Recent Reads

8 04 2008

OK: it looks like WordPress has its hands full trying to deal with all the complaints.  I think the only way for me to fix my particular problem (font types and sizes) is to purchase an upgrade to something called CSS (cascading style sheets), which will allow me to manipulate my fonts.  That’ll cost me $15 per year, which will bring my total costs for this blog to just about $15 per year.  But it may remove the two step Word to WordPress process I currently employ.

In the past few weeks, I’ve finished three books and will hip you to them now.

Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War, by Nicholas Lemann, was described briefly here in my post on Stephen Budiansky’s The Bloody Shirt (follow the hyperlinks, folks: they’re there for a reason).  Redemption more narrowly focuses on the program by white Democrats to take back, or redeem, the government of the state of Mississippi from the Republican majority.  While not as well written as The Bloody Shirt, Redemption does a better job of tying in to the overall program of Democrats throughout the south, and it also more directly takes on the role of the Grant administration – in fact, the front and rear covers of the dust jacket feature upside-down, negative images of Grant’s Tomb.  Lemann also presents a more rounded (nuanced?) picture of First Bull Run Medal of Honor winner Adelbert Ames than did Budiansky.  I recommend them both, but if you can only read one I’d go with Lemann for a better overall understanding of the time.  Next up on my list for Reconstruction reading is Brooks Simpson’s The Reconstruction Presidents.

Did Lincoln Own Slaves? by Gerald J. Prokopowicz is one of the best Lincoln books I’ve read (cover to cover or otherwise), and that’s more than a few.  Based on questions Prokopowicz has fielded or solicited over his years as a teacher, talk-show host and Lincoln Scholar, the book is broken down into chapters covering Lincoln’s boyhood, his early adult life and law practice, his years in Springfield, his development as a politician, his role as a speaker, his presidency, his performance as Commander-in-Chief, the Gettysburg Address, the Emancipation Proclamation, his physical appearance, his assassination, and his legacy.  Throughout Prokopowicz provides light and readable and at the same time thorough and scholarly answers to the questions, with responses ranging from one word to several pages.  He’s got a great sense of humor and the bits on Was Lincoln gay? and Speaking of JFK, what about the amazing coincidences between the Lincoln and Kennedy assassinations? will have you spitting Pepsi through your nose if you’re not careful.  Buy this book: I get the impression Prokopowicz had as much fun writing it as I did reading it. 

I finished Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering over the weekend.  You’ve already heard plenty about this book – it has received more press coverage than any non-Lincoln Civil War book that I can recall over that past 15-20 years.  It’s well worth your time but is pretty gloomy.  On a Bull Run note, Faust recounts the journey of the soldiers of the city of Charleston killed in the battle from that field to burial in the city’s Magnolia Cemetery, which gives me something else to look for next the next time I’m in town (I also need to track down the spot in the cemetery where the single Bull Run prisoner to die in Castle Pinckney was buried, according to Orlando Willcox – see here). 





The Crowded Bandwagon – and Coming up Next Week

4 03 2008

 

colfax1a.jpg colfax2.jpg colfax3.jpg

 

It looks like everyone is jumping on the failure-of-Reconstruction bandwagon.  Charles Lane’s The Day Freedom Died: The Colfax Massacre, the Supreme Court, and the Betrayal of Reconstruction and LeeAnna Keith’s The Colfax Massacre: The Untold Story of Black Power, White Terror and the Death of Reconstruction both revisit the incident covered in Nicholas Lemann’s Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War.

I’ll be in Ohio on March 12 (next Wednesday), delivering my Threads program to the Central Ohio Civil War Round Table in Columbus.  I’m reworking my presentation, dropping the campaign and battle summaries altogether and grouping the stories differently.  The end result should be more structured and easy going at the same time.  But I’ll be using most of my free time this weekend working on the PowerPoint slides, so I won’t be posting much original material between now and my return – though I will put up the full review of the Jackson Video if America’s Civil War shows up on the news stand this week.

Unless I hear from any other organizations that want to hear this program, this will probably be the last time I present Threads.  I’ll be focusing next on the role played in the battle by graduates of the West Point classes of 1861.  I don’t have any takers yet (leave a message here if you’re interested), but I’m not letting that stop me and you readers, both of you, will be the beneficiaries of whatever I turn up regardless.





The Bloody Shirt

29 02 2008

bloody-shirt-2.jpgOne of the very few perks of writing this blog is that every once in a while a publisher sees fit to send me a copy of a book for review.  This most recent, The Bloody Shirt: Terror after Appomattox by Stephen Budiansky (Viking Press, $27.95) was a really good read, and I highly recommend it – with a caveat.  If you are enamored of the “character” of individuals like Wade Hampton or Matthew Butler, or if you despise traditional Reconstruction “villains” or at best “failures” like Bull Run Medal of Honor recipient Adelbert Ames, be prepared to have your preconceptions challenged.

