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, Russell 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!





Preview: Jeff Applequist, “Sacred Ground: Leadership Lessons from Gettysburg & The Little Bighorn

3 06 2010

I’m a little leery of the recent crop of books that attempt to draw leadership lessons from military history.  Friends have attended seminars in Gettysburg that relate modern business decision-making to incidents of the battle.  They tell me about what they read and what they were told, and most of the time I’m left shaking my head – I find they learn more legend or Civil War dogma than facts, which take a backseat to the more important lessons they supposedly support.  The same with books and programs that hold Abraham Lincoln up as some sort of model for today’s managers.  I’ve asked before and I’ll ask again – would you want to work for a boss who tells you one thing and does another; who interacts directly with your subordinates without consulting or informing you; who has no knowledge of the technical aspects of your job yet meddles in them constantly?  (I did once and it was a catastrophe.)  Though he was many other, perhaps more important things, Lincoln was no manager; certainly not one after which to model oneself.

OK, so I’m not a big fan of these books or programs.  However, I’m willing to give the benefit of the doubt to Jeff Applequist’s Sacred Ground: Leadership Lessons from Gettysburg and The Little Bighorn.  He’s a former Marine Corps officer who founded and runs Blue Knight Battlefield Seminars, which teaches leadership lessons and team building on the battlefields of Gettysburg and Little Bighorn.  From the inside jacket:

As leaders we have all faced moments of truth throughout our professional careers.  Important decisions directly impacting the success or failure of our teams and organizations have sometimes rested in our hands.  Is it possible that we could actually learn from historical examples how to make better decisions?  Is it possible to use lessons from history to improve in other dimensions of our leadership as well?  The answer is a resounding yes.

These questions should sound familiar: How do we manage through profound change?  How can we motivate our people in chaotic circumstances?  How do we make good decisions despite imperfect information?  How can we communicate more effectively?  How do we see things from another person’s point of view?  How can we better understand another culture in a global economy?  How will we win or even survive in a highly competitive and uncertain world?  The challenges leaders faced long ago are the same as those that leaders confront today.

In Sacred Ground, Jeff Applequist takes us on an amazing journey of exploration and discovery to the Gettysburg and Little Bighorn battlefields.  By studying these momentous events through the lens of individual leadership and team dynamics, we see that the stories from history are fascinating, the parallels to today are memorable, and the principles of leadership enduring. 

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Preview: Dick Stanley, “Knoxville 1863″

1 06 2010

Dick Stanley of Austin, TX sent me a copy of his new book, Knoxville 1863, a novel about, well, Knoxville in 1863.  (For you folks who have wholeheartedly entered the 21st century, this is also available as an ebook.)  I’ve only skimmed the book, but this fictional account of the seige of Knoxville and the battle at Ft. Sanders seems to focus primarily on the 79th NY (the Highlanders) and Barksdale’s Mississippi brigade.  Stanley’s narrator is a Knoxville resident, the widow of a Confederate officer, through whose eyes and recollections the reader is brought up to speed on the war and Tennessee up to the point of the Confederate encirclement of the city and beyond.  From the back cover:

Gettysburg held.  Vicksburg has fallen.  Now rebel flags ring Knoxville in East Tennessee.  Longstreet means to wrench this railroad hub away from the occupying Union army.

To do it his ragged and starving men, veterans of Gettysburg such as Barksdale’s Mississippi Brigade, must climb the icy, clay walls of Fort Sanders.

Inside are the New York Cameron Highlanders who are on half-rations and have never won a battle.  Yet they have special faith in the young lieutenant who leads them.

In Washington President Lincoln waits for news.  He sees the struggle as one more key to preserving the Union, freeing the slaves, and victory in the Civil War.

