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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.


Review of West Wind, Flood Tide: The Battle of Mobile Bay, by Jack Friend

23 Aug

Union Admiral David Farragut referred to the August 5, 1864, naval engagement at Mobile Bay as “the most desperate battle I ever fought.” Such a pronouncement is worthy of our contemplation considering Farragut’s long and illustrious career as a naval officer. Author Jack Friend provides a riveting narrative of the affair in West Wind, Flood Tide, The Battle of Mobile Bay.

The late Friend, who passed away in 2010, was a noted businessman who was considered by many as the premier historian of the Civil War naval battle at Mobile Bay. Published in 2004, West Wind, High Tide was the culmination in a life spent researching the titanic struggle. Mobile Bay was one of the last remaining ports of the Confederacy and had long been a target for Farragut as well as William T. Sherman and Ulysses S. Grant by the time of the battle. Various other expeditions and other political considerations prevented Union forces from mounting an expedition until the summer of 1864 when plans were put in motion for a joint army/navy operation aimed at capturing not only the outer forts and Confederate fleet, but the important town of Mobile itself.

Mobile was well protected. Forts Morgan, Gaines, and Powell defended the entrance to the bay along with a line of underwater mines, known during those times as torpedoes. A small Confederate fleet also guarded the bay, highlighted by the ironclad ram Tennessee, a much-feared warship led by Admiral Franklin Buchanan, who had captained the famed ironclad Virginia. Farragut would lead a fleet that included a dozen wooden warships, two Mississippi River ironclads and two monitors. The army would also conduct amphibious landings to put Forts Gaines and Morgan under siege. Farragut instructed his fleet to enter the bay by sailing close to Fort Morgan, avoiding the dreaded torpedo “field” to the west of the narrow ship channel Rebels had kept open for blockade runners. Farragut feared the encounter would be a costly one, but knew the attack had to be made.

Friend provides a thorough background of the preparations being made by both Union and Confederate authorities. At times, the first half of his narrative is a bit tedious as the reader reads pages upon pages of Farragut waiting for the ironclads to arrive. The book’s highwater mark occurs when Farragut’s ships enter the channel, and the monitor Tecumseh sinks upon veering off course and striking a torpedo. Friend states the battle’s key moment was at hand as the entire fleet froze upon the monitor’s destruction while the guns of Fort Morgan and the Confederate fleet hurled scores of shells at them. At this point, Farragut’s legend was born when he bravely led his ships past the dangers and into the bay. Apparently, Farragut never did yell the famous words of “Damn the Torpedoes, Full Steam Ahead,” but the several instructions he shouted in the pivotal moments of the battle from high atop the mast of his flagship essentially communicated the sentiment and orders clear enough.

After Friend describes the Union Fleet taking care of the other inferior Southern ships Gaines and Selma, his story reaches a crescendo again with the description of the Tennessee’s daring fight against the entire Union armada, a fight that was dramatic but doomed to failure as the ship could not overcome the overwhelming odds against it and eventually surrendered when it could no longer put up a fight. The naval battle was over. Within a few weeks, all the forts had also surrendered. Mobile Bay was in Union hands, but Farragut’s ships could not penetrate the shallow waters and get close enough to bombard the city and there were not enough Union troops on hand to assault the city and hold it. Not until April 1865, after General Robert E. Lee had surrendered, did the city fall into Union hands.

The capture of Mobile Bay was a critical victory for Union forces that according to Friend helped boost sagging Northern morale and propel Abraham Lincoln to victory in the 1864 presidential election. Farragut’s victory was costly, resulting in the loss of two vessels and over three hundred men. Again, the Union navy flexed its muscles over an overmatched Southern navy and proved again that forts could not defeat them. Friend expertly describes the preparations, action, and aftermath in a clear way. His references to Homer’s Odyssey might be a bit much to some readers during the action, but it illustrates the battle as one of the more epic struggles of its time. As it has since its original publication, Friend’s book still stands as the definitive study of the Battle of Mobile Bay.


In Memory of David McCullough

9 Aug

Today we mourn the passing of a legend. David McCullough, one of the foremost masters of historical writing, died over the weekend at his Massachusetts home at the age of 89. He will of course be remembered for his iconic books such as Truman, John Adams, 1776, Mornings On Horseback, and The Wright Brothers, among an impressive body of work that included service as a narrator on popular video documentaries such as Ken Burns’ famed Civil War series. If you ever have a chance to listen to him narrate one of his audiobooks, you will quickly learn that he was a master storyteller in whatever medium he chose to work.

