Archive | November, 2022

Review of William Walker’s Wars: How One Man’s Private American Army Tried to Conquer Mexico, Nicaragua, and Honduras, by Scott Martelle

29 Nov

America’s antebellum era was a transformative and tumultuous one which ended in a cataclysm of civil war after decades of political animosity and no small amount of physical violence. In what are remembered as among the more provocative initiatives initiated by advocates of the rights of slaveholders in the era, rogue expansionists called filibusters attempted to find new areas where human bondage could thrive by either negotiating for the acquisition of foreign lands for the United States or literally taking them over by force. Political maneuvering and military campaigning of various types swirled around the expansion of the Cotton Kingdom into Mexico, the Caribbean, and South America as soon as it became clear its future in America might be imperiled. In William Walker’s Wars, author Scott Martelle chronicles the activities of one of the more outrageous and persistent filibusters.

I listened to an audiobook version of the book by Martelle, a former Los Angeles Times staff writer and author of several books on dramatic episodes in American history. Like many readers of this blog, I had heard of Walker but knew very little about him. A diminutive, seemingly unassuming student of medicine and newspaper editor with no apparent fixation on slavery for most of his life, Walker seemed an unlikely person to attempt to install himself as president of Nicaragua and extend Southern cotton culture into Central America. Yet over the course of a career in journalism which took the Nashville native to locations such as New Orleans and San Francisco, he became obsessed with the idea of American expansion into the region as a part of its destiny. With a blatant disregard for federal policy and an arrogant assumption than a few dozen armed militiamen could take over a country, he recruited troops for multiple extralegal forays into independent foreign nations.

His poorly organized, inadequately planned expeditions read as Quixotic drama in Martelle’s book. Yet Walker was a determined man, convinced of the rightness of his cause and the adequacy of his own abilities. He seemed to enjoy initial success on multiple occasions, yet could never solidify what he temporarily gained. His most well-known—and final—drama concerned his attempt to set up an independent state in Nicaragua and Honduras and is the primary focus of the book. Running afoul of both American law, the British Royal Navy, and, of all people, wealthy industrialist Cornelius Vanderbilt, who was investing in the area at the time, Walker’s last campaign was a desperate and forlorn attempt to claim leadership of a politically-divided country which ended with his death by firing squad in the city of Trujillo at the age of only thirty-six.

William Walker’s Wars is a story of the remarkable life of a man once a lightning rod for controversy throughout the western hemisphere but today largely forgotten. If you have an interest in understanding the international dimensions of the controversy over slavery in the United States as it inched towards war in the 1850s, you will be interested in this book.


Review of The Guns of August: The Outbreak of World War I, by Barbara Tuchman

15 Nov

Few years can compete with 1914 regarding its importance to the entire world.  In her Pulitzer Prize-winning The Guns of August, Barbara Tuchman focused on that year’s crucial eighth month that saw the beginning of World War I. Although published over fifty years ago in 1961, her account still captivates readers with its incredible research and lively narrative. Clocking in at fourteen hours via audiobook, The Guns of August explains how the nations of the world entered this conflict and how the war’s eventual destiny was determined by its first month of action.

Tuchman, who won another Pulitzer with her biography of General Joseph Stillwell, starts the book back in 1910 with the pompous funeral of England’s Edward VII in which most of the world sent representatives to attend. She then provides background on all the major empires of the world and their lead up to war. The infamous Schlieffen plan, the German strategy of attacking France through Belgium, as well as France’s scheme of mobilization called Plan 17 garner special attention. Surprisingly, little time is given to the assassination of Austria Hungary’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand, but she goes into detail on the main powers and their declarations of war, and the feeble attempts made to prevent the horror from taking place.

The book’s pace quickens with the German onslaught through Belgium. Tuchman allows all the key figures such as Hindenburg, Joffre, French, Ludendorff, Haig and others their spotlight as their decisions bring their forces into combat. The capture of Liege, the Battle of the Frontiers, and the Russian defeat at Tannenberg are brought to life as Germany nearly achieves victory. A key decision by the German high command as its forces approached Paris, however, left its right wing vulnerable, providing French and English forces the opportunity to counterattack at the Battle of the Marne. This battle stopped the German advance, saving France and preventing Germany from winning the war quickly with an early knockout. Afterwards, the armies settled into trench warfare which would last for four horrible years. Tuchman states the failures of the Schlieffen plan and France’s Plan 17 were responsible for this deadlock on the western front and the horrors associated with it.

The Guns of August is a thrilling account of the beginning of World War I. Experiencing via audiobook does limit some understanding as one is unable to view maps and check any notes, but Tuchman thankfully does not get into minute detail on battles which allows the listener to follow along. Tuchman skillfully weaves her narrative and provides a multitude of information without completely overwhelming the reader (or listener.)  The book has enhanced my interest in the topic and sends me to seek out other accounts, an objective any author would be thrilled to achieve. I doubt there are any World War I enthusiasts who do not have this book on their shelf.


Review of A Land So Strange: The Epic Journey of Cabeza de Vaca, Andrés Reséndez

1 Nov

The age of European exploration and colonization of North America is filled with epic tales of adventure, as people from entirely different civilizations first came in contact. Europeans dreamed of creating colonial empires and gaining wealth and influence in a new land about which they knew nothing about, while natives were at first unsure how to respond to these curious visitors and what exactly their unexpected presence meant. Most of those who read this blog are likely at least casually familiar with some of the most noted early European attempts to find a foothold in North America, such as the famed entrada of Hernando De Soto and the establishment of the English colony at Jamestowne. From their stories many of us have derived some notion of what these first interactions were like and how exploration of the continent by Europeans proceeded. Few are likely very familiar with perhaps the most incredible individual story to emerge from the time period, however. In A Land So Strange, author Andres Resendez recounts the tale of Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, who sojourned across the North American continent in the early 1500s after the disastrous failure of the expedition which brought him to the shores of the Gulf.

De Vaca was a part of an expedition under Panfilo de Narvaez, aimed at establishing settlements and other posts in Florida. The mission went awry almost immediately after it encountered the coast, however. Owing to poor knowledge of the area and inadequate maps, Narvaez badly misjudged his location and his colonization effort devolved into a desperate attempt at mere survival. Most of the men who accompanied him perished in grueling cross-Gulf voyage aboard makeshift rafts or starved in the coastal hinterlands. The few survivors who washed up on the shore of what is now Texas endured attack by Indians, exposure to the elements, starvation, and finally, enslavement by native groups where they were forced to perform hard labor. Some were indiscriminately killed for sport. That any made it through all this is incredible.

Somehow de Vaca and three others did, though; Alonso del Castillo Maldonado, Andres Dorantes de Carranza, and Dorantes’ enslaved Moor Estevanico. Despite coming into contact only periodically, they somehow hatched a plan to escape to Spanish settlements in Mexico together. Improbably, the group became recognized as medicine men, a status which allowed them to be accepted by different groups as they made their way west. They eventually became so secure in their status that, for reasons known only to them, they actually chose to press on into the western interior rather than make way south to Mexico after crossing the Rio Grande. Along their extended their journey they came into contact with ancestors of Plains Indians and made it all the way to the Gulf of California before eventually reaching a Spanish outpost and walking in to Mexico City among astounded residents in 1536. Their story was published in an account by de Vaca on his return to Spain, where it inspired no less an adventurer than Hernando De Soto. A Land So Strange is indeed an epic tale of adventure and sheer survival in some of the most adverse circumstances imaginable. It is highly recommended if you have an interest in the age of exploration. I listened to an audiobook recording of the title, which ran just a little over seven hours.