To Read or Not to Read – That is the Question

3 08 2013

I get lots and lots of books sent to me. And I also still buy books “on my own.” And I read non-fiction slowly. And I read Civil War history very, very, VERY slowly. So, I really can’t read all the books I get, or all the books I have, cover to cover. That’s why I describe the book commentary you typically see here as Previews instead of Reviews. I scan the book, read the intro and (if there is one) the conclusion, check out the notes and bibliography. Basically, I do what I would normally do if I was considering buying the book myself. Hopefully you find that helpful.

So, when it comes to actually reading a book, I have to be very selective. Because it’s a significant investment of my time, and because the opportunity cost is great. So I don’t make the decision lightly. I have two books here, relatively slim volumes, recently received from Savas Beatie: General Grant and the Rewriting of History and John Bell Hood: The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of a Confederate General. I have reservations about both books – not about reading them, but reporting on them. The latter is written by a descendant of the subject, and my experience has shown such efforts to be typically problematic. Also, I’ve observed (and been slightly involved in) discussion of Hood’s reputation and it got heated. The former delves into the ever dangerous waters of U. S. Grant criticism. The mere mention of the book is likely to bring Grant fans out of the woodwork – I’ve seen them operate, and it ain’t pretty. They are such rabid gatekeepers (and I have no doubt they view themselves as such) that a perceived slight to anyone in the Grant solar system, let alone HUG himself, is likely to elicit a response of biblical proportions.

But after much discussion and deliberation, I’ve made my decision. As soon as I complete my current read, I’ll tackle these two. I have no dog in either fight, regardless of my thoughts on those who do (have dogs in the fight – I’m too distracted to figure out how to write that sentence so that it doesn’t end in a preposition.) I’ll report back to you as best I can. But I have a sneaky feeling that my efforts will be deemed woefully inadequate by partisans of all stripes.





A Note To Authors

3 01 2012

As someone who has been fortunate enough to have published a few things, in addition to this blog, I have some idea of the time, money, and effort required to produce them. I’ve never written a book and imagine it to be a monumental task; I appreciate the love and effort that must go in to producing one. I’ve read and/or previewed/reviewed many of these works, some good, some bad. I’m happy to pass along my thoughts on many of them here. If you’re an author looking to get the word out on your book, all I ask is that you follow these simple rules. I rarely have time for a full reading and review, but if, after I take a look at your stuff, I think it’s worth mentioning to my readers, I’ll do so. If I think the subject matter is not appropriate, I’ll let you know up front. If, after I look at the book, I feel I can’t promote it for whatever reason, I won’t mention it. That’s the deal.

Lately, a few folks have decided that the comments sections to various posts and pages here are good, quick, and cheap ways to get the word out on their product. Don’t do this. Send me an email, and we’ll discuss it.





America’s Civil War May 2011

3 03 2011

Inside this issue:

Field Notes:

  • Wilderness battlefield preservation victory
  • The Lowry controversy
  • Budget woes affect sesqui efforts
  • Monitor restoration
  • Georgia Dept of Agriculture removes controversial murals

5 Questions:

  • Daniel Weinberg of the Abraham Lincoln Bookshop

Cease Fire:

  • Harold Holzer discusses historical honesty

Legends

  • Ron Soodalter points out some surprising lyrics in state songs that are unchanged to this day

Features

  • Jackson, Johnston and Conflicting Interests – Dennis Frye: differing opinions on holding Harper’s Ferry in 1861
  • Looking for a Few Good Men: recruiting poster photo essay
  • An Omen a Philippi – Gerald Swick: early fight in Western Virginia, with an interesting sidebar on James Hanger, an amputee whose prosthetic manufacturing company lives on today
  • The Common Soldier’s Recipe for Disaster: photo essay on the culinary delights of the Civil War
  • Diary of a Morgan Raider – John M. Porter: in fact, a memoir. Extract form One of Morgan’s Men, Kent Masterson Brown, ed.

