Scars of Independence: America’s Violent Birth, by Holger Hoock

Some years ago, before it was shuttered to the public, my son and I took a road trip to check out the Old Newgate Prison in East Granby, CT, an abandoned copper mine that was turned into a prison in the late eighteenth century.We had the benefit of electric lights, scars-of-independenceand modern stairways have replaced the ladders that prisoners were forced down to the pit and tunnels some seventy feet underground, but even so the sense of claustrophobic isolation was palpable. Much of the cavern is narrow and cramped, with sloped floors and low rock ceilings. It is ever a cold and dank fifty-five degrees, and as penitentiary it was also dark, largely airless and no doubt horrifying for those confined there. [p49-52] That many of those hapless occupants were Loyalists imprisoned here during the American Revolution may have been mentioned by the guide, but hardly emphasized. Loyalists are the invisible actors in the drama that saw the colonies become a nation. newgateguardhouse-e1327606361824While some estimates peg the Loyalist segment as high as twenty percent of the white population, perhaps some five hundred thousand colonists, they have largely vanished with little trace in American history.

Fortunately, a new generation of historians – most notably among these Alan Taylor – have rediscovered them, as well as the Native Americans and African-Americans long disregarded by more traditional studies.  Now Holger Hoock neatly advances this trend in the historiography with Scars of Independence: America’s Violent Birth, slated for release in May 2017, which restores Loyalists – long relegated to inconsequential cameos – to central characters that once walked on that tumultuous stage. In this fine contribution to the latest scholarship, the author treats the American Revolution as a kind of “civil war,” not only between the colonists and the British, but more critically between Patriots and Loyalists.  These were, after all, friends and neighbors and relatives, some of whom were banished to that hell hole at Newgate, others on both sides who were brutalized far worse than that.

As the book’s subtitle – America’s Violent Birth – suggests, Hoock not only revisits the tame, lamely whitewashed version of the Revolution that we have grown up with to resurrect the Loyalists and challenge the myth of consensus among the colonists in their bid for independence, but he strives to locate and identify the violence in the conflict that has somehow been excised from most of the history texts. That violence dominates the theme in this well-written narrative, on the battlefield and especially beyond it. The author reminds us, for instance, that to be tarred and feathered – a favored device for the public humiliation of Loyalists – was hardly benign, but that hot tar often seared and permanently scarred the flesh. And that was, tragically, the least of it, as Patriots and Loyalists and British regulars and Hessian troops often visited terrible cruelties upon one another, and exponentially worse brutalities upon the Native Americans and blacks, slave and free, that found themselves in the orbit of the struggle. Hoock, professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh, brings a kind of fresh perspective to this subject especially because, as he notes in the “Introduction,” he is a “German born specialist in British history who did not grow up with the national myths of either Britain or America.” [p22]

There were certain accepted norms for rules of engagement and codes of conduct for eighteenth century war and the treatment of prisoners.  These were routinely violated. Dubbing the angry incident between a snowballing-tossing mob and British regulars the “Boston Massacre” made for great public relations long before actual hostilities broke out, but during the War of Independence there were indeed massacres, mostly perpetrated by British soldiers and their Hessian allies that did not view rebels employing guerrilla tactics worthy of quarter. Bayonets made grim examples of men begging for their lives. Over the course of the war, many more were taken prisoner than executed, but their fate often made Old Newgate look like a nice place to visit. Those Americans who were captured were often condemned to horrific confinement in the fetid holds of British prison ships, replete with abysmal conditions and mortality rates that frequently ranged from forty to seventy percent! [p226] British prisoners typically received far better treatment by their colonial captors, due not only to Washington’s strict codes of conduct towards enemy forces, but also because Americans were better capable of caring and feeding captives within their lines than were their counterparts. Loyalists, of course, existed in a kind of grey area, and thus were subject to arbitrary treatment in local environments. The violence was hardly one-sided, and there were examples of “. . . sadistic American-on American cruelty . . .” manifested in torture and murder on both sides. [p324-25]

Hoock also draws attention to segments of the population typically overlooked. The British dangled freedom before the eyes of enslaved Africans willing to assist the war effort, an attractive offer that sent tens of thousands of blacks into British lines.  [p310] The unintended consequence was that this acted as an incentive to rebellion for otherwise uncommitted white plantation owners, pregnant with fear of slave uprisings. [p100] Hoock notes that  “Blacks were    . . .  used as a psychological cudgel.”  A selective one. In one case a patrol whipped the overseer of a Patriot plantation in full view of the slaves.  But Loyalist slaves were protected as property, and sometimes executed by the British for attempting rebellion.  [p310-311] For their part, Patriots often inflicted terrible injustice upon African-Americans, slave and free, whom they suspected of inciting revolt or recruiting slaves to the British cause. [p98] For the most part, the British showed little loyalty to blacks when less than convenient, as when they abandoned a thousand dead or dying African-Americans on the Virginia coast following the bombardment of Norfolk. [p103] Native-Americans, drawn into the struggle primarily as allies of the British, fared little better.  Their ways of war were seen as barbaric, and this barbarism was repaid tenfold by the victorious Patriots. [p280-299]

Something like one hundred thousand Loyalists fled the thirteen colonies during the war and its aftermath.  Many settled in Canada, although some were to return in the coming years. Reconciliation, led by Alexander Hamilton and others, ultimately triumphed over bitterness and recrimination for the winning side.  [p382] Many, but not all, of the Loyalists who remained after the Revolution assimilated back into society.  This was also true for some who fled and later returned.  But the unspoken mandate for reconciliation was unconditional silence.  “The price for the losers’ reintegration into America was to keep their own scars hidden.” [p397] The disease of Loyalism was essentially expunged from the national consciousness.  It was publicly forgotten, even by most historians.  We can be grateful to Holger Hoock and Scars of Independence for helping us to remember.

[Note: My copy of this book is an Advance Reader’s Edition uncorrected proof that I received through an Early Reviewer’s program]

More on Old Newgate Prison http://www.cultureandtourism.org/cct/cwp/view.asp?a=2127&q=302258 ; http://www.atlasobscura.com/places/old-newgate-prison

More on Loyalists http://www.let.rug.nl/usa/outlines/history-1994/the-road-to-independence/loyalists-during-the-american-revolution.php

Review of: The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire, by Stephen Kinzer

With the notable exception of the Civil War, Americans have largely forgotten the wars waged outside of living recollection. Other than the War of 1812, perhaps no war has been so utterly expunged from our collective memory as the Spanish-American War of 1898, true-flagalthough this conflict occurred barely at the edge of that envelope: as of this writing the oldest still thriving human being was born in 1899. Still, when prompted how many could conjure up more than a caricature of buck-toothed Teddy Roosevelt bedecked with pince-nez and cowboy hat leading the Rough Riders charge up San Juan Hill? But although the “splendid little war” – as it was famously dubbed by John Hay – was little more than a minor military adventure fought and won over a brief four-month period, it was nevertheless highly consequential, as it marked the dawn of a new era of American overseas intervention and imperialism. In The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire, journalist and academic Stephen Kinzer does a remarkable job of resurrecting the Spanish American War from the dustbin of our national amnesia and restoring its critical historical significance, despite an abysmal concluding chapter (more on this later!) that mars an otherwise fine work.

The United States has been an aggressive, expansionist, even predatory nation since its very foundation. What came to be called “manifest destiny” meant both the disenfranchisement of the aboriginal native peoples and the eviction – by force or treaty – of the British, French and Spanish that got in the way of the path “from sea to shining sea.” But except for some daydreams by antebellum Southerners of colonizing portions of Central America in order to extend slavery, Americans restrained themselves from overseas conquest and were passive observers of the late nineteenth century European rush to imperialism, as Britain, France and Germany competed for colonial empire. One of the most notable opponents of such restraint was Theodore Roosevelt, who actively called for a more internationalist – and interventionist – approach by the United States. As The True Flag neatly outlines, Roosevelt urged a war with Spain to divest her of her Caribbean colonies, turned himself into a hero once the war unfolded, and then used these events as a springboard to the vice-presidency. The assassination of President McKinley later put the nation’s most prominent imperialist into the Oval Office.

