Archive | January, 2022

Review of The Battle for Leyte Gulf: The Incredible Story of World War II’s Largest Naval Battle, by C. Vann Woodward

25 Jan

Legendary historian C. Vann Woodward (1908-1999) is most well-known for his profound contributions to the historiography of race relations in the American South during a remarkably long and prolific career. With books such as The Strange Career of Jim Crow, Origins of the New South, 1877–1913, and The Burden of Southern History, he became for the span of over two generations one of the most recognized and influential authorities on some of the seminal events in the region’s rich history. Woodward taught at Johns Hopkins and Yale, winning numerous awards, including a Pulitzer Prize and the Bancroft Prize, and mentoring dozens of historians in beginning their careers. One of Woodward’s bestselling books is actually his first. Though it has nothing at all to do with the field of research to which he would devote most of his working life, nearly three quarters of a century after its initial publication it still stands as the essential volume on its subject and is a testimony to his brilliance. I recently got a chance to listen to an audiobook version of this book, The Battle of Leyte Gulf, which Woodward first published in 1947 after working with the Navy during World War II.

Involving over 350 ships and 200,000 sailors and pilots, the Battle of Leyte Gulf is considered the largest naval battle of World War II and among the largest ever fought. The battle raged near the Philippine Islands October 23-26, 1944 between American and Japanese forces. American victory in the contest solidified its control of the South Pacific and further restricted the oil resources available to Japan, set the stage for the invasion of the Philippines, and virtually destroyed the power of the Japanese Imperial Fleet as a force capable of significant offensive operations. The battle featured staggering casualties for the Japanese in terms of both loss of life and loss of equipment; over 12,500 men killed or wounded, twenty-eight ships, and 300 aircraft. While Americans lost almost as many planes and suffered 3,000 casualties themselves, they lost a mere six ships in the relatively one-sided contest that in essence was a near-suicidal gamble by the Japanese to turn the tide of the war. 

Woodward’s account of the action is concise, comprehensive, and clear. So thorough is it, in fact, that scores of reviewers over the decades have praised it as the definitive history of the battle and continue to do so today, over seventy years after its first printing. Having read much of Woodward’s other work, I might add that it is probably not his most compelling writing, for it lacks the irony, humor, and narrative flair he later demonstrated in a field of study about which he spent decades of research. This does not lessen the value of the book, however. Leyte Gulf is a straightforward, to the point, telling of what happened when and why in the battle which contains insight into the strategies and goals of the contending forces. It also manages to help readers understand a bit of what the respective commanders knew and when they knew it, making the way the battle unfolded even easier to understand. If you are ever interested in reading about this pivotal naval clash, I highly recommend this volume as your starting point.


Review of Dodge City: Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and the Wickedest Town in the American West, by Tom Clavin

18 Jan

Tom Clavin’s riveting account of one of the most famous towns in the American west and its two most celebrated residents, Dodge City, is a compelling and entertaining chronicle of a legendary epic in our nation’s history. Sifting through layers of accumulated myth to paint a portrait of the place and the people as they really existed, the book is informative and colorful. Even if its shoots down some of the more fanciful legends that have grown up around both its subjects, it reveals that the wild west was in actuality a place and time richly deserving of the attention it has garnered in American lore.

Author Clavin, a former journalist who has written more than fifteen books, several of which have appeared on the New York Times’ bestsellers list, is well-known for his interest in iconic moments and stories from the American past. From tales from the Revolutionary War (Valley Forge) and World War II (Halsey’s Typhoon) to biographies of sports heroes (Being Ted Williams) and legendary gunfighters (Wild Bill), his growing list of books are a unique take on some of our nation’s most enduring legends. In Dodge City, which I listened to in audiobook form recently, he vividly chronicles the birth and early life of a town that in many ways stands as the epitome of our picture of a western frontier community during the days of the cowboy and tracks the lawmen who attempted to keep some semblance of order within it and beyond.

