be asked to be involved in creating the public legacy of both Democratic and Republican presidents in our modern era is obviously held in high regard by a broad spectrum of people. As is revealed in the pages of the book, Alsobrook’s path to rubbing elbows with world leaders seemed unlikely in his youth. Born into modest circumstances in post-World War II Mobile, he found his way into what was at the time the new archival program at Auburn University—in fact he was its first doctoral student—after earning a master’s degree in history by happy accident. It was during a climb into the dirty, hot, loft of a barn in rural Alabama to retrieve records of an old mercantile establishment, in fact, that he claims to have realized he had found his calling. He served a stint at the Alabama Department of Archives and History (his delineation of that organization’s leadership during the era is instructive to those interested in Alabama history) before obtaining a job with the Office of Presidential Libraries in Washington, DC. Over the next quarter-century, Alsobrook would enmesh himself in a unique career path which would bring him into the orbit of some of the most powerful people in the world.

The portions of the book which will resonate with most readers will be will likely be his discussion of his work on the Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton presidential libraries. From behind-the-scenes insight into how presidential administration transition teams are created and the work they do to details into the scope, purposes, and development of presidential libraries, his narrative of his archival career is enlightening, entertaining, and fast-moving. This is despite the avalanche of acronyms for the various agencies and departments with which he worked. Most interesting in this regard are his reflections on the personal connections, however fleeting they sometimes were, with our nations’ leaders and their wives. Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter, Bill and Hillary Clinton, George and Barbara Bush all make appearances as real people in the pages of the book. Their actual personalities, interests, attitudes, and quirks may surprise some. Through it all Alsobook is straightforward, as unawed in his assessments of these historical figures as he is modest in his role in crafting the repositories for their records.

Just as intriguing as any of Alsobrook’s encounters with presidents and first ladies is his cautionary tale on the mercurial nature of American political loyalties at the levels to which he ascended. Running afoul with the inner circle of trusted confidants of powerful people ultimately forced an unwanted change of theater for Alsobrook late in his career. The incident was not based around philosophical differences on politics or competing visions for institutional purpose, but apparently some rather indecorous, pointless squabbling among turf-obsessed administrators at a university. Yet Alsobrook’s account of his latter years within the presidential library system is far removed from any sort of bitter ax-grinding, and in truth is treated with a good deal more grace than is perhaps merited. It struck me as impactful all the same owing to the fact that his experience illustrates with unusual clarity the tragically petty, self-centered, unconstructive and myopic nature of American party politics at times, even decades after the careers of the politicians who are at the center of all of it have ended. 

Presidential Archivist is a unique book but one that will likely enjoy a rather modest readership. “Archivist memoir” is not a category one typically finds on bestsellers list, after all. Nonetheless to those with an interest in the profession, American politics, and Alabama biography the book is a compelling record of the career of a distinguished public servant who has quite literally played an unheralded role in the preservation of nothing less than multiple eras of American history.


Review of Six Armies in Tennessee: The Chickamauga and Chattanooga Campaigns, by Steven E. Woodworth

13 Jul

The Civil War in the western theater is perhaps best understood as a complicated series of maneuvers by the opposing armies taking place over large swaths of territory, all with the aim of getting into position for decisive actions. They are linked in at least two ways. One, the overall strategy pursued centered on defense or capture of strategic geographic points. Second, virtually all of the major campaigns to take place in the theater—at least while the outcome of the larger conflict lay in doubt—at one point or another featured some combination of negligence, incompetence, or arrogance on the part of the Confederate high command which contributed mightily to defeat and failure when victory and success were realistic possibilities. So it was with the series of events in central and eastern Tennessee which unfolded between June and December of 1863, usually explained by historians in their separate components—The Tullahoma Campaign, The Battle of Chickamauga, The Siege and Battle of Chattanooga, and the Knoxville Campaign. These campaigns, waged for control of a pivotal region, were all to some degree bungled affairs for Southern arms. In an effort to best communicate their significance to Confederate defeat, noted historian Steven Woodworth offers a comprehensive narrative of these interrelated events in his groundbreaking book, Six Armies in Tennessee: The Chickamauga and Chattanooga Campaigns.

Woodworth, a professor of history at Texas Christian University, is one of the nation’s foremost Civil War scholars in general and a leading expert in the conflict’s western theater specifically. He is author of numerous books on the war. Included among his growing list of publications are such noteworthy titles as Nothing But Victory: The Army of the Tennessee, 1861-1865, This Great Struggle: America’s Civil War, Beneath a Northern Sky: A Short History of the Gettysburg Campaign, Jefferson Davis and His Generals: The Failure of Confederate Command in the West, Shiloh: Confederate High Tide in the Heartland, Chickamauga: A Battlefield Guide, and Cultures in Conflict: The American Civil War. With Six Armies in Tennessee, originally published in 1998, he offers a masterful and unusually comprehensible overview of some of the most decisive campaigns of the war in the west. As indicated in its title, the book focuses on the Chickamauga and Chattanooga campaigns. But it also gives significant attention to the maneuvering in central Tennessee preparatory to those clashes (the Tullahoma Campaign) as well as the closely related effort by the Confederates to break the Federal occupation of Knoxville.