Rage – that’s what this book elicits; if that’s too strong, it’s at least similar to that queasy, pit-of-the-stomach feeling you get while watching a movie in which the hero is “set up” for a crime he didn’t commit, and has to fight a system stacked against him.  Budiansky argues that the Reconstruction Yankees and African-Americans, at least those he profiles, were good men with a good cause.  Men like Ames, 7th Cavalry Major Lewis Merrill, former slave and soldier Prince Rivers, and Albert T. Morgan fought the good fight, but the odds were decidedly not in their favor.  In addition, they seem to have received little support from the federal government.  (I really wish Budiansky had explored this aspect further; while Andrew Johnson traditionally takes the heat for the failure of Reconstruction, Ulysses S. Grant was president during most of the period covered in this book, yet is a non-entity in it.  Perhaps the author felt no comment was comment enough.  I’d really like to hear what someone with knowledge of Grant and Reconstruction has to say about this – maybe someone like Brooks Simpson?)

Few and far between were prominent southerners, like James Longstreet, who had any interest in reconciling with the rest of the country under the terms suggested by the ruling party – namely, the establishment of black suffrage.  Influential white southerners were most interested in returning to the status quo that existed prior to the war, despite the fact that the war was fought to maintain that status quo, and the South lost that test of arms.  Part of this effort was the formation of the Ku Klux Clan, White Leagues, and various gun clubs.  Ultimately, they were successful.  Through intimidation, violence, and fraud Democrats began to win back the southern states.  The north was described by the Federal government as “tired” of the violence, and Reconstruction was abandoned after 1876.  With that, many claim, the Confederacy essentially won the Civil War.

I was struck by the extensive passages from southern newspapers, which boldly and blatantly declared their positions.  They did not mince words – they knew what the Ku Kluxers and White Leaguers were about, and they wholeheartedly, even glibly supported them and their tactics.

The book climaxes with the murders that took place at predominantly African-American Hamburg, SC under the direction of “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman and Matthew C.Butler, and serves to depict in microcosm the Passion Play that was the life and death of Reconstruction.  This incident mirrors that which occurred in Colfax, LA, covered in Nicholas Lemann’s 2006 offering Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War.  (I haven’t read it yet, but plan to do so in the near future.)

The successful attempt of Southerners to shape public perception of Reconstruction, similar and integral to the creation of the Lost Cause myth, is also briefly covered.  The pretzel logic of this PR campaign, which laid the blame for the violence of Reconstruction at the feet of the Reconstructionists and African Americans, is described by Budiansky in his introduction.  He explores and exposes the myth of the Bloody Shirt (waving the bloody shirt was and still is a tactic used by politicians in which the blood of heroes or martyrs is used to gain support or deflect criticism).  He argues:

The bloody shirt perfectly captured the inversion of truth that would characterize the distorted memories of Reconstruction the nation would hold for generations after.  The way it made a victim of the bully and a bully of the victim, turned the very act of Southern white violence into wounded Southern innocence, turned the very blood of their African American victims into an affront against Southern white decency; the way it suggested that the real story was not the atrocities white Southerners committed but only the attempt by their political enemies to make political hay out of those atrocities.  The merest hint that a partisan motive lay behind the telling of these tales was enough to satisfy most white Southerners that the events never happened, or were exaggerated, or even that they had been conspiratorially engineered by the victims themselves to gain sympathy or political advantage.

If it was incomprehensible to many Northerners, it made perfect sense to those same white Southerners who, on more than one occasion, blamed the “cowardly negroes” for their unmanliness in having permitted themselves to be massacred by bands of armed white men: it only showed, they argued in complete earnest, that black men lacked the Anglo-Saxon virtues indispensable to free men who would exercise the lofty privilege of self-government.  Any people who allowed their vote to be taken from them at gunpoint didn’t deserve to keep it.

To quote Yossarian: That’s some catch, that Catch-22.

yossarian.jpg

 

 





E. B. C. Cash’s Report

24 02 2008

  8th-sc-flag.jpgLots of hyperlinks in the following – be sure to click on them to get the full effect!

alfred-ely.jpgA reference is made in the report of Col. E. B. C. Cash of the 8th SC of the capture of Congressman Alfred Ely of NY (left).  A pretty tame account, though the story that is handed down and can be found in Ely’s diary is more colorful.  According to the gentleman from Rochester, when taken before Cash the colonel leveled his pistol at Ely’s head and swore, G—d d—n your white livered soul.  I’ll blow your brains out on the spot!  Cash was prevented by subordinates from carrying out his threat.  Based on his post-war history, I have little doubt that Cash was in earnest. 