After five centuries, all that remained for Spain of the vast territory in the New World that Columbus had stumbled upon was a tiny toehold in Cuba and Puerto Rico. Americans were both hostile to Spain and sympathetic to the Cuban rebels who sought liberation. There was a growing cry for intervention.  In addition to Roosevelt, there was an eager cast of notables – Henry Cabot Lodge, Elihu Root, William Randolph Hearst, Alfred Thayer Mahan – urging action. President McKinley was at first a reluctant, albeit easily converted, warrior. When a likely mechanical malfunction caused an explosion that sank the USS Maine in Havana harbor with hundreds of fatalities, a rush to judgment blamed the disaster on a mine and with calls of “Remember the Maine” the United States went to war. It did not last very long. Vastly inferior Spanish forces in Cuba and in its faraway Pacific colony in the Philippines fell rapidly before American military might on land and sea. It had been more than three decades since the end of the Civil War, and while a new generation cheered this adventure, some veterans of the Union and the Confederacy even entered combat on the same side, a celebrated rapprochement by old enemies that added to the feel-good notions of righteousness that saw Spain finally expelled from the Americas and those it had long oppressed set free.  Most Americans, including its great intellectual icon, Mark Twain, championed the virtue of this crusade for justice and liberation. At first.

If for most, details of the Spanish-American War are murky, few even know that its immediate aftermath ignited another conflict – the Philippine-American War – of a much longer duration with far more casualties.   For an America seeking to expand its political power and economic reach on the world stage, the Philippines was a far greater prize than Cuba and there was a great reluctance to let her go once hostilities ended. Filipino rebels led by Emilio Aguinaldo at first welcomed Americans as allies and liberators, but were later bitterly disappointed as the United States opted to simply replace Spain as a colonial overlord.  What followed was a long, ruthless, bloody war of oppression to crush Philippine resistance that turned out to be a tragic preview of American interventionism in the years to come. In what came to be a campaign of terror justified by race, national interests and necessity, combatants and civilians fell victim to American antiguerrilla efforts that included torture and murder. Water torture, a specialty of the Spanish, became a regular part of the American toolkit. As Kinzer notes: “This was the first time American soldiers had systematically brutalized a civilian population overseas.” [p194] As the result of the war, as well as attendant starvation and epidemics, hundreds of thousands of Filipino civilians died.

The stark evolution of Americans from liberators to oppressors spawned a wide movement at home of anti-imperialists, with Mark Twain as one of its most ardent spokesmen. Although he privately deemed it “rather poor poetry,” Roosevelt — a Social Darwinist at heart who justified a world order dominated by Eurocentric white supremacy over the “lesser races” – extolled Rudyard Kipling’s latest poem written to encourage annexation, “The White Man’s Burden: The United States and the Philippine Islands,” which was to become a rallying cry for imperialism. It’s first stanza began [p120]:

Take up the White Man’s burden—
Send forth the best ye breed—
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need;
To wait in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild—
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half-devil and half-child.

Less famously, Twain countered this sentiment by rewriting “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” to reflect the rapacious nation we had become [p184]:

Mine eyes have seen the orgy of the launching of the Sword,
He is searching out the hoardings where the stranger’s wealth is stored;
He hath loosed his fateful lightnings, and with woe and death is scored,
His lust is marching on.

The Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution did not apply overseas, but the war in the Philippines grew very unpopular at home. Still, Roosevelt, who became President after McKinley’s assassination, vigorously pursued victory under the guise of offering enlightened civilization to the misguided brown people who otherwise spurned it. General Arthur MacArthur (Douglas MacArthur’s father) obliged with ruthless tenacity. His homeland devastated, a kidnapped and imprisoned Aguinaldo eventually gave in to his new colonizers. (He lived to witness the birth of Philippine independence in 1945 and then on to his nineties; during World War II he supported the Japanese occupiers who ousted the Americans.) Meanwhile, something called the Platt Amendment created an emasculated independent Cuba dominated by the United States that endured for decades. America also controlled Puerto Rico, Guam, and Hawaii (annexed in 1898).  The United States was now indeed a power to be reckoned with on the world stage, but there were unintended consequences. The unsuccessful anti-imperialist movement withered away, and so too did an appetite for further conquest abroad; a war-weary public fell into isolationism just in time for the outbreak of World War I.

Kinzer’s well-written narrative puts the Spanish-American War into its appropriate historic context, something missing in most other treatments.  This was the same timeframe that saw the United States annex Hawaii, not long after supporting its white planter elite’s overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy. This was the same era that saw the British employ machine guns to mow down thousands of native Ndebele warriors in Rhodesia, and to create the first concentration camps for civilians in the South African Boer War.  These were the same years of the celebrated “Open Door Policy” in China, that asserted the right of the United States to prey upon Chinese markets as aggressively as their foreign counterparts, and to lend forces to put down Chinese nationals in the “Boxer Rebellion.” Like all events, this war and its aftermath did not occur in a vacuum.

Then the author nearly spoils it all with a dreadful concluding chapter that seeks to connect all subsequent American foreign engagement to the events of this period.  One could indeed argue with some conviction that the Spanish-American War represented a line that was crossed in American foreign policy that encouraged overseas interventionism and occupation justified by a vague and often unconvincing crusade of good intentions. With that and especially with the imbroglio of the Philippines in mind, one could perhaps draw a line to the quagmire of Vietnam, and especially to the late misadventure in Iraq.  Yet, Kinzer makes the mistake of painting all that followed with far too broad of a brush. Isolationism is not always the vindication of anti-imperialism, as he seems to posit, nor is interventionism always its antonym. For instance, the role the United States played, or failed to play, in the run-up to World War II had little to do with the issues of 1898.  There are many varieties of intervention, as well as isolation. History is nuance and complexity that always suffers when blurred with attempts to impose grand over-arching themes.  In his final chapter, the author tries too hard to connect all the dots as if it was one common image.  In this, he is ultimately unsuccessful. Still, the flaws of that last chapter should not deter anyone from reading The True Flag, an otherwise outstanding work that restores a long-overlooked chapter in American history to its appropriate prominence.

[NOTE: My copy of this book is an Advance Reader’s Edition I received through an Early Reviewer’s program.]

Review of: Civil War Poetry: An Anthology, edited by Paul Negri

For almost exactly one full year, Civil War Poetry: An Anthology, edited by Paul Negri, lay on my night table, and occasionally I turned to it just before bed. It came to me last December as part of a “Secret Santa” exchange sponsored by LibraryThing and aptly civil-war-poetrybranded as “Santathing.” I regret that I have never really embraced poetry, and as such it is an avenue in literature I rarely traverse. On the other hand, I remain fascinated with Civil War studies, and this was a dimension of that which I had never explored. Poetry had far more resonance to a wider audience in that era than it does today. It was indeed a surprisingly literate period, as I am reminded again and again in the Civil War correspondence that I personally have digitized and transcribed. Poetry in that age would have stretched far beyond the salons and drawing rooms of the elite to weigh on the minds and move on the lips of the ordinary soldier in the field. That is something that no historian of the war should overlook.

Civil War Poetry opens with arguably the most famous poem of the era, Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which was set to music and came to become for the north the anthem of the war [p1]. Most Civil War historians know that as Lee’s army marched into Maryland en route to Antietam, they chanted “Maryland, My Maryland,” in the hopes that the civilian population of this border state would rise up in support. The original poem, “My Maryland,” by James Ryder Randall, appears here [p12-13]. It too was later set to music and some came to call it “the Marseillaise of the Confederate Cause.” Despite this optimism, Unionist sentiment was particularly strong in the western part of the state, as celebrated in the famous if probably apocryphal poem “Barbara Frietchie,” by John Greenleaf Whittier, which also makes an appearance here [p24-26]:

“Shoot if you must, this old gray head,
But spare your country’s flag,” she said

The range of this slender volume is impressive, and includes both the notable – Emerson, Longfellow, and Lowell – as well as the more obscure, such as Francis Orray (misspelled as Orrery in this edition) Ticknor. Although I had never heard of Ticknor, his poem “Little Giffen,” about a Confederate soldier badly wounded at Murfreesboro and nursed back to health by Ticknor himself, only to fall in a later battle, was quite moving [p33-34]:

And we watched the war with bated breath, —
Skeleton Boy against skeleton Death.
Months of torture, how many such!
Weary weeks of the stick and crutch;
And still a glint of the steel-blue eye
Told of a spirit that wouldn’t die.

I found less inspiring the several poems by the far more well-known novelist Herman Melville, but then I would be the first to concede that I lack the credentials to critique the quality of poetry, but rather only to react to how it touches me. The editor notes that “The Bay Fight,” by Henry Howard Brownell, was of the most famous battle poems of the war, yet I suffered immeasurably through its more than fourteen pages of verse [p61-76]. But again, who am I to judge?

