Review of James McPherson’s Abraham Lincoln

abe-lincoln-coverJames M. McPherson, Abraham Lincoln (New York:  Oxford University Press, 2009). 96 pp. $12.95. ISBN13:  9780195374520.

In honor of the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth, renowned Civil War scholar James M. McPherson has written a wonderful brief biography of our 16th President. This book will be a wonderful source for beginners to study Lincoln and will serve as a good framework for larger works, like David Herbert Donald’s Lincoln.

This book covered the important aspects of Lincoln’s life from his birth and childhood in Kentucky and Indiana to his coming to Illinois, to his administration and death. McPherson discussed Lincoln’s tarnished relationship with his father and his wonderful relationship with his step-mother, which presented a more personal side of the man.

Though short, this book does a great job of discussing Lincoln’s life in the larger context of American history. McPherson summarized the important moments and events during his life and provided a wonderful look at the war and its effect on him.

True to his scholarly reputation, McPherson used great sources for this little biography, including the Collected Works of Lincoln and Lincoln at Cooper Union to name a couple. In addition to using great primary and secondary sources, McPherson provided a bibliographic essay that provided a great synthesis of the historiography of Lincoln and where it may be heading in the coming year.

There are many things to like about this book. It is a well-researched, but brief biography that will reach a wide audience. The reputation of James McPherson as a scholar lends great weight to the legitimacy of this biography. Abraham Lincoln is a wonderful beginning to the scholarly celebration of the Lincoln bicentennial.

Review of The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War

pig-to-cw2H. W. Crocker, III wrote an interesting take on the bloodiest conflict in our history. The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War attempted to present the war that is often left out of classrooms today. His book will resonate with those who have interests and sympathy to the Confederacy, but may make pro-Union persons a little uncomfortable. There were some things with this work that I liked and some things I did not like.

I enjoyed the chapters devoted to important battles of the war and leaders of the war, as they were relatively balanced between Union and Confederate sides. The book discussed several of the major battles and campaigns of the war and the important items to remember surrounding them, which is good for those unfamiliar with the war.

Despite being overwhelmingly pro-Southern, I found Crocker’s treatment of Grant and Sherman to be quite fair and loved his view of McClellan as the wrong leader for a field army. The biographical sketches were very good, albeit a little slanted towards the South.

That said, there were a number of things that troubled me about this work. Most significant is its heavy emphasis on supposed positive aspects of the South. The attempt at justifying secession is especially odd, as while one can legitimize secession through the Declaration of Independence, the fact is that the Southern states either ratified or entered into the Union under the terms of the Constitution, which trumps the Declaration as supreme law of the land. Searching through the Constitution, I could find no reference to secession. In fact, even if Southerners objected to Lincoln’s call for troops to suppress the rebellion via Article IV, Section 4, they would have no ground to stand upon. That part of the Constitution states:

The United States shall guarantee to every state in this union a republican form of government, and shall protect each of them against invasion; and on application of the legislature, or of the executive (when the legislature cannot be convened) against domestic violence.

This section clearly applied to states within the United States, which did not include the Confederacy, as they had left the Union, despite Lincoln’s government not recognizing the legitimacy of secession.

The second issue I had with this book was how Crocker viewed the Confederacy and their leaders. He characterized the South and its military and political leaders as the epitome of chivalry and honor, seeming to take the issue of slavery out of the equation. While there were some noble characteristics to the antebellum South, the sin of slavery completely negated the perceived good. He stressed the view of slavery and treatment towards African Americans held by generals like Jackson, Lee, and even Forrest, which while it may have been true, it seems to sugar coat that they fought for a country that retained slavery.

In continuation with his positive view of the Confederacy, Crocker went as far as to conjecture that the CSA would have eventually outlawed slavery, as had other Western nations. While some saw slavery fading away to extinction by 1900, a separate Confederacy established with slavery intact would have been less likely to abolish it, as the African American population was such a significant portion of its population that the risk of a Haitian-like insurrection would have been too great for many white Southerners to risk emancipation. Further, he claimed a few times that Southerners had and would have had better race relations than the North. Yes, because African Americans would have dropped the matter of slavery and gotten along with their fellow Southerners.

He continued his counter factual examination by offering the possibility of a Confederate Cuba and the two nations helping win World War I earlier, thanks to Southern eagerness to jump in with Britain. He argued that eventual reunification would have occurred after World War II.  This is too far-fetched even for me, who enjoys counter factual scenarios, as I would see such a sharp divide between the two nations, given the vast differences between the regions during the war, which would eventually create such a difference in culture that a reunification may have been likened to the German reunification, where the former East Germany has more economic problems than the West.

