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Review of The Story of Alabama in Fourteen Foods, by Emily Blejwas

6 Jun

Food is one of those common denominators in history, something that connects everyone to a place and often reveals something important about the heritage and identity of a specific locale. Armed with that knowledge and a firm grasp of Alabama history, author Emily Blejwas has attempted to investigate key aspects of some of the state’s most important stories using traditional foods as a gateway. Part travel narrative, part history book, and part cookbook, The Story of Alabama in Fourteen Foods is a unique and entertaining contribution to Alabama historiography.

Each of the fourteen essays in the book explores the history of a food deeply rooted in Alabama’s culinary history, including everything from barbecue to banana pudding. Examined through the lens of the context in which the foods became popular and what they reveal about the various eras of the state’s past, each is a special chronicle of time, place, and people that is both reaffirming for those with some knowledge of the broad contours of state history and revelatory for those who do not.

Blejwas’s narrative is not a dry recitation of culinary facts. Rather, each chapter includes a story of a visit to a location, ranging from the Barbour County kitchen of the granddaughter of the person who created Alabama’s official state cake (Lane cake) to venturing on a turkey hunt in the Winston County. Several iconic restaurants are visited along the way. Unique aspects of state and regional history are revealed in the process. The tradition of barbecue clubs in the west Alabama black belt, how Moon Pies became so intricately associated with Mobile’s Mardi Gras, the story of how Milo’s sweet tea became a regional favorite beverage, and explanations of the origins and continuing importance of community events such as peanut boils and decoration days are all explored in unique and entertaining ways.

This is not a complete history of Alabama by any means, but it does provide life and color to key aspects of a past that exerts a powerful hold on the everyday life of contemporary residents and is a vital part of several regional identities. Arranged in a loose chronological fashion complete with a timeline of major events in Alabama history, the book is useful in understanding a bit of cultural heritage not often explored in historical narratives. And yes, each chapter does contain an inset with original recipes for the curious. The book is original in concept and forms a unique contribution to literature on Alabama’s past.


Review of Andrew Jackson and Pensacola, ed. by James R. McGovern

24 May

America’s bicentennial celebration in the 1970s spurred an incredible amount of scholarship across the nation showcasing the rich history of many places that saw the anniversary as an opportunity to celebrate their unique heritage. I recently—at long last—finally got around to reading a slim and long out of print volume on a special aspect of the history of Pensacola produced in 1974 which I picked up at a used book store some while back. Andrew Jackson and Pensacola, edited by University of West Florida professor James R. McGovern, features several diverse articles exploring the frequently overlooked important connection between the president and the Gulf Coast city.

The book features reprints of articles which originally appeared in various historical journals, a few original pieces, and reproductions of several original letters as well as listings of the mayors of Pensacola and the governors of Florida from the colonial to the early American eras. While not a comprehensive narrative, it is still a valuable collection of important references on its topic. Jackson spent time in Pensacola on three occasions, each time bringing the small coastal community to the forefront of national attention. He captured the place while under Spanish ownership two times—once during the War of 1812 (1814) when he wanted to stop the British from being able to utilize the place as a launching point for an attack on New Orleans, and again during the First Seminole War (1818) as a part of his effort to bring order to what was then the southern boundary of the United States. Owing to the extralegal nature of both of these offensives, Jackson and Pensacola were placed in the national political spotlight. Jackson’s third appearance in town was much more planned, the occasion being his term as the first governor of the Florida Territory. In the summer of 1821 he journeyed to the place to take ownership of the former Spanish colony and to establish an American government there. Unhappy with the location and the nature of the assignment, however, he left for home as soon as he had finished what he viewed as his essential tasks.

The book provides overviews of these episodes as well as points out local landmarks associated with the long-ago era of Jackson’s visits. One of the last essays in the brief book explores the political legacy of Jackson in Pensacola, a not insignificant consideration in Florida history owing to the fact that the associates he installed in office—the author refers to them as “cronies”—ended up controlling territorial government until statehood. Admittedly, this is not a book the general reader will be interested in. If you do have an interest on Jackson’s connection with Florida, though, you will definitely want to know about this rare volume.


