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This is the archive for June 2008

Friday, June 27, 2008

I have yet to start reading this but it is another Sam’s Club find. This one was a bit more expensive at $14.12 but still in that wonderful range of “if I just bought a stinker, at least I didn’t waste $75 on it.”


This is also from W. Chris Phelps, author of the previously mentioned, The Bombardment of Charleston .

In this book, takes a look at one of the many groups formed during the war with men from Charleston. This one would be named The Charleston Battalion and would fight in Virginia, North Carolina and the Charleston Area.

Where one of my big issues was the length of the previous book, this one is twice as big. It is important to note that the last 100 pages are various appendixes. Even so, they seem to be “meaty” ones, with pictures and detailed information, along with the ever needed regimental roster.
I am slightly concerned at where the tone of the book is leading. From the inside flap, “They served with distinction in several campaigns in Virginia and North Carolina and defended their hometown against Union invaders.” It may be just me but the comment seems to scream of The Lost Cause.

One other interesting thing (probably only to me) is the cover. On Amazon (where I got the picture above) it shows in blue, a good Union color. The book I bought, the color is acutally gray. I'll let you draw your own conclusions.

Charlestonians in War: The Charleston Battalion
W. Chris Phelps
Purchased Copy

Thursday, June 26, 2008

I seem to remember Donald telling me about this book sometime ago and I put it in my mind as something I would need to get later. It has been so long, now I don’t know if this is the book or if it was something similar.

At a mere $9.62 at Sam’s Club, I figured I could take the plunge, even if it was the wrong book.

The book is not massive, just 152 pages without notes but so far it has been interesting. Flipping through the book I came to a picture of a house I immediately recognized, so perhaps my initial “glee” is like that of a fan of a rock star at a concert when his town is mentioned, “Good Evening Savannah, I mean Charleston.” But the pictures are important, they underline what the city went through and also shows how even as historic as Charleston prides itself in being, it has changed over the years.

Although the pictures are good, the same cannot be said of the maps, which seem very mundane.

With ten years since its first publication, I also have to wonder, what more could be out there for future editions. Although I have not read the full book, there just seems that there has to be more to the story. Perhaps I am looking for something more personal though? I’ll let you know when I am done with the book.

The Bombardment of Charleston1863- 1865
W. Chris Phelps
Purchased Copy

Monday, June 16, 2008

The ideas for the books began with “Little Women,” a publisher’s request, and previous research on women in the slaveholding South. Those ideas, like seeds, germinated and blossomed in the minds of Geraldine Brooks, Walter McDougall, and Drew Gilpin Faust culminating in the publication of “March,” “In the Throes of Democracy,” and “This Republic of Suffering,” respectively. Those authors and those books are what brought over 400 people together for an evening at the Washington Post Book Club on June 10th.

Brooks, who cherishes Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women,” was intrigued by the idea that the book, which was set during the Civil War, made so little mention of the conflict. Aside from the first page, which mentions the father, Mr. March is at war as a chaplain, a later reference to the mother traveling to a Philadelphia Hospital to visit her ailing husband, and the father’s subsequent return home, there’s no exploration of his wartime experience. Brooks sought to delve into that possible experience, using Alcott’s own father Bronson as the model for her character. Bronson Alcott, according to the Brooks, was “the dark matter from which Emerson and Thoreau drew their energy.”

Like so many Northern idealists, Alcott became disillusioned by his war experience, much as Oliver Wendall Holmes, Jr. In fact she opened her book by setting it at the battle of Balls Bluff, where Holmes was seriously wounded and because, as Brooks stated, it was the battle in which Massachusetts troops first “saw the elephant.” Idealism crumbling in the grind and reality of war and “the huge gulf of experience” that separates husbands and wives are voiced in the narratives of both Mr. and Mrs. March, particularly when hostilities cease and Mr. March returns home.

Brooks said that her favorite question about the book came from a Cambridge, Mass. reader, who quipped “I don’t get it. Are we supposed to like this guy?” Brooks answered, “It depends on where you stand on impracticable idealists.” “Idealists,” in Brooks opinion, “move our moral quest forward” even though they are not the easiest people to get along with. According to Brooks, who has been a war correspondent in Bosnia, Iraq, and Somalia, we’re “all subject to idealize military adventures, but horrified when our troops commit atrocities. " That is the question facing idealists like Mr. March, “How do you deal with your moral code when horrified?”