It was the stellar example he set as a practitioner of narrative history that we want to draw to attention to as we contemplate his legacy. McCullough inspired us, and countless others, to be better writers and to always remember our primary audience is the general public. He encouraged us to understand all history is the story of individual human experience, and when related in comprehensible and compelling fashion it is as interesting as any work of fiction—perhaps even more so. Above all, though, his work is a reminder that the most fundamental and impactful work a historian can do is to write history in a readable, accessible fashion. McCullough was no insular academic, writing for his peers and focusing on the minutia of historical topics or urging some sort of reconsideration of one preconceived notion or another. His audience was always the general public, and his stories were always straightforward accounts on a grand scale. He excelled in telling these engrossing tales in a way that readers connected with, learned from, and were inspired by. In so doing, he had a tremendous influence on the enthusiasm for the study of the past by the public during his time and far beyond.

He will be missed.


Review of 1983: Reagan, Andropov, and a World on the Brink, by Taylor Downing

26 Jul

Like many kids growing up in the 1980s, I was very aware at a young age of the fact that the United States and the Soviet Union seemed to be mortal enemies. Even though in hindsight I knew little of the root cause of the international rivalry and all the political differences that fueled it, I knew enough to appreciate the fact that the specter of nuclear war loomed as a very real prospect. Nuclear arsenals and their capabilities were discussed constantly in the news, and the cataclysmic results of any potential nuclear war were things I can remember being discussed in the classroom. Perhaps my strongest memories about a possible world-ending war are associated less with real news, however, than with television series such as “The Day After” and others which graphically depicted what a nuclear holocaust might look like and spurred classroom talk. The thought that missiles launched from Russia could reach the U.S. in less than ten minutes was terrifying. Owing to those childhood memories, I am sure, I have had a fascination with the Cold War throughout my adult life. I have enjoyed several video documentaries on the subject in the past few years, but had not gotten an opportunity to do much reading on the subject until late. Recently I got a chance to listen to an audiobook version of one of the leading chronicles of the era, Taylor Downing’s 1983: Reagan, Andropov, and a World on the Brink.

Historian and broadcaster Taylor Downing is the producer of more than 200 television documentaries and author of several well-known books. Included among his published works are 1942: Britain at the Brink; Night Raid: The True Story of the First Victorious British Para Raid of WWII; Secret Warriors: Key Scientists, Code Breakers and Propagandists of the Great War; Breakdown: The Crisis of Shell Shock on the Somme, and Churchill’s War Lab: Code Breakers, Boffins and Innovators: the Mavericks Churchill Led to Victory. In 1983, Downing attempts to chronicle what he argues may just have been the most perilous moments of the entire decades-long Cold War. That year marked a low point in international relations between two countries which had combined more than 18,000 nuclear warheads aimed at each other.

Downing’s central thesis is that 1983 was a very dangerous year in American-Soviet relations, even more so than during the Cuban Missile Crisis in the 1960s. U.S. President Ronald Reagan had purposefully brought simmering tensions between the two superpowers to a full boil by encouraging a massive increase in defense spending, which effectively forced the Soviets to respond in kind. His support of the famed “Star Wars” initiative, which aimed to create a sort of technological shield which would prevent missiles fired at the United States from ever reaching the country, only increased tensions. The Soviets would have a hard time keeping up with the massive American spending, and Reagan knew it. Plus, he went around proclaiming the Soviet Union to be an “evil empire,” a provocative accusation meant to help win a global public relations war by forcing the Soviets into a defensive posture.

The aging Soviet leadership was at a loss to respond to Reagan’s financial and propaganda offensive, and became more suspicious and defensive about a possible U.S. attack than ever. They invested untold amounts of money in a global spy network which incentivized the discovery of any information proving the assumption, resulting in an intelligence service which effectively worked to tell its directors less about what was really going on than what they thought they wanted to hear. Hence a paranoid Soviet military shot down a Korean airliner carrying some 269 civilians after it drifted off course into Soviet airspace in September of 1983. In November the Soviets’ early warning system, a series of satellites designed to detect the launch of a U.S. missile, gave a false notice that an attack was underway when reflections of the morning sun on high-altitude clouds high above the American Midwest seemed to alert military officials that America had launched missiles. It took the calm response of a Soviet missile defense system leader to avert nuclear war. His hesitation to respond truly averted a global conflict, but it cost him his career. Later in November 1983 would come the closest call of all, though.

