Lincoln Reconsidered: Essays on the Civil War Era, by David Herbert Donald**

lincolnreconsideredI received this DRC free in exchange for an honest review. Thanks go to Net Galley and Open Road Integrated Media for letting me read it; Donald won the Pulitzer for his Lincoln biography, and I was sure this series of essays written for the purpose of dismantling myths surrounding the most revered president ever to occupy the White House would be hidden treasure rediscovered. What a crushing disappointment.

In the introduction, Herbert mentions that his section on abolitionists has drawn a great deal of criticism. Unfortunately, he appears not to have used such criticism as an opportunity to reevaluate the framework that limits his thinking in that section. More on that later;  I realized that since this is a collection of essays on various aspects of Lincoln, primarily as president, I needed to set aside the sharp distaste that overwhelmed me initially in reading this selection and see what I thought of the other entries.

I found Donald’s essay regarding Mary Todd Lincoln interesting. Another, which addressed the folklore surrounding Lincoln, part of which involved every possible religious denomination attempting to claim him as one of their own when in reality, he just wasn’t all that religious, was interesting; I could have done without the Rastus-style written dialect provided to the African-American source he quoted.

In fact, it is Donald’s writing—and lack of it—regarding African-Americans that put my hackles up. I realized part way into it that this problem is going to be a common one for any Caucasian American scholar whose main body of work around the Civil War was written before the Civil Rights movement. For a long time, the American intelligentsia was tremendously segregated, and those at almost entirely white institutions of learning would never have deigned to call upon professors at traditionally Black universities or utilize the publications of Black historians. (It’s also before the first wave of feminism of the 60’s and 70’s, and so no woman is considered a credible resource; but that is a secondary consideration to the grave matter of Donald’s easy dismissal of Black historians, due to the topic at hand.)

Anyone that has delved deeply into the study of abolition and the Underground Railroad has to know that the majority of abolitionists in the North were free Black people. They didn’t turn up in Caucasian newspapers, but they were certainly quoted in the Black press. In most cases they did not attend meetings hosted by Caucasians unless specifically invited, as happened sometimes in Quaker-sponsored gatherings. But if WEB DuBois could find this information, then David Pulitzer Donald could have found it, too. His supercilious, offhand treatment of Black people when they are mentioned at all tells us why he chose not to go there.

Had Donald done all the work, rather than choosing those that suited his personal biases, he would have known how extensive the line of support was for John Brown. But he would have had to access publications that featured the writing of Black journalists, because according to DuBois and other sources, Brown did not discuss his plan with any other Caucasian abolitionists except his sons. In short, African-Americans and the information they left behind could have better informed Donald’s essays, but in dismissing them, he came up with incorrect conclusions.

Any essay that touched on what should happen to Black slaves in the south, or that could have included what was being said and done by Black citizens in the north, shared this deficit of information and necessarily misinformed Donald’s conclusions.

The final essay, “A. Lincoln, Politician”, gave me an accurate and interesting tidbit: Lincoln had an understanding with Stanton, one that made its way into private correspondence and was thus documented, that when he came up with an idea that for reasons beyond his own knowledge was absolutely impossible to implement, Stanton was to denounce it, and then Lincoln would passively accept that his cranky Secretary of War had made the call. This makes a great deal of sense; in a way, Stanton was Lincoln’s version of Spiro Agnew—but without the corruption and financial scandal. Every president needs someone close by in their administration to play the role of bad cop in smothering popular but ill-advised initiatives, and for Lincoln, Stanton was that man.

Before reading this collection of essays, I was so impressed with Donald’s achievements that I had gone to my wish list and added his biography of Lincoln in the hope I might receive a copy—even a used one—for Mother’s Day. As soon as I reached the essays dealing with race in this collection, I went back to that list and removed the biography.

I’ve read enough by this guy.

