Archive | October, 2021

Review of Colonial Mississippi: A Borrowed Land, by Christian Pinnen and Charles Weeks

26 Oct

The colonial period remains one of the most fascinating periods of Mississippi history. The interaction and intrigue involving Spanish, French, and British attempts to colonize the Gulf South has long captivated those interested in the state’s rich past. The colonial era features some of the most compelling human sagas in the state’s history, and its setting as a backdrop for the alternate clashing and blending of European, Native American, and African cultures make this era a treasure trove for professional and lay historians alike. With this in mind, we highly anticipated reading an updated summary of these years in Colonial Mississippi: A Borrowed Land by Christian Pinnen and Charles Weeks. Unfortunately, our initial excitement waned as we waded through a fragmented and disjointed narrative that failed to not only provide a solid summary of the information, but also lacked the exhilaration of reading these captivating stories in our region’s history.

Colonial Mississippi is the latest volume in the Heritage of Mississippi Series,which seeks to tell an updated version of Mississippi’s entire history in celebration of the state’s bicentennial. The authors organized the book chronologically with chapters corresponding to the attempts made by the three European nations to establish themselves in the Gulf South. The book’s subtitle comes from the words of a Chickasaw chief, who when speaking to a Spanish commissioner in the 1790s, indicated that it was the Native Americans who were the true owners of the land the Spanish were attempting to control. This theme of arguable Native American control and sovereignty is pushed throughout the book, essentially minimizing the endeavors of the French, British and Spanish as some sort of inconsequential sidelight in the region’s development. Several major military and political events receive little more than a passing mention. For instance, the battle of Ackia between the French and their Choctaw allies against the Chickasaw only gets one sentence! While we agree that Native Americans are a vital part of the colonization story, we regret that their perspective is so dominant that the book is not a history of the colonial era at all. It is the story of Native American reaction to European diplomacy—a topic surely deserving of scholarly attention—but hardly a thorough chronicle of colonial establishment in the region.

The narrative itself is very choppy, delivered less as a continuous story than a reference summary divided into subsections that break up the narrative into a series of multi-paragraph vignettes. This style prevents a clear understanding of the years and timeline of events, and leads to an underdevelopment of some of the most important events of the era. Regretfully, we believe anyone who does not already have a clear understanding of this time period will fail to gain one through this book, and those familiar with this era will largely fail to gain any new knowledge.

There are so many rich and fascinating stories to tell in the era, but the authors’ narrative seems to gloss over most of them. With only 150 pages of text, we expected that not every story could be fully developed, but in truth the book is even shorter than readers might expect. The actual story of colonialism in Mississippi is over by page 100. The book’s penultimate chapter deals with events after colonialism, such as removal treaties decades into the future, forming a useful afterward but far beyond the scope of the work. The book’s last chapter, an overview of how the colonial era has been interpreted over the years, is interesting, but does not really fit with the rest of the story. The whole tone of this portion of the book seems to be one of mere condemnation of previous scholarship—some of which we fully acknowledge as deserving. But asserting that all earlier works can essentially be understood as having “merely reflected current views and opinions” (148) and should be dismissed is a disservice to many of them and is confusing. This comment needed more explanation.

Good historical work needs to be based on solid research and objective conclusions, and without doubt Colonial Mississippi meets those criteria. No doubt the authors know the material and have demonstrated an understanding of the sources, and their work will certainly find a place on the reference shelves of libraries for academics to peruse for many years. But other than a desire to emphasize Native American hegemony during the colonial era, there is little to help readers make sense of what the upheaval of the colonial era means to Mississippi today. Good history must be grounded in scholarship, but must also tell a story. The Heritage of Mississippi Series is geared for the general audience, but unfortunately we find it unlikely this book will entertain or enlighten the majority of the public which it seeks to serve. The work and the format simply do not seem a good match.


Review of The Five Capitals of Alabama: The Story of Alabama’s Capital Cities from St. Stephens to Montgomery, by Tom Bailey

19 Oct

The story of Alabama’s five capitals incorporates the full length of the state, including chapters in the Tennessee Valley, the Black Belt, and the southwestern coastal plain. Huntsville, Tuscaloosa, Montgomery, Cahawba, and St. Stephens have all laid claim to being the state’s seat of government at one time or another between the territorial period and the first decades of statehood. The movement of the state’s governmental center from one locale to the other does not follow an arbitrary course, but rather, traces Alabama’s development over time. Tracking it provides a geographic framework for understanding how its borders took shape, where its people lived and worked, and where its economic and political centers were located over time. Here to chronicle that saga and introduce readers to the intriguing historic sites the former capitals and current seat of government have become is Tom Bailey with Five Capitals of Alabama: The Story of Alabama’s Capital Cities from St. Stephens to Montgomery.