Review of Mississippi Gulf Coast, by Timothy Isbell

9 May

Anyone who has ever visited the Mississippi Gulf Coast knows it is a unique and attractive place. Consisting of pristine beaches and a series of small towns nestled between New Orleans and Mobile, it has an identity all its own. Its primary cities—Bay St. Louis, Pass Christian, Long Beach, Gulfport, Biloxi, D’Iberville, Ocean Springs, Gautier, Pascagoula, and Moss Point—share a special bond that gives this circa sixty-mile long stretch of waterfront an unusual sense of community. In Mississippi Gulf Coast, a coffee-table style book loaded with compelling photographs, author Timothy Isbell attempts to capture the essence of this scenic section of the Magnolia State in words and images.

Isbell is a freelance photojournalist whose previous publications include Gettysburg: Sentinels of StoneShiloh and Corinth: Sentinels of Stone; and Vicksburg: Sentinels of Stone. His interest in the past and ability as a professional photographer are both on display in Mississippi Gulf Coast. The book features brief overviews of the various eras and key stories in the region’s history, including the adventures of the colonial era, the drama of the Civil War, the centrality of the fishing industry and tourism to the local economy, and a range of other topics from World War II ship production to contemporary Mardi Gras celebrations.

The book is essentially a fast-moving introduction to the area, with a rather cursory narrative that, while not comprehensive, is nonetheless informative. The key features of the book are the more than 200 professional photographs thoughtfully composed and artfully arranged so as to present a visual depiction of the place. These range from sunsets and beach scenes to imagery of iconic structures and community festivals. Even if it is not an in-depth history, this visually captivating book is sure to be a keepsake for anyone interested in this iconic region.


Review of To the Bitter End: Appomattox, Bennett Place and The Surrenders of the Confederacy, by Robert M. Dunkerly

25 Apr

Contrary to popular belief, the Confederacy’s surrender was not a neat and tidy affair. The various armies and troop contingents spread across the Deep South did not all give up when Robert E. Lee finally laid down his arms at Appomattox on April 9, 1865. In truth that most famous of Civil War surrenders would prove to be the exception in the series of disjointed agreements by which the various Rebel forces recognized their defeat in the spring and early summer of 1865 at a variety of places across the breadth of the former Confederacy and even at sea. Historian Robert M. Dunkerly charts the somewhat chaotic, piecemeal surrender of the several Confederate armies in his To the Bitter End: Appomattox, Bennett Place and the Surrenders of the Confederacy.

Dunkerly, an historian who worked at Appomattox Court House National Park and is author of The Confederate Surrender at Greensboro, has written a concise tale of a poorly understood aspect of the war for the Emerging Civil War Series, a popular catalog of books that provide succinct summaries of Civil War events for the general public. Dunkerly states in his opening author’s note that there was no clear closure of the war and that each surrender was unique in its own way. He then provides brief narratives of all the surrenders starting with the Army of Northern Virginia, which after giving up Petersburg and Richmond, was hounded continuously and eventually trapped. Unlike other Southern army surrenders, there was a final battle between the opposing forces and the end was sudden and unexpected. Terms given by Grant set the tone for those across the country in their generosity. But Robert E. Lee surrendered only his army in the parlor of the McLean House at Appomattox—numerous others, amounting to almost 200,000 troops, remained in the field.

Soon after Lee’s surrender, William T. Sherman offered even more generous terms to Joseph E. Johnston’s army at the Bennett Place in Durham, North Carolina. These terms were presented back to the authorities in Washington, who were still reeling after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, and rejected. Foreshadowing other surrenders to come, more meetings and delays prevented a final agreement until weeks later when nearly 90,000 Confederate soldiers in the Army of Tennessee and in the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida were all surrendered, making it the largest of the war.

The author recaps the additional surrenders further westward detailing the events in Alabama, Louisiana, Texas, and Arkansas involving the remaining substantial Confederate forces which were compelled to lay down their arms. He even devotes a small chapter to Indian nations allied with the Confederacy when he describes Cherokee General Stand Waite surrendering one of the final Confederate forces to remain in the field. Unlike previous events in the east, most of the soldiers further west gave up and went home before official agreements were signed, even as some officers attempted to keep their armies intact for some chance of continued resistance. Word had spread of Lee and Johnston’s surrenders and mass desertions took place. Most Confederate leaders understood the end had come and did all in their power to assist this transition, with the exception of E. Kirby Smith who in his final address to troops in Houston Texas, exclaimed “You have made your choice. It was unwise and unpatriotic, but it is final. I pray you will not live to regret it.” Others apparently shared the general’s thoughts as it estimated nearly 10,000 soldiers left the Confederacy for Mexico, Canada, England, and South America rather than face repercussions from the Federal government. How many soldiers never formally surrendered, and simply returned home to civilian life after realizing the end had come, will perhaps never be known.