Grant, by Jean Edward Smith*****

grantWhat, another one? Yes friends, every time I find a noteworthy biography of Grant, it leads me to another. This is not a recent release; I found it on an annual pilgrimage to Powell’s City of Books in my old hometown, Portland, Oregon. I always swing through the American Civil War shelves of their history section, and I make a pass through the military history area as well. I found this treasure, originally published in 2001 when I was too busy to read much of anything. It was a finalist for the Pulitzer; A New York Times and American Library Association Notable Book; and Publishers Weekly Book of the Year. But in choosing a thick, meaty biography such as this one—it weighs in at 781 pages, of which 628 are text, and the rest end-notes and index—I always skip to the back of the book and skim the sources. If a writer quotes other secondary texts at length, I know I can skip the book in my hand and search instead for those the writer has quoted. But Smith quotes primary documents, dusty letters, memos, and military records for which I would have to load my wide self into the car and drive around the country to various libraries in out of the way places. Source material like Smith’s is promising, so I bought a gently used copy for my own collection and brought it on home. And unlike the DRC’s I so frequently read at a feverish pace in order to review them by a particular date, I took my time with this one, knowing that if I only read a few pages each day and then reflected on them before moving on, I would retain more.

Usually the best place to read about a famous person is to read their own account. Grant’s autobiography was, at one time in US history, the second most commonly book owned by ordinary families. He was so deeply loved that many homes held two books: the Bible, and Grant’s memoir. That says a lot. And I did read that memoir quite awhile ago, and it was great. I recommend it. However, there are areas where we need an outside party to discuss things. For one thing, Grant was exceptionally modest. It takes an outsider to tell the full extent of his remarkable achievements, which Grant tended to soft-pedal. Also, alcoholism was not considered a disease during Grant’s lifetime, and his memoir simply makes no note whatsoever of his struggles with it; he doesn’t tell us about his early problems with it, or when he quit, and so he also doesn’t defend himself against later charges by enemies at times when most scholars say he was likely dry as a bone. And finally, of course, Grant was unable to tell us how the nation would respond to his death. So for those with a deep and abiding interest, it’s worth it to read multiple histories in which he is largely figured, as well as multiple biographies.

The fact that I had read a handful of Grant biographies in addition to Grant’s autobiography, yet came away with this volume studded with sticky notes marking new information as well as new insights and perspectives on known information is a good indication that Smith’s biography has met the gold standard.

We start with Grant’s childhood and his early gift for working with even the most difficult horses. Grant was physically quite compact, even by the standards of the day, about five feet five, weighing not more than 120 pounds. In another life, he could have been a jockey, but the purpose his life served gave us so much more. His education at West Point was not part of an initial plan toward a military career; his family could not afford to send him to college, and Grant sought higher education. A connected friend of his father’s got him into West Point, which charges no tuition but requires a period of service after graduation; until war broke out, his plan was to become a professor of mathematics, at which he excelled.

The war with Mexico is where he first saw service, and his job as quartermaster taught him a thing or two about priorities. Although many biographers say that Grant had no head for business, Smith argues that his early misfortunes in business were flukes for which outside causes were really to blame. As quartermaster, Grant succeeded in actually turning a profit for the army by buying flour, baking enough bread with it to feed the army and also sell to the local Mexican populace, with whom he kept friendly relations, and so Uncle Sam was able to feed his troops at bargain prices, since Grant put the profit back into food purchases and did not have to requisition the amount of other food ordinarily required. While in Texas and Mexico, he grew to greatly admire his commanding officer, General Zachary Taylor, whose understated, unpretentious manner and friendly relationships with those he commanded Grant would later emulate.

Smith carries us through all of Grant’s major battles, including Donaldson, Shiloh, Vicksburg, and The Wilderness. He argues convincingly that Grant was never corrupted, but that those that would overturn the victory for African-Americans gained by the Civil War by denying them suffrage went out of their way to smear Grant’s reputation. Grant was also somewhat naïve when it came to politics. Surely he had had to deal with military politics—struggles for control between generals and generals, between generals and bureaucrats—but he did not understand initially how limited the executive power is, and how much Congress can undermine a president.

Grant had not wanted to become president, had in fact hoped to return to the beautiful West Coast after the war, but Andrew Johnson, who succeeded Lincoln as president after his assassination, so brutally and intentionally set about dismantling Lincoln’s legacy that he felt compelled to run. He was nominated by his party unopposed, never even attended the nominating convention, and won the general election by a landslide.

The American people loved him. I myself feel he was our last truly progressive president, and although Smith never makes such a flat assertion as mine, he gives me plenty of documentation to back it with, should I ever again find myself in a position where it’s called for.