Bailey is an experienced writer. In addition to producing numerous biographies of notable Alabamians for younger readers, he has worked as an editor for both the Anniston Star and Birmingham News. In this book, Bailey sticks to what he knows best as a journalist and storyteller—meaning this is no academic history but rather a compelling and fast-moving introduction to a part of Alabama’s colorful past that will be new to many readers. Clearly a book for the general reader, the book heavily relies on only a few sources, though they are unquestionably some of the best sources on the subject. It features an easy-going, summary-style presentation. A collection of large-format, richly-colored and evocative images are the heart of the book, and little wonder given that the photographers NewSouth Books worked with on the project are some of the best in the business. Art Meripol spent over two decades working with Southern Living, and Robin McDonald has been the principal photographer for Alabama Heritage magazine for even longer. The collective visual images of the sites and structures associated with Alabama’s seat of government are unparalleled as an assemblage dedicated to the subject and encourage readers to explore the sites featured on their own. The Five Capitals of Alabama is a beautiful keepsake book that anyone with an interest in Alabama history will enjoy.


Review of Chattanooga: A Death Grip on the Confederacy, by James Lee McDonough

12 Oct

Famed historian Bruce Catton wrote that after the Battle of Chattanooga the Confederacy “passed the last of the great might-have-beens of the war.” He was alluding to the Confederacy’s failure to follow up on its success at Chickamauga and re-capture Chattanooga, thereby reversing the fortunes of war. Author James Lee McDonough seems to agree with Catton with the appropriately titled Chattanooga—A Death Grip on the Confederacy.

McDonough dives into the narrative quickly by starting the book on the climatic final day at Chickamauga when Confederate forces poured through a gap in the Union lines, leading to a major victory. The Union Army retreated back to Chattanooga to gather themselves and prepare for a defense. Confederate General Braxton Bragg did not press the Federals and opted to simply place the city under siege and hope to starve the Union force into submission. Union General Ulysses S. Grant soon arrived, replacing the befuddled William Rosecrans and began operations to relieve the siege and assume the offensive.

Although McDonough praises Grant for his efforts, McDonough seems to cast more blame on Bragg for his ineptitude. First of all, Bragg provided poor defense at crucial Brown’s Ferry, which allowed Grant to open his supply line.  Secondly, he allowed James Longstreet to take valuable men on a worthless campaign to capture Knoxville just to get rid of the troublesome Longstreet. The Confederate army could ill afford any troop losses as it tried to keep the Union army penned down. Next, a lackluster defense of Lookout Mountain proved ominous. In fact, McDonough believes Bragg would had been better served once Lookout Mountain fell to simply pull his whole force out to a better defensive position further south. Finally, McDonough explains in detail how Confederate forces were arranged improperly at Missionary Ridge, allowing for the now legendary Union assault to succeed. Only the superb work of Confederate General Patrick Cleburne and his men kept the army from being completely annihilated, first at the northern end of Missionary Ridge and lastly at Ringgold in a rear guard action.

McDonough paints Braxton Bragg as a defeated man throughout the campaign, a general with few options, little energy, and an utter lack of leadership. His yielding of the initiative to Grant was a fatal decision that wrecked his army.  After reading this account, it seems a wonder the Army of Tennessee had anything left at all in the upcoming Atlanta Campaign. Before reading this book, it was easy to see Chattanooga as simply the interim between Chickamauga and Atlanta, but this Confederate disaster was truly a monumental failure in both planning and execution on almost every level. Considering the Rebels began it chasing a beaten army on the run and enjoyed an exceptionally strong position from which to besiege a cornered enemy, it strikes us as one of the more glaring points at which the Army of Tennessee tore defeat from the jaws of victory. Southern failure at Chattanooga accelerated the Confederacy’s doom. McDonough shows that clearly in a well-written, concise account that communicates both strategy and the course of fighting with a type of clarity and compelling form that other writers attempting to describe complicated campaigns would do well to emulate. It is easy for readers to follow the action, at all times with an understanding of the big picture. McDonough rightfully places Chattanooga as a critical point on the war, truly in the “Death grip” of the better-led Union army.