Reviews

  • My Thoughts Be Bloody: The Bitter Rivalry Between Edwin and John Wilkes Booth That Led to an American Tragedy – Nora Titone
  • God’s Almost Chosen People: A Religious History of the American Civil War - George Rable
  • Faith, Valor, and Devotion: The Civil War Letters of William Porcher DuBose - W. Eric Emerson & Karen Stokes, eds.
  • A Young Virginia Boatman Navigates the Civil War: The Journals of George Randolph Wood - Will Molineux, ed.
  • Santa Fe Trail (Film)
  • Harry’s Just Wild About
    • John Bell Hood and the Fight for Civil War Memory - Brian Craig Miller
    • The Civil War: The First Year Told by Those Who Lived It - Brooks Simpson, Stephen Sears, Aaron Sheehan-Dean, eds.
    • Caught Between Three Fires: Cass County, MO, Chaos, & Order No. 11, 1860-1865 - Tom Rafiner
    • The Battle of Resaca: Atlanta Campaign, 1864 - Philip Secrist




Review: American Experience – Robert E. Lee

29 12 2010

A few weeks back the folks at PBS’s American Experience sent me a copy of their new program on Robert E. Lee set to air next Monday night, January 3, at 9:00 PM ET.  I finally got a chance to view it last night and was pleased with what I saw: a well-balanced and generally unvarnished look at the marble man, warts and all.  Of course, such a view may displease many who subscribe to the belief that Lee was in the end a “pure Christian with a clean soul.”  Here’s a promo:

The 83 minute program features an impressive list of “talking heads” – some usual suspects but encouragingly some newer faces as well.  Here they are in what I think is their order of appearance:

  • Lesley Gordon
  • Michael Fellman
  • Peter Carmichael
  • Elizabeth Brown Pryor
  • Gary Gallagher
  • Emory Thomas
  • Ervin Jordan
  • Joseph Glatthaar
  • Winston Groom

The program does a nice job of laying out Lee’s life in chronological order and identifying the influences that helped form his character: the role his father played in the early days of the Republic and his subsequent disgrace; Lee’s single-minded purpose firmed up at West Point, where he developed his sense of duty, self-discipline, denial, and achievement, and also his burning ambition.   Both his courtship of Mary Custis and his experience in Mexico under Winfield Scott were lessons in the value of audacity.  Lee never really felt at home at Arlington and preferred the order of military life, but in 1857 after the death of his father-in-law he returned to Arlington, where he was not a good manager of the farm and was less than kind to “insubordinate” slaves – this segment may cause some discomfort to some viewers.  Lee is described as aligned with “slavery apologists” who felt slavery was far from ideal and would eventually die off  but who also believed that negroes were better off as slaves and that the institution should be defended to the last.  Also interestingly the commentators note that Lee did not become particularly religious until after the Mexican War, when he was having trouble adapting to the peacetime army and Mary became ill.

A better job of exploring Lee’s decision to resign from the army could have been done.  Although a good amount of time was spent showing how hard the decision was, the producers could have more closely examined why, and really if, Lee and his fellows actually felt that their state was their country.  Why not their section of the state?  Why not their county?  Why not their town?  How do we explain the decision of many to side with the Confederacy despite the decisions of their states to not do so?  Were these decisions based more on philosophy or, more likely, finances than on loyalty?  I tried to discuss this here a while back, with disappointing results.

A little more precision could have been used in describing just what Francis Blair offered Lee – command of an army, not the army.

Lee’s role early in the war, his failures, disappointments, and physical aging are adequately discussed.  Then comes his rise, reorganization of the army, and strategic vision.  In the winter of 1862-63 he was plagued by bad temper, paperwork, the deaths of a daughter and two grandchildren, and possibly a heart attack.  He reached his zenith at Chancellorsville, the moment “that the bond between Lee and his men was sealed.”  In the wake of the wreck of his army at Gettysburg, Lee became more insistent that his men – the Confederate people, in fact – become more committed to the cause, that they could persevere because God was on their side, but that they must be brave, strong, and disciplined.  He demanded that they live up to the standards to which he held himself.  While desertions spiked in 1864, so too did executions [in this Lee was not unlike his father, who was admonished by Washington for his harsh treatment of deserters].

Through the Overland Campaign, Lee broke down further, until finally at North Anna he couldn’t rise from his cot to take advantage of a tactical opportunity.  When his army was backed into a siege, he probably knew the gig was up but persisted as he believed it his duty as a soldier.

Post war, Lee was never able to reconcile to the defeat.  He believed that his cause was just, that God was on his side, and that his men had been brave.  Defeat made no sense to the engineer given the knowns of the equation – until the day he died he believed the wrong side had won the war.  He never accepted reconstruction (though he publicly encouraged his countrymen to do so) and was bewildered by emancipation.  In the end, he believed his life a failure, and that the great mistake of it was taking a military education in the first place.

[Perhaps the most tantalizing quote ever attributed to Lee comes at the end of Freeman's opus, when near the end of his life he advised a southern mother to teach her infant son that he "must deny himself."  If God was on the side of the south, if the cause was just, if the soldiers were brave, then were they and their people not disciplined enough to achieve victory?  What did folks like Jefferson and de Tocqueville think along these lines even before the war?  Was this what Lee meant by his advice?]