The crisis came in the form of a military exercise administered by NATO officials from the organization’s headquarters in Belgium. Code named “Able Archer,” it was purely an exercise designed to test communications capacities in the event of an actual war with the Soviet Union, but was conducted in real time and on existing radio frequencies and other lines of communication. Participants literally operated for several days from bunkers to make the experience as real as possible, and at times communicated in secret codes. The plan called for a scenario in which NATO forces were losing a conventional war and had to resort to nuclear weapons to prevent a takeover of much of Europe. The United States clearly would have to enter the growing conflict at some point in the exercise. The faulty Soviet espionage network picked up on the transmissions, and although there was clearly no war going on, somehow came to believe the entire thing was a big trick that would result in an actual attack. They also noted that President Reagan had left for a diplomatic trip to Japan as the operation began, and conflated that with a plan to take the president out of a potential war zone. In response to the perceived threat, the Soviet nuclear system went into high alert and top officials seriously considered a preemptive strike to protect themselves against what they had mistakenly come to view as an actual threat. Thankfully the week-long exercise ended before any actual military action was taken. Few people at the time realized just close to a nuclear attack Europe had been.

Downing’s book will do little to give readers peace about the fragility of international relations in the nuclear age. He reveals how a series of misunderstandings, intelligence failures, and faulty technology could have triggered a nuclear Armageddon on multiple occasions in the 1980s, just as all of us who grew up in the era feared. While we would like to think that perhaps such things could not happen today, the recent actions of a reckless Russian dictator who is fond of tossing out threats of nuclear warfare today reveal we still live with the reality. The book is a timely and intriguing account of a defining era in American foreign diplomacy and highly recommended.


Review of the Battle of Brice’s Crossroads, by Stewart L. Bennett

12 Jul

William T. Sherman’s greatest fear as he undertook his campaign to capture Atlanta was not the Confederate Army of Tennessee, but famed horseman Nathan Bedford Forrest attacking his tenuous supply lines.  Therefore, Sherman ordered Union authorities to launch a foray into Mississippi to keep Forrest pinned down, thereby preventing him from being a threat to Sherman’s more important operations. Blue Mountain College Professor Stewart Bennett describes the subsequent campaign in North Mississippi with The Battle of Brice’s Crossroads. 

Part of The History Press’s Civil War Sesquicentennial Series, The Battle of Brice’s Crossroads is a compact volume of less than 130 pages of text that describes the military situation in North Mississippi in the early summer of 1864. Confederate leaders knew Atlanta was the next target for Union forces and had sent Forrest and his command to attempt to damage Sherman’s supply line emanating from Nashville and Chattanooga. When Union forces started stirring in Memphis, Forrest was called back to deal with the threat. Union General Samuel Sturgis commanded a force of over 10,000 cavalrymen and infantry soldiers to put the pressure on Forrest, who could muster only around 3,500 men. The forces clashed at Brice’s Crossroads, an intersection of roads near Baldwin, Mississippi on June 10, 1864.

Both units maneuvered in extreme temperatures as their leaders hurriedly marshaled their forces in a race to the Crossroads. Whoever could get the most men there the quickest would have the advantage. In the beginning, both calvary forces slugged it out as the Union force set up a defensive position at the Crossroads as Forrest kept pushing the attack and moved his forces into place. The Union force was strung out over the roads and arrived on the verge of exhaustion due to the long forced marches they endured. Forrest characteristically kept up the pressure and Confederate forces eventually overwhelmed the defenders and chased the Union force from the battlefield and miles up the road, capturing scores of prisoners and supplies. As Bennett states, Brice’s Crossroads made Forrest a legend as he defeated a numerically superior force.

