Preview: Chernow, “Grant”

11 10 2017

51SNaH1F--L I received in the mail via Amazon yesterday the highly anticipated (in some quarters) biography of Ulysses Grant by Pulitzer Prize winning author Ron Chernow, titled Grant (where does this guy get off not giving us a colon and an all-encompassing subtitle?). Let’s start off by saying this giant (but not so giant as one might think) volume falls into the category of pop history. That is, the author has no established bonafides as an expert on Grant or his times. Chernow, as everyone not living under a rock knows, is the author of the best selling Alexander Hamilton, which inspired the prize winning Broadway musical Hamilton. He has also authored biographies of George Washington, John D. Rockefeller, and J. P. Morgan. Now, we can see some overlap with Washington/Hamilton and Morgan/Rockefeller, right? But on the face of it, it looks like Chernow has entered that period of American history which we like to call home a little, well, cold. So, what we have here is an established, acclaimed, fine writer (I have read Hamilton) stepping into what looks to us (you regular readers of this blog, and blogs like it) like unknown territory. But believe me, it doesn’t look like that to the other 99%, the people to whom this book is marketed. Chernow, to them, is an expert on American History. Period. So this sucker is gonna sell a lot of copies (it is already, on its release date, stacked up for sale in Costcos across the nation – at a price below the “pre-order discounted” price I got from Amazon). And it may well win Chernow another prize. But I’ve written about this phenomenon before, that is, how too much experience with one topic can “unfit” us for the carefree consumption of popular histories. Read that again here if you haven’t already. Really, go read it. I’ll wait. Then, come back to this and I’ll give you the lowdown on Grant, preview-wise.

So, just what do you get with Grant? Well, you get a lot of pages. 959 pages of narrative, to be precise. But don’t be too intimidated. The spacing isn’t too tight and the font is not too small. It will read faster than that. There are also 53 pages of tightly printed “normal” endnotes, not the abbreviated, worthless ones favored by the big publishing houses these days. And there IS a bibliography, another nice surprise in this day of cost cutting. Read any of the advance reviews on this book and you’re  likely to see references to Chernow’s  extensive research (NY Times: “Chernow likes extreme research”; USA Today: “Chernow’s exhaustive research”; Washington Post [T. J. Stiles, no less, refer to my earlier piece you were supposed to re-read]: “strong research”). OK, let’s check that out.

The bibliography is about 10.5 pages long. Six pages of published books, and 4.5 pages of published articles. No MSS sources are listed in the bibliography, but at the beginning of the notes there are abbreviations for what looks like 23 manuscript sources (you know, unpublished papers, letters, etc…) No newspaper collections are identified, but I do see newspaper articles listed in the bibliography. I gotta tell you, the fact that these sources were not listed where I expected to find them (in the bibliography) gave me a jolt.

Sometimes I have little tests. They’re my tests, and they don’t necessarily indicate anything to anyone but me. For instance, when I pick up any book about the Maryland Campaign, I go straight to the bits about S. O. 191 to see if the work cites recent scholarship (this is probably the biggest change in the interpretation of the campaign in the past 20 years, and to ignore it is folly). For Grant, I check to see if the author mentions his relationship with local Pittsburgh boy Alexander Hays (with whom by many accounts Grant had a close personal relationship). Take Ronald C. White’s American Ulysses from last year. He mentions Hays three times (White also lists his MSS sources and newspapers in the bibliography, where I think they belong). Fighting Elleck does not appear in Chernow’s index. Take that for what it’s worth, and I understand it may not be worth much. Also note that White’s book lists (in the bibliography) 48 MSS sources and 43 newspapers. What does it all mean? I don’t know. Sometimes the counting of MSS sources baffles me. One author might just note the repository, for example, while another will name each collection at that repository. I will say that I hate the endnote format of White’s book (page numbers and text snippets) and prefer that employed by Chernow.

I’ve heard some criticism of the book as synthesis. I don’t see that as a problem – that’s the process: thesis, antithesis, synthesis. If we’re going to dismiss Chernow as a synthesist, some pretty big-named CW authors will need to be dismissed as well. Different authors can draw different conclusions from the same sources (the reviews indicate that Chernow and White differ in some of their conclusions). I only have a problem with synthesis when all it synthesizes are syntheses. That’s worthless. I don’t know that that’s the case with Chernow – it may take nearly 1,000 pages to figure that out. The book seems to be fairly balanced in its wartime and post-war coverage, page-count-wise. And let’s not forget, there’s value in how a story is told, even if the story has been told before. Depending on the audience, of course. And our lot is a tough crowd.