Still, to read Walt Whitman, who served as nurse as well as literary icon, cannot help but inspire. His renowned elegies to Lincoln, “O Captain! My Captain,” [p95-96] and the lengthy “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” [p96-103] are included, but so too are lesser known titles, such as the poignant “The Wound Dresser,” [p91-93] and especially the tragic “A Sight in Camp in Daybreak Gray and Dim” [p91]:

A sight in camp in the daybreak gray and dim,
As from my tent I emerge so early sleepless,
As slow I walk in the cool fresh air the path near by the hospital
tent,
Three forms I see on stretchers lying, brought out there untended
lying,
Over each the blanket spread, ample brownish woolen blanket,
Gray and heavy blanket, folding, covering all.

Curious I halt and silent stand,
Then with light fingers I from the face of the nearest the first just
lift the blanket;
Who are you elderly man so gaunt and grim, with well-gray’d
hair, and flesh all sunken about the eyes?
Who are you my dear comrade?

Then to the second I step—and who are you my child and
darling?
Who are you sweet boy with cheeks yet blooming?

Then to the third—a face nor child nor old, very calm, as of
beautiful yellow-white ivory;
Young man I think I know you—I think this face is the face
of the Christ himself,
Dead and divine and brother of all, and here again he lies.

Remarkably, it is in this lamentation to the dead that Whitman artfully resurrects their sacrifice and bequeaths their legacy to us more than one hundred and fifty years after they fell. So it was for me to randomly discover the power of poetry in an unexpected place! It is for surprising and perhaps long overlooked poems such as this that, in the end, makes Civil War Poetry: An Anthology so rewarding. I highly recommend this little book to all who want to round out their studies of the war, even if poetry may not be your first love.

Review of: Rain: A Natural and Cultural History, by Cynthia Barnett

I struck out my original opening line to this review, which went something like “We all take rain for granted–”  But having already read Cynthia Barnett’s brilliant and quirky take on this subject, Rain: A Natural and Cultural History, I was reminded that globally that rainproposition is entirely false: in the desert you might take the lack of rain for granted, or within the path of seasonal monsoons you might take the cyclical intensity of rain for granted, or in the Indian state of Meghalaya, the wettest place on earth, you might take the omnipresence of rain for granted. But farmers in every geography, who depend upon rain to nurture their crops, can never afford to take rain for granted at all. Of course, rain – in all its manifestations, or a lack thereof – is the common denominator, and that is the central theme of this fine book that is all at once a blend of science, history, culture, philosophy, and literary conceit.

Like most people, I suppose, I have been more or less agnostic on the subject of rain. I live in New England; it comes and goes. I don’t think about it much, one way or the other.  As a young man working in New York City, I wore a trench coat over my business suit and carried an umbrella, but for the several decades since I have mostly made due with a windbreaker and a cap during random showers. In the winter, of course, it often turns to the white stuff, but here again I simply don my fleece, wear a wool cap, and pull on gloves when it gets out of control.  I literally never pay attention to the weather report unless it forecasts the apocalyptic. Who cares about a little rain?

Well, it turns out that we should care. A lot. And for the skeptics out there, let me add that I was hardly an easy convert for Barnett, despite her fine prose and engaging style.  Early on, you might even say, I was downright hostile, when I judged her guilty of gross overreach as she attempted to tie the decline of multiple ancient civilizations to shortfalls of rain. At first. As I considered her thesis, I had to concede she was on to something.  With the benefit of paleoclimatology, the current generation of archaeologists and historians recognize, in a way that their predecessors in the field failed to grasp, that climate change probably played a far more significant role in civilizational decline – in the Near East, in the Indus Valley, in Mesoamerica – than previously credited.  And what is climate really but primarily (if not exclusively) a marriage of precipitation and temperature? Unlike the modern period where carbon emissions are producing rapid and dramatic global change through unprecedented warming, in the long era prior to the industrial revolution changes in temperature were mostly slow and subtle.  Not so with rainfall, ever unpredictable yet no less essential for the survival of traditional civilizations dependent upon consistent food production. As Barnett underscores in her careful analysis, too little rain translated into drought and crop catastrophe; too much rain meant flooding and devastation. Historians generally recognize that civilizations are fragile things; consecutive years of agricultural calamities can and indeed most certainly did create unsustainable tipping points that were simply not recoverable. Rain, it turns out, is vitally significant.

Once Barnett has convinced the reader of the vital role of rain for civilization, she goes on to explore how religion, magic, myth, science, and quackery have taken turns with both forecasting and rainmaking, with consequences that were sometimes whimsical but more often tragic. Students of American history will recall how the optimistic but no less fanciful maxim “rain follows the plow” fueled western expansion, only to breed disaster. Despite their best efforts, neither shamans nor charlatans have proved reliable rainmakers over the course of history. Twentieth century scientific techniques offered promise at first, but it turns out that while such efforts may increase the volume of rain, there is little evidence to suggest that these can actually generate rain with any sort of consistency. Forecasting, as brides and picnickers well know, is equally unreliable, although twenty-first century instruments and analysis have fine-tuned the science of meteorology to some sophistication.  Apparently, this is because weather exists as classic chaos theory, subject to something akin to the famous “butterfly effect,” so that even the best prediction can be overtaken by the unpredictable. On the other hand, we have a come long way in more critical domains: forecasting and monitoring of storm systems have dramatically reduced the number of lives lost on land and especially at sea.

The beauty of Barnett’s inspired narrative is the delightful way that she weaves a mosaic of overlapping themes without losing focus of the central pattern.  Most of it is truly fascinating. The reader is treated to a survey of rain in virtually all its manifestations, from its lofty perch in poetry and prose, to the glories of real world downpours in locales both ordinary and exotic. It turns out that reports of it raining frogs or fish are not entirely imaginative; a tornado-like waterspout can suck up aquatic life from ponds which may then rain down on astonished pedestrians miles from the source [p247-51].   She is a fine writer who clearly has a love affair with her subject, although it might be said that there are moments where her enthusiasm, generally contagious, can push the boundaries a bit: the chapter entitled “The Scent of Rain” seemed to go on forever. Still, this is a truly wonderful book with something of interest for just about everyone, especially for those, like myself, who never thought much about rain before.

Review of: Maude (1883-1993): She Grew Up with the Country, by Mardo Williams

Towards the end of his mother’s very long life, retired journalist and octogenarian Mardo Williams began collecting her reminisces of a long bygone time in antique rural America.  The result, three years after the death of Maude Williams at 110 years old, was a biography maudeand memoir of sorts, Maude (1883-1993): She Grew Up with the Country, published in 1996 when Mardo himself was 91, and with encouragement from a writer’s group expanded by nearly 300 pages in the two years that followed. Mardo passed away in 2001, but a revised second edition of Maude was released in 2016, which I received through an early reviewer’s program.

In 1903, a pregnant nineteen-year-old Maude Allen wed Lee Williams and moved into a family homestead already more than a half-century old on farmland in remote rural Ohio.  There was no electricity, telephone or indoor plumbing.  Their second child, Mardo, was born in 1905; altogether there would be a total of four children born in every-other-year intervals. A mix perhaps of Little House on the Prairie and The Waltons, Maude revisits a much simpler time in America when close-knit families worked and played together through hardship and celebration.  As a kind of primary source, the book is almost instantly fascinating as the narrative reveals in colorful detail how the Williams family went about their day to day lives – preparing food, keeping warm, washing clothes, doing farmyard chores, and the like – in a kind of primitive isolation. There is a pronounced charm to it, along with a certain heartwarming glow, especially in its survey of the more innocent America of Mardo’s childhood, replete with amusing anecdotes of Maude’s proverb-laced mothering, and Lee’s homespun practical jokes, as well as tales of long buggy rides to town or the occasional country fair, and winter sleigh rides to visit extended family and friends.

Yet, perhaps more fascinating is what is missing; that which remains unsaid. Primitive isolation: there is no doubt that sums up the farm where Maude and her family resided. But why? In 1903, Maude was living much like her grandparents would have lived. It was indeed remarkably similar to Little House on the Prairie, but yet it was early twentieth century America, on a farm in Ohio no less, hardly a desolate wilderness on the edge of the western frontier or a forgotten pocket of poverty in the deep south. And it hardly changed in the years to come. One day a telephone was installed, and the isolation was reduced, but not by much.  Maude had a cistern to collect rainwater for washing, but she did not get an indoor pitcher pump for it until the 1920s [p235]. Around that time, she finally went from a washboard to a “hand-propelled washing machine.” Lee got a car in 1920, and there are later stories of the children hanging out in the in the evenings, listening to the radio.  Incredibly, there was no radio in the house until the late 1940s, just as the era of television dawned for the rest of the country [p12-13]. Maude thought it something of a miracle when the house was finally wired for electricity – in 1947 – when she and Lee were in their sixties! For twenty-first century Americans, there is perhaps a quaint rustic charm to the description of their privy, located a full one hundred feet from the back door, “. . . a two-holer equipped with a sack of lime . . . and a fly swatter,” and neatly accented with a Sears Roebuck catalog hanging from the wall – the pages of the catalog doubled as a “wish list” and as toilet paper [p34]. Of course, it is dubious that such charm extended to those who had to relieve themselves outdoors with no lights or plumbing day after day in every manner of weather. In 1960, three years after Lee’s death, and with the property in deep disrepair, Maude moved away. She was seventy-seven years old and had used an outhouse for the entire fifty-seven years that she lived there.

