The War Before the War, by Andrew Delbanco****

You may not have had the grades or the money to attend Columbia University, but you can read Professor Delbanco’s book anyway. It’s meaty and interesting, and it clears up some longstanding myths about slavery in the USA. My thanks go to Net Galley and Penguin Random House for the review copy; this book is for sale now. 

At the outset I find this work a little on the slow side, and I wonder if I am in for five hundred pages of drone. Not to worry. By the five percent mark the whole thing wakes up. Slavery from the time of the early European immigrants to the American Civil War is mapped out, and I found myself wishing I had read it before I taught social studies instead of during retirement. Sacred cows are slain and there’s plenty of information that is new to me. For example, I did not know that the number of runaway slaves was always a fairly small, economically of little consequence but powerful in its example. I didn’t know that Caucasian people were retaliated against sometimes by sending them into slavery; since one couldn’t tell a person with a tiny amount of African-American heritage from a white person, it was possible to lie about someone whose roots were entirely European and send them down south. And although I understood that the great Frederick Douglass was hugely influential, I hadn’t understood the power of the slave narrative as a genre: 

“When [slave narratives] were first published, they were weapons in a war just begun. Today they belong to a vast literature devoted to every aspect of the slave system–proof, in one sense, of how far we have come, but evidence, too, of the impassable gulf between the antebellum readers whom they shocked by revealing a hidden world .and current readers, for whom they are archival records of a world long gone. Consigned to college reading lists, the slave narratives, which were once urgent calls to action, now furnish occasions for competitive grieving in the safety of retrospect.”

It is painful to envision a roomful of young people flipping through their phones or napping during a lecture or discussion about this damning aspect of U.S. history that haunts us even today; and yet I know it happens, because I have seen it among the teenagers I have taught. I want to roar, “Where’s your sense of outrage?” And yet it’s there; but many that are activists against cop violence and other modern civil rights issues haven’t yet made the connection between the present and our national origins. So I feel this guy’s pain. 

For the interested reader of history, the narrative flows well and the documentation is thorough and beyond reproach. Delbanco has a sharp, perceptive sense of humor and this keeps the reader further engaged. 

I recommend this book as an essential addition to the home or classroom library of every history teacher and reader. 

Best History 2018

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Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, by David W. Blight**-***

frederickdouglassprophetThanks go to Net Galley and Simon and Schuster for the DRC, which I received free in exchange for this honest review.

Douglass is a key figure in American history, and Blight has made his career largely through his expertise on Douglass’s life. I expected to be impressed here, and indeed, the endnotes are meticulous and I would be amazed if there was a single error anywhere in this work. But aspects of the biography rub me the wrong way, and ultimately, I realized that the best way around this is to go back and read Douglass’s own autobiographies again.

Whether we read what Douglass tells us, or what Blight (or any credible biographer) has to say, there are two impediments that stop me short, and because I have never been required to start at the beginning and end at the end to complete a scholastic or professional assignment, I tend to read the beginning; recoil; abandon; and then return in an undisciplined, skipping-around manner that is uncharacteristic of my usual methods.

First we have the Christian aspect. Douglass was tremendously devout, and during his time it was much more common to discuss religion publicly and even in daily conversations, sometimes at length. It repels me. So that’s my first problem. It’s not Blight’s problem, but it’s one I have to deal with.

The second problem—again, not Blight’s, and it’s inherent in reading about Douglass—is that slavery was horrible. Douglass actually had a slightly better life than most of his peers, gaining an education and living in the master’s house, but it was nevertheless traumatic. It is unavoidable to see what he endured and not reflect on exactly how hellish life was for the four million that endured life in this dehumanizing, degrading system. After I read a certain amount of it, I feel as if I need to take a long shower to wash away the stain.

As for Blight’s book, there are some good moments here, and I learned some things. Who helped Douglass on his road to freedom? Free Black people did. Who knew that there were vastly more free Black folks in Maryland than there were slaves? The textbooks and other materials used to teach adolescents about slavery and the American Civil War overemphasize, to a degree amounting to deception, the participation of kindly white people, largely Quakers, and provide only a fleeting glimpse of the occasional African-American.