In regards to the larger picture, the Confederate victory at Brice’s Crossroads meant very little.  Sherman was disgusted when he heard about the results of the battle, and quickly ordered another foray into the Magnolia State, bur privately he was surely pleased that Forrest had been kept busy and prevented from becoming a threat to his operations in Georgia. Sherman eventually captured Atlanta in September and historians and amateur history buffs have wondered ever since if things might have been different had Forrest had the opportunity to wreak havoc on his long and somewhat fragile supply line across the hills of north Georgia.

To his credit, Bennett provides a thorough and detailed description of the action at Brice’s Crossroads. However, his narrative is tedious and a struggle to read. He seems to favor extremely long paragraphs that tire the reader expecting a series of succinct points to be made in a progressive narrative. Plus, he provides such extreme detail with information on regiments and their movements and locations that no reader can possibly follow the action as there are nowhere near enough maps. Bennett is obviously an expert on the battle and the battlefield itself as proved by the plethora of photos showcasing important spots on the battlefield as they appear today. Unfortunately, however, these do little to assist in a reader’s understanding of the battle. The book would have benefited from more careful editing to clarify and simplify the narrative to make it easier to read and understand. Anyone not having some familiarity with the battle will be overwhelmed with the way Bennett attempts to relate the story in an avalanche of details that sometimes conceal the way the larger battle unfolded. Bennett also did not delve in a significant way into the major decision to pull Forrest back from attempting to move into Tennessee. Only a few sentences were given to the decision that proved vitally important to the overall scope of the war. Bennett’s book will surely stand as a landmark in the historiography of the battle he chronicles if for no other reason than that so relatively little has been written about it, and anyone interested in the crossroads clash that hot June day will be interested in it. Still, readers seeking a well-written narrative that clearly places one of the Confederacy’s most unexpected victories within with context of the larger war will need to look elsewhere.


Review of “She’s Bound To Be A Goer”: Fairhope, Alabama and the Steamboats of Mobile Bay, 1894-1934, by Creighton C. “Peco” Forsman

28 Jun

Today Baldwin County, Alabama’s Eastern Shore of Mobile Bay is one of the fastest-growing counties in the nation, a thriving tourist destination, and among Alabama’s most desirable locations for residence. It is therefore easy to forget that not too long ago, historically speaking, the area was an economic and cultural backwater, isolated from the rest of state owing to inadequate regional roads. A region of small farming and fishing communities, its lone reliable link to the regional population and trading center of Mobile across the bay was at one time provided by ferry boats running between the port city and places such as the emerging villages of Daphne, Montrose, Point Clear, and the experimental “single tax colony” of Fairhope. These “Bay Boats” have come to assume a unique place in the area’s history, as they are symbols of a formative era and played a key role in its economic development.

Published in 2014, Creighton C. “Peco” Forsman’s chronicle of the heyday of this regional form of transportation, “She’s Bound To Be a Goer”, is a valuable compilation of information on these boats, their captains, the routes they ran and the communities they served. Forsman’s work is drawn almost exclusively from meticulously researched historic newspapers and illustrated with a unique assemblage of photographs of boats, piers, passengers, and captains. The book brings to life a forgotten era which came to a sudden and unceremonious end with the construction of vehicular bridges between Baldwin County and Mobile in the 1920s. Even more importantly for those interested in the history of the Eastern Shore region, the book forms an unparalleled resource on a key, if admittedly narrow, aspect of the area’s past. The book is intensely local, and as such is likely to only have appeal to a limited audience. It is nonetheless a good piece of local history that will serve as an important reference resource for generations to come.


Review of Dawg Pile, A Celebration of Mississippi State’s 2021 National Championship Season, by Steve Robertson

14 Jun

Mississippi State University (MSU) has not been very successful in college athletics. They were one of three Power Five conference schools nationwide to have never won a national championship in any sport. They had gotten close a few times but had never finished the job. Baseball had been its most successful sport with lots of conference championships, impressive attendance records and scores of Hall of Fame players but had never won the national title. That finally changed in 2021. Avid Mississippi State sports fan and writer Steve Robertson captured the magical year where MSU finally won it all with Dawg Pile, A Celebration of Mississippi State’s 2021 National Championship Season.

Robertson is very familiar with Mississippi State athletics having covered it daily since 2014. His previous books have covered the Egg Bowl rivalry with Ole Miss and an investigative work on that same rival’s football’s recruiting. In Dawg Pile, he provides a straightforward look-back at the Bulldogs’ memorable season. His first few chapters set the background of MSU’s storied history with special emphasis on long-time legend Ron Polk who made the Bulldogs a national power in the early 1980s and put college baseball on the map. The last few years saw a few more coaches gain success but never get the team completely over the top.