Ellerbe Boggan Crawford Cash, though born in 1823 in North Carolina, was raised in his mother’s native South Carolina, and eventually passed the bar before taking over her family’s plantation in the Chesterfield District, near Cheraw.  He served in the general assembly and rose to Major General in the militia.  At the outset of the war, he was elected colonel of the 8th SC.

When the regiment reorganized in the spring of 1862, Cash was either not reelected or resigned because he was not promoted.  Cash remained in reserve or with the state militia in South Carolina for the remainder of the war.  He was an outspoken opponent of Reconstruction, and ran against Wade Hampton for governor because he felt Hampton was too soft to represent the white population of the state.

Perhaps Cash is best known for his participation in what is recognized as the last duel fought in South Carolina.  On July 5, 1880, Cash shot and killed Col. William M. Shannon of Camden in a formal duel resulting from a legal action against Mrs. Cash in which Shannon was lead counsel.  (UPDATE: Shannon had raised the Kirkwood Rangers, which became one of the five companies of the 7th SC Cavalry.  This regiment was home to Alexander C. Haskell and Dr. E. M. Boykin – hence, Shannon and his brothers are referred to often in Mary Chesnut’s diary.)  Cash was tried for murder and dueling and, after one mistrial, was acquitted.  Legislation was enacted thereafter outlawing dueling in South Carolina (though I’m a little confused at this, because Cash was tried for dueling, which kind of leads me to believe it was already illegal; one aspect of the new legislation was that it rendered ineligible for public office anyone who had participated in a duel).

The image of the battle flag of the 8th SC above is from this site, which has a biography of Cash.  This site is an account of the duel. Herehere, here, here, and here are New York Times articles on the trial, though there are more – beware, the NYT archive is a huge time-sucker!  UPDATE: Here is a link to a 1932 Time Magazine article on the duel. 

The Colonel’s son, VMI alum W. Bogan Cash, was also not unfamiliar with violence.  He was accused of killing at least two men, and before he could be brought to justice was himself killed while resisting a sheriff’s posse in 1884.  You can read about him here and here, and here is his VMI bio – surprisingly, he served as Governor Hampton’s chief-of-staff.  His father was also indicted as an accessory to his son’s crimes, but was I think not prosecuted.

Cash died at his home in Chesterfield in 1888, and was buried next to his desperado son.  Here is his obituary.

I couldn’t find any photos of Shannon or either of the Cashes on the web, but if you go here you’ll find a pdf document and can scroll to their images.  (That link is borken, but I think it was a draft of Carnival of Blood, which you can find along with the photos on page 20 here.)  Unfortunately the document is incomplete.  UPDATE: Ok, I used my noggin and figured out how to get the images of E. B. C. Cash, Shannon, and W. B. Cash as a VMI cadet – these are from the link in this paragraph:

ebccash.jpg shannon.jpg wbcash.jpg

Coming on the heels of my finishing The Bloody Shirt, perhaps all this is not as surprising to learn as it otherwise might have been.  I’ll have a review of that book up within the next few days. 

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to FurlAdd to Newsvine





Reviews Out the Wazoo

25 01 2008

 

I finished up my three book reviews in brief for the May issue of America’s Civil War earlier this week.  I’ll also write a full review of a Civil War DVD for the same issue this weekend.  And yesterday I received a book for review on this blog.

bloody-shirt-2.jpgThe Bloody Shirt: Terror after Appomattox, by Stephen Budiansky, was sent to me by Lindsay Prevette, a publicist at Viking/Penguin, who contacted me through the comments section of one of my posts.  I’m very upfront with folks who ask if I’ll review their book for the blog (keeping in mind this is only the third time this has happened).  I can’t guarantee how soon I’ll get to it, nor can I guarantee my review will be a positive one.  I think so far all the book reviews I’ve written here (solicited or otherwise) have been balanced.

The Bloody Shirt is another entry in the flavor of the month among academic Civil War historians – reconstruction – though its author is a journalist.  I’ll write a little review in brief next week, and will hopefully be able to blow through the book pretty quickly once I’ve finished the incredibly, unbelievably long biography of Sullivan Ballou I’m reading now.  Then I’ll write a full review.