But I find that the eloquent passages that I highlight as I read this are not Blight’s words, but quotations from Douglass himself.

Meanwhile, the obstacles to appreciating this book are consistent and irritating. Blight makes much of inconsistencies in Douglass’s three autobiographies, and when he refers to the differences there is a superior, smirking quality to his prose that doesn’t sit well. I wouldn’t like it coming from any writer, but when the writer is a Caucasian, it adds an extra layer of insult. No matter how long Blight publishes, no matter his standing in the Ivy League, he will never be fit to polish Douglass’s boots. If he once knew it, I suspect he has forgotten it. So that’s a problem, and it’s hard to read around it.

The other issue, a more common one, is the tendency to guess at what is not known. This makes me crazy. The narrative will flow along in a readable, linear fashion, and then I start seeing the speculation, which is barely visible. Might have. Must have. Likely. It makes me want to scream. If you don’t know, Professor Blight, either don’t put it in, or address the unknown in a separate paragraph explicitly addressing the possibilities. Weed out the unimportant guesses and deal with the more critical ones head on. When these inferences are salted randomly into the text, we come away with tangled notions. Apart from the key events in his life, which of the finer details were fact, and which were surmise?

Excuse me. I need to find a nice brick wall so I can slam my forehead against it.

So there it is. For all I know, Blight may gain half a dozen prestigious awards from this work; it wouldn’t be the first time a book I’ve complained about went on to garner fame and glory. But I call them like I see them, and what I see is that it’s a better plan to read what Douglass says about himself, even though Blight appears to consider himself a more reliable resource than his subject.

If you want this thing, you can have it October 2, 2018.

Southern Storm: Sherman’s March to the Sea, by Noah Andre Trudeau*****

“On earth, as in heaven, man must submit to an arbiter…He must not throw off his allegiance to his government or his God without just reason or cause. The South had no cause…Satan and the rebellious saints of Heaven were allowed a continuous existence in hell merely to swell their just punishment. To such as would rebel against a Government so mild and just as ours was in peace, a punishment equally would not be unjust.”   –William Tecumseh Sherman (quoted on page 19)

southernstormI received this excellent Civil War tome from one of my sons as a Christmas gift. I don’t request a lot of books anymore because it’s so easy to get others free, but I asked for this one and I am glad I have it. I’ll be reading more by this guy.  Despite one fact that I dispute—for which the citation also is sketchy—and some crummy maps, there’s no way to deny five stars here.  The topic is among my favorites, and of course Sherman is my all time favorite general, hailing from a time when the United States government still attracted and produced heroes.

Each time I pick up another book on Sherman’s march to the sea, I question whether there is any new information to be had. Here Trudeau deals with this neatly by referencing participants other than Sherman, most often Major Henry Hitchcock, who was Sherman’s aide-de-camp. There are lots of meaty quotes from Sherman and those alongside him, and occasionally those opposite him. There’s one royal stinker of a reference made by an Atlanta doctor, who said a couple dozen very sick and badly injured men were dumped on him by Sherman personally, who said if they survived the rebels could consider them prisoners. I call bullshit on this, not only because of the source but also because it runs contrary to everything I know about Sherman, whose troops were singularly loyal to him largely because he took great care of them and he led them to victory.

Sherman’s memoir, which I heartily recommend to you, deals with the left column with which he traveled.  The right column goes largely unmentioned there, and Trudeau fills us in. This was the column that took the most punishment, and was responsible for heading off enemy cavalry most of the time.

A mark of a terrific history book is that no matter how long it is, the reader emerges wanting to read something more, either by the author or on the subject. I have a couple of gift certificates going unused, and it’s entirely possible I will spend one of them on another book by this writer. The index and other references at the back of the book are useful also.

Highly recommended to American Civil War buffs.

The Lost Indictment of Robert E. Lee, by John Reeves*****

LostIndictmentRobtELeeI’ve never understood why so many Americans revere the memory of Robert E. Lee, the general that turned Lincoln away at the outbreak of the American Civil War and instead commanded the treasonous Army of Northern Virginia. When I saw this title, I leapt at the chance to read and review it. Thanks go to Net Galley and Rowman and Littlefield Publishers for the DRC. The book will be available to the public June 1, 2018.