This tome is not for the novice. If the reader is new to the American Civil War, I recommend James McPherson’s Pulitzer winning Battle Cry of Freedom, which is lengthy, comprehensive, and fascinating. For those looking for less of a time commitment, Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels, well researched historical fiction which also won the Pulitzer, is excellent. If you like it and want more, his son Jeff has continued the series one battle at a time, and I have yet to find a book he’s written that is not worth your time and money. All of these titles are reviewed on my blog.

For those that know the basics of the Civil War but are interested in learning more about Grant himself, this biography is the best I have read to date apart from his autobiography, which is also excellent.

Highly recommended to those with a strong interest; basic knowledge of the American Civil War; and college level literacy skills and stamina. Brilliant work.

Chasing the North Star, by Robert Morgan****

chasingthenorthstarChasing the North Star is a compelling narrative of two teenagers escaped from slavery on their flight toward the North. Thank you to Net Galley and Algonquin Books for the DRC, which I received in exchange for an honest review. This book becomes available to the public April 5, 2016.

Morgan begins with the story of Jonah, a man who leaves the horrific plantation on which he has been kept. His story is told in the third person omniscient, and so there is virtually no dialogue for a long time. I waited to see how well it would hold up; it isn’t easy to keep a reader’s attention for long passages in which everything is told within a narrative, and even more so when it is told in the third person, as opposed to first person, where the character himself tells us the story. And because the narrative combined strong character development, near-tangible setting, and a series of brilliant moves to elude pursuers, I found that my attention was held quite well.

The book is in fact both accessible and a surprisingly quick read.

Part of the way into the story, Angel, our second protagonist, joins Jonah, and she tells us her own story through the first person. I found this device—of switching from third person for Jonah’s story to first person when telling Angel’s—both unusual and congenial. We watch him and cheer for him, but then she talks to us and just lays it all out. And Angel is nobody’s helpless damsel. She tells us up front that it’s a good thing for Jonah that she loves him, because he is going to need her to save his butt, and she does so more than once.

The sparseness of the dialogue makes sense when one thinks about it. Two escaped slaves that do nothing but talk, talk, talk all the way north are going to be caught in a hot minute. The writer takes an intelligent risk in using so much narrative and so little dialogue, and it pays off.

Stories involving slavery are often really painful for African-American readers to mow through, because they recall a time that was so demeaning, not only a physical horror but one that assaulted their dignity. The “N” word appears here, but is used sparingly considering the time in which it is set, and the topic. I appreciated the autonomy with which Jonah and Angel operate. Too many stories of freedom from bondage feature white saviors more prominently than are appropriate.

In fact, my sole criticism of this story is that it does not portray the extent to which the Underground Railroad was run by free Black men and women in the north; but then, this isn’t a story of organized escape, but an independent one, and it is possible that the region in which our characters travel was different in that respect.

Those that love good historical fiction should read this book. Morgan has done a fine job with a difficult topic, and the story is one of triumph and glory.

U.S. Grant and the American Military Tradition, by Bruce Catton****

usgrantandtheamericanmilThis brass-tacks biography of US Grant, who served as America’s finest Civil War general and also two terms as US president, was originally written for young adults. Now it is something of an anomaly, and yet not a bad read for the right audience. Thank you, thank you to Open Road Integrated Media and to Net Galley for providing me with the DRC. This book will be for sale in digital format November 3.

Reading this nifty little book reminded me—not entirely happily—of how much sturdier literacy in the United States stood during the 1950’s, when this biography was originally written, compared to now. True, it was a less egalitarian, less inclusive school house that could throw this level of reading at its teenagers, and that is a different debate for a different day. Right now, I just have to tell you that Catton’s boiled-down biography is going to be over the heads of most high school students. In addition, there are a couple of slang terms no longer in use that may confuse the reader. I understood one of them—and I was born in the late ‘50’s—but another phrase left me scratching my head. My two fields, when teaching, were literature and US history, primarily the American Civil War and government, so if I don’t get it, then high school kids will miss some of it also. The book could be used for honors students, most likely, but is no longer ideally suited to high school students.

