Saturday, July 16, 2011

Thumbnail Book Reviews: Summer Reading

I've been reading a lot lately, both in connection with my current research and for interest. Here are some brief reviews/ summaries of some notable history titles (click on the citation for a link to the entry).

John C. Fredricksen’s 2009 book is a valuable resource for scholars, researchers, and history enthusiasts alike. Many of the regular US Army regiments that fought in the War of 1812 were reshuffled into oblivion when the army was reduced at war’s end. While genealogical and historical materials are relatively plentiful for the citizen-soldiers of various state militias, the regulars remain the forgotten soldiers, so to speak, of a forgotten war. As Fredriksen notes in his preface, “Compared to that vast body of literature on America’s military establishment during the Civil War or World War II,” the lack of historical studies of the U.S. Army is “as puzzling as it is glaring.” The war, excepting bright and isolated legends such as the bombardment of Fort McHenry and the Battle of New Orleans, is all but forgotten in modern culture. This book is a nuts-and-bolts attempt to rescue this period in history from oblivion, because it provides scholars with links to historical sources that can flesh out the long lost units of the American Army of 1812.

Peter Charles Hoffer's 2008 study of the Aaron Burr trial manages to deal with legal and constitutional history in an incisive and entertaining way. In 1806 Burr, the former Vice President who had shot Alexander Hamilton in a duel, was indicted in a plot to either invade Mexico (then a Spanish possession) or to cause some of the western states to secede from the Union.  Historians are still as much divided over his true intentions as were the friends and admirers of Burr and his arch-rival, then-President Thomas Jefferson. Oddly, he was turned over to Jefferson by none other than General James Wilkinson, who at the time was a paid spy for the Spanish government, and tried for treason. Another prominent early American operator, General William Eaton, tried to leverage his knowledge of the plot in order to get Jefferson to pay his Tripoli War expenses. Hoffer navigates the murky world of Federal era politics with a deft pen, using the case as a study in Constitutional law.

Foote, Shelby. The Civil War, a Narrative. New York: Random House, 1958. 

Shelby Foote's classic three-part survey of the American Civil War is perhaps the most ambitious, and comprehensive history of the war that has yet been attempted. Foote brings it off in style, combining theater- and campaign level narratives with individual accounts of battles to create an entertaining and enlightening summary of the war. He spices up his narrative with colorful stories, and manages to keep a balanced perspective despite being raised in the postbellum South. While The Civil War is no substitute for more in-depth studies and histories of individual units,  campaigns and battles, Foote's narrative goes beyond the better-known struggles of the Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of the Potomac to give the reader some sense of the vast scale of the Civil War. For admirers of Kevin Burns' documentary series, these three volumes prove familiar, but also offer far more than what the 5-part television documentary could deal with.

Rasmussen, Daniel. American Uprising: The Untold Story of America's Largest Slave Revolt. New York, NY: Harper, 2011.
I'm currently listening to the unabridged audiobook version of Daniel Rasmussen's 2011 book about an 1811 Louisiana slave revolt. Tracing the revolt to its roots in the development of a vast empire of sugar producing plantations in the lower Mississippi Valley, Rasmussen places the revolt in the context of a heterogeneous and unsettled social climate in the Louisiana Territory, newly acquired from Spain by way of Napoleonic France. It's interesting to note that while Aaron Burr was put on trial for treason (mostly) on suspicion of filibustering against Spanish territories in 1806, Governor Claiborne employed an adventurer named Skipworth to do pretty much the same thing in Western Florida in 1809.  Rasmussen provides an important glimpse at a relatively obscure incident in the history of the frontier, one that threatened the very fabric of plantation society. It is interesting to note that 1811 was the same year of the great New Madrid Earthquake, the first voyage of a steam boat down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, as well as the year that Tecumseh traveled south to acquire new allies for his Indian Confederacy (which in November would openly engage the United States in a prelude to the War of 1812 at Tippecanoe).

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