Before reading this book I wasn’t even aware that an indictment had ever been issued. This is particularly odd given that a good part of my teaching career involved teaching American history and government. I even wondered, before opening it, whether this indictment would be metaphor; no indeed. Reeves did a lot of digging in order to write this book, and that’s what makes it worth having. His sources are ones that I cannot find myself through a quick Google search or a trip to the library or bookstore. Reeves  uses sources that require traveling hither and yon in order to access special collections that libraries won’t check out to anybody ever, that’s proof that this writer had done the legwork.

Back to the indictment. Following the end of the war and the death of Lincoln, the North—contrary to mythological retellings—clamored for retribution. Let’s all be brothers and have peace? Oh hell no. Who had not lost a brother, a son, a husband to this terrible conflict? And President Andrew Johnson, working hand-in-glove with the passionate abolitionist, Judge Underwood, set out to “make treason odious.” At a bare minimum, Lee, Jefferson Davis, and the members of the Confederate cabinet most closely linked to the war itself needed a day in court. Afterward, they needed to either hang, or rot in prison for a goodly while. So the thinking went.

As usual, the devil was in the details. Why is it so difficult for government to move swiftly? A lot of terrible decisions were made here, the most noteworthy being to try these men in a civilian court rather than in a military tribunal. Too late they realized that Lee must then be tried by a jury of his peers in Virginia. This would have been disastrous, since Lee was regarded by most Caucasian Virginians as a hero, much the way we now look at Lincoln. After all, when the war broke out, most antiwar or antislavery advocates had to move North in fear of their physical safety, and only the diehard Dixie whistlers remained, so a fair and impartial jury in Virginia was a nonstarter. What could possibly be worse than letting Lee off scot-free? What would be worse would be for him to be exonerated.

Added into the stew was a heap of political scandal and the unraveling of Johnson’s presidency, and the tarnishing of Underwood’s reputation, a man controversial from the get-go.  At the end of the day they were too busy salvaging themselves to bring these men to justice.

I find some measure of comfort in the knowledge that Arlington, the huge, fancy estate that had been passed down to Lee’s wife and of which he never stopped bragging, as if property ownership and family history made his family American royalty, was expropriated by the Union, and its extensive grounds became Arlington National Cemetery. After Lee’s death, there was considerable talk among the public suggesting that the widow Lee should get her old house back; however, she overstepped when imperiously telling Congress that she also wanted the remains of all those poor boys dug up and interred some other place. There was almost nothing she could have said or done to lose the sympathy vote more quickly.

This excellent book is highly recommended to those that are interested in the American Civil War and its aftermath.

Grant, by Ron Chernow**

grantI’m tempted to add this title to my Southern fiction shelf. For a Pulitzer winner to be so careless with his facts is egregious. I got 200 pages or so in, and I found a glaring error. To be honest, I thought maybe it was me. I haven’t taught the American Civil War in 8 years now; am I slipping? Because I could swear that the famous tidbit about a single battle killing more soldiers than the American Revolution, War of 1812, and war with Mexico all added together was about the battle of Antietam, yet here is Chernow, saying it’s Shiloh.

This is when it’s nice to have a physical library nearby. I rummaged on my Civil War shelves and plucked Battle Cry of Freedom, which he (rightly) appears to cite more often than anything except perhaps Grant’s Memoirs, and I also grabbed McPherson’s book on Antietam, and I double-checked. Yup. The reference is to to Antietam, not Shiloh.

At this point I wondered what else might be amiss. There’s a Sherman quote that’s supposed to be in a section in BCF, but the page number Chernow cites is actually in a section about the nurses of the ACW. Well, of course there are different editions, so page numbers may shift a bit, especially in a lengthy source. But I chose–randomly, from the citations at the back–3 other quotes from BCF, and read 8 or 10 pages before and after the page where the quote or fact is supposed to be located, and didn’t find them. A more meticulous reader might have different results, but I am not running a courtroom prosecution; I am trying to decide if I now trust this author enough to believe him regarding other information. And I am not all that sure I do.