However, I can see its use today for community college students, and also for adults who are not doing research and don’t care to see Mr. Catton’s sources or argue his perspective. He takes a few enormously controversial aspects of Grant’s life and makes his own pronouncements, some bold, some bland, with absolutely not one shred of evidence to back them up, apart from his own excellent reputation, and so scholars in the field are more likely to find his Civil War trilogies more satisfying than this little nugget. But for the history buff who just wants a thumbnail sketch, one book and we’re finished thanks, this could be it. It is certainly less of a meal than Grant’s own memoir; also, unlike Grant’s inarguably excellent memoir, Catton addresses the rumors about Grant and liquor that Grant himself refused to even discuss.

Catton focuses primarily on the Civil War years, which I believe is the right way to remember the man, but he also talks about the setting into which Grant was born, and in a relatively short amount of text provides us with the lifestyle and expectation of the average American farmer, which is what the vast majority of Americans were at that time. He carries us through Grant’s time at West Point, then through the wars with Mexico.

He takes apart and casts aside, brick by brick, the nasty allegations that Grant’s detractors made then and in contemporary times, and shines an authoritative light on them. What about Grant and the booze? Was Grant really a bad businessman who lost his own money and that of other people? Was he really Grant-the-butcher, as a brief but ugly period in revisionism charged, willing to plow willy-nilly into any and every battle regardless of the number of soldiers’ lives lost? What about his presidency, and the scandal that clouded it?

Grant is one of my heroes, and I appreciate the way Catton defends him here. I particularly was interested in his very convincing defense of Grant as businessman. I found Catton slightly abrasive in his tone toward Grant’s defense of the rights of African-Americans during Reconstruction; it was clearly this, rather than anything else, that caused the glow of his wartime glory to dim, because the Klan and Southern white reactionaries were absolutely hell-bent on creating a stratified society in which the Black man did not have equal rights to those of Caucasians, and one determined U.S. president was not able to stem that tide. That’s really what Grant was up against, and what tarnished his reputation. Catton feels he should have been more, um, “flexible”. I personally am pleased that he was willing to ride his principles to hell and back if need be…and that was about what happened.

I find it so sad, so ironic that the vast overload of expensive cigars sent to General Grant by patriotic admirers are what most likely lead to his death; throat cancer checked him out of this world only 48 hours after his memoir was completed.

Although there are no citations for the facts provided in the text, there is a nice little index that will prove useful to students.

Recommended for adults at the community college level, and to history buffs who just want to read one relatively simple biography of Grant.

Glory Road, by Bruce Catton*****

gloryroadBruce Catton was known as a popular historian when he first published books about the American Civil War, because of his narrative nonfiction format. All of the books being released digitally now are ones previously published in a non-digital age. This reviewer hunted down Catton’s three volume Centennial History of the Civil War at a used bookstore some time back, and although they were among the best I have ever read by anyone on this topic, I was convinced that anything he had published earlier on the subject was probably repackaged in this trilogy, and so I stopped reading Catton, thinking I was done. Thank goodness Net Galley and Open Road Integrated Media posted the galley for this second volume of Catton’s Army of the Potomac trilogy. Now that I am disabused, I will have to find the first and third volumes also, because Catton is so eloquent that he can spin ordinarily dry-sounding military history into as good a read as the most compelling fiction.

Although his Civil War books are not written in academic format, there is no denying Catton’s research or his credentials. He was one of the founders of American Heritage Magazine, and served as its senior editor until his death. During World War II, he was the US government’s Director of Information for the War Production Board, then later worked in a similar capacity for the Department of the Interior and Department of Commerce.

Frankly, in order to spin the story of the three battles that comprise most of this volume out in such a conversational manner, dropping anecdotes in at just the right moments and then carrying on so as to make us feel as if he is a journalist traveling with the Union forces and we are concealed cleverly in his knapsack, bespeaks a remarkable amount of research. Only after reading the whole thing, spellbound, did it occur to me that for every vignette he included to make the telling more personal and more interesting, he must have edited out ten or twenty. The result is a masterpiece.

I came to this work as a former instructor in the field, and wished I had read his work in time to make use of it in the classroom. At the same time, it is sufficiently accessible that someone with no prior knowledge of the Civil War should be able to keep up just fine as long as they are able to read at the level of a high school senior or community college student. There is a definite bias toward the Union, which frankly is a requisite to my enjoyment of Civil War history. (Those that feel otherwise can go find Shelby Foote’s work.)