To the Bitter End is a solid summation of the Confederacy’s end and provides information on a topic rarely covered in such detail. Dunkerly’s concise, well-written narrative conveys to the reader the chaotic nature of the war’s final weeks virtually across the continent and beyond, dispelling popular notions of a tidy ending in a single orderly event. Interesting appendices also provide details on related topics such as USCT involvement at Appomattox, the long journey home by surrendered Southern soldiers, and the last voyage of the CSS Shenandoah, which did not sail into Liverpool Harbor until November 1865 to finally give up. The author concludes with a suggested reading list of books for those that want more information on this topic, but this book provides a succinct wrap-up of the war in one compact volume. Highly recommended if you have an interest in the final days of the war.


Review of The War that Forged a Nation: Why the Civil War Still Matters, by James M. McPherson

11 Apr

There seems to be no end to writing about the Civil War. Although thousands of volumes have been published over more than a century and a half and seemingly every major event thoroughly investigated, we continue to want to learn more about the conflict and historians continue to debate the many ways it influenced American history. It seems surprising, then, that on occasion we as Americans seem to be inclined to collectively lose sight of the centrality of that landmark event to our past, present, and future. Judging from what often passes for history instruction in public schools, it sometimes appears the next generation is barely getting exposed to the fact there was a Civil War, much less learning about its cause, course, and consequence. It would appear, then, that scholarship explaining why the Civil War is a seminal event in American history will continue to need to be produced each generation.

For over five decades one of the best writers helping us make sense of the conflict and how it impacted American history has been James M. McPherson. The George Henry Davis Professor of History Emeritus at Princeton University, McPherson has published numerous volumes on the Civil War, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Battle Cry of Freedom and For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War, which won the Lincoln Prize. In 2016 he published The War that Forged a Nation: Why the Civil War Still Matters. In the pages of the book this master historian presents a series of his best essays chronicling the many ways the war transformed the nation which are of note today and promise to be important resources for those wanting to understand the war’s place in America’s past far into the future. I recently listened to an audiobook version of the title.

I will admit I am not usually a big fan of books of essays, as collections of them written at different times for varying reasons inherently prevent a narrative flow and are usually overly academic by nature. Those contained in The War that Forged a Nation, however, are less traditional essays but more elaborations of McPherson’s understanding of key concepts in the study of the Civil War. In other words, they speak to much broader themes than typical monographs, and their arrangement is roughly chronological as it concerns secession, military and political developments, and the evolution of the ending of slavery as a war aim for the Union. It is truly a catalogue of some of McPherson’s best work over a period of about two decades. It takes the form of twelve essays which, written as book reviews, commentary on trends in historiography, and summaries of his previous publications, collectively address major issues in the study of the Civil War as a landmark event in American history.

McPherson makes powerful and persuasive arguments for the continuing relevance of the war to all of American history, citing as paramount considerations its preservation of the Union, establishment of the authority of the national government in relation to the states, and ending of slavery and redefinition of freedom. He alludes to the failures of Reconstruction as having perhaps almost as much significance as the war which brought it about, mentioning that that era of conflict might actually qualify as America’s longest war when viewed as a contest for autonomy within several Southern states. While this is all rather familiar territory for most Civil War historians, McPherson writes from a position of more than a half-century of scholarship and experience. His words ring as authoritative.

Above all, though, McPherson provides a clear and compelling statement within the book on why we simply cannot understand the problems of our own time in America unless we better grasp the events of the war, what brought it about, and what course we took after peace. Ironically, he admits in his introduction, it was that very realization that spurred his interest in the Civil War back in the 1960s as a college student witnessing social turmoil in the South which was rooted deep in its troubled antebellum past. The War that Forged a Nation is well worth your time if you have an interest in the Civil War and its impact on national history, even if it covers some well-covered and often-written about topics.