The careful anthropologist as reader cannot help but ask: why did conditions remain so primitive for Maude and Lee for some six decades?  It certainly did not start off that way. Lee’s family was apparently somewhat well-off, even sending Lee off to college. When he opted to drop out in favor of farming, Lee brought his new bride to a sprawling ten room house where his grandfather had lived, on land that included a barn, granary, windmill and more. His parents donated odd pieces of furniture to them. Three years later, Lee’s father paid to have the house repaired and renovated. This was a promising start for the young couple, and hardly abject poverty, yet by all accounts Lee and Maude lived a hardscrabble and weirdly anachronistic existence ever after. It appears that life was markedly different for others in their shared geography, who enjoyed at least some of the more modern conveniences conspicuous in their absence on the Williams farm. Long before he had his own car, Lee hiked through the mud to bum a ride to town in his neighbor’s vehicle, a town firmly anchored in the twentieth century, not trapped in the faded nineteenth where Lee and his family seemed helplessly glued. But again: why?  The narrative neither reveals the answer nor openly begs the question.  Was Lee an incompetent farmer?  There are vague hints that he may have been an alcoholic, but this is never fleshed out. Was he unlucky? Was he simply lazy? Or was the primitive state of things a kind of “hair shirt” Lee liked to wear? It is never made clear. Vast changes occurred in American life in the twentieth century, but life on the Williams farm essentially stood still.  The subtitle of the book, She Grew Up with the Country, is starkly misleading; the country grew up, but Maude was somehow left behind.

There is a telling photo on the cover of this edition of Maude.  Maude was only twenty-six, Lee twenty-seven; each look at least forty. Perhaps it was the times. Or maybe it was that hard life on that farm where every day was more like 1858 than 1908. For all of Mardo’s abundant nostalgia, it seems that in fact it was a life that none of the children really cherished, at least once they were old enough to juxtapose their world with the world outside.  The book contains vague references to their teenage years, but then the story fast forwards as all four children have married and moved away – for good.  Hard times and primitive isolation seems to have held very little appeal. It is never explained why neither Maude nor Lee attended any of their weddings.

Despite encouragement from the writer’s group, the second half of the book should never have been written.  It is less about Maude than about the extended family, including tales of murders, madness and alienation that have little to do with the themes of Americana resident in the first part of the narrative.  Until the last years of her life, her children seem to have been markedly disengaged from her. But Maude lived on and, at least at first, thrived in a whole new universe replete with such marvels as indoor plumbing, and color television, and jet travel to visit relatives on the other side of the country!  She does not seem to miss her days as a kind of cave-dweller. Still, she remained a simple soul, for better or for worse.  Maude proudly voted for fellow Ohioan Warren G. Harding in 1920, the first national election after women had won the franchise.  When President Bill Clinton sent her congratulations on reaching her 110th year, she did not hesitate to tell anyone who would listen that she had voted against him. The Williams’ hosted a stubborn conservatism that opposed even that which benefited them, as when Lee, barely scraping by, complained against the “hand-outs” of FDR-era WPA programs that partially subsidized his ever-struggling ventures.  Mardo, reveling in celebratory nostalgia for a life he clearly fled from on fleet foot as soon as he was able,  echoes these sentiments with not-so-subtle underscores.

Maude’s slow, tragic physical decline in the latter stages of old age is painfully chronicled in the final chapters. Much of what is revealed would better have been withheld. Despite the challenges of physical frailty, however, it seems like the best favor anyone ever did for Maude was to whisk her away from that farm and resettle her in a warm suite of rooms with a flush toilet and a refrigerator and lamps that switched on and off. Those who are entranced with romantic notions of a traditional pre-modern America never lived it.  Camping in the wilderness is indeed inspiring and comes highly recommended, but – for most of us – hardly recommended for each and every day. Maude spent much of her long life more or less camping, with four walls around her, while the rest of the world moved on.  Perhaps it was charming.  Probably, it mostly was not, as evidenced by the flight of her children at their first opportunities to flee.  Overall, this is hardly a great book, and Mardo – while a competent writer – was not an impressive author. But there are indeed parts of Maude, especially the first half, that are worth the read. If nothing else, it is a reminder that it was not that long ago that there were people who lived very different lives than we can easily imagine today. Nor, I should add, lives that we should, in our starry-eyed musings, miss too much.

Review of: The Apache Wars: The Hunt for Geronimo, the Apache Kid, and the Captive Boy Who Started the Longest War in American History, by Paul Andrew Hutton

Once upon a time, there were millions of Amerindians in North America of diverse cultures speaking a wide variety of languages and belonging to hundreds of different tribes and countless more clans. European pandemics decimated these populations at contact, apache-warsand disease continued to take a toll centuries later, while the introduction of horses, firearms and alcohol irrevocably altered traditional lifeways for a continent-wide distribution of native peoples that pursued vastly different strategies in diverse environments.  They had little in common except in the eyes of the white invaders who viewed them as an impediment to expansion, colonization and domination, so that by 1800 it is estimated there were only 600,000 Native Americans left. By the 1890s this number was a mere 250,000, and none of them lived free in their traditional societies. Today, most Americans only know of these largely extinct peoples from their caricatures as noble savages or bloodthirsty villains in the almost entirely mythical universe of the classic Hollywood western. Still, these films were so effective that many of the characters they popularized – Apaches like Cochise, Geronimo, and The Apache Kid, and whites in their orbit such as Kit Carson, Tom Horn and General George Crook – even if thoroughly fictionalized for the big screen, became nevertheless indelibly etched in our cultural memory. Thus, it is especially welcome to come to Paul Andrew Hutton’s stirring historical narrative, The Apache Wars: The Hunt for Geronimo, the Apache Kid, and the Captive Boy Who Started the Longest War in American History, which resurrects the actual people and events, and way of life, so long buried in fanciful myth.

Population pressures had once driven a loose coalition of peoples known as Apaches into the Southwest. Like many native peoples, they operated without central authority, and despite relationships that implied far more significance to European observers than it did to them, tribes and clans occupied different geographies with diverse lifeways and were frequently hostile to one another with deeply embedded blood feuds. There were six major Apache-speaking groups: Chiricahua, Jicarilla, Lipan, Mescalero, Plains Apache, and Western Apache, with many sub-groups and clans within these, all politically autonomous.  Some of them made their way by raiding the settled agricultural peoples on both sides of the border between Mexico and the territories belonging to the United States that later would become Arizona and New Mexico, stealing cattle, horses and even people to be sold into slavery. For the Apache, Hutton underscores, raiding was distinct from warfare; there were sometimes casualties as a by-product of raids, but killing was not the intention.

Yet, Hutton, professor of history at the University of New Mexico and the executive director of Western History Association, does not romanticize his subjects. The Apache were fearsome and often brutal warriors, who frequently tortured their prisoners to death in horrific ways, such as staking them to anthills with their mouths propped open, flaying them alive, suspending them upside down with hot coals beneath their heads [p12], and tying them to burning wagons [p47]. Apaches were also sometimes known for murdering women and children, even in one report shooting down a pregnant woman with a baby in her arms and then bashing the infant’s head against a wall [p374]. But they had no monopoly on barbarism, as the deeds of a single clan or even a lone Apache were commonly taken as license by Mexicans and Americans alike to slaughter unrelated bands of men, women and children in retaliation. Scalping was initially not common among the Apache, who considered contact with the dead taboo, but Europeans turned scalps into currency for bounties, sometimes with the ears attached [p12-16]. General George Crook, who was actually a less barbarous adversary than many in the long war chronicled in this volume, leaned to the medieval by collecting entire heads and mounting them on posts for prominent display in camp.