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Review: Elizabeth Hoole McArthur, “Bound for Glory”

30 05 2010

Dr. Elizabeth Hoole McArthur was kind – and yes, savvy – enough to send me a copy of her short book, Bound for Glory: A Brief History of the Darlington Rifles, Precursor Volunteer Militia to Company A, Eighth South Carolina Volunteer Infantry, C.S.A, Origin through First Manasas, for review.  I finished off the 68 pages of text pretty quickly.  This is a readable, concise account of the company from its militia days, beginning in 1834, through the end of the First Battle of Bull Run.  However, it draws primarily upon official reports of 8th SC commander Col. E. B. C. Cash, Army of the Potomac commander P. G. T. Beauregard, and memoirs of D. A. Dickert of the 3rd SC, which along with the 8th was part of Bonham’s brigade at Bull Run and afterwards.  Because Dr. McArthur is working on a biography of Co. A’s Captain Axalla John Hoole (her great-grandfather) as well as a history of the 8th SC for Broadfoot’s SC Regimental-Roster series, I suppose I expected more extracts from letters, diaries and memoirs of members of Co. A and the rest of the 8th SC.  But for folks looking for detail on Co. A, the author has included several appendices, including a listing of the members of the Darlington Rifles on 2/9/1861, a listing of the members of Co. A of the 8th SC on 10/18/1861, and three additional rolls for the company from after the war.  I’m hopeful that Bound for Glory represents a good start for Dr. McArthur as she continues her work on her ancestor, his company and his regiment.

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In the Queue: Four Previews and a Review

28 05 2010

Over the past few weeks, I’ve received four books from publishers and authors.  Sorry for the delay, but I hope to get three of them previewed and one reviewed here in the next week.  I also have one highly anticipate release that I just received from Amazon – it’s not Bull Run related, but concerns another campaign that is near and dear to me.  It’s a very important book, probably the most significant ever produced by its publisher.  I’ll have a preview of that, too.  Of course, just when I have this backlog work has picked up as well.  A good problem to have, I suppose.  Stay tuned!

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Interview: Ed Bearss “Receding Tide”

17 05 2010

On April 8th I interviewed NPS Historian Emeritus Ed Bearss (via telephone) about his new book, set for release tomorrow, May 18.  I’ll get to the interview in a minute, but first here’s what I submitted to America’s Civil War for my July 2010 previews, courtesy of the good people at the magazine:

Receding Tide: Vicksburg and Gettysburg, the Campaigns that Changed the Civil War, Edwin C. Bearss with J. Parker Hills

Ed Bearss is known as the Pied Piper of the National Park Service.  His battlefield tours are legendary, as are his photographic memory, stentorian voice, and physical stamina.  If there has been one criticism of Mr. Bearss’s work it is that his ability to spellbind tourists on the battlefield has not translated to his writings.  The good folks at National Geographic tried to remedy this deficiency – if it can be called that, since Bearss’s The Vicksburg Campaign is a tour de force after 25 years – with 2006’s Fields of Honor, which consisted of transcriptions of Bearss tours of about twenty Civil War sites.  This year they follow that up with Receding Tide, which uses more detailed transcriptions to focus more narrowly on the period from the end of 1862 through the early days of July and the twin Union victories at Vicksburg and Gettysburg.

I was a little nervous about the interview, which was set up courtesy of Penny Dackis at National Geographic.  I bought a digital recorder for the event, and like most of you I really hate the way I sound on tape (or digital).  Add that to the fact I was going to be talking to possibly the most recognizable name – definitely the most recognizable voice – among students of the war, and you see where I’m coming from.  I tried my best to throw my questions in quickly, step back and let the man speak.

BR: Your new book, Receding Tide, covers a broad period and is concerned with more than simply the campaigns of Vicksburg and Gettysburg.

EB: It starts with the Union setbacks of Fredericksburg and Chickasaw Bayou, when the Union has run into severe difficulties.  It follows through to the early stages of the Vicksburg Campaign when the Confederates are doing fairly well, and through Chancellorsville, playing [the two theaters of operation] off against each other, and ending for all practical purposes on the Fourth of July, 1863, though Gettysburg doesn’t really end until Lee crosses [the Potomac] and Vicksburg doesn’t end until Sherman drives the Confederates out of Jackson.