The main characters in the book are, as indicated in the subtitle of the book, Wyatt Earp and his trusted friend Bat Masterson, perhaps the most well-known law enforcement officials of the era. Clavin tracks them from their early lives and arrival in Dodge City to the later fame they acquired in such events as the “Gunfight at the OK Corral” in Tombstone, Arizona. It is a well-rounded biography at that, shedding light on both their personal and professional lives in equal measure. The book ends up being as much biography, then, as story of a community, and explains in detail some of the most pivotal events of the period in which these larger-than-life figures played key roles. As is so commonly the case with figures of this era, actual motivations and actions in some cases may never be known in their entirety. Clavin is therefore admittedly forced to paint a picture that, while relying on documented information, is nevertheless shaped by his attempt to sift through an accumulation of accounts that have appeared over the years which differ in significant respects. Not being familiar enough with the scholarship on the West to say with confidence how well some of this is done, I can only offer praise for his forthrightness in explaining the process. I can further say that Clavin spins a highly entertaining tale in the book. Dodge City brings to life some of the most familiar names in western lore and the dusty cowtowns in which they made their names.


Review of We Want Bama: A Season of Hope and the Making of Nick Saban’s Ultimate Team, by Joseph Goodman

11 Jan

Alabama’s national championship-winning 2020 football team set numerous records and won every game on its schedule. It is not the first time the school has fielded an undefeated championship team, but the circumstances of this season, happening as it did during a global pandemic which threatened to cancel the entire season and did result in the cancellation or postponement of several games, made it completely different than any other. Players and coaches, including head coach Nick Saban himself, missed some games along the course of a brutal all-conference game schedule played in almost empty stadiums. Journalist Joseph Goodman sees that magical season as uniquely important for more than what was accomplished strictly on the field of play, though. Making a connection between nationwide racial unrest and the quest to for a more equitable society and the special team unity that propelled the Crimson Tide to a title, he attempts a chronicle of the 2020 team and its times in We Want Bama: A Season of Hope.

This is not your typical football book. While it contains plenty of information on Alabama’s players, coaches, and the special sense of togetherness and commitment they shared in their quest for a title, the book is best understood as a statement on Alabama’s football culture set against the backdrop of a troubled past. One is reminded early and often of the racism which once characterized Alabama’s politics and society in the pages of the book. Nearly half of it, in fact, seems to be a polemic on the outrageous racial inequities which defined so much of Alabama’s early and mid-twentieth century history. There is an equal amount of space in the book devoted to examining the exuberant, almost irrational enthusiasm of the large and loyal Alabama football fan base. The result is a book that is part history lacking contextualization, intriguing biographical investigation, humorous examination of outrageous fandom, partisan political diatribe, and chronicle of a memorable football season.

Each component of Goodman’s narrative has its merits, and parts of each are genuinely entertaining. But none are developed fully, and forced together they make for a discordant mess of a read. At times the speed at which the author changes gears and focus is disorienting and his over-the-top writing style—at moments humorous but in large doses grating—loses punch the deeper one goes into the book. The slapstick-style description of boisterous bars on gamedays in Tuscaloosa that comes off as light-hearted writing which one might read in a periodical article seems poorly suited for a book-length narrative, especially when dealing with weighty issues. The stream-of-consciousness, hyperbole-filled, rapid-fire style becomes wearisome pretty early, in truth. But it is Goodman’s attempt to make a symbolic rally by the football team in support of social justice the central event to his story where the book’s shortcomings are most noticeable. The pre-season march to Foster Auditorium—the site where George Wallace once made his infamous “stand in the schoolhouse door”—was an important statement of unity and progressiveness in a year of many similar events. But to insinuate that Alabama’s racial climate was so similar to that of the early 1960s that such an occurrence could be remembered as a turning point in the state’s history is a bit naïve and terribly uninformed historically. Goodman has many worthwhile points to make in a narrative, but the attempt to make that summertime march the central event in a football season which will be remembered for any number of other on-the-field events—including the winning of a Heisman Trophy and the hoisting of a national championship trophy—seems more than a bit of a stretch. In candor the event is even lost in the shuffle of the book’s spasmodic narrative. If you have an interest in any of the multiple points of focus addressed in this book, you are likely best served by looking elsewhere for them. Goodman is original and at times incredibly entertaining, but this book seems to somehow be a bit less than the sum of its parts.


Best Books on the Mobile Campaign

4 Jan

It has unfortunately been all too easy for generations of historians to dismiss the Mobile Campaign—the last major combined-forces operation of the Civil War, involving over 55,000 troops and over three dozen warships—as some sort of inconsequential mopping up operation largely due to the simple fact that it occurred in 1865. While it certainly cannot be said to be as pivotal to the overall course of the war as events at places such as Gettysburg or Vicksburg, the months-long campaign which led to the ultimate capture of the last remaining major port and city in Confederate hands is nonetheless a significant event which has long deserved more attention than it has received. In the past few years, I have reviewed most of the small, but thankfully growing, body of literature on this intriguing but relatively little-understood campaign in this space. Today I am offering my thoughts on the best books about this incredibly interesting but largely overlooked campaign and the city which was its target.