The Apache Wars is a long, complicated yet generally fast-moving narrative of how random clashes between Apaches and American settlers in the Southwest ignited a lengthy, vicious conflict and ultimately ended up with the virtual annihilation of the Apache and the deportation of pockets of survivors. It began with the unlikely spark of the kidnapping of a red-haired one-eyed boy, Felix Ward, child of a Mexican woman and adopted son of a white settler whose ranch was preyed upon by Apache raiders (“the Captive Boy Who Started the Longest War in American History” in the subtitle). Felix, raised by Indians, grows up to be an amoral Apache scout in service of the U.S. Cavalry named Mickey Free, who as the book’s protagonist is emblematic of the phantom potential for assimilation among hostile forces that never really could be. Because all Indians were viewed through a single lens by their white adversaries, Apaches that settled into peaceful lifeways were randomly punished as severely as those who continued to raid. Likewise, to those who refused to capitulate, the “White Eyes” were reviled as one indistinguishable force, although this hatred was rightly fueled by the almost unimaginable lengths of treachery those whites were willing to stoop to in order to prevail. The legendary Cochise was invited to a parlay where he barely escaped assassination. The great chief Mangas Coloradas was taken prisoner, then taunted and executed.  He was scalped, and then his head was boiled so the skull could be taken as trophy, later gifted to a famed phrenologist [p101-02]. A famous mystic, Nock-ay-det-klinne, known as “the Dreamer,” who preached peace between the Apache and the whites, was held in great suspicion and eventually executed without cause by soldiers [p280]. Every agreement made with the Apaches was violated, and as elsewhere in the expanding United States, Native Americans humbled and forced into reservations fared no better than those who would fight to the last warrior.

There were some whites who were sympathetic to the Apache cause, including the famous scout Kit Carson, frontiersman Tom “Taglito” Jeffords and famed Civil War General O.O. Howard. There was often paternalism, but there was too an attempt at fairness and a sense of justice.  These men were a distinct minority. Some, like Indian agent John Clum, began with humanitarian ideals that sought to improve the often deplorable conditions in reservations, but ego and ambition got the better of him as he failed to recognize the inherent inhumanity of reservations as essentially concentration camps that were breeding grounds for disease and drunkenness. Nor did he account for the explosive nature of settling hostile tribes juggling long-simmering blood feuds within the same geography. His intentions hardly averted the disaster that his efforts were to spawn. Others, like Crook, took a more brutal approach but yet did not do so out of unclean motives; the Apache scouts that Mickey Free joined as a wing of the cavalry was a Crook innovation.  But most whites, soldiers and settlers alike, simply sought the extermination of the Apache and showed little reluctance in their single-minded pursuit of that goal.

What brings great beauty to the narrative of The Apache Wars is the tapestry of anecdotal tales that serve the study of history so much more admirably than the tedious concatenation of names and dates that often bog down other works.  There are two that are highly symbolic. In the first, we learn that Agent Clum had created a tribal police force at his San Carlos reservation, and that a Tonto chief named Des-a-lin, angry at a public rebuke from Clum for beating his wives, seeks revenge. Des-a-lin “. . . found Clum in his office and attempted to shoot him but was instead shot dead by his own brother – the police officer Tauelclyee. As the two men looked down at Des-a-lin’s body, Tauelclyee absentmindedly stroked his smoking rifle and said: ‘I have killed my own chief and my own brother. But he was trying to kill you, and l am a policeman. It was my duty.’ Clum warmly clasped his hand and assured the distraught man that what he had done was right, and that they would remain forever brothers and friends.” [p196] In the second, we follow the tragic attempts of Aravaipa chief Eskiminzin to cement peace with the whites, as he is twice betrayed and his people massacred. “Eskiminzin rode to a nearby ranch owned by Charles McKinney, a thirty-five-year-old Irish im­migrant . . . McKinney had long been a friend to Eskiminzin . . . The Irishman invited his old friend in to supper, and after dinner they sat together on the porch to smoke and talk of the troubling times. When the last smoke was put out, Eskiminzin rose, thanked his friend for his hospitality, pulled his revolver, and shot him dead at point-blank range. He then rode off into the mountains. “I did it to teach my people that there must be no friendship between them and the white man,” Eskiminzin sadly explained. ‘Anyone can kill an enemy, but it takes a strong man to kill a friend.’” [p140-41]

There is little tedium in Hutton’s exciting narrative, punctuated with much color and a plethora of blood and tears on both sides.  The Bedonkohe called Goyahkla that the Mexicans dubbed Geronimo deservedly has a central role in the story, and tragically all Apaches were afforded disproportionate punishment in retaliation for his depredations, both real and imagined, although he was an especially cruel and brutal fellow.  In the end too, all Apaches paid the price of being indigenous Native Americans in the way of white colonizers, first forced into reservations in often dehumanizing conditions and then deported vast distances from their homeland in order to make way for more white settlements.  Apache scouts assisting the cavalry, tribal police forces, peaceful reservation Indians – none fared any better and most fared far worse than the murderous Geronimo, who was to unpredictably ride in President Theodore Roosevelt’s 1905 inaugural parade and to die an old man in his bed.

No review could properly cover all of the ground in this fine history. I received an uncorrected proof of this book as part of an early reviewer’s program, with blank pages reserved for maps that I much yearned to peruse.  I also would have appreciated a biographical index of key individuals, since there are so many characters that populate the narrative over the decades. There are a few things I would take issue with: it is possible but probably unlikely that all of the key female characters were in fact “beautiful” as Hutton reports.  And there may have been some exaggeration in his effort to tie a number of well-known key events to his narrative, as he does in his attempt to link hostilities here with the birth of the Pony Express, which I judge to be stretching it a bit [p58-59]. But these are no more than quibbles in what otherwise deserves large measures of praise.

As Americans of the twenty-first century try to come to grips with the mass extermination of the aboriginal peoples that were the original occupants of these lands, it is most instructive to look to the existential sentiment attributed to General Phillip Sheridan – who makes an appearance in The Apache Wars – that “The only good Indian is a dead Indian,” that some maintain is a corruption of “The only good Indians I ever saw were dead,” but which hardly alters the principle. And it was a surprisingly common one among Americans of that era, even by allegedly more enlightened thinkers like Theodore Roosevelt, who despite later including Geronimo in that inaugural parade nevertheless plucked that theme with great vigor in an 1886 speech when he said that “I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are the dead Indians, but I believe nine out of every 10 are . . . And I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth.”  The Apache Wars is a blueprint for how this conviction effected an obliteration of an entire people in just one corner of the United States.

Review of: In the Land of a Thousand Gods: A History of Asia Minor in the Ancient World, by Christian Marek

As a rule, I never review a book that I have not read to completion; I feel an obligation to the author to turn every page and absorb every paragraph.  But some books are not designed as cover-to-cover reads, so I believe that Christian Marek will forgive me for only reading about a third of his magnificent reference work, In the Land of a Thousand Gods: A land-of-a-thousand-godsHistory of Asia Minor in the Ancient World, prior to reviewing it. Originally published in German, this first English edition (translated by Steven Rendall) was written in collaboration with the late scholar Peter Frei, who duly receives cover credit for his contributions. Marek, professor emeritus of ancient history at the University of Zurich in Switzerland, has spent a lifetime studying the ancient Mediterranean and specializing in ancient Asia Minor, and has been conducting epigraphical and archaeological fieldwork in Turkey for more than thirty years. The result is a superb work that is not only encyclopedic in scope but brilliant in depth and analysis.