Brooks acknowledged that two Harrietts were influential in the writing of her book, Beecher-Stowe and Jacobs. Commenting on “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” she said “You think you know what’s in it until you read it.” Like Beecher-Stowe she tried to find a convincing voice for her 2006 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and realized she needed to have two, husband and wife, to tell her story. Jacobs was a historical influence who helped her find an authentic voice for slaves.

McDougall’s "Throes of Democracy," a sequel to 2005's "Freedom Just Around the Corner," is an exploration of the American character between 1829 and 1877 and “the power of pretense to bond a sprawling people together.” What dawned on him from reading early European accounts of the American experience, such as de Tocqueville's "Democracy in America," was “how pretentious Americans were.” He came to this opinion after approaching “an era of history he had never written about or previously studied.” The entire fifty year history examined in the book can be viewed as a romantic era, as evidenced by the arts, the writing, and the idealism of its young people. The era was “excessive,” everything taken to an extreme. Too, the politics of the Jacksonian era “were theatrical in many respects,” when slogans such as “Tippecanoe and Tyler, too” ruled. Politics were, in the absence of organized sports, the national past time. Campaigning was built solely on posturing rather than given to debate on serious issues of the day. There was more focus on which party was most corrupt, or which presidential candidate was bravest in battle. Politics never involved the truth and voters cared less about truth. Truth was reserved for the circus and satire, where “inconvenient truths,” that politicians didn’t admit could stand the light of day.

According to McDougall American’s love history, but they are future oriented, not interested in the past, and have a tendency to throw away the past. Prior to the 1960’s the standard history in schools was an “exercise in flag waving.” Since then our history has become somewhat “hypercritical and might strike many as negative.” McDougall implied that in a sense its revisionist based on our modern concepts, in which we, as a people, wring our hands over every perceived indiscretion.

The idea for “This Republic of Suffering” drew inspiration from an earlier Gilpin Faust book “Mother's of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the Civil War.” That book was based on diaries and letters written to the Confederate government. What preoccupied the women was not war strategy, or the threat of emancipation. What they wrote about was death, the fear of death, the reality of death, and the cost of death to their society. Death was central in so many lives that Gilpin Faust concluded it transcended both the North and South.

With a death rate that claimed two per cent of the American population, equivalent to six million killed based on our current census, Gilpin Faust was quick to point out that collateral deaths, i.e. civilians and those killed in guerilla operations did not get figured into the estimates of those killed during four years of warfare. But the magnitude of the killing and deaths from disease raised numerous questions that she sought to answer in her book. Questions like how did the nation cope, how did people adapt to and understand the level of destruction, and as importantly, how does it impact and transform a nation? That, in turn, led to other questions such as the duty of the soldier, the meaning of loss, how to remember those who were lost, or how civilians dealt with their own bereavement.

Most historical change, according to Gilpin Faust, occurs over the course of decades or even centuries. The Civil War quickened the pace of those changes, including the assumption the national government bore responsibility and had an obligation to the dead. Following the war, the Federal government began a massive re-burial project of over 300,000 Union soldiers. But what was different about the new national cemeteries, that set them apart from Victorian prescriptions for park like settings in which to contemplate death, were the rigidly ordered placement of the headstones. Death in “a fundamental sense created the American nation by preserving it.”

Gilpin Faust related that her book responded to historical literature that we are all familiar with from an early age; the meaning of citizenship and liberty. We have “never really understood the price of war,” something we must do in order to understand when its "worth paying that price." Too often we are caught up in the immediacy and excitement without thinking about the consequences. Combatants on the other hand have always had to “grope with the realities of loss and commitment to a cause and hold that in balance that with their belief system. Society needs to contemplate what a war means and the price we pay when we make that decision. “Those who experienced war don’t let go of that experience.”

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Guess what? This post is not going to contain a single picture. So, I suppose I’m going to have to write a thousand words to make up for it. Or, using that formula, and taking into consideration the last post contained ten pictures, that’s, what….ten thousand words. At an average of 250 words a page that’s, what…forty pages. That may be a bit too much, so I’ll cut everybody, including myself, a break and keep this piece at a reasonable length.