Most of the book is divided into chapters that trace each weekend of MSU’s journey from early season games in the cold of February to late June where the Dogs won it all in Omaha, Nebraska. Robertson basically provides basic recaps of games interspersed with interviews of players and coaches. Robertson’s writing style is short and compact, nothing flashy.  Readers will learn of State’s early season victories and details of the grueling thirty-game SEC schedule. State fans will enjoy reminiscing about big wins over LSU and Ole Miss but would have gladly forgotten the embarrassing series loss to last place Missouri or the shellacking at the SEC Tournament in Hoover when fans thought MSU was destined for another postseason disappointment. However, State powered through their Regional and overcame a stout Notre Dame ballclub in the SuperRegional to make it to Omaha. And State fans were finally rewarded when past demons were exorcised when State dispatched Texas and Vanderbilt on the way to the title.

Robertson’s concluding chapters were some of his strongest when he provided a few meaningful stories of players and coaches. Of special note was the heartwarming story of pitching coach Scott Foxhall relating his conversation with his ailing father on prized recruit Will Bednar who eventually won the College Series Most Valuable Player award.  Robertson hits hard how this season was the culmination of many, many years and that it belonged to the entire MSU baseball family (coaches, players, and fans alike) who had emphatically supported the program for so long.  Long suffering Bulldog fans will treasure this book and enjoy reliving the magical season, but this fan was hoping for more in-depth (behind-the-scenes) stories and information that had not already previously been told. Those who are not diehard Bulldogs will probably tire of the summary recaps and the obviously biased book that is basically a memento of the school’s first national championship. 


Review of Huntsville in Vintage Postcards, by Allan C. Wright and Images of America: Huntsville, by John F. Kvach, Charity Ethridge, Michelle Hopkins, and Susanna Leberman

31 May

Having recently moved to Huntsville, I sought out some books to read so I can learn more about the place I now call home. The only books that the large chain bookstores had available was Huntsville in Vintage Postcards by Allan C. Wright and Images of America: Huntsville by John F. Kvach, Charity Ethridge, Michelle Hopkins, and Susanna Leberman. Both books, published in 2000 and 2013 respectively, are from Arcadia Publishing, which is reputedly the leading local history publisher in the United States. These short, compact books provided me with a plenty of vintage photographs and images but did not quell my thirst for an understanding of the history and origins of Rocket City.

Huntsville in Vintage Postcards celebrates many of the town’s landmarks through publication of over two hundred postcards, mostly printed before 1940.  The earliest postcards printed were in the late 1890s, so there are no images of life in Huntsville before then. Wright organizes the collection, taken mainly from the Huntsville-Madison County Library, into several chapters.  One of the most interesting chapters are about Big Spring, the early source of water for the area, located in the heart of downtown and the reason town founder John Hunt settled there in 1805.  Other chapters include information on the Courthouse Square, Cotton Mills, Houses, Streets, School and Churches, and Hotels and Motels.  Through it all, I gained tidbits of info on the town, especially the downtown area, and an understanding of the role cotton and mills played in the region’s history. Many of the postcards were fascinating to look at but one gets a little tired of seeing image after image of streets with houses, churches, and other businesses that are no longer there.

Images of America: Huntsville was a collaborative effort by the University of Alabama in Huntsville’s Public History program and the Huntsville-Madison County Public Library who sought to locate photographs to represent Huntsville’s past. Similar to Huntsville in Vintage Postcards, this book presents a plethora of images of buildings, street, and neighborhoods. The writers use these photographs to explain change over time; specifically, how Huntsville continued to grow and redefine itself throughout the years although faced with difficulties like the Civil War and the Great Depression. Readers will gain an importance of the town square and Big Spring, cotton’s definitive influence on the town, and how the efforts of Wernher von Braun changed the city’s trajectory.  Readers will sense the writers’ preservation focus as many of the captions discuss how change and “progress” have literally torn away many important landmarks of the past.