In modern times, except for the European sliver that hosts Istanbul, most of the huge geography of the Republic of Turkey is located within the giant landmass of the Anatolian peninsula in Western Asia.  The population today is primarily a Muslim Turkic-speaking people descended from the nomad Turks that, like the Huns and other similar ethnicities, once roamed the vast northern steppes and later moved south to conquer and dominate settled agricultural communities. But students of Classical history know that it was an entirely different universe in the ancient world.  There are traces of mysterious proto-cities from deep antiquity, and there is the impressive archaeological heritage in the celebrated Çatalhöyük Neolithic settlement that dates back to 7500 BCE. The original agriculturalists were most likely overrun and absorbed by Indo-Europeans from the Caucasus – the horse, wheel and chariot folks resurrected elsewhere by David Anthony – and native Hattians and Hurrians were to be supplanted by the Hittites, later to rise to prominence with their consequential Bronze Age empire that dominated Asia Minor but was lost to memory for millennia in the still unexplained cataclysmic collapse of that era of human history. Troy was part of that Anatolian peninsula on the strategic edge of the Hellespont (modern Dardanelles) that provided access to the Black Sea, and the legendary Trojan War – if historic, as suspected (although Marek has his doubts) – either preceded or was coterminous with that collapse, which in addition to the Hittites brought down the Mycenaean Greeks, the New Kingdom Egyptians and the Kassite Babylonians. The remnants of the Hittite Empire fragmented into various powers over the centuries to come, but most significant to history is that the remains of earlier Bronze Age Mycenaean cities on the Aegean Sea were vastly supplemented by numerous Greek settlements along the coast that came to be known as “Ionia,” which later – along with the rest of Anatolia and the Near East – came to be dominated by the Persian Empire. The efforts of those Ionian Greek poleis to liberate themselves from Persian control sparked a war led by Athens and Sparta that unpredictably resulted in Persian defeat, leading to independence for the Ionian poleis and Greek dominance of the Aegean. Athens-Sparta rivalry in subsequent decades led to the Peloponnesian War that devastated the Hellenic world and so divided it that Philip of Macedon was able to crush and contain it. After his assassination, his son and heir Alexander the Great unexpectedly routed the Persian Great King and soon dominated all of his possessions, including Asia Minor, but his sudden death on the cusp of world empire meant that Greece, Egypt, the Near East and Anatolia became the trophies of his surviving generals, the Diadochoi, as well as their descendants, the Epigoni, so Hellenistic rulers ran roughshod over those lands for centuries, jockeying for power, until Rome got interested.  Much more blood of bystanders flowed but eventually it was Rome that absorbed all of that territory. As the huge Roman Empire grew unwieldy, a new eastern Roman capital was established at Constantinople (ancient Byzantium, modern Istanbul), ruling over all of Asia Minor and a good deal beyond it. When Rome and the western empire fell, this became the Roman Empire of the East, the Byzantine Empire, and a large chunk of it was Anatolia, although much of that was to fall away over time.  And all of that fascinating history occurred long before the Seljuk Turks moved in circa the eleventh century to bring Islam and the Turkic language to Anatolia!

If you judge that long paragraph – which is only an abbreviated summary of Asia Minor’s ancient historical narrative – as oversize, you can only imagine what a deep exploration would amount to.  So then try to imagine the thick volume that is Christian Marek’s In the Land of a Thousand Gods, which in its printed form makes oversize seem understated: there are in fact some 552 pages of type that can only be described as footnote size subscript, not including an appendix of 75 pages as well as a thick section of endnotes. The main narrative is equivalent to a normal text of approximately 1500 pages! In short, there is a lot of material. The good news is that every single sentence is welcome and substantial, as Marek applies fine historical inquiry and analysis to every paragraph, expertly guiding the reader from the Neolithic to the end of antiquity, meticulously and exhaustively. Do I recommend this as a book to take to the beach and devour over a long weekend?  Of course not. But if you are seeking THE definitive ancient history of Asia Minor, look no further: this is clearly going to be the gold standard on the subject for a long time to come. Don’t skip it!

Review of: American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804, by Alan Taylor

For some years, I have urged all those seeking a deeper understanding of our national origins to explore American Colonies, by Alan Taylor, an outstanding epic that broadly surveys not only those English colonies that later became the United States, but also the often-overlooked rest of North America and the West Indies, including the French, american-revolutions-a-continental-historySpanish and Dutch colonizers, as well as the Amerindians they supplanted and the Africans they forcibly transported and enslaved.  Some fourteen years after the publication of American Colonies, Taylor – who has won two Pulitzer Prizes for other fine works of early American history – has written a sequel of sorts: American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804.  This too is a must-read for all students of American history.

The plural implication in the title, American Revolutions, is deliberate. We tend to think of the American Revolution as a singular event, but in fact what occurred here in the latter part of the eighteenth century was a series of social, economic and political revolutions, both among its English inhabitants as well as cross-culturally. As in American Colonies, Taylor leans more to the “big history” approach to relationships and interdependencies frequently ignored by a more traditional historical methodology, thus revealing how events, ideas and individuals acting in one arena often produced striking consequences elsewhere.

Especially unintended consequences. The British decision to permit a French and Roman Catholic element to persist and be tolerated in that portion of Canada that was her prize after the French and Indian War generated a frustrating barrier to conquest and annexation for the English colonials in America who had helped prosecute that war, something rarely noted by other historians. Stymied in Quebec, their ambition for domination was far more cruelly successful elsewhere, and after Independence the British no longer served as a brake upon the territorial expansion of Americans hungry for new lands and utterly unsympathetic to its aboriginal inhabitants, whom they wantonly displaced and slaughtered with little reluctance.  The other great irony centered upon human chattel slavery, which the British retreated from and gradually abolished throughout the empire, yet which saw great expansion in a newly independent United States, especially in the southern states where it served as a critical component central to the economic model of plantation agriculture. Jefferson and Madison are often credited with the expansion of the rights of white planters and the increase in social and economic mobility that resulted in the abolition of primogeniture and entail that had formerly kept estates intact, but there was also the chilling consequence of suddenly facilitating the breakup of families as African-American human commodities could be sold to other geographies at premium prices.

This is the fourth Alan Taylor history that I have read* and I highly recommend all of them.  If there is a weakness it is that some of Taylor’s books get off to a very slow start and are frequently populated with a vast cast of minor characters that add authenticity but can bog down the narrative. That is happily not the case with American Revolutions, which adroitly opens with a discussion of an iconic short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne, “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,”** that serves as a metaphor for the dramatic societal shift that was the result of the toppling of British rule over the thirteen colonies.  That was one of those revolutions. But there were many more, especially in the after-shocks of this one that sent legions of despised loyalists to Canada, later followed by numbers of disenchanted rebels struggling in the economic morass that was the byproduct of revolution and separation from the empire; these were the building blocks of what came to be a nation north of the Great Lakes. That initial financial disaster begat the revolution of Hamiltonian fiscal policies that forged a new economy. At the same time, hints of early instability and fears of mob rule spawned a new revolution against the original loose federation of states under the Articles of Confederation that saw the propertied elite of those states come together to seize the reins of government and force a more structured and perhaps more conservative Constitution upon the masses. Still, the break with Britain irrevocably loosened social hierarchies and there was truly a revolution in this regard for citizens of the new United States – if they could count themselves as white males, but certainly not if they were women or blacks or Native Americans. The shift, for those white men, was underscored in what has been called the “Revolution of 1800,” as Jeffersonian Republicans came to power and the influence of the Federalists that constructed the new constitutional government first waned and then went extinct. There was indeed a great leveling in the game, if you were qualified by complexion and gender to play the game.

Taylor relates this saga in an extremely well-written and engaging narrative of complexity and nuance that never loses sight of all the action on the periphery, including the dramatic way the American Revolution resounded in monarchical France, upon slave insurrectionists in the West Indies, and even in the uprisings of Spanish Peru, as well as how these events sometimes echoed back on the new nation. He also reminds us not to look back from the union of “those” thirteen colonies and the creation of the United States as if it was destined to be; there were other English colonies to the Canadian north and the West Indian south that could well have been part of that union but are conspicuous in their absence. Most critically, he returns again and again to the horrific consequences that an independent United States had upon Native Americans and enslaved blacks.

A tragic constant was the almost universal disregard for the welfare and very lives of the Amerindians who occupied lands coveted by expansionary white Americans. Already decimated by Old World pathogens that devastated once thriving populations, their traditional lifestyles upended and reshaped by horses, guns and alcohol, and frequently used as proxy pawns by European powers struggling for control of North America, Native Americans found themselves ultimately powerless to avoid displacement and often extermination by shrewd and ruthless citizens of a new nation who justified brutal tactics on the grounds of race and religion and paternalism. Back when philately was my hobby, I recall owning the 1929 commemorative stamp honoring George Rogers Clark, the courageous soldier and adventurer of the Northwest Territories. American Revolutions reveals a far less heroic Clark who zealously executed Amerindians he encountered and declared that “he would never spare Man, woman or child of them on whom he could lay his hands.” [p260] In those days, South Carolina and Pennsylvania offered bounties up to $1000 for Native American scalps, “regardless of the corpse’s age or gender.” [p258] There is much more. “David Williamson, an accomplished Indian killer … [directed his militiamen to attack] … a peaceful Delaware village led by Moravian missionaries … [and] … butchered 96 captives – 28 men, 29 women, and 39 children – by smashing their skulls with wooden mallets before scalping them for trophies. The natives died while singing Christian hymns.” [p262] There were no repercussions for this hardly uncommon kind of white savagery on the frontier.