Go ahead and read the reviews to which I linked above – I’m generously assuming the reviewers read the whole thing.





Recap: Brandy Station Foundation

30 09 2017

On this past Sunday, Sept. 24, I delivered my Kilpatrick Family Ties program to the Brandy Station Foundation down in Culpeper, Virginia. This is a pretty long (4.5 hours) drive for me, so I turned it into a weekend trip and stayed in Warrenton. So let me recap my trip, with special emphasis on items of First Bull Run interest. Click on any image for a larger one.

I got into Warrenton around 6:00 PM, checked into my room, then headed to the historic district. I’ve never visited Warrenton before, so it was all new to me. First up was what is touted as the post-war home of Col. John Singleton Mosby though, based on length of residence, it may better be described as the post-war home of General Eppa Hunton, colonel of the 8th Virginia Infantry regiment at First Bull Run (read his battle memoir here, and his after action report here). Hunton made “Brentmoor” his home from 1877 to 1902, after purchasing it from Mosby.

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In the “law complex” section I found California, the pre-war home of William “Extra Billy” Smith, who commanded the 49th Virginia battalion at First Bull Run (memoir here, official report here). After the war, this building housed Mosby’s law office. Smith was a pre-war and wartime governor of Virginia.

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A few blocks away at 194 Culpeper St. is “Mecca,” a private residence built in 1859. It served as a Confederate hospital to the wounded of First Bull Run, and later as headquarters to Union generals McDowell, Sumner, and Russell.

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The Warrenton Cemetery is the resting place for many Confederate soldiers, most famously Mosby. Also there is William Henry Fitzhugh “Billy” Payne, with Warrenton’s Black Horse Troop at First Bull Run.

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Saturday was spent touring the battlefield of Brandy Station and sites associated with the Army of the Potomac’s 1863-1864 winter encampment with two experts on both, Clark “Bud” Hall and Craig Swain of To the Sound of the Guns. I admit to knowing very little about either of topic, but was given a good foundation for further exploration. I also learned that some red pickup trucks can go absolutely anywhere, and there is good beer around Culpeper.

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L to R – Me, Bud Hall, Craig Swain

Not a whole lot of First Bull Run stuff on the field, though. But the first thing I saw when I got to Fleetwood Hill was “Beauregard,” the home in which Roberdeau Wheat of the First Louisiana Special Battalion recovered from his Bull Run wounds, first thought to be mortal. The name of the house at the time was “Bellevue.” Wheat recommended the name change, in honor of his commanding general and in recognition of the similar translation of both names.

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View of “Beauregard” from Fleetwood Hill

Sunday found me back in Culpeper at the Brandy Station Foundation where, as I said, I presented Kilpatrick Family Ties to a modest audience. I made some late changes to the program on Saturday night, adding one pertinent site from Warrenton (the Warren Green Hotel where one of the characters in the presentation lived for a year) and “Rose Hill,” the home Kilpatrick made his HQ during the winter of 1863-1864. But I did run into a couple of Bull Run items. First, the monument to John Pelham that was previously located near Kelly’s Ford on the Rappahannock River (it was in a really bad location) has been relocated to the Graffiti House, home of the Brandy Station Foundation. Pelham, if you recall, was in command of Alburtis’s Battery (Wise Artillery) at First Bull Run (personal correspondence here).

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As most of you know, the Graffiti House at Brandy Sation was occupied by both Confederate and Union soldiers during the war. Over its course, soldiers of all stripes inscribed on its walls with charcoal signatures, drawings, and sayings of an astounding quantity. These were both obscured and preserved by whitewash after the return of its exiled owners, and were rediscovered in 1993. The Brandy Station Foundation has lovingly restored and preserved much of the dwelling, and you should make the Graffiti House a bullet point on you bucket list.

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Graffiti House, Brandy Station (Culpeper), VA

I’ll end this post with a shot of the signature of a prominent First Bull Run participant on one of the second floor walls. Can you see it? Here is his official report.