I never in a thousand years thought I would even consider rereading some of this war’s most painful battles—the battle of Fredericksburg being perhaps the most prominent in this regard—but Catton has some little-told things to say about these battles, and in particular about Burnside and that Tammany Hall political general, Sickles, that I hadn’t seen before. I had viewed Burnside as a failure from start to finish, but he makes a case that a lot of the mishandling of this situation was due to an ungainly Federal bureaucracy that wasn’t good at receiving information and passing it along in a prompt, useful manner. It gave me pause, and reminded me that we should never assume we know enough about something to call ourselves experts.

The Battle of Chancellorsville is likewise told in a manner fresh and readable, but the bulk of the text deals with that decisive, costly three day fight at Gettysburg. He gives an even-handed assessment of both Hooker and Meade, and again I learned some things I didn’t know before.

Catton’s writing is so engaging that it is destined to live for a long, long time after he is gone, educating subsequent generations. I found myself resolved, at the end of this volume, to look for other galleys of his work to read and review, and when there are no more left, to track down those still missing on my next pilgrimage to Powell’s City of Books.

For you, however, it is fortunate that Open Road is releasing this work digitally, so you won’t have to turn out the shelves of every used bookstore in the US in order to locate it. It will be available for purchase November 3, 2015 for your phone, computer, or e-reader, and is highly recommended to anyone with even a passing interest in the American Civil War.

Simply brilliant.

A People’s History of the Civil War, by David Williams***

With an introduction scribed by the late great Howard Zinn (and the book edited by same), I figured I just had to add this book to my collection. It bills itself as a history of the marginalized groups of this era, those seldom represented in traditional history. I found it at my favorite local used bookstore, Magus Books, which is near University of Washington, and I scooped it immediately.

The tome sat in the upstairs powder room for months, but we didn’t look at it all that often. I had trouble climbing on board. Eventually I realized there were two things bothering me here. One is that it treats both Union and Confederate governments, along with the powerful moneyed interests backing the two sides of the conflict, as equally wrong and equally culpable. With this I sharply disagree. Whereas no doubt plenty of war profiteers made a great deal of money, and no doubt working people on both sides deserved better pay and greater prosperity, this was not an equally-wrong war. In fact, the first Marxist to live in the USA came here from Europe to fight for the Union, because that was the way to move history forward. So in a sense I disagreed with the premise of the whole book.

That much done, I noted that the overall tone was more cynical than I consider warranted. For me, the American Civil War was the last truly heroic conflict in which US forces fought. It also distinguished itself by producing an unusually high number of casualties where high ranking officers were concerned. You didn’t see American generals get dead in these proportions in either of the world wars, nor Korea, Vietnam, or any of the conflicts in the Middle East. So the snarky manner in which Williams refers to the disparity between Union brass and foot soldiers is not well placed. I found it abrasive.

In addition, if we’re talking about marginalized peoples, excuse me Mr. Williams, but where are the Black folk? The author seems to have mislaid some four million former slaves. I kept flipping through this volume trying to find some, but they are underrepresented quite badly; one might even say the author has marginalized them.

The one worthwhile thing here, the thing that kept that third star in its place, is the extensive attention paid to Native peoples during this time. I was aware of the role of the Cherokees and that was the sole extent of my knowledge of which way American Indians chose to side, when they chose a side at all. I got something for my money other than frustration and regret; I really had to look hard to find it, though.

Consequently, those doing specific research having to do with the role of Native Americans during the American Civil War should get this book. I recommend it for that niche audience only.

The American Civil War: A Military History, by John Keegan ***

theamericancivilwaramilitaryhstThis was a disappointment. Keegan’s history of World War I was outstanding, and likewise he did a brilliant job with World War II. In contrast, his treatment of the American Civil War is nothing special. His sources are secondary; he hasn’t spent countless hours sitting in local and regional libraries reading collections of letters or rare documents. The man lives in England, and as far as I can see, he may have written this book from there. His maps are insufficient, and the ones he does use are the ones you’d see in anyone else’s American Civil War literature. Likewise, his photographs are ones I already saw somewhere else.

All of that could still make a four star work if he put a fresh perspective into play. I recently read and reviewed the outstanding Our Man in Charleston, by Christopher Dickey. That book offered the British perspective on the conflict, and it was very different from that of either the Union or the Confederacy. I had hoped that Keegan would likewise offer a new perspective and a lively discussion.