Woodworth seamlessly integrates the entirety of the complicated series of movements in Tennessee in the pivotal year of 1863 in his book. He allows readers to understand them as not only closely associated with each other, but taken together, enormously consequential to the course of the war. Woodworth believes this is owing to the fact that they essentially ended Confederate control of Tennessee and opened the way for Federal advances on vital targets in the Deep South, as well as devastated Confederate morale. He combines an exceptional grasp of military strategy with an uncanny ability to point out the failures of command as he compresses enormous amounts of information into a concise, insightful, and well-argued narrative. This is not a blow-by-blow account of every regiment’s experience in every fight. Rather, it is an analysis of the campaigns in concept and execution explained in the context of the geography on which they occurred. With that said, Woodworth’s accounts of military events are still stellar. His depictions of the confused, close-quarters clash at Chickamauga, the surreal scenes of the fighting along the mountains ledges in front of Chattanooga, and the ignominious assault on Fort Sanders at Knoxville are at once clear, concise, and colorful.

Rarely have we been treated to more informed, straightforward, and we might even say, opinionated, conclusions in Civil War historiography. No major commander in blue or gray escapes thorough assessment in the pages of Six Armies. Woodworth paints Union General William S. Rosecrans, for example, as a slow-moving, by-the-book commander, whose methodical approach was found utterly wanting when compared to the aggressive and persistent style of General Ulysses S. Grant. For the Confederates, Woodworth describes General Braxton Bragg as a relatively talented strategist if ineffectual leader of men, whose best plans were unmade by the rank incompetence of officers such as Leonidas Polk or the blatant inability of James Longstreet, and in general by the pervasive dysfunction of the Rebel officer corps. Both armies, according the Woodworth, had their share of triumphs, blunders, courageous stands, and shameful episodes over the course of the fateful half-year he chronicles. Confederate defeat was sealed, he explains, owing as much as anything to their consistent ability to miss golden opportunities.

Woodworth’s book is one of the best to be written about the Civil War in the western theater, and anyone seriously interested in the topic should have it in their library. There is only one insufficiency which we must point out. As we have mentioned in countless reviews of similar books, the frustrating lack of maps in makes it difficult to grasp all the information presented by the author at times. When reading this volume, we both found ourselves resorting to pulling out other books featuring maps of the battles and regions discussed to fully understand the geography and troop movements under discussion. This was definitely the case when reading his narrative about Chickamauga which did not contain a single map! The absence of visual aids stands out especially harsh in a book like this which features such a heavy description of maneuvering over hundreds of miles of land. Provided you have a Civil War atlas handy, we feel sure that you will find this book incredibly informative about the campaigns it details specifically, and about Confederate defeat in the western theater in general.


Review of A Thread Across the Ocean: The Heroic Story of the Transatlantic Cable, by John Steele Gordon

6 Jul

It is difficult for many of us to imagine just how transformative an event in world history was the laying of the first transatlantic cable back in the mid-nineteenth century. Up until that point, communication between Europe and North America—and by extension much of the rest of the world via a growing network of telegraph systems—still took weeks if not months. The technological challenges standing in the way of ever changing that situation were so monumental that devising a way to carry messages across thousands of miles of open water via any means other than a ship seemed so far beyond possibility in the 1850s as to barely be worth contemplating. Of course someone eventually did develop a way to make such communication possible by the mid-1860s, with the end result that the connection it enabled would do nothing less than alter world history. I recently got a chance to listen to John Steele Gordon’s account of the trials and tribulations involved in the laying of the first trans-ocean cable, A Thread Across the Ocean. I found it a surprisingly intriguing story about an event I probably would have never given much thought to otherwise.

Cyrus Field, the financier who secured the financial backing for the project, had relatively little expertise in the technology of telegraphy at first, but grasped perhaps better than anyone in his age its potential to link the world together. From 1857 to 1866 he dedicated himself to seeing the project through, somehow convincing governments and private funders that it would and could happen despite setback after setback. To his credit, author John Steele Gordon, who has written several books about America’s business history including An Empire of Wealth and The Great Game: A History of Wall Street, finds a way to relate his story as one less about science than human experience.

There are of course several passages in the book describing how the special cable was manufactured, how the ships were specially equipped for the job, and a basic explanation of how messages were sent over such a device at the time, but this is not a book about technology. The bulk of the narrative actually discusses the adventure involved in making such an audacious dream come to reality. In every attempt—and there were multiple—there is a story of high drama on the open seas that the author relates in compelling fashion. It is hard not to feel for the crews charged with the work behind making one of the technological feats of the age happen, as they came frustratingly close to success several times before finally achieving their goal. The cable broke on one occasion near the very end of the job and sank quietly into the sea, bringing a sudden end to years of preparation and months of work. In another it was actually laid from Canada to Ireland and messages transmitted for a day or two before the system failed entirely. Even in the last, ultimately successful effort, there was a breakage and the cable was somehow fished up from the bottom of the depths of the ocean from over two miles down and spliced back together, a remarkable achievement which seems astounding to consider today.

A Thread Across the Ocean was a relatively quick listen, coming in at just a little over six hours in length. As with any audiobook, it would probably have been even more enlightening to have seen the images and maps surely contained in the printed version. But it was an enjoyable book about an incredible and globally significant event that I dare so most historians have barely, if ever, contemplated.