Archive | September, 2022

Review of The Cause: The American Revolution and Its Discontents, 1773-1783, by Joseph J. Ellis

20 Sep

Master historian and retired professor Joseph J. Ellis has a long list of award-winning publications focusing on America’s founding era and its leading figures to his credit. In books ranging from American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson to Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation, Ellis has established himself as one of the country’s foremost experts on the Revolutionary period. His latest book, The Cause: The American Revolution and Its Discontents, 1773-1783, attempts to help us understand the complicated foundations of the American nationalism which gave rise to a unique national identity and propelled the country to victory in an all-consuming war and still serves as the disputed basis of the notion of American exceptionalism.

I listened to an audiobook version of the title recently, and found it, as expected, to be an engrossing and well-argued take on a familiar story. In summary, more than half of Ellis’s book is a fast-moving and high-level account of how opposition to British policies in America became an organizing force which did nothing less than provide a basis for a new sense of nationhood among North America’s rebellious British colonies. Showcasing political thought among high profile leaders and a variety of lesser-known individuals from a range of social classes, he shows that opinion over what the proper responses might be varied considerably. Ellis demonstrates, however, that a movement within the otherwise loosely-connected colonies gradually took shape and encouraged a coalescing of resistance to Great Britain. That resistance, as we know, enabled a remarkable attempt to found a new nation and sustained a fragile political entity through a long and bitter war. There is really not all that much new in the book upon reflection in these regards, but Ellis’s incredible comprehensive knowledge of the story and its key leaders enables a new understanding of a familiar story through his expert storytelling and revealing personal profiles of central characters.

But in the larger picture, “The Cause,” as Ellis explains so convincingly, is nothing less than the way Americans understood what their struggle for nationhood was all about. How and why its most noble goals came to resonate as something much more than simple resistance to taxation without representation and what all this meant for the future of the new nation and its place in the world is a story still being written. Ellis does not offer definitive thoughts on all of this postscript, but shows that victory in the Revolutionary War was not necessarily foreordained and the stability of the nation in the decades after independence was anything but assured. Belief in a vaguely-defined cause somehow guided developments in the war and indeed after its conclusion. Ellis is at his best in demonstrating how local, tangible, concerns meshed into a larger, somewhat ephemeral, set of values which have become fundamental to understanding America’s past, present, and future. In short, The Cause is a compelling attempt to frame America’s story for a new generation by a mature historian with a lifetime of experience in the craft. It is definitely worth a look by anyone interested in the Revolutionary era and America’s founding principles.


Review of Sherman’s March to the Sea, by John F. Marszalek

6 Sep

Union General William T. Sherman was a firm believer that war was simply not armies fighting each other on battlefields, but a conflict between societies battling each other for supremacy. By the fall of 1864, Sherman had seen enough of traditional war as Union and Confederate armies had bloodied each other across the North American continent, but had not yet yielded any definitive results. Desiring to move the war to a quick conclusion, after capturing Atlanta he focused his energies on the Southern populace which he saw as supporting the Confederate war effort.  The result was one of the most famous but contentious campaigns in the entire war, and featured his army sweeping through the Georgia countryside virtually unopposed in late 1864 before capturing the city of Savannah. John F. Marszalek provides a quick synopsis of the famed march and how well it demonstrated the theory behind its purpose in Sherman’s March to the Sea.

Marszalek, a Professor Emeritus of History and former director of the Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library, both at Mississippi State University, is also author of over a dozen books, including a biography Sherman himself.  In this brief study, Marszalek sought to examine the decision made to undertake the campaign and the necessary preparations and then describe what the march was like for the soldiers involved, the Confederates who tried to stop him, the civilians in their path, and the scores of former slaves who followed the Union army.  In a concise and persuasively argued narrative of less than 130 pages, Marszalek solidly achieves his task.

After Sherman had captured Atlanta and spent a few futile weeks chasing John Bell Hood’s force across North Georgia, Sherman decided to plot a new trajectory. Leaving behind a force strong enough to deal with Hood, who at that moment was heading north towards Tennessee, he would march his army of 62,000 men southeastward toward Savannah in an attempt to bring the war home to Georgia civilians.  Cutting loose from his supply base, his men would forage off the land, taking what they needed from the people who Sherman blamed for starting and continuing to support the war. He sought to test his theory that crushing the will power of those civilians at home would force Confederate soldiers to abandon their cause and stop fighting. He also knew the march itself, moving throughout the Southern heartland virtually unopposed, would prove the futility of continuing the war. Sherman preferred this type of warfare instead of waging more bloody battles of the type that had claimed so many thousands of lives yet failed to end a conflict that had raged for over three miserable years. He sought to enact on a larger scale some of the techniques employed in his earlier Meridian campaign, where he moved swiftly across the Mississippi countryside and supplied his army off the land.

Destroying anything remaining of value in Atlanta, Sherman’s men left the city on November 15, 1864. Dividing his army into two wings screened by cavalry, they marched southeastwardly into Georgia’s heartland. They moved at will, brushing aside the minute forces that the Confederacy was able to cobble together in a vain attempt to slow down the Yankee juggernaut. His troops foraged quite liberally and kept well fed. Against Shermans’ desires, scores of former slaves, numbering in the thousands, followed his army in their search for freedom. Their treatment was uneven at best, cruel at worst, culminating in one nasty incident at Ebenezer Creek where Union Soldiers removed pontoon bridges after they had crossed, leaving hundreds of slaves behind at the mercy of pursuing Confederate troops. By early December, Sherman’s force reached the outskirts of Savannah. By capturing a key Confederate fort, Sherman was able to make contact with the Union Navy, securing a solid supply line.  In keeping with an ongoing pattern, he allowed the Confederate force inside Savannah to escape so he could capture the city without a prolonged siege and costly battle. He famously presented the city to President Abraham Lincoln as a Christmas present.

Marszalek writes in detail about Sherman’s attitude towards the former slaves and pulls no punches. Sherman sought to reunite the Union and was happy if destroying the institution of slavery achieved those results. He did not, however, seek equal rights for the former slaves and simply felt that they were inferior to the white man. Marszalek says that after the war, Sherman sided with his former Southern white friends, doing what he had promised to do if they would simply end the futile struggle.

Since Sherman’s March is a part of the Civil War Campaigns and Commanders series, the narrative contains twenty quick biographical sketches of many of the struggle’s leaders. Although the sketches provided useful information on the careers of these leading actors, their placement as insets in the body of the text disrupts the flow of the narrative. Although the reviewers know these biographies are a key component to the books in the series, we would have recommended they be placed in an appendix instead. That quibble aside, March to the Sea adequately tells the story of one of the war’s most iconic events in succinct fashion and helps readers make sense of why it occurred and the results it achieved.