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Signature of Joe Johnston’s First Bull Run cavalry chief

 





Presentation at Brandy Station Foundation

18 09 2017

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Next Sunday, September 24th, I’ll be presenting Kilpatrick Family Ties to the good folks at the Brandy Station Foundation. Follow the link and click on Seminar Series in the left hand column. The venue is The Graffiti House, 19484 Brandy Rd, Va, 22714, start time is 2 PM, and it’s all free. This will be the third go-around for this presentation, and as usual I’ve added a few things (and will probably add a few more in the next few days).

Do stop by if you have the time and inclination.

On Saturday, the plan is to meet up with some friends and do a little Kilpatrick chasing around Culpeper. I know, Kilpatrick was not a Bull Run – he’d already been seriously wounded at Big Bethel. But his is a fun story. At least, the story I found is fun. I think.





Ballou Balloon Burst?

12 09 2017
Horatio-Rogers-Jr

Horatio Rogers, Jr.

The entire Robert Grandchamp America’s Civil War magazine article, “‘O Sarah!’ Did Sullivan Ballou’s Famed Letter Come From Another’s Pen?” can be found right here.

Go here for a link to an interview with Mr. Grandchamp.

Caption to photo in America’s Civil War magazine:

Was It Rogers? Some suspect Horatio Rogers Jr., not Ballou, wrote the famous letter, perhaps as a way of eulogizing his dear friend. (The Robert Grandchamp Collection)





Preview: White, “The Republic for Which It Stands”

6 09 2017

6127ca7ZUKL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_Just in from Oxford University Press is Richard White’s The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896. This is (quantitatively, not qualitatively) a doorstop at 872 pages of narrative. White is the author of Railroaded; The Middle Ground; and A New History of the American West.

A quick look-through is reminiscent – in layout, at least – of Walter McDougall’s Throes of Democracy. Keep in mind, this is not a history of Reconstruction, or of The Gilded Age, but rather of America during those periods, just like the post-colon title says. It’s divided into three parts: Reconstructing the Nation; The Quest of for Prosperity; The Crisis Arrives. Per Publisher’s Weekly, White’s “account’s central focus is public affairs and he foregrounds the West and its native tribes, farmers, workers, and cities; his astute examination of the ‘greater Reconstruction of the West’ works as a counterpoint to the failures of Southern Reconstruction.” That last bit is a theme that also runs through my current reading Thunder in the Mountains, a study of O. O. Howard and Nez Perce Chief Joseph.

So, you’re going to have to set aside a good bit of time if you choose to bite into this one. In the yay department, footnotes are real, bottom of the page footnotes. In the boo department, the book includes a 29 page bibliographic essay only. Wave of the future, I guess.





Something About Sullivan

2 09 2017

800px-Sullivan_BallouHere’s a little Q & A with a historian who has a take on the authenticity of the famous “Dear Sarah” letter.

I have no dog in this fight.





Preview: Crenshaw, “Richmond Shall Not Be Given Up”

18 08 2017

RichmondGivenUp_LRGIf you’ve been reading Bull Runnings for a while, you know that I’ve previewed all of the titles in Savas Beatie’s Emerging Civil War series. And you also know how these books work. Concise histories, lots of maps and illustrations, tough paperbacks, suitable for the field. The really interesting parts, to me anyway, are the appendices. So, for this newest publication, I’m going to give you the bare minimum, and flesh out those appendices for you.

Richmond Shall Not Be Given Up: The Seven Days Battles, June 25 – July 1, 1862, by Doug Crenshaw

  • Foreword by Robert M. Dunkerly
  • Four page prologue
  • Narrative 131 pages in fourteen chapters
  • Fourteen Hal Jesperson maps
  • Appendix A: Stuart’s ride around McClellan
  • Appendix B: The Civilians
  • Appendix C: Preservation Efforts
  • Order of Battle
  • Suggested Reading
  • No index, no bibliography, no footnotes – I’m informed they are or will be available online

Doug Crenshaw is a volunteer at Richmond National Battlefield Park. He is the author of Fort Harrison and the Battle of Chaffin’s Bluff and The Battle of Glendale: Robert E. Lee’s Lost Opportunity.