The Campaign of Mobile, by Christopher Columbus Andrews

Major General Christopher Columbus Andrews commanded the portion of the federal forces which assaulted the center of the Confederate lines at the Battle of Fort Blakeley on April 9, 1865, the pivotal battle in the campaign for Mobile. He visited the battlefield just a year later in the course of research for a book about the Mobile Campaign, during which he sketched or arranged for the sketching of key parts of the battlefield as they appeared at the time. The book he published shortly after that visit (in 1867), The Campaign of Mobile, was the first about the effort to capture Mobile to appear in print and for many generations remained the only one. By any measure, it is an authoritative, day-by-day account, coming as it did from an eyewitness involved in creating many of the official orders he drew upon for the arrangement of the book. Anyone interested in the Mobile Campaign needs to have this book, for it is a key part of the foundation for virtually all the scholarship on the subject that has come after. Plus, it has those incredible sketches which show the battlefield as it stood just months after the pivotal clashes at Spanish Fort and Blakeley.

Mobile Bay and the Mobile Campaign, by Chester Hearn

Hearn’s book analyzing the Mobile Campaign is superbly researched, constructing into narrative form vast amounts of information unearthed in extensive research into original resources, especially official reports filed by the contending armies. It takes readers all the way back to 1862 and the beginnings of the campaign for Mobile, and allows them unprecedented insight into the planning, logistics, and ultimately dramatic fighting for the city that raged on both land and water. As Hearn demonstrates, the campaign for Mobile did nothing less than foreshadow the future of warfare. It featured ironclads, torpedoes, land mines, hand grenades, advanced rifled artillery and repeating rifles, coordinated amphibious assaults, elaborate earthen fortifications, instantaneous electronic battlefield reports via telegraph, and skillful deployment of troops. It involved combat between some of the war’s most celebrated veteran units and one of the highest concentrations of black troops in combat anywhere in the war. While Hearn’s book excels in its execution to the point of being the unquestioned standard resource on its subject, this is no work of engrossing literature. It is as dry as a textbook and as straightforward a recitation of facts about military maneuvering as ever was written. Nevertheless, the book presents the story of the Mobile Campaign with as much detail as anyone before or since.

Mobile, 1865: Last Stand of the Confederacy, by Sean Michael O’Brien

Sean Michael O’Brien’s compelling account of the Mobile Campaign, Mobile, 1865, is one of the best tellings of this overlooked campaign. Written by an Alabama librarian who preferred to publish under a pen name, the book deserves far more attention than it has received for its comprehensive detail and engaging style. O’Brien’s handling of the campaign involves both overview strategy and poignant individual stories, all woven together in a book that anyone with an interest in Mobile’s Civil War experience should consult. He trods some well-traveled ground in parts of the book, relating the basics of the context of the campaign, but particularly shines in his meticulous accounts of the fighting at both Spanish Fort and Fort Blakeley. Readers familiar with Christopher Columbus Andrews’ book on the campaign will easily recognize his reliance on the publication for portions of his narrative, but he nonetheless makes the story his own.

The Last Siege: The Mobile Campaign, Alabama 1865, by Paul Brueske

In Last Siege author Paul Brueske chronicles in its totality the fighting on land and water which led to the capture of Mobile, including cavalry skirmishes along the Florida-Alabama line, sieges at Spanish Fort and Blakeley, and naval actions in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta. With a keen eye for unique details, Brueske brings to light many personalities and occurrences otherwise lost to history, such as the fact that future governors of both northern and southern states fought in the campaign; the story of a female soldier who participated in it disguised as a man; the tale of the Union army’s attempt to bombard Confederate lines with mortars fashioned from the trunks of sweet gum trees, the use of land mines and underwater torpedoes by outnumbered Confederates; the actions of one of the largest contingents of African-American soldiers to fight in any battle of the Civil War; and numerous other colorful details that have rarely, if ever, been discussed in books on the Mobile Campaign. Brueske makes a convincing plea for the campaign’s relevance in the pages of Last Siege as he fashions a sentimental but insightful overview of the definitive campaign of the war in the Gulf Coast region.