Another aspect of this book that I raise issue with was the sections in the book entitled “Books Yankees Don’t Want You to Read.” These sections include works by Richard Weaver and Jefferson Davis. The issue is that “Yankees” are not against such works, but want them placed within their context. Many of the works listed in these blurbs are of a more pro-Confederate sentiment and some reflect the Lost Cause mentality, which does not make them illegitimate, but merely means that the works must be both understood for what they are and balanced against other sources.

Crocker’s scholarship was another area of concern, as while he cited some hard hitting authors, including James McPherson, Shelby Foote, and Gary Gallagher, he did not analyze these scholars. Further, his notations were few and far between, which left the reader questioning where he came up with some of his conclusions. This is coupled with some dubious claims made against historians, which included that professors compare the Confederacy to Nazi Germany and Lee to Erwin Rommel. I have sat in two Civil War courses with two different professors with vastly different world views and never heard this. Had Crocker cited examples of this in college classrooms, I would have been convinced, but since no such evidence was provided, I await examples.

Overall, the idea behind the book is a noble one, to present the Civil War that may be left out of the classroom today. However, the result was a book that is in need of some improvement. The positive of this book is that it hopefully will encourage people to do more reading on the war, as there are many wonderful books out there to provide a balanced look at the war without political correctness. The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War is certainly politically incorrect, but it is not the Civil War that my father or I learned about.

Review of Two Brothers, One North, One South

two-brothersJones, David H.  Two Brothers, One North, One South.  Encino, CA:  Staghorn Press, 2008.  320pp, ISBN 13:  978-0-9796898-5-7, $24.95.

David H. Jones has provided one of the latest additions to the genre of historical fiction on the Civil War, a genre that includes such works as Killer Angels, Gods and Generals, and the Civil War trilogy written by Newt Gingrich and William Forstchen to name a few.  The novel intertwines real individuals, including Walt Whitman, and members of the Prentiss family, into a story that illustrated the brother against brother nature of the war.

The story began at a Union hospital, where Whitman befriends a young Confederate soldier from Maryland, who is dying from wounds suffered at Petersburg.  When the young man, William Prentiss passes, Whitman meets his older brothers, including Clifton, who was also wounded and served in the Union army.  Whitman began to tell the brothers what he learned from his conversations with William, in an attempt to help them learn about their brother and his experience during the war, as they had become estranged due to different opinions on the war.

Together, Whitman and the Prentiss brothers presented a story of the war that is rich and lively.  The reader shifts from Armory Square Hospital in Washington, in 1865, back to pre-war Baltimore and countless other places in the Eastern Theater of the war.  William Prentiss, the youngest son of a staunch Union abolitionist father and educator, owing to strong influence of pro-Southern peers, especially the Cary sisters, decides to join Confederate forces when hostilities commence.  His brother Clifton, who attempted to dissuade William, takes up arms for the Union.  William’s father, John, takes his son’s decision to fight for the Confederacy especially hard, calling William a “damned traitor”.(81)  Throughout the war, the brothers experienced such battles as Bull Run, Gettysburg, and Petersburg.  The chapters weave a wonderful tale that discusses daily life in the army, as well as the involvement of women in the war.

The goal of Jones’ book was to present the war in the manner that Whitman hoped, as he (Whitman) feared that the real war would be lost to succeeding generations.  While this is a noble ideal, given the vast number of books on the war from a non-fiction standpoint, the real nature of the war has not been lost, as Whitman feared.  However, Jones does provide, through his story, a good example of the nature of the war.

While the story was good, there were some problems.  First, the book has an air of Confederate bias.  While the story is attempting to help the brothers understand William’s service in the war, there is too much focus on characters, like the Cary sisters and other Southern sympathizers.  This focus on Southerners, coupled with some dialogue that seems haughty for normal conversation, even for the nineteenth century, could turn off some readers too early. The back story surrounding them added intrigue to the story, but detracted from understanding the experience of the men in battle.  Further, more focus on Clifton’s service in the Federal army would have better illustrated the brother against brother nature of the conflict.  The back and forth shift in time of the story is a good concept, but more detail on the Prentiss family would have helped.  While the immediate pre-war events in Baltimore are discussed and others hinted at, a fuller explanation of how the family, especially with adult children in other locales, reacted to events like John Brown’s raid, the election of Lincoln, and secession would have better explained the split that occurred between the family members.