BR: The concept behind this book is similar to that of Fields of Honor, which National Geographic published in 2007?

EB: Yes, both books are basically transcriptions of recordings of my tours at the various sites.  In Receding Tide, [co-author J. Parker Hills] edits them down and fills in the connecting parts.

BR: In what ways do these projects differ from traditional works, like your Vicksburg Campaign?

EB: I’m standing on the spot when I’m talking about what happened there.  People who liked the first volume said it comes across like I’m talking, that it’s like being on the field with me.  Talking in the field, you can get more emotions in than if you’re writing and footnoting everything.  People who like oral presentations like it the best.  Fields of Honor has sold better than any book I’ve written.

BR: How do you think the two types of works, the tour transcriptions versus traditional works like your Vicksburg set, differ – that is do you like one better than the other, or are they really apples and oranges?

EB: The three-volume Vicksburg study is for people who want to know everythingReceding Tide looks more at the highlights, interesting facts and personalities.  It has more of an emotional appeal.

BR: Would you say it tells a better story?

EB: Yes.

BR: What different challenges are presented when conducting a tour of Vicksburg versus Gettysburg?

EB: Gettysburg is much better known – in the English language, there are more books on Gettysburg and Little Big Horn than any other campaigns because they sell well.  Little Big Horn sells well because nobody really knows what happened in those last thirty minutes or so.  Gettysburg sells well because so much has been written and is known about it, particularly the controversies.  I can do a complete tour of Vicksburg, for a well-informed group, in about three days: two on the campaign up to the seige, and one on the seige.  Gettysburg, because of the knowledge of the general public and the interest in the personalities, the fighting of the Lost Cause, the Meade/Sickles controversy, and the fact that more people know a lot more about Gettysburg, it takes longer to tour.  The buffs know a lot about Vicksburg, but the general public doesn’t. 

When I took the job with the National Park Service at Vicksburg in 1955, I did so because it was the only Civil War site that had an opening.  If I had had my choice, I would have said “Give me an eastern battlefield, give me Gettysburg”.  That’s what everyone wanted, what everyone was writing about.  Catton had just finished his trilogy, and Lee’s Lieutenants focused primarily on that.  But when I got out there I found out Vicksburg had a lot going for it.  I’d more or less become convinced that the Vicksburg Campaign is why Grant became General-in-Chief in February of 1864.  Meade’s result after the Battle of Gettysburg was not what the President wanted.  In his mind, Vicksburg was a more important victory than Gettysburg – except for the address he gave there.

You can argue that the worst day of Meade’s life was when he issued the congratulatory order to his troops on July 7th, where he calls on them for “further exertion to drive the enemy from our soil.”  Lincoln will say “My God, my God!  What does the man mean?  It is all our soil!”  On the same day, Lincoln gets the message from Grant that Vicksburg has fallen.  And not only had Grant accomplished the military objective, he has opened the Mississippi river to divide the Confederacy, and has destroyed a Confederate army of 40,000 men.

BR: The letter that Lincoln wrote to Meade, the one he never sent, it has always struck me that we can give so much import to a letter like that, one that Lincoln thought better of and didn’t send, when we don’t have any idea how many other letters like that were written and to whom.

EB: We only know about this one because he kept a copy.

BR: And because Nicolay and Hay made sure it was preserved.

EB: Right.

BR: Are there any similar studies like this from National Geographic in the works?

EB: Yes.  Because of the increased interest in the Revolutionary War, we’re considering doing a book on those conflicts similar to Fields of Honor, which will again be based on my battlefield tours.

There was more, but we moved far afield from the focus of the book, talking a lot about Meade and the bad spot into which he was put after Grant was named General-in-Chief and how history has perhaps misrepresented what Meade would or would not have done had Grant not come east; the influence of surviving correspondence (or lack of same) on the way history has treated various commanders; and even an interesting tidbit regarding why he doesn’t spend much time on the internet and what influenced his decision to retire from the NPS (in short, in the 1940s real men didn’t type).  Maybe at some later time I’ll cover that material here.

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