I was pleasantly surprised when I opened Budiansky’s book to the illustrations (the first thing I do when I pick up a new book, even before the bibliography) and saw a nice portrait of Adelbert Ames, member of the USMA class of 1861 and winner of the Medal of Honor for his actions at First Bull Run.  Ames was a reconstruction mucky-muck and Republican governor of Mississippi, in addition to being the great-grandfather of George Plimpton.  There is also a portrait of James Longstreet, brigade commander at Bull Run who played a prominent and, to some, unpopular role in putting down post-war violence in New Orleans.

To top it all off yesterday I was presented with a great opportunity to combine book reviews with battlefield stomping.  I’m pretty stoked about this one.

Now all I need is for the big guy to add about 12 hours to each day.





Assassination Vacation

1 03 2007

vowell1.jpgI decided to read Sarah Vowell’s Assassination Vacation as a distraction, primarily from a pretty dry biography of Samuel Heintzelman I’m reading (is using dry and Heintzelman in the same sentence redundant?).  A few years back I read The Partly Cloudy Patriot by the same author, and really enjoyed it.  Sarah Vowell is known for her work on public radio, and also as the voice of Violet Parr, the daughter in The Incredibles.  Say what you will about her politics (but remember, you can’t say it here – see About, over to the right), she knows her US history, she can turn a phrase, and she’s funny.  Very funny.  And the content of the book is relevant enough that I am giving it space in my Civil War library, in the embarrassingly large Lincoln Assassination section.

In addition, her approach to the subject is very similar to that of this blog, described earlier as pulling threads.  That’s a kind of free form research, allowing the stories to lead you, going along for the ride.  Vowell mentions in the book that a friend compared her ability to relate anyone and anything to Lincoln’s assassination to The Kevin Bacon Game, in which the object is to connect any given actor to Kevin Bacon by naming other actors they worked with until you hit one that worked with Kevin Bacon.  I used to be pretty good at that game, and have long thought my processes when it comes to the study of the Civil War are much more similar to playing it than to any method taught in a school or writer’s workshop.  The result is usually the revelation of unexpected, sometimes meaningful (sometimes not) relationships between people, places and things.  Vowell excels in not only uncovering these interrelationships, but in weaving a compelling narrative from those threads.

Assassination Vacation chronicles Vowell’s travels to various places associated with three assassinated presidents, Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley.  Her trips are to various and sometimes unexpected locations – like Alaska.  She visits the one-time location of a strange, biblical sex-cult in New York (the Oneida Community) that served as a refuge for Garfield’s killer, Charles Guiteau.  She explores the relationship between McKinley assassin Leon Czolgosz (shol-gosh) and anarchist Emma Goldman (Maureen Stapleton in Reds).  She even goes to Mount Marcy in the Adirondacks, where Vice President Theodore Roosevelt was hiking when summoned to Buffalo as McKinley lay dying.

Vowell devotes the most pages to people, places and events surrounding the Lincoln assassination.  She goes to the usual haunts, Ford’s Theater, The Wok & Roll restaurant (formerly Mary Surratt’s boarding house).  She visits places that “used to be there”, like Secretary of State Seward’s DC home – that’s how she wound up in Alaska, I guess.  Vowell treks to Philadelphia’s Mutter Museum (I now must go there).  For God’s sake, she even sails to Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortuga’s, where Dr. Mudd and other convicted conspirators were imprisoned.  The descriptions of these trips are top notch, insightful, and often amusing (“I used to think John Waters movies were on the outlandish side until I came to Maryland”).

There are some drawbacks to the book, but they are relatively minor.  For one thing, Vowell often ends sentences in prepositions and uses the aristocratic affectation “an” historian/historic.  (I understand they’re teaching kids these days that the former practice is now “OK”, but I’ve never seen a style manual approving the latter, and I doubt she would write of “an” histrionic display or “an” hysterical outburst.  And why do these people who say “an” historian invariably say “a” history?  Huh?  Why?)  The other is the previously alluded to references to current politics. The fact is, parallels between today and the past can be made to say whatever one wants them to say.  It’s a parlor trick.

For instance, Vowell makes much of the circumstances surrounding the presidential election of 1876.  In what she views as a precursor of things to come, she notes that the Republican party essentially “bought” the election by agreeing to end reconstruction, thus “selling out” African Americans in the south.  Factually correct, her analysis ignores the other end of the deal.  In order for the Republicans to buy the presidency at the cost of reconstruction, someone had to accept payment and make delivery.  Neither party was unsullied in the transaction.

All in all, Assassination Vacation appeals not only to those interested in Lincoln, or the Civil War era, or presidential history, but to any lover of history.  If you’re one of those people who can’t understand why other people can’t understand that the fact that the stone wall over there is the same wall that was there when IT happened is, well, way cool, this book is for you.








Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 782 other followers