The book is instead, dull, dull, and dull. I did not see one piece of information I didn’t already know…and he called John Brown a “wild man”, perpetuating the textbook stereotype that tends to be used by those that don’t care to dig too deeply.

In his end notes he thanks James McPherson, and really if you read McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom along with the memoirs written by generals Grant and Sherman, you’ll learn far more and with much fresher, more interesting prose. It is these to which he refers most liberally.

On the plus side, I got my copy used. On the sorry side, it was still eight bucks I could have spent on something I want.

I advise you to read something else. If you want to read Keegan, read about one of the world wars. If you want one basic yet thorough treatment of the American Civil War, read Battle Cry of Freedom. But not this book.

The “Colored Hero” of Harper’s Ferry: John Anthony Copeland and the War Against Slavery, by Steven Lubet **

thecoloredheroI was really looking forward to this biography, that of one of the Black men that fought alongside John Brown at Harper’s Ferry. It seems to have so many of my favorite elements tied together. There’s John Brown, one of my greatest heroes; the anti-slavery campaign that led up to the American Civil War, which is my field; and then, right as the Black Lives Matter movement has picked up speed, we see focus on one of the African-American fighters that was there. What’s not to love? And I had the chance to read it free, thanks to Net Galley and Cambridge University Press. I was pretty stoked.

But one of the ways in which people are disenfranchised is that their history is not recorded. Lubet has clearly given it his best shot, but there’s so much surmise (with the use of “perhaps”, “may have”, “would probably have”, and so forth) and guess work filling in the narrative, along with common information about the time and period that I already knew, that I finally just skimmed to the last chapters, which is where he seems to have some actual information as opposed to vague contours sustained largely by guesswork.

Whether it’s because of this or in addition to it, the pace is slow, slow, slow.

I can tack on a third star—and if you’ve read my reviews, you know I often do—if I can think of a niche audience that would enjoy the title I am reviewing or to whom it would be useful. Here, not so much, and in fact, at least one factual error leapt out and bit me, and I was not even fact-checking. W.E.B. DuBois claims in his biography of John Brown (which is listed in the works this writer includes in his end notes) that the only reason Harriet Tubman was not there was that she was desperately ill and unable to get out of bed. So this work is not only broader than its stated purpose and lacking in the anticipated focus, it is at least partially incorrect. If I can believe either DuBois or Lubet, I’ll roll with DuBois any day of the week. No third star.

One star reviews are few and far between. I reserve those for works that are either so badly edited and or illiterate (generally self-published works) that I just straight-up can’t read them, or else they are grossly offensive, enough so that I think the public will be offended more often than not.

Given the standards above, this work merits two stars. If you decide to read it, do free or at a deep discount unless you have really deep pockets and spend money fairly randomly. You can do that September 16.

Hallowed Ground: An Illustrated History of the Walk at Gettysburg, by James McPherson*****

hallowed groundHallowed Ground packs a great deal of information regarding Gettysburg, past and present, into a tight package. I own an earlier edition, and I used the photographs in it as part of my lectures when I was teaching a unit on the Civil War.

McPherson is a renowned author, winner of the Pulitzer for Battle Cry of Freedom. That volume should be the go-to book for anyone looking for a first highly literate glimpse of the American Civil War. This book is only about Gettysburg, as it is today and as it was then. McPherson has not only walked every square inch of the area involved, but also takes his students on tour there. He tells the reader what parts of the standard park guide tour script are actually incorrect, which is particularly useful for those visiting the park. In fact, this guide is primarily targeted for those planning to walk the large area encompassed, but I haven’t been there, and most likely won’t, and I never regretted the purchase of that earlier edition. If I were teaching still, or mobile enough to be able to do that tour, I’d buy this one as well.

I am delighted to be able to review the DRC for the newer edition, which contains even more digital photographs. I couldn’t see a lot of them–got a blank, gray box instead, which happens with galleys sometimes–but the quality of what I could see was excellent. Put this together with a lot of other primary sources, including battle plans, letters written by those involved at the time, and photographs that were already in the earlier edition, and it’s clear this is a volume that belongs on the shelves of every Civil War buff or instructor, as well as any other interested party.

Highly recommended.