For African-Americans, the legacy was no less tragic. Despite the wishful thinking of some members of the revolutionary generation that human chattel slavery would wither over time, it instead gained new traction in an America unburdened by growing British guilt over what came to be called the peculiar institution, a sturdily intrinsic economic building block that was only finally dislodged by Civil War nearly a century hence. Meanwhile, few – north or south, or across the Atlantic for that matter – could ignore the paradox of Americans crying out in ringing rhetoric for a universal right to a freedom from tyranny while at the same time reserving the contradictory right to enslave others because of the color of their skin. And that irony was everywhere: “In New York City . . .  [in 1776] . . . Patriots toppled the great equestrian statue of George III and melted its lead to make 40,000 bullets to shoot at redcoats. In that blow for liberty, the Patriots employed slaves to tear down the statue.” [p161] African-Americans fought on both the British and American sides in the Revolutionary War, in hopes for freedom and a better life, but were in the end betrayed by each of them, although those that remained in America were by far the worse off. While sadly the United States in 2016 still contains apologists for slavery who sugar-coat its horrific brutality, their mythical revisionism does not bear historical scrutiny. In fact, recalcitrant slaves were routinely beaten, branded, and even killed, something known to others at the time if not advertised, but nevertheless rationalized by planter elites with a new brand of Christian paternalism: “At the first hint of resistance, these paternalists expected their overseers to practice the old brutality but less conspicuously. In barns and secluded spots, they whipped backs and inflicted ‘cat-hauling’: dragging a cat by the tail along the bare back of a trussed-up victim.” [p476]

Heritage historians of the conservative stripe no doubt loathe Taylor’s approach; they want to celebrate the birth of liberty in British North America and ignore what might clash with such righteous notions; massacred Amerindians and enslaved Africans uncomfortably get in the way.  There is indeed much to champion in the creation of the American Republic, but sound historical scholarship must include more than self-congratulatory patriotism. The history that was foisted upon me in schoolrooms of the 1960s contained precious little of that. Alan Taylor’s masterful narrative succeeds both in widening the lens and restoring the balance of what it was like for the actual people who lived those events, both the winners and the losers.

The advantage of having a fine home library is that I could randomly reach up on a dusty shelf and pluck down a volume of Hawthorne short stories to read “My Kinsman, Major Molineux” for the first time.  American Revolutions is an exceptional volume that I am proud to add to my collection of books on American history, and I highly recommend it to those who appreciate the complexity of historical studies as well as a truly fine analysis of the same by a gifted historian who never disappoints.

[*for the two other Alan Taylor histories that I have reviewed, see https://regarp.com/2015/10/01/review-of-the-civil-war-of-1812-american-citizens-british-subjects-irish-rebels-indian-allies-by-alan-taylor/ and https://regarp.com/2016/02/09/review-of-the-internal-enemy-slavery-and-the-war-in-virginia-1772-1832-by-alan-taylor/]

[** “My Kinsman, Major Molineux” is available online http://www.eldritchpress.org/nh/mm.html]

Review of: The American President: From Teddy Roosevelt to Bill Clinton, by William E. Leuchtenburg

This review goes to press just three weeks out from the most consequential election in my lifetime, perhaps in the history of the republic. For those who might judge that hyperbolic, the-american-president-leuchtenbergconsider that a surprising number of eminent historians – including such iconic scholars in the field as David McCullough, Ron Chernow, Harold Holzer, Bernard Weisberger, Joseph Ellis, and Sean Wilentz – have come together on a Facebook page “Historians on Donald Trump” to post video jeremiads as dire warnings against the election in November 2016 of Donald Trump as President of the United States. Add to that list renowned nonagenarian historian William E. Leuchtenburg, Professor Emeritus of History at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, whose own articulate video cautions us in no uncertain terms that: “What’s especially different about Donald Trump is that he is not a patriot. He has no sense of the American past and he doesn’t understand the achievements of this country. He has said we are a third world nation . . . we are not a third world nation! We are the envy of most of the world . . . and Donald Trump has no sense of the glory of the more than two centuries of the American republic or what we can take pride in today.” [full video at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8YEAPv5hxBw]

Leuchtenburg, author of a numerous Presidential biographies and other works of American history, knows something about Presidents and seeks to showcase his decades of scholarship in the ambitious yet in many ways deeply flawed epic The American President: From Teddy Roosevelt to Bill Clinton. I have read dozens of Presidential biographies, a favorite genre that if well-executed not only examines the specific figure but lends focus to an entire era of American history. In this election year, I was drawn to Leuchtenburg’s book because it promised a consecutive survey of twentieth century Presidents which presents a connectivity to the Oval Office ever lacking when each chief executive is treated in isolation.  The problem, of course, with a single volume approach is that even with a truly big book like this – The American President is 812 pages – there simply is not adequate space to do appropriate justice to each figure under consideration, especially when there are seventeen such figures and one of them is the historic giant of the century Franklin Roosevelt, and some of the others include such complex characters as Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and Richard Nixon. Typical “handbooks” of American Presidents end up as little more than a series of Wikipedia-like entries. Leuchtenburg the noted historian aspires to much more than that, and not unexpectedly falls short.

In the end, Leuchtenburg compromises and his portraits are an uneven swirl of careful biographical studies and sometimes awkward editorials which occasionally drift off to little more than polemic that leaves the nuance and complexity so critical to historical studies somewhere way off in the dust. This book has been criticized for not including footnotes, although Leuchtenburg reveals in the prologue that he was specifically asked not to annotate the volume as such.  That turns out to be an unshackling convenience for the author as his history is overshadowed by his summary judgement of the White House occupants that he considers. That my own politics and Leuchtenburg’s often coincide – I too find little to praise in the respective tenures of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan — makes me no less uncomfortable as a historian with the license he grants himself to blatantly and often sweepingly pronounce sentence upon his subjects.

The American President does not start off that way. Indeed, his opening analyses of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson reflect a far more scholarly approach to his subjects, warts and all.  He rightly identifies Roosevelt, the accidental President (upon McKinley’s assassination), for playing the pivotal part in the reshaping of the office of POTUS for the twentieth century and expanding the role of the White House in national affairs, something not seen since Lincoln’s days in Washington during the Civil War. And TR in peacetime was in many ways to go far beyond Lincoln during armed insurrection, paving the way for a far more powerful Chief Executive. Without Teddy Roosevelt, the kind of imperial presidencies of a Woodrow Wilson or a Franklin Roosevelt or a Richard Nixon might never have been possible.

The author gives short shrift to Taft, probably deservedly, and cuts corners for the sake of brevity – unfairly I think – by combining Harding, Coolidge and Hoover to a single dismissive chapter.  A biographer of FDR in other volumes, Leuchtenburg expertly charts Roosevelt’s impressive accomplishments in leading the nation during the dark days of depression and war, crediting him for much but not failing to identify his various flaws and missteps, including the egregious court-packing attempt and the internment of Japanese-Americans.  Next, he attempts to make some sense out of the chaotic Truman era of dramatic peaks and valleys, acclaim and condemnation, although that probably is not achievable in the delimited space allowed.  Despite recent revisionist attempts to credit Eisenhower with more than his due, Leuchtenburg concurs with the consensus of historians that other than demonstrating appropriate caution in dangerous times, the popular Ike proved to be a fine general but a rather mediocre President whose two terms can perhaps best be summed up, in Stephen Ambrose’s words, as “the time of the great postponement,” because Eisenhower’s failure to act in so many critical arenas simply kicked the dangerous cans down the road of civil rights, urban decay, poverty and “a Cold War warming toward combustion.” [p385]

It remains somewhat puzzling given Leuchtenburg’s spot-on appraisal of Eisenhower’s legacy that he subsequently cuts John F. Kennedy so little slack and assigns him virtually no credit for juggling the huge basket of crises, both foreign and domestic, that he inherited in a world literally on the brink of catastrophe. JFK had a tragically abbreviated Presidency, but it seems utterly disrespectful to sum it all up in thirty-eight pages, most of it with derision, affording him only half-credit for Al Hunt’s tribute that “Kennedy’s skills may have saved 20 million to 30 million lives” in the Cuban Missile Crisis [p420] while dismissing JFK as “. . . a figure not of chronicle but of myth.” [p424] It is here, in Chapter 7, just about the midway point of this huge volume, where Leuchtenburg can be seen to begin to strain stridently at the leash of the academic and to yank his studied analyses more toward the unbridled and uncertain territory of the polemicist.