Review of This Terrible Sound: The Battle of Chickamauga, by Peter Cozzens

5 Oct

In the western theater of the Civil War, the Union Army of the Cumberland was forced from a battlefield only once, at Chickamauga. And yet, this victory by Confederate troops failed to achieve any monumental shift in the fortunes of war. Author Peter Cozzens wrote what is still considered the definitive treatment of this clash in 1992 with This Terrible Sound, the Battle of Chickamauga. Coming in at over five hundred pages, it provides a comprehensive account of the action, but its length and meticulous attention to detail can prevent an easy understanding of the battle.

Following a brilliant campaign of maneuver that forced Confederate forces to abandon Chattanooga, Union General William Rosecrans’s army had divided into several wings and become vulnerable. Confederate forces under the unfortunate Braxton Bragg were unable to capitalize on the opportunity. Cozzens examines in exhaustive detail the ever-present dysfunction of the Confederate Army of Tennessee’s high command. Cozzens explains that Bragg could develop worthwhile plans but was a total failure in getting his subordinates to carry out his orders. Both armies eventually squared off along Chickamauga Creek; Rosecrans trying to secure his left flank and connection to his base in Chattanooga while Bragg sought to cut off Rosecrans from the strategic city. For this clash, veterans from the Army of Northern Virginia had been sent to bolster Bragg’s chances. The addition of more troops was offset, however, by more disillusioned commanders, contributing to an already disastrous command structure.

Cozzens provides a thorough account of the battle. From the opening movements of September 18, 1863, and the two days of bloodshed that followed, one would be hard pressed to read a more detailed account. Every part of the battle is specifically explained as readers attempt to follow the movements of divisions, brigades, and regiments in action. Cozzens provides maps, but there are never enough. He narrates a straight chronological flow of the battle, jumping from one portion of the battlefield to another. Military enthusiasts will surely enjoy this blow-by-blow account, but at times, these reviewers got bogged down in so much detail we lost track of the bigger picture and did not gain a complete understanding of the battle as a whole.

Several key points stood out. Union John T. Wilder’s Lightening Brigade, armed with Spencer repeating rifles, performed outstanding duty and at times, saved the army. Cozzens expertly narrates the famed order that created a Union gap in the line that was exploited by James Longstreet’s veterans. Finally, the last stand of Union General George Thomas’s men at Snodgrass Hill (Horseshoe Ridge) was emphasized. Cozzens says the wounding of John Bell Hood was critical in preventing a strong, unified push by Confederate forces. Ironically, Cozzens never gives Thomas his famous nickname of the “Rock of Chickamauga!”

Like with most battles, leadership played a monumental role in the battle’s outcome. Rosecrans, who had led the army through many campaigns and performed brilliantly at times with a profound energy became a whipped man at Chickamauga. Exhaustion and stress finally overwhelmed him as he committed the unpardonable sin of leaving the battlefield early. He would never command Union forces again. Confederate leadership suffered from the age-old problems of command. Bragg and his subordinates never worked together effectively and opportunities were wasted. The most telling fact was instead of immediately following up on the victory to pursue a beaten army, Bragg instead chose to move against his detractors. Historians have long tried to assess the command structure of the Southern army to determine who was more to blame, Bragg or his subordinates. But no matter who was at fault, President Jefferson Davis committed his worst mistake of the war in leaving him in command. Maybe he simply felt he had no other viable choice.

Interestingly enough, there are not many single volume books on Chickamauga. David Powell has written a three volume account that also includes the battles around Chattanooga and William Glenn Robertson has recently just published his first volume of an upcoming trilogy. There are a few books under two hundred pages that are probably not detailed enough. It is fascinating that the one Confederate victory in the West has not gotten more scholarly treatment. Cozzens’s book remains the best single account. His description of the battle is unparalleled, but we wish he had included a strong conclusion where he summarized the battle and provided analysis to put it all in perspective. Anyone seeking a thorough account of the battle will not be disappointed, but we are waiting for a single volume that provides the detail we want without overwhelming the reader.