I have a lovely hardcover copy of this biography given me by one of my sons at Christmas, and I would hate to abandon it entirely at the 200 pp. mark; but I’ll tell you one thing. I’m rereading Battle Cry of Freedom again before I turn another page of this biography. Because at the very least, this is a work to be read critically, rather than with innocent faith in its author. I like some of the analysis Chernow offers, but I would hate to see a newbie miseducated by using this title as an introduction to Grant or to the Civil War. As for me, I am going to strengthen my own foundation before I approach this tome, which must be read cautiously.

Grant and Sherman: The Friendship that Won the Civil War, by Charles Bracelen Flood*****

GrantandShermanGrant and Sherman are my favorite generals of all time, and Flood is a highly respected author. This book was on my must-read list, and so I searched it out on an annual pilgrimage to Powell’s City of Books, and I came home happy. It turned out to be even better than I anticipated.

The beginning is congenial but also fairly basic, and I was saddened—needlessly, as it turned out—believing that I was about to be exposed to a whole big book of American Civil War 101, which I didn’t need. But Flood was just warming up, preparing a readership that might not have the broad outline at its fingertips. Soon the narrative evolved into something much more complex and enjoyable. I found a great many anecdotes that I hadn’t seen in biographies of either of the individual men, or in overall historical works about this conflict. There are quotations from their correspondence, which had to be meaty and specific given the lack of reliable technology at the time. All told, Flood makes the story personal without being prurient, and at the same time gives the reader little-seen information about the deadliest conflict ever experienced by Americans. His thesis—that the relationship enjoyed by these two outstanding generals won the Civil War—is well supported. The end notes show meticulous documentation. Best of all, since this is not a new release, those interested in reading this excellent work can get it for the price of a latte.

Highly recommended.

Bluff, Bluster, Lies and Spies, by David Perry*

bluffblusterliesThe American Civil War is part of the curriculum I used to teach, and in retirement I still enjoy reading about it. When I saw that Open Road Media had listed this title on Net Galley to be republished digitally this summer, I swooped in and grabbed a copy for myself. I was so eager to read it that I bumped it ahead of some other DRCs I already had, and I really wanted to like it.  Unfortunately, this is a shallow effort and it shows.  Don’t buy it for yourself, and for heaven’s sake don’t advise your students to read it.

It begins gamely enough with a discussion of events in Europe and how the changing contours of that part of the world affected the attitudes of England, France, Russia, Prussia, and Spain. At this point my curiosity was piqued, because I had never read anything about which side of the Civil War the last three of these countries favored.  But if the rest of the text can be believed—and parts of it cannot—the reason we never hear about Russia, Spain, and Prussia with regard to this rebellion is that they decided they had no stake in its outcome. This part of the text could have been dealt with in one sentence rather than owning a share of the introduction and being dragged in again later, but this is not the only bit of obvious filler that burdens this misbegotten book.

I am tantalized initially when Perry brings in a controversy that does interest academics: would Britain have recognized the Confederacy in order to get cotton, or was it busy with other considerations and willing to obtain cotton from colonial holdings in Egypt, India and elsewhere for the duration? This question is discussed, leaves the narrative and is broached again several times, because although the book has chapters, it isn’t organized. The same topics of discussion, and the same quotations that serve as its meager, questionable documentation are dropped into the text again and again. It’s as if Perry doesn’t expect anyone to read it all the way through and is hoping we will drop into the middle of the book somewhere to look up a fact and then leave again without seeing whether he actually knows what he’s talking about.

He doesn’t.

For example, after citing the same obscure document for pages on end—since I read it digitally, I highlighted “Dispatch 206” seven times before noting that this section, at least, is garbage—he brings up Poland. He talks about Poland and Russia’s attachment to same as a buffer state, but never shows any relationship between Poland and the American Civil War other than that Russia had other greater priorities at this time, which had already been established in an earlier section.  And he misuses the term “Manifest Destiny”. Perry apparently believes this term has equal use to multiple governments in reference to themselves around the world.

He tells us that privateers are outlawed during the Civil War and infers that this, therefore, will surely mean that all the sad pirates will dock their ships and get honest jobs. No more privateers out there now, matey!

He says that Lincoln was a slow thinker, and he refers to American diplomats as ditherers.  He documents none of it.