David Jones crafted a unique piece of Civil War historical fiction.  Intertwining real people and real places with fictional characters provides a great story about the war that, hopefully, will lead readers to explore the vast non-fiction literature on the conflict.  Though there are some issues with the book, readers should delight in Jones masterful storytelling.

Author’s Note: I would like to encourage you all that have read the book to pose questions and comments, as David Jones will be visiting here as part of the TLC Book Tour.

EXCELLENT BOOK ON THE RED RIVER CAMPAIGN, AND THE SAD STATE OF HISTORICAL KNOWLEDGE HELD BY COLLEGE STUDENTS

I am currently reading an excellent account of the Red River Campaign titled, Little to Eat and Thin Mud to Drink: Letters, Diaries, and Memoirs from the Red River Campaign, 1863 -1864.  The book, part of the Voices of the Civil War Series, is edited by Gary D. Joiner.  I will be writing a review of it for The Southern Historian next month.  Joiner gives a perspective of the campaign from a very personal level using both civilian and military sources.  I’ll have more on the book once I’m finished.

On to another matter that vexes me, this is my second semester teaching history at two local community colleges.  This past summer I taught a Civil War and Reconstruction class; currently, I am teaching two America since Reconstruction classes.  This past Wednesday, 17 September 2008, I asked a class of twenty-five students if they could tell me what took place on this day – even offering not to give a quiz if one person could respond.  Not one student could answer the Battle of Antietam or America’s bloodiest day.  A couple of weeks ago a student commented that she never knew Lincoln was assassinated.  Now I understand that history is not for everyone, especially in community colleges where most students take history as a mandatory elective rather than an interest in the subject.  However, this lack of basic American history knowledge must stem from the grammar/high school level. Are high school students still required take American history?  Are students just being pushed through?

Coincidentally, this week I was lecturing on J.P. Morgan and the rift between capitalists and the labor force that formed in the late nineteenth century.  I was able to tie this in with the current crisis on Wall Street.  I could not think of a better example as to how history is so relevant to today’s world.  History needs to become a more integral part of our education system perhaps that is an issue the current presidential candidates should be debating.

Review of Mr. Lincoln’s Brown Water Navy by Gary D. Joiner

Joiner, Gary D. Mr. Lincoln’s Brown Water Navy: The Mississippi Squadron. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2007. 224 pp. Photographs, maps. ISBN 10: 0-7425-5098-2 $24.95

History professor Gary Joiner has written a wonderful work discussing the role played by the navy in securing the Mississippi River for the Union during the Civil War. Joiner has added to the historiography on both the Civil War and naval history in general through this detailed account that leaves the reader with knowledge on a relatively unknown subject of Civil War history.

Joiner notes in his preface that the Union navy on the Mississippi River is one of the least studied aspects of the war. He argues for the importance of studying this topic by claiming that the Union may have lost the war in the West and possibly the East if not for the actions of the navy in supporting the land campaign in the West.(p. xi) Throughout the book, Joiner does an excellent job of providing a vast amount of information on this overlooked area, as well as proving the validity of his thesis.

He begins his examination by presenting a background history on the initial Union strategy, the Anaconda Plan, and the major players involved (Gideon Welles, Gustavas Fox, and Winfield Scott), including brief biographies, as well as a brief history of the American navy. He then describes, with incredible detail, the creation of the first vessels that made up the gunboat fleet and the men behind them. Joiner not only discusses the specifications of the vessels, but also delves into the personal squabbles among various persons involved in the creation of these first crafts.

Joiner then tackles the navy’s role in the rivers as the war heats up in the West. He devotes chapters to the major events of the Western Theater of the war. He first focuses on the early stage of the war in the West, with Forts Henry and Donelson, and Shiloh, the capture of New Orleans and the lower valley, as well as failed early attempts at seizing Vicksburg. He then discusses in great detail the role of the brown water navy during the Vicksburg Campaign and later Red River Valley Campaign, finally culminating in the end of the war. Along the journey, Joiner introduces several important figures (including Admirals Andrew Foote and David Dixon Porter) and vessels mostly forgotten by history. Readers will enjoy the vivid detail provided for naval battles, as heroic officers lead their vessels into many battles on the rivers, sometimes with disastrous results.