Don’t get me wrong – the program is no hit piece, and the above paragraph presents thoughts that ran through my head as I watched.  Your mileage may vary.  Give it a whirl Monday at 9:00 PM ET.





America’s Civil War January 2011

28 10 2010

Inside this issue:

  • An interview with an American who conducts Civil War tours in England.
  • Red Soodalter on High Bridge
  • Mosby’s Confederacy by Teri Johnson
  • Iowa’s “Hairy Nation” goes to war  – Robert B. Mitchell
  • Harold Holzer on how some Southerner’s sought to abate secession fever
  • Cynthia Wachtell looks at how some men of letters considered the morality of war
  • Reviews
    • The Maryland Campaign of September, 1862, Vol. I by Ezra Carman, edited by Thomas Clemens
    • Reluctant Rebels: The Confederates Who Joined the Army After 1861, by Kenneth Noe
    • My Old Confederate Home: A Respectable Place for Civil War Veterans, by Rusty Williams
    • Northerners at War: Reflections on the Civil War Home Front, by J. Matthew Gallman
    • The Day Dixie Died: The Battle of Atlanta, by Gary Ecelbarger
    • Harry’s Just Wild About…
      • Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Redemption, by Shane Kastler
      • Mississippi in the Civil War: The Home Front, ,by Timothy B. Smith
      • After the War: The Lives and Images of Major Civil War Figures After the Shooting Stopped, by David Hardin & Ivan Dee
      • Confederate Generals in the Western Theater: Classic Essays on America’s Civil War, Vol I, Lawrence Hewitt & Arthur Bergeron, editors




Review: “Old Abe, Eagle Hero”

30 08 2010

Old Abe, Eagle Hero: The Civil War’s Most Famous Mascot is a children’s picture book written by Patrick Young and illustrated by Anne Lee.  In terms easy enough for very young readers to understand, the book relates the familiar story of the mascot of the 8th Wisconsin Infantry regiment, a North American bald eagle named for POTUS 16.  Since the story is familiar to Civil War buffs, I won’t go into too many details (but you can get some here and here).  In fact, the story is so familiar that this same text was used in this earlier edition, with a different illustrator.  And that different illustrator in this case makes a big difference.  The watercolors in this new edition are striking.

So, this being a kid’s book, I asked a kid – my 12-year-old son – to read it, even though it’s a few years too young for him.  But 12-year-olds being what they are, I couldn’t get him to sit down and type up a review.  The long and the short of it is like me he dug the book.  It took him all of about 5 minutes to read, but he got the gist of Old Abe’s story.  However, he had the same question I had: after a concise account of Old Abe’s life from his birth through the end of the war, his story ends abruptly in 1876, when he travelled to Philadelphia for the centennial exhibition.  What happened to Old Abe? When and how did he die?

A little digging on the web turned up the info, though I’m still not sure if the bird was a he or a she.  In 1881, Old Abe died as a result of a fire near his rooms in the basement of the Wisconsin state Capitol.  After his death he was stuffed and put on display in a glass case in the building, where he stayed until he and the building were destroyed in another fire in 1904.  Below are a few pictures of Old Abe: with his fellow soldiers before reaching maturity, when his head turned white; a couple of publicity photos (he used to “autograph” them by poking a hole with his beak); and what is possibly all that remains of him, a single feather.  All photos from this site.

   





Thanks for the Thanks

17 08 2010

Today I received a nicely inscribed hardcover copy of War Like The Thunderbolt from its author, Russel Bonds.  This replaces the advance reading copy (ARC)/uncorrected proof/bound galley I was provided for review (read that review here).  Russ also included a handwritten Thank You note on a cool card with an embossed image of The General, the subject of Mr. Bonds’s preceding work.

As you can see, my review while generally positive was not free of criticism.  And lots of folks with much bigger wigs than mine reviewed Russ’s book, and some in more glowing terms.  This is the first time any author has gone to such lengths to thank me for a review (though most are generally gracious).  Bloggers who review books – as far as I know – don’t usually receive any compensation for doing so outside of the book itself.  ARCs are first very, very difficult to review (they typically have no indexes or maps and very poor quality images if any) and second they are, well, worthless – we don’t like to put them on our shelves.  So Russ’s gift was very thoughtful and fortunate, as this very successful book has gone into paperback and hardcovers are tough to come by.  And don’t get me started on publishers who offer to provide pdf copies of the book.  Double yoi! 

Still, sometimes folks want to get the word out before the product is finished.  Such was the case with Thunderbolt.  Authors and publishers take note – this is the way to do things.  Thanks, Russ – you’re one classy guy!








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