Review of Yankee Blitzkrieg: Wilson’s Raid Through Alabama and Georgia, by James Pickett Jones

28 Mar

By 1865, the Confederacy was dying. Union armies were steadily tightening their grip on the South and the end was rapidly approaching. The only hope remining was a “last ditch” stand along a line stretching from Selma, Alabama to Macon. Georgia. This area contained foundries, machine shops, iron works and other businesses capable of supplying armies in the field either there or perhaps in the Trans-Mississippi Theater. Union commander James H. Wilson gathered the war’s largest cavalry force to decimate this area and deliver the final blow to the Rebels. James Pickett Jones admirably describes the campaign in detail with Yankee Blitzkrieg: Wilson’s Raid Through Alabama and Georgia.

Wilson had long thought that the cavalry had been improperly used throughout the war. He got permission to gather a force of nearly 15,000 troopers, equipped with Spencer repeating rifles and properly trained, to undergo an expedition to wreak havoc through the remaining Confederate strongholds in Alabama and Georgia. Leaving the Eastport, Mississippi area on March 22, his men would travel 525 miles and fight several engagements at places like Ebenezer Church, Selma and Columbus, Georgia. Along the way, he delivered the final defeat to Nathan Bedford Forrest who had failed to gather a force strong enough to halt Wilson’s progress. Jones correctly concluded that Union cavalry activities from Pensacola kept the Confederate “Wizard of the Saddle” pre-occupied as the famed cavalry leader had to send forces in that direction to protect Mobile. Wilson’s troops easily pushed aside the minuscule Confederate forces, even those commanded by Forrest, put in their path.

Wilson’s troopers devastated the remaining Southern facilities capable of sustaining war efforts. Shops, mills, foundries, iron works etc… were all decimated. By this point of the war, Selma itself produced half the cannon and two-thirds of the ammunition used by Confederate forces.  Had Robert E. Lee or Joseph Johnston maintained armies in the field, this raid would have successfully prevented them from having any supplies capable of waging war for much longer. Those forces, however, had either surrendered or were about to, meaning the casualties caused in these encounters were pointless as the war was essentially over.

Wilson’s troopers concluded their raid in Macon, Georgia, just in time to take part in capturing the fleeing Confederate president. Jones describes the efforts of these troops as well as the events occurring in Irwinville, Georgia on May 10 when Jefferson Davis was captured. Jones explains and refutes the rumor of Jefferson Davis’s alleged attempt to escape wearing women’s clothes. 

Wilson’s raid has never gotten its just due as the largest and most successful cavalry raid of the war. Readers then and now have been more focused on the fall of Richmond, Lee’s surrender, and Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. Jones’s fine work, though originally published in 1976, provides a compelling account of the raid. It is well written, moves at a solid pace, and explains how the raid fit into the conclusion of the war. Readers seeking one of the best accounts of the final days of the Confederacy would be well served to add this to their collection.


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

14 Mar

The Battle of Mobile Bay, fought in August 1864 and featuring Union Admiral David Farragut reputedly exclaiming “Damn the Torpedoes, Full Steam Ahead,” is one of the more iconic moments of the Civil War. Many do not realize that although Farragut’s victory sealed off the bay from blockade running in that battle, the city of Mobile remained in Confederate hands. The city did not fall until some eight months later in one of the final major campaigns of the Civil War. Historian Sean Michael O’Brien details the events of the combined-forces operation in Mobile, 1865: Last Stand of the Confederacy.

O’Brien is a pen name for a deceased Alabama author who published several works of history anonymously. He was also author of a favorite volume of ours entitled In Bitterness and Tears, which provides a thorough account of the Creek War. In Mobile, 1865 he chronicles the Union efforts to finally capture Mobile. By the spring of 1865, the Confederacy was nearing its end. Its Army of Tennessee had been basically destroyed at Franklin and Nashville the previous winter and its remnants had either been shipped to North Carolina or Mobile. Those troops sent southward boosted Confederate General Dabney Maury’s force to 9,000 men stationed at earthworks surrounding the city and at several positions across the bay including Spanish Fort and Fort Blakeley. General Edward Canby held overall command of the approximately 45,000-man army sent for the task of capturing Mobile, and was to coordinate his efforts with a Federal fleet of nearly three dozen warships operating in the upper areas of Mobile Bay. Prodding by Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, who hoped Canby might begin the campaign much earlier, finally helped put the operation in motion in March of 1865. Canby hoped to capture Mobile and then move northwards towards Selma and Montgomery. Following sieges of Eastern Shore defenses at Spanish Fort and Blakeley, Canby was able to secure the surrender of the city on April 12, 1865, but by that time his other objectives had already fallen to other Federal forces.