Leuchtenburg’s chapter on Lyndon Johnson is predictable and thus disappointing, crediting him with great domestic accomplishments while condemning him for the Southeast Asian adventurism that delivered the Vietnam debacle, without the careful autopsy of a Robert Dallek or a Robert Caro that would more accurately reflect the flaws of a figure of great ego and ambition who whatever his intentions stumbled mightily both home and abroad and whose worst legacy was to open the doors of the White House to Richard Nixon.  Leuchtenburg’s chapter on Nixon strips the latter of all complexity and marches a mostly vile cardboard cutout of an unbalanced man past us as he harnesses every ounce of the power of the imperial Presidency once shaped by Theodore Roosevelt for mostly benign purposes and puts it to work like a kind of criminal syndicate to achieve his corrupt and devious ends at all costs.  Everything the author presents here is chillingly accurate, but lost in the translation is the brilliance of the man.  Nixon was a kind of a demon, but he was nonetheless a far more complicated figure than the evil comic book villain that is showcased on these pages. Again for brevity, and especially unfairly in my opinion, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter are afforded a slim chapter that hardly does either one of them justice.  Ronald Reagan earns more space in the volume, but much of it is a paragraph by paragraph revelation of how ill-equipped and unsuited to the office of the Presidency he was.  Today, Reagan is lionized on the right and has been mostly forgiven by much of the rest of the political spectrum for his dunderheaded reign, but Leuchtenburg does little to – like Rick Perlstein would gleefully do – wade through the layers of the man and his two administrations to identify why this is fact not editorial. And Leuchtenburg probably unfairly denies Reagan the one accolade he, as Richard Reeves has assessed, most deserves: it was Reagan who broke with his own administration to take Mikhail Gorbachev at his word that the stated intentions of the Soviet Union in the waning days of the Cold War were genuine and not a hostile diversion.

To his credit, it is in the subsequent and final chapters devoted to George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton that Leuchtenburg returns to his earlier more dispassionate approach to history seen in his treatment of TR and Wilson. He analyzes these men for their accomplishments and their failures, and rightly sums up why each stood on the very edges of greatness in office yet failed to achieve that because of their own unique but no less unshakable shortcomings. Finally, Leuchtenburg clearly blames Clinton’s incautious “sexcapades” with contributing to the loss of his successor, Al Gore, and what was to follow. This volume does not contain a chapter on George W. Bush, but there is no question that the author rightly recognizes the disaster of those years by citing editor Michael Takiff’s conclusion that “Bill’s dalliance with Monica [Lewinsky] . . . cost the nation not only what might have been . . . [in the concluding years of the Clinton Administration] . . . but what might have been done, and what was done instead, over the eight years that followed.” [p794] You don’t have to be a historian to recognize the merit in that estimation.

The American President winds up with an unremarkable epilogue, as if after all of those pages the author has simply run out of steam.  In retrospect, as a reader deeply invested in historical studies, I cannot help but wonder if Leuchtenburg’s own life’s trajectory proved to be a critical measure of his approach to this book.  Born during the Harding Administration, Leuchtenburg has lived through the Presidencies of all of his subjects save three.  Did a lifetime contemporary with the bulk of his protagonists put pressure upon his perspective as an historian and impact upon the appraisals in this volume?  Perhaps that is so.  Still, the value to this book, faults and all, is that it offers that continuous narrative of the Oval Office and reminds us that each occupant must first of all confront what has been left behind by his predecessor.  In these tumultuous times, it is also a cautious reminder that much, much worse things could happen to America than Richard Nixon. As Leuchtenburg concludes in his video on the “Historians on Donald Trump” Facebook page: “When I think of the prospect of a Donald Trump presidency the words of Thomas Jefferson come to mind: ‘I tremble for my country.’”

 

[NOTE: Donald J. Trump became the 45th President of the United States.]

Review of: The State of Jones, by Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer

A stubborn incongruity to the again resurgent southern “Myth of the Lost Cause” is that the commitment to secession was far from universal.  In fact, about one hundred thousand white southern loyalists fought for the Union; except for South Carolina every state of the the-state-of-jonesConfederacy sent at least one battalion to join the northern ranks. More significantly perhaps is that there were multiple geographies where Unionist sentiment prevailed throughout the conflict, especially those where hardscrabble farming was far removed from the arena of the slave-holding plantation elite. Indeed, a great chunk of a cornerstone Confederate state broke off to become the new loyal Union state of West Virginia. A less well known locale is the subject of The State of Jones, by Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer, the tale – a blurred mix of fact and legend – of how pockets of loyalists in Jones County, in eastern Mississippi, were led by the colorful Newton Knight to secede from the Confederacy and form the “Free State of Jones.” This book, which dates back to 2009, served as the basis for the 2016 motion picture featuring Matthew McConaughey, which has brought the story to a much wider audience.

Despite the title, Newton Knight – rather than the State of Jones – is the true central character, which forms both a strength and a weakness to the book. The strength is that a biographical figure serving as focal point often enriches an unfolding historical narrative. The weakness in this case is that the perspective is often severely delimited to that figure, which diminishes the wider view. The authors introduce us to Newton Knight in 1921, interviewed in the twilight of his days by journalist Meigs Frost. It is hard to know what to make of him, especially since much of what is known about him is derived from his reminisces and those partisans who were loyal to him. Was he a heroic figure with a strong moral core and loyalty to an unwavering ideological outlook?  Or was he rather an opportunistic scalawag, a narcissistic self-serving outlaw that constructed his ethical framework entirely to suit his own interests?  He seems to be a bit of both, and to their credit Jenkins and Stauffer largely tell the story as they have it and leave it to the reader to pass judgment, although overall Knight tends to come off as more of a sympathetic figure than not in the course of this account.

Newton Knight was apparently a larger than life character, imposing both physically by his great stature and otherwise by the strength of his disposition, which encompassed a devotion to his Baptist “primitive” faith, a personal aversion to alcohol and a moral opposition to slavery. Knight, like many others in Jones County, was a poor white dirt farmer who had little sympathy for the Confederate cause, especially because of his anti-slavery views.  Nevertheless, as the draft loomed, he joined the army and served as both soldier and hospital orderly. His service did not last long. Disillusioned, he deserted and teamed up with other Unionists as a guerrilla fighter, leading the “Knight Company,” the genesis of the forces that eventually broke Jones County off from the CSA and became what was later more or less formalized as the “Free State of Jones.”

Naturally, pro-Confederates viewed Knight and his band as traitors. And while the reader may be sympathetic to Knight’s cause, it is often difficult not to wince at his methods, which as a guerrilla frequently eschewed the rules of war to include bushwhacking and the assassination of opponents, in and out of uniform. Also, it becomes increasingly ambiguous whether Knight was really fighting for any cause other than what best suited Newton Knight.

Knight differed from the majority of southern Unionists not only in his opposition to secession but also in his stand against slavery and his views on African-Americans, which encompassed not only abolition but a kind of equality which would have been viewed at the time as extremely radical, north or south. Knight, who was married and had multiple children with his Caucasian wife, also became involved with an African-American former slave named Rachel with whom he sired many more children. While it was hardly unusual for southern white men to consort with black women in the antebellum era – slaveholders including such notable figures as Jefferson commonly (if hardly publicly) had slave concubines that they impregnated – Knight went a giant step further as he eventually also took Rachel to be his wife, and came to treat all of his offspring and various relatives, white and black, as full equals. This story spills over into the post-war period, with Knight serving as a despised Republican officeholder in the Reconstruction era.  This is perhaps the most captivating part of the book, as the “Free State of Jones” is left in the dust and we observe the tragedy in microcosm in eastern Mississippi as the south loses the war but essentially wins the peace, as Reconstruction gives way to Redemption, as the brief experiment of attempts at equality end ruthlessly as African-Americans are murdered, terrorized, dehumanized and turned into second-class citizens for a century to come. Yet, somehow Newton Knight not only weathers the calamities about him but thrives, carving out his own enclave for his ever expanding inter-racial family, which somewhat uncomfortably intermarries amongst themselves.  Hero or villain or a blend of the two, Newton Knight remained a fascinating and singular character throughout his long life.

Given the wealth of great material, this should have been a far better book, but alas it often falls flat.  I would chalk that up to the fact that there are two authors, which frequently is problematic in any such volume.  Audiophiles will tell you that CD’s never sound as good as vinyl records because the highs and lows are averaged out – Keith Moon’s percussion is simply not as dramatic on a “Who” CD as it is on vinyl; the passion is, if not lost, deeply compromised.  Something similar often occurs when two authors attempt to speak with a single voice in a narrative – in this case Stauffer, a Harvard professor of history, and Jenkins, an award-winning journalist – and here again what is most conspicuously diminished is the passion of the telling of the tale. Still, it remains a compelling story and despite this flaw I would recommend it.