Last Stand at Mobile, by John C. Waugh

With a narrative consisting of under ninety pages of text, Last Stand at Mobile is admittedly a slim volume, but packs a lot into those pages. In fact, the book is in some ways a model of superb public history, as it communicates a basic understanding of the essential people, places and events associated with the Battle of Mobile Bay and the associated campaign for the city of Mobile, Alabama in accessible prose. Originally published in 2001, it promises to serve for years to come as among the best points of entry for those seeking to understand the events surrounding the capture of one of the last Confederate-controlled port cities during the Civil War. This is no simple task, as the events chronicled include a blockade, a naval battle, a siege, and a military campaign several months long waged for the capture of the city. Engaging and informative, it is a great example of the type of historical writing the public craves and deserves.

The Assault on Fort Blakeley: “The Thunder and Lightning of Battle,” by Mike Bunn

I do not customarily rank my writing among the “best” books on any subject when composing lists such as this, but I feel my publication on the Battle of Fort Blakeley merits inclusion here. It stands as the only book-length treatment of that pivotal battle in the Mobile Campaign ever published. On the afternoon of April 9, 1865, some sixteen thousand Union troops launched a bold, coordinated assault on the three-mile-long line of earthworks known as Fort Blakeley in the climax of the weeks-long campaign that resulted in the capture of Mobile. The charge was one of the grand spectacles of the Civil War, and the battlefield where it all happened stands in a state of remarkable preservation in a state park. The book serves as both a history and guide to the battle, explaining how it unfolded zone by zone and featuring the words of participants throughout.

Confederate Mobile, by Arthur Bergeron, Jr.

Arthur Bergeron, Jr.’s overview of the Civil War experience of Mobile, Alabama, Confederate Mobile, first appeared in 1991 and has become a standard reference source on the history of the city. Mobile had been largely overlooked in Civil War historiography prior to Bergeron’s book, even though it was one of the largest and most important cities in the Confederacy. The book consists of some thirteen chapters detailing the city’s strategic position, its role as a point of Confederate supply, the plans made for its defense, and the fighting that took place in late 1864 and early 1865 that resulted in its capture by Union forces. It is a detailed, if not necessarily engrossing, account of military activity in Mobile, unearthing a story that few had ever attempted to tell. Its strength lies in the comprehensive way it deals with that military history, providing details on everything from the purpose and nature of the rings of defenses that encircled the city to the chronic shortage of troops to man them to the special role played by slaves and free blacks in the city’s defense. It is a little less convincing in integrating the story of the civilian experience into the narrative, providing a rather cursory overview of the topic despite the fact that “Confederate Mobile” saw no fighting until the very late stages of the war and life carried on as normal there perhaps more so than any other large Southern city. What it does it does well, though, and it remains a standard reference on its subject today.

Besieged: Mobile 1865, by Russell W. Blount, Jr.

Despite its brevity, the book gives you about as well-rounded and as thorough a picture of the campaign for the “Paris of the South” as one is likely to find. The book chronicles the period between the Battle of Mobile Bay and the fall of the city to Union forces, or a period roughly from January to April of 1865. In a dozen brief, quick-moving chapters, Blount gives readers an understanding of life in Mobile during the time, the strategies and movements of the opposing armies and navies that battled for the city, and the personal experiences of the soldiers who comprised those forces. Utilizing well-selected quotes from those who lived through the events he chronicles, he brings the story to life in convincing fashion.

Mobile Under Siege: Surviving the Union Blockade, by Paula Webb

In nine short chapters, arranged as a month by month chronicle of life in Mobile from August of 1864 to April of 1865, Webb discusses life in the city as revealed in newspapers, journals, diaries, letters, and other correspondence involving both civilians and military officials. The progress of the military campaign aimed at the capture of the city is the constant backdrop, and she gives overview analysis of its major developments as she introduces readers to details of morale, devotion to the war effort, social life, economic crises, and political divisions within Mobile. In the process readers come to know a bit of the personalities of some influential figures in the city at the time, such as Confederate General Dabney Maury, socialite Octavia LeVert, and author Augusta Evans, as well as a host of lesser known individuals. Webb’s description brings to light what was on the minds of Mobile’s citizens during the siege, and discusses the military campaign at their doorstep from the viewpoint of what they knew and when. Interestingly, there is considerable attention given to the lively discussion during the period over whether or not to arm the slaves to achieve Confederate independence.