O’Brien uses most of the book to highlight the various units and men who participated in the campaign. He spends several chapters describing the Confederate men and units who had transferred from the Army of Tennessee as well as those men who had long served in Alabama both around Mobile and in other locales. O’Brien’s description conveys an atmosphere of despair and sadness where men continued to fight if only for their fellow soldiers in the trenches. Conversely, other chapters are devoted to chronicling the Union soldiers from all over the Midwest as well as far away states such as Vermont who would take part in this final struggle. Of special interest are the African American troops which made up 10% of Canby’s forces. These men, mostly former slaves, volunteered to serve as part of the United States Colored Troops regiments. Many of them looked to the campaign to prove themselves as well as gain a measure of revenge for their fellow soldiers who were shot down needlessly at Fort Pillow. These accounts provide a wealth of information on the soldiers who fought in these engagements, but at times tire the reader who seeks to get the action itself.

Joseph Johnston described Mobile as “the best fortified place in the Confederacy” and the author describes in detail the siege tactics used by the Union troops to approach the bastions defending approach to it prior to attack. The Union army bombarded Spanish Fort for nearly two weeks with an overwhelming force of men and artillery and captured the position on April 8, but its garrison stealthily slipped away the night beforehand. The next day, the same day Robert E. Lee surrendered to Grant in Virginia, 16,000 Union soldiers conducted the final significant charge of the war to capture Blakeley. Union soldiers entered Mobile a few days later after capturing the few remaining defensive positions between the Eastern Shore and Mobile.

O’Brien calls this campaign a “needless military operation,” since Mobile’s significance had long since been diminished with the capture of the bay. Lives were needlessly lost on both sides in his assessment. An earlier capture of the city might have altered the course of the war, but of course by this time, the Confederacy only had days left. Mobile, 1865 provides a detailed telling of a forgotten but consequential story with special emphasis on the men who participated in it. Those seeking the more human side of this affair will be extremely satisfied; those seeking more on tactics and the battles themselves will likely be frustrated by the slow pace of the narrative and the lack of focus on the fighting itself.


Review of Confederate Homefront: Montgomery During the Civil War, by William Warren Rogers Jr.

28 Feb

Montgomery, Alabama played a pivotal role in the Confederate war effort through its serving as the first capital of the Confederate States of America. The meeting place for the convention which resulted in the formation of the short-lived nation, the place from where the order to bombard Fort Sumter was issued, and the political center of the Confederacy at the opening of the war, Montgomery is familiar to those who have studied secession and the coming of the Civil War. Following the moving of the Southern capital to Richmond, though, Montgomery seems to disappear from narratives about the conflict. Only in a few regional studies is its experience for the duration of the war given any attention, and that only a cursory mention as one of the targets in one of the last major military operations in the war in April of 1865. In an attempt to tell more fully the first Confederate capital’s Civil War experience, historian William Warren Rogers wrote Confederate Homefront: Montgomery During the Civil War. Originally published by the University of Alabama Press in 2001 and on my bookshelf for over a decade, I finally listened to the audio version of the book in its entirety a few weeks ago.

Rogers, an accomplished historian who has spent over two decades teaching at the University of North Georgia, attempts to examine the political, social, economic, and military life of Montgomery in his book. Through a wealth of research, he helps readers understand the reality of living in the city during the era. He paints written portraits of its built environment and the numerous people who are important parts of its wartime story, ranging from politicians and generals to businessman and everyday citizens with family members serving in the Confederate army. The book is arranged topically, discussing the city’s role as national capital, its contribution of men and resources to the Confederate war effort, its wartime economy, and society. Among the more interesting chapters which offer information not widely known before are the activities of its sizable unionist-leaning population and the city as it first came into the crosshairs of Federal military officials in the last days of the war.

Other than the story of the first few months of the war in Montgomery, in which it became a focus of national attention, the story of the city during the Civil War is typical of so many Southern cities as to be ubiquitous. Troops were sent from there to fight on numerous fronts, a number of small war-related industries emerged to help support the war effort, enthusiasm for the Confederacy gradually eroded as battlefield losses struck home and its economy withered, and, finally, the city prepared to defend itself against an overwhelming enemy force to which it ultimately surrendered. Few but local readers will therefore be interested in the specifics of Montgomery history during the Civil War, knowing beforehand the broad contours of what Confederate Homefront contains before even opening the book. But for those who, like me, have an enduring fascination with the war in Alabama, however, it ranks among the better books of its type and is recommended as a case study of life there in the pivotal period between 1861 and 1865.