Readers of these books, especially long-time residents of the area, will enjoy the nostalgic look back at Huntsville’s past. Anyone not as familiar with the town will gain little knowledge. One wonders why editors don’t include images of current Huntsville locations to better illustrate how the look of the town has changed. Books from Arcardia Publishing do exactly what they set out to do; show a photographic glimpse of the past for local places across the country. These two books do that admirably; I must simply continue my search for a more scholarly study of Huntsville.


Review of Hunt the Bismarck: The Pursuit of Germany’s Most Famous Battleship, by Angus Konstam

17 May

I first discovered the music of Johnny Horton (along with the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Elvis Presley, and other famed performers from the 60s and 70s) during the exploration of my mother’s old vinyl record collection as a child. I guess that at least some degree of credit for the historical stories that first interested me is due to him, and every time I read about a subject he composed a tune for, I can’t help but have his music in my head. His iconic songs about important events in American history (“Johnny Reb,” “The Battle of New Orleans,” “North to Alaska,” etc…) all intrigued me as a musical interpretation of things I had heard about in school. In hindsight, they helped me understand the stories they told better by presenting them with a unique human emotion. Perhaps no single song of Horton’s has stuck with me over the decades as much as “Sink the Bismarck.” The song describes the incredible story of the hunt for the legendary battleship in the waters of the North Atlantic in May of 1941 in a way that helped me visualize the ship, its pursuit, the emotion of the sailors, and the two climactic naval battles for which it is remembered in a compelling way. I think it is the best of Horton’s odes to historic events, in truth, because it finds a way to connect the actual facts without some of the humor or exaggeration of tunes like “The Battle of New Orleans”; there is no “powdering of alligators behinds” to use them as artillery in the ballad about the Bismarck! The lines of the song about the clash with the HMS Hood (The Battle of Denmark Strait) that struck me as particularly descriptive and powerful nearly forty years ago still fascinate me now:

“The Hood found the Bismarck and on that fatal day,

The Bismarck started firing 15 miles away!

We gotta sink the Bismarck was the battle sound,

But when the smoke had cleared away the mighty Hood went down.”

Recently I got a chance to listen to an audiobook version of Angus Konstam’s acclaimed book about the pursuit and sinking of the most famous German warship in history, Hunt the Bismarck. Needless to say, Horton’s song has been on a loop in my head for a little while as I listened to Konstam’s version of the epic story of the short life of the battleship. Konstam is author of over a hundred books, and may be best known to many readers as a frequent contributor to Osprey Publishing’s military history series. I found his effort here to be an intriguing and approachable story that manages to make the pursuit and battles on the high seas a human drama rather than one that gets bogged down in tedious details about the complicated navigation involved in British efforts to find and sink the elusive ship. The poignant story of the battle with the Hood and the final showdown which sent to Bismarck to the bottom are among the finest narrations of naval warfare I have read.

The Bismarck was launched in early May of 1941, and immediately sent to prey on Allied shipping in the North Atlantic. It was discovered and confronted within days by the venerable HMS Hood, flagship of Royal Navy for two decades at the time. The less-well armored and older British ship sustained hits early in the action that detonated ammunition stores in its hold. In a fight lasting mere minutes, 1,500 men died and the pride of the British Navy sunk beneath the surface. It was a devastating and shocking blow to British morale, and one that Winston Churchill vowed to avenge in an all-out effort to hunt down the Bismarck. The resulting days-long chase, in which the German ship’s captain tried to elude pursuers and endured multiple daring combined-forces attacks by aircraft and underwater torpedoes, Konstam relates as a riveting tale of adventure. At last sustaining rudder damage that prevented the mighty battleship from reaching the protection of German-held French ports, the British Navy pounced. With multiple ships it staged an incredible bombardment that at length put the Bismarck out of action. With orders to sink it, though, the Royal Navy continued to pound the ship long after it could not return fire or even navigate. It disappeared beneath the waves, apparently scuttled by its German crew, a little after 10:30 AM on May 27, 1941. Only 114 of its 2,200 man-crew survived.

Hunt the Bismarck is one of several attempts to chronicle this enduring story of naval warfare. I have not had the pleasure of reading much about the subject, I will admit. I can nevertheless say that after reading Konstam’s account, it should be on your radar if you ever have an interest in reading about the saga that inspired Johnny Horton to write one of his catchiest tunes and became one of the most celebrated naval clashes of the second World War.