I read the citation section to see if more joy would be had if I pursued this book past the halfway mark. I read his author bio, which indicates no expertise regarding this conflict, which by now doesn’t surprise me.  Frankly, I don’t understand why this book ever saw the light of day, or why Open Road would republish it.

I would love to say that those with deep pockets should go ahead and order it if they can afford all the books they want, but I can’t even say that. The book is unreliable, disorganized, and badly documented. It contains falsehoods and insults the reader’s intelligence.

Put your plastic away. This is dross.

US Grant: the Civil War Years: Grant Moves South and Grant Takes Command*****

usgrantthecivilwaryI was fortunate to receive a DRC of this two volume biography of America’s greatest general, US Grant. Thanks go to Open Road Media and Net Galley for providing it in exchange for this honest review. This is the sixth Grant biography I’ve read, and aside possibly from Grant’s own memoirs, which are valuable in a different way than this set, I have to say this is hands-down the best I have seen. Catton won the Pulitzer for one of his civil war trilogies, and this outstanding biography is in the same league. Those with a serious interest in the American Civil War or military history in general should get it. It’s available for purchase now.

When I had read a couple of US Grant biographies, I told myself that enough was enough, and that I should push away from this one subject in favor of others. I am glad I ignored my own advice, because I have come away from this prodigious, in-depth study with a deeper understanding than anything else has provided.  It’s over 1100 pages long, and over 800 pages once one discounts the end notes and index, but it is as great a pleasure to read at the end as at the start, if not more so.

Is this a good choice for someone new to the American Civil War? Generally speaking (if you’ll pardon the pun) I’d say no, but for someone otherwise well versed in military history or with a tremendous interest level, time, and stamina, it could be. Because Catton is known as an expert in this field, I especially enjoy not having to review his citations. I know his sources will be strong, and one brief overview convinces me this is true.

The first volume starts with his less than glorious entry into the war. As many know, he had been a member of the regular US army during the conflict with Mexico, and had fallen apart and had to go home. Now he is back, but only after a string or two has been pulled by a family friend, and even then, his task is a daunting one. Volunteer soldiers don’t take orders or submit to discipline as a West Point soldiers do, and when he arrives, it seems the lunatics are running the asylum. One of the things that I am impressed with anew every time I read about Grant is his unerring judgment, the social radar that is an indisputable part of his talent. By knowing where to go easy on his men and how to bring them into conformity where it’s most important, he creates a solid force to move South with.

The battles of Belmont, Fort Henry, Fort Donelson, and the tragic but technically successful battle of Shiloh open up the Mississippi River for the Union and divide the South. Catton uses a number of anecdotes that are new to me, and his congenial tone, occasionally caustic wit, and spot-on analysis leave me both energized and contented at the same time.

The second volume, however, is where I learn the most. Until I read this biography, I haven’t understood exactly how great a risk Lincoln takes when he orders that the US military forces should be given the ballot, an unprecedented move, as he himself runs once more for the highest office. His opponent, McClellan, is a former Union general that at the war’s outset, was at the top of the chain of command.  He didn’t go home a happy man, and now he is running as a Copperhead, the moniker given those in the North that want to end the war and let the South leave the Union, slaves and all. And though I know it is often the case that soldiers and sailors choose to support their Commander in Chief at the ballot box, I haven’t fully recognized how badly this may go for Lincoln. Doesn’t every soldier want to go home? This is the Democratic ticket’s promise; end it now and send them home.

On top of all that, Lincoln and Grant, who think a lot alike, clamp their teeth together and endure the white knuckled ride that they know they’ll be facing when they decide against further prisoner exchanges with the South. There are two strong reasons for this decision: first, the South refuses to recognize Black men in uniform as soldiers, and won’t exchange them, assuming that all of them must be escaped slaves, including those with Northern accents. Grant declares that no prisoners will be swapped until the South is willing to parole every Northern soldier, and he means it.

In addition, both Lincoln and Grant realize that the South is running low on manpower. There are thousands of their soldiers sitting in military prisons; to trade them out and risk seeing them back in uniform is to turn a military contest into a war of annihilation. With prisoner exchanges, the war will last longer, and there will be more death. In a peculiar way, refusing to exchange prisoners is the more humane policy.