Guess what? There’s no mention of a certain river in this post. I feel like I’ve been trailing a certain ribbon of water virtually every weekend for the past two months, from West Virginia and down both the Maryland and Virginia sides. There is going to be more in the future, simply because of the role a certain river played in places I visited, but not today. I need to somehow get Roger McGuinn out of my head, because the “Ballad of Easy Rider” keeps floating through my head. “The river flows, it flows to the sea, wherever that river goes, that’s where I want to be; flow, river flow, let your waters wash down, take me from this road, to some other town.” Or maybe it’s Eric Anderson’s “Blue River,” that keeps haunting me.

Guess what? I’m just about halfway through my latest commuting book, i.e. the one I read going to and from Washington on the Metro train. I picked up Walter McDougall’s “Throes of Democracy, The American Civil War Era 1829-1877,” because he’s going to be appearing with Drew Gilpin Faust (“Republic of Suffering”) and Geraldine Brooks, winner of the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for “March,” next Tuesday evening at a book seminar sponsored by the Washington Post. Out of curiosity I checked Amazon. Faust’s book ranked 1,771st, McDougall’s placed at number 8,061, while Brooks checked in at 193,158. I couldn’t resist the comparison. “The Civil War Research Guide” was nicely situated at number 239,234. Hmmm. I wonder what would happen if I purchased say,… a hundred copies….

Guess what? McDougall can write. I know that sounds like a stupid remark, but most historians can’t, write, that is. I mean really write. As a whole, the best of them write well, but, they’re not writers. I’ve mentioned this before, but the best histories I’ve ever read were from non-historians. Of course some people would then argue if it wasn’t written by a historian then it’s not history. With all due reverence to certain reknowned historians, and without mentioning names, they're not in the same league with historical writers like, say, Nathaniel Philbrick. I suppose, too, it depends on the preference of the reader; straight fact telling versus some creative writing style interjected into the story being conveyed. But, as someone recently reminded me, without creating scenarios that didn't exist, or imagining conversations that never occurred.

Guess what, though? If you want to take a rollicking ride through history then pick up McDougall’s book. It’s entertaining, fascinating, irreverent, and great fun as he skewers virtually every American politician, personality, and institution in the era he writes about. This on Henry David Thoreau, for example:

[Emerson’s] most representative disciple was the bathetic David Henry Thoreau (he transposed his given name). When Emerson settled in Concord, he invited Thoreau – a timid, tubercular, Harvard-trained teacher – to join his household and pursue a literary career. Thoreau made a minor splash in the magazine trade, thanks to assistance from Horace Greely, but won lasting fame by camping out at Walden Pond in 1845-1847. Thoreau’s self-reliance was less than heroic. He went into town almost every day, sponged off friends, and hosted regular picnics at his cabin. Mountain men such as Jim Bridger would have guffawed at the pretense…Thoreau in fact experienced very little of life. He never married, and never traveled beyond the Northeast. His greatest adventure was spending one night in jail for refusing to pay his poll tax. Even his signature essay “Civil Disobedience” was ignored until after his death.

Thoreau was standoffish and timid…Caroline Sturgis Tappan likened him to a porcupine. Emerson thought him fit only to lead a huckleberry party…”

Obviously if you’re a Thoreau fan you’re going to clench your teeth and wait for McDougall to walk underneath a window so you can drop his book on his head. But it’s an example whereby no cow is sacred. However, if a buck could be made off a cow, then P.T. Barnum was the guy. Barnum’s never been labeled a visionary, but he laid the groundwork for all the hucksters who now appear regularly on early morning infomercials when he wrote his book “Rules for Money-Making,” which according to McDougall “became a model for all who get rich by professing to teach others how to get rich.” The words, “There’s a sucker born every minute,” by the way, were not Barnum’s, but rather belonged to a Chicago gambler named Mike McDonald.

Coincidentally I had an email yesterday from someone I hadn’t heard from in a while. They’re in the middle of “Republic of Suffering,” and labeled it one of the most thought provoking and depressing books they’ve read in a long time.