Our Man in Charleston, by Christopher Dickey *****

OurmanincharlestonThis is the most fascinating book I’ve read in a long time! Equal parts biography and American Civil War nonfiction, it details the experiences of Britain’s foremost spy, Robert Bunch, who was living in Charleston, South Carolina when the Civil War began and for its duration. I am truly grateful to Crown Publishers and Net Galley for permitting me to read the DRC in advance. And perhaps it is just as well, in a way, that my kindle fell in the potty when I was done and with it went hundreds (genuinely) of notations that I made as I wended my way through it; I had procrastinated writing this review because there was so much I wanted to say. Too much, in fact! Sometimes I have to remind myself I am writing a review for would-be readers who might want to discover a few things on their own. Part of my writing mind is still wired in the direction of academic analysis, which is too ponderous for most readers to slog through, and not really necessary for our purposes.

I was riveted almost from the get-go. At first I had the bizarre notion that a British view of the Southern Rebellion would be objective. If I’d thought harder, I would have realized that isn’t true; Britain had a tremendous amount of interest in the outcome of this fight. But its interest was completely different from either the Union’s or that of the Confederacy. There were a couple of horrifying instances in which it might have chosen to recognize the Confederacy, but those moments quickly passed.

Even before war broke out, tension had been quietly mounting over the treatment of British seamen that landed in Charleston. On one occasion a single Black sailor had instigated a relatively small uprising on a plantation, and this act—the most fearful nightmare of the Southern ruling class, self-styled aristocrats who lived as a tiny minority among an enormous number of Black laborers who had every reason to hate them—gave birth to the Negro Seaman Act. The law stipulated that any Black sailors from another country that worked on board a ship that docked in Charleston, must be kept in jail until it was time to leave again. This was the stuff of which international incidents were born. Britain would attempt to solve the problem through Washington, D.C., only to find that Charleston had already begun to flout Federal law and that the nation’s promises were not kept. Eventually, a quiet negotiation began with Charleston authorities. When they continued to behave badly, Britain had little recourse, since it did not want it known in Washington that they had been dealing with the government of South Carolina as if it were sovereign. This probably also fed the delusions of Southern grandeur and may have encouraged them to believe they did not need the national government at all.

Robert Bunch was originally stationed in the north, but found himself in Charleston more and more often. His habit, as Britain’s agent, had been to head north during the unbearably humid, tropical summers of the deep South, but as events polarized the nation and northerners were no longer welcome, his own position became more and more tenuous. His job was to send reports to Britain, but whenever he went in public, as he had to do a great deal in order to pick up information, he was questioned increasingly closely about Britain’s view of the Confederacy. Which side would Britain take? Was he a spy? (Gracious, no!) Maybe, were he on the side of the Union, he should be locked up! (Please, please no!) He would have preferred, at one point, to go north and stay there, but his orders were to stay put, so that’s what he did.

In order to maintain his role and save his own neck, his behavior became increasingly misleading. The dispatches he sent to England were so adamantly opposed to recognition of the Confederacy that he was reproached a time or two for trying to make policy when his job was simply to provide information. However, when he was asked by local folk whether surely, Britain would soon recognize the Confederacy, and wouldn’t he encourage this, he gave misleading smiles, made ambiguous remarks, and agreed that of course he would be happy to slip the British nanny’s letter home in his diplomatic pouch so that it could reach the U.S. mail from which they were otherwise cut off.

He became so convincing in his subterfuge that at one point, he was nearly brought up on charges of treason against Britain. U.S. Secretary of State Seward, a difficult, punctilious man, had a number of bones to pick with Britain, and at one point tried to foment war with them, convinced that if it broke out, the South would drop their ridiculous posturing and rush to defend the red, white and blue. Lincoln felt differently, however, and made it clear to Seward and to Britain that he was only interested in fighting one war at a time. To save face, Seward latched onto Bunch’s dismissal as the single demand he would press. Surely, in order to avoid international tension, Britain wouldn’t mind hanging one of their lowly agents out to dry? Send the boy home and there’s an end to it. Get him gone.

Lord Palmerston, a man with power disproportionate to most in his position, had eclectic tendencies, and was having no part of firing Bunch. He liked the guy, and wasn’t really interested in being shoved around by the former colonies of Britain. If the US of A had to have its capitol torched a second time to get the point as to whose navy was better? Fine. Hopefully not, but Bunch was staying. And that is how it was.