Review of George Washington’s Military Genius, by Dave Richard Palmer

14 Feb

George Washington looms exceptionally large as an influential figure in the founding of our nation, and not just because he was our first president. Having led the primary Continental army which won the Revolutionary War, he is remembered as a military leader who defeated the British. But Washington’s military abilities have been second-guessed by historians for generations. Washington did, after all, almost lose his entire army, and by extension the war, on more than one occasion, and some of his greatest victories have sometimes been attributed more to luck than skill. While few have sought to discredit Washington as a military leader entirely, likewise few modern scholars have chosen to herald him as a tactical genius.

Dave Palmer’s evaluation of Washington’s abilities as a strategic military tactician, then, promise to shed some light on an often-contested subject and help historians make sense of the man’s accomplishments and failures. A retired US Army Lieutenant General, former superintendent of West Point, and a former university president, historian Dave Richard Palmer brings a considerable wealth of knowledge to the task of evaluating “the father of our country” in George Washington’s Military Genius. The book was originally published in 1975 but revised and updated in a 2012 edition. I had an opportunity to listen to the audiobook version distributed by Regnery History a few weeks ago.

Palmer holds that Washington was a much more skilled strategist than he has been credit for being by most historians, and seeks to demonstrate that he used the troops and resources he had at his command effectively against a better equipped and better trained enemy. Choosing wisely when and where to take chances, Palmer demonstrates, Washington waited for the best opportunities to present themselves. Palmer offers a campaign by campaign analysis of Washington’s waging of the war in the book, relating how he reacted to the changing situation as it regarded British forces in the field and his army’s ability to move or retreat. Attacking boldly at times, forcing the British to chase him at others, and working to maneuver them into difficult situations, Palmer contends, enabled Washington to win the war by a strategy that took a long view of events.

I am not sure I am knowledgeable enough in military tactics to give a definitive opinion on the merit of all of Palmer’s evidence, but I will say that he makes a very compelling argument for Washington possessing a long-range strategy in the pages of his book. Plus, I found it an interesting story about a man whose military experience is frequently presented as merely an introduction to his presidency or as an inevitable success despite numerous setbacks. If you have an interest in our nation’s founding era and its essential figure, you will enjoy this book.


Review of The American South: A Very Short Introduction, by Charles Reagan Wilson

31 Jan

Charles Reagan Wilson’s “very short introduction” to the American South is a diminutive book, containing just 126 pages and printed in a small format that could almost fit in one’s pocket. But readers should not be fooled by the size of the publication. It is packed with information about the cultural, social, political, and economic history of the distinctive region that is its focus and a surprisingly thorough and comprehensive overview of the region’s past.

Wilson, the former Kelly Gene Cook Sr. Chair of History and Professor of Southern Studies at the University of Mississippi and former director of the school’s Center for the Study of Southern Culture, brings a lifetime of teaching, research, and writing to the task he undertakes in The American South. Few academics have studied the region more broadly and in more diverse projects than Wilson. In addition to editing several books and authoring a few acclaimed volumes of his own, such as Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause, 1865-1920 and Judgment and Grace in Dixie: Southern Faiths from Faulkner to Elvis, he served as coeditor of the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture.

In his introduction to the complex history of the American South, Wilson explores the region as a blend of native, European, and African cultures which has had unique and lasting influence on the rest of the nation. The book is chock-full of information, with every paragraph a marvel of conciseness that manages to explain a topic without being cursory. Virtually anything one might want to know about the history of the South is touched on in some way in this book—from religion to music and Civil War to Civil Rights—in a narrative that unfolds as a story of development. The most impressive thing about Wilson’s writing is that he manages to bring depth and flow to a story of over 400 years of history in such a slim volume.

Of course Wilson cannot and does not devote equal space to every topic, and focuses his book more on the enduring consequence of developments in regional history than a blow by blow account of the events themselves. Hence his overview of the fighting of the Civil War, for example, is brief indeed, but his explanation on its long-lasting impact on the region is given more space. Wilson certainly has specific subjects that he knows and loves that receive attention, such as Southern music and food, which might not get as many words devoted to them had another author undertaken the task. Overall, however, I found the book to be engrossing and surprisingly informative. I highly recommend it as a short but substantial statement on what makes the South a unique part of the nation’s heritage.