Joiner’s scholarship is very solid, with notes appearing at the end of each chapter. His bibliography is solid, with many primary sources used in his research, including The War of the Rebellion: the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies and the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion. His secondary sources are a good collection, with many being recent works, which provide his book with a solid historiography to draw upon on Civil War naval history. His use of photographs is quite helpful, as they illustrate the many ships that he mentions in his work. The only area that he seems to lack in is newspapers, citing only four newspapers in his bibliography. While this is not a major problem and may result from most newspapers not covering the story, it would be interesting to read what Northern papers and more Southern papers wrote about the brown water navy.

Overall, Gary Joiner has greatly added to the historiography of Civil War naval history and has hopefully shed enough light on the subject to motivate other scholars to research the subject further. This book is worth reading by many audiences, including professional historians, Civil War buffs, naval history enthusiasts, and those interested in early examples of joint force operations. This books is also recommended for use by educators for classes dealing with the Civil War, as it provides a new angle for students studying the war and is an easy read. Mr. Lincoln’s Brown Water Navy is one book that readers will find hard to put down.

My First H-Net Book Review

Normally, I would post the text of my book reviews, but since the review is online already, I felt that I should just post the link. I reviewed a couple months ago a book for H-CivWar, the Civil War group under H-Net, which is a consortium of discussion boards/listservs that cater to historians. I reviewed Donald Gilmore’s The Civil War on the Missouri-Kansas Border for the group and it has now been posted onto the group’s site and will likely be sent out to the listserv.

Click here to read my review of the book.

This is my first review for them, but I hope that it will not be my last.

Review of Shiloh: A Battlefield Guide

Shiloh coverThis review will appear in an upcoming issue of On Point: The Journal of Army History.

Grimsley, Mark and Steven E. Woodworth. Shiloh: A Battlefield Guide. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2006. 176 pp. Illus., maps. ISBN 10: 0-8032-7100-X $19.95

This book by two eminent Civil War historians is necessary for anyone that will travel to the Shiloh National Military Park in Tennessee in the future. The authors have created a work that gives the reader an in-depth account of the Battle of Shiloh that occurred in April 1862. Many wonderful aspects to this book make it valuable to tourists and historians alike.

Mark Grimsley and Steven Woodworth created this book to aid in understanding the battlefield tour stops. The book is thorough even though it is brief in pagination. The authors take the reader to each of the tour stops located at the park, covering both days of the battle, and examine key events pertaining to each stop. The guide is so thorough that the authors provide detailed directions to specific spots and tour stops on the battlefield, including distances via car in tenths of miles.

Most of the areas of the park covered are accessible by vehicle and Grimsley and Woodworth instruct readers to reset the trip odometers in their vehicles to follow the guide correctly. These instructions to readers in reaching stops are just one unique way that this guide is organized. There are small “vignettes” (authors’ term) that describe events relating to both the background of the battle and the battle itself that may be read in between the stops on the tour. Once at a particular stop, the reader is treated to descriptions of the action that occurred at the stop. In addition, many sections dealing with the tour stops contain small stories based off primary sources written by soldiers that participated in the battle.

The organization of this guide revolves around the stops on the battlefield tour, as well as chronologically with relation to the battle. The first stops and sections discussed in the guide are related to the events of the first day of the battle. The latter half of the guide deals with the events at the tour stops pertaining to the second day of battle. Within these broad sections dealing with each day of the battle, the authors provide the reader/tourist a couple of options. For instance, the authors list two route options for the battlefield tour, a western and eastern route, which allow the tourist to understand the battle on both sides of the park. In addition to the different route options, the guide provides an optional walking tour of the famous “Hornet’s Nest”.

This guide is packed with information on the battle and more information on each stop than can be placed on the various markers and memorials throughout the park. The guide is well researched and based on many good sources, including memoirs and scholarly works. It also includes several wonderful illustrations and helpful maps to compliment the written portions. The authors provide good lists of works for further reading as well. Overall, though not a typical work of scholarship, this guide is certainly a fine example of scholarship intended for a more general audience.

Both authors lend their experienced backgrounds to this guide. Mark Grimsley is a history professor at Ohio State University and author of And Keep Moving On, which deals with the Virginia campaign. Steven Woodworth is a professor at Texas Christian University and the author of Nothing but Victory, which covers the history of the Army of the Tennessee. Both authors are respected in their fields and their authorship of this guide gives tremendous credibility.

Overall, this guide is a wonderful resource for understanding the Battle of Shiloh and for touring the park. It provides a large amount of information in a small package and has the reputation of two respected scholars behind it. This book is a necessary tool for having a successful tour of the battlefield and a wonderful resource on the battle for all audiences, including professional historians, military officers, and general readers.

Daniel Sauerwein
Grand Forks, ND
AHF member