In an election year, this is a tough sell. There are families up North that have been notified that their son, brother, father, is a prisoner of the enemy, and word has by now been spread as to what kind of conditions those poor men face. How much harder is it to vote for Lincoln and the fight for the reunification of the republic when to do so is to prolong the time their loved one sits behind bars, slowly starving? Lincoln and Grant could temporarily resume prisoner exchanges until after the election, but they stand on principle, and it pays off.

Another thing that I don’t really grasp until I read the second volume is Grant’s relationship with the Army of the Potomac, a collection of men that to some extent have been poisoned with McClellanism. It’s a real tightrope walk, and he is deft in his dealing with it. I can’t tell you everything he does here; that’s the point of the book, after all. But I came away with a renewed respect for General Sheridan, and an interest in reading biographies of that general also.

How much of Sherman’s march through Georgia and then to the sea is Grant’s idea, and how much of it is Sherman’s? I come away understanding this better than before as well, although I have read both Grant’s and Sherman’s memoirs. Catton has a way of crystallizing events without oversimplifying them.

And I nod with solemn satisfaction at the cold fury Grant experiences when he learns of the assassination of President Lincoln and the attempts on the lives of others, including himself.

I still shiver with pleasure when I reread the denouement, in which Grant sends General Weitzel and his troops, some of whom are Black, into Richmond when the Confederate capitol falls. I want to cheer as the throngs form for the military review in Washington DC after the war has been won; all those thousands of soldiers, all those citizens and international visitors in the stands and on the sidewalks, singing “John Brown’s Body”. Think of it!

I promised myself to be brief, and I haven’t really done that, but this is the least I can bring myself to say about this excellent biography. If my review is too long to hold your attention, then this two book series—even while allowing for the fact that Catton is a far better writer than I—will also be more of a meal than you are prepared for.

But for those with a sufficiently great interest level and stamina, I cannot imagine a better memoir of Grant for you to buy and enjoy. Enthusiastically recommended!

Union Soldier, by Gordon Landsborough***

unionsoldierI received this title courtesy of Endeavor Press, who invited me to read and review their material directly; I thank them for the invitation to read and review this Digital Review Copy free in exchange for an honest review.

Our protagonist is McGaughey, a physician with a troubled past who enlists as a Union soldier because he cannot enlist as a doctor. He falls in love with a young woman named Sara, and so this relationship is a key aspect of the book. He moves heaven and Earth to see that she is allowed to stay with his unit, even introducing her as a laundress, a thing I never knew Union troops enjoyed.

Landsborough does a middling job of character development and creates an aura of mystery around McGaughey. I found his depiction of Union soldiers in general alienating. For me, the American Civil War was the last really righteous war the US fought, and so his characterization of most recruits as men that would do anything rather than serve, men that were rough, dishonest and usually of poor character demeaning. I suspect he was striving for realism, or perhaps he truly believes the war should never have occurred at all. Those that take this position may find themselves enjoying the novel more than I did.

Setting was a problem for me. Whereas his descriptions of the immediate area in any given situation were well done, I could never place this story on the map. On the one hand, Flagstaff is mentioned several times and so I was thinking of Arizona. The prominent role given American Indians tells us he has to be in the West. But the Sioux confederation is in the North, primarily in the mid-western USA, and so I was confused.

Landsborough does a creditable job of pointing out that the American Indian was still fighting for justice during this time period. The US government strove to fulfill the integrity of the nation, but didn’t do well by native peoples.

The stereotype that McClellan was an unskilled general whereas Lee and Jackson were brilliant is a tired old saw. A more in-depth look at these generals demonstrates that McClellan was entirely capable but actually sympathetic to the Confederate cause. Considerable evidence proves that his failure to succeed militarily in most situations was intentional. Lee made a number of errors as did Jackson, who was often unreliable when he was expected to show up, but both were bold, and for a time their energy and boldness paid off. I would have liked to see more knowledge of the war itself in this story, which turns out to be more a Western and also a romance than a Civil War tale. To be fair, it was billed as a western, but I latched onto the title and expected something more.

For those that enjoy Westerns or historical fiction that contains romance, this book may be of interest.