There are two things that popped out at me in reading this compelling work. My vantage point, for those who haven’t read my reviews before, is that of a former history teacher. It was my job to teach teenagers about the American Civil War, or as much as teens can learn in ten weeks at one hour a go. It was by far my favorite quarter of the school year, but I was so overwhelmed with work and meetings that I didn’t have a lot of time to read in my field. I could use my six weeks off in the summer to read whatever I chose, if I wanted to, and that was about it. So although I could have used this information back then, it is nevertheless satisfying to have one nagging question answered, however belatedly.

My question, and my students’ question sometimes, was if Europe was able to rid itself of slavery by the government’s buying slaves from slave owners, why didn’t that work in the USA? And the only response I had—one provided by reading James McPherson and a Marxist historian named George Novack—was that they refused. They just wouldn’t do it.

But why? Surely it was obvious they were living in a feudal economy that the rest of the industrializing nations had abandoned. Surely they had to know they could not freeze history. Why cling to it beyond all reason?

Questions related to war are always rooted in economics, and so to simply say they were irrational, which is more or less my answer apart from I-don’t-know, felt incomplete. A number of other historians gave that reason, but it felt like a puzzle piece forced into the wrong hole. And Dickey provided me with the missing piece. Although I had read vague things about speculation in slaves and that uniquely American, horrific practice, slave breeding, which brought us international shame before all was said and done, I didn’t recognize the link between speculation and the tiny handful of wealthy plantation owners that made the choice to go to war rather than let it go.

Those that have followed the financial news in the USA and many other nations over the past decade are aware that a lot of home owners are losing their houses when they can’t pay mortgages, especially balloon mortgages, and more dreadful still is the fact that they are “under water”, meaning that after the bank takes the house back, or it is sold, they will still owe payments on it. They’ve borrowed more against it than it is worth, and only bankruptcy will solve their problem. When they lose that house, they lose everything.

And so it was with a large number of plantation owners. They had borrowed against their slaves. That was where their equity was: in human capital. If they allowed the government to buy their slaves at their current market value, they would become bankrupt, and having gained their social standing on nothing more than wealth and pale pigmentation, they would be ruined socially and financially. As long as there was any other choice, they would take it. They would send their own sons to die for it, though generally they chose to pay someone else to go in their own places.

They were underwater.

Britain’s perspective at the outset was that if one side had slaves and the other did not, then of course they would not recognize the upstart nation. When the border states were permitted to keep their slaves, it was still considered wiser to back the winning horse in any race, and so unless it appeared the Confederacy was about to win the war and gain international status as an independent nation anyway, there was nothing to be gained by antagonizing Lincoln’s administration.

I had wondered, in past years, whether Britain might not have yearned for the South to become independent. If one looks at a map of the USA as it was then, and the size of British possession of Canada, if it also dominated the Southern USA economically, and if it had a navy in the Atlantic that could pound the coastline, could it not overturn the American revolution? That slice of the Union is small compared to Canada, when the Confederate states are added in like the bottom bun of a hamburger. How delicious!

Not so, says Dickey. Britain had other fish to fry. It had been absorbed in fighting the Crimean War, and at the time, events in Europe were considered vastly more important than our own emerging outpost. It might be nice to have, but they didn’t need it badly enough to weigh in with the slaveocracy. The South had been so smugly sure that Britain needed their cotton for its mills, but in fact, they had planned well against such an eventuality, and had over a year’s worth of cotton socked away in storage. To the impertinent Southern men and women that sashayed up to their representatives to announce that Britain would simply have to recognize them, the response was generally somewhat courteous, muted, non-committal. If pressed, they suggested that cotton could indeed be grown in India. No worries.

And here I am three pages later according to Microsoft, and I have really only skimmed the surface. Think if I’d had my notes available! Believe me when I say I have just scratched the surface. I had so many delicious quotes, and now you’ll have to go ferret them out for yourself!

This magnificent book comes out July 21, 2015. For once I can tell you that whether or not you are conversant with the finer details of the American Civil War, you will be able to read this with no trouble. A knowledge of the broad contours of the war will make it more satisfying, but not strictly necessary. Those who enjoy history in general, or biographies in general, will likewise find it a must-read.

You have to get this book!