by Ron Chernow
Ron Chernow has a knack for biography. In his writing, he takes what you know about a person and introduces you to them in a different way. When we think of Grant we think of a few main things. Won the Civil War. Check (he had help.) Drunk. Check(but not really?) Terrible President. Check( but again not really,) and that is what you will take with you into this book.
Coming out of it though you will learn about the man that was Hiram Ulysses Grant. The man who trusted people, even when he shouldn’t which lead him to trouble his entire life. Especially when he became president. You learn about the down on his luck failed businessman and farmer that found a second life in the time of his country’s greatest need. You see a man go from the depths of despair and failure to a revered world figure. And you see a man that struggled with alcohol, sometimes winning the battle and sometimes losing. But most importantly you see Grant the man, not the myth.
That is the gift that Chernow has. He takes men of myth and shows you the person. He is able to get into their heads and almost show you the world as they see it. Like his Washington biography, you come out of it with the feeling that while a bit of the shine may be off the legend, it does not take away from the man. And Grant, for better or worse, was an amazing man and this book captures that well.
As always you can purchase a copy of the book by clicking on the cover image above.
Founding Myths: Stories That Hide Our Patriotic Past by Ray Raphael
I like this kind of history books. The ones that take the “myths” or things we think we know and dig into the truth. For example, and one of the first ones that the author covers, is the legendary ride of Paul Revere.
Almost everything we were taught about this event was made up at some point in our history. Mainly to make a better story out of it. In this case, the author provides not only the myth itself, but the truth, and then a breakdown of HOW the myth came to be. He uses this approach on a number of myths and does a good job of busting them.
If you are a student of the American Revolution you probably already know the truth behind many of these. If that is the case you should get the most enjoyment out of seeing how the truth was transitioned to a fable and the reasoning behind it. I know that for me that was the best part.
If you are someone who wants to start getting their feet wet in regards to the history of the American Revolution, jump on in. This is a good book to get you started and is a fairly easy read.
The downside? It made me want to visit the local school and take a look at there textbooks. What is taught sure has changed from when I was a kid.
As always you can purchase a copy of this book by clicking on the cover image above.
There was a lot riding on the American Civil War. When the nation was formed in the American Revolution a new country was created, a democracy unlike any that had been seen before. Much of the world didn’t think it would last. Much of the world did not want it to last. So when the Southern states seceded and the United States became divided, the world held its breath.
The Cause of All Nations tells the story of the American Civil War from the perspective of the rest of the world. How did countries like Britain and France view the war? The fledgling democracy movements in each saw things quite different from the aristocratic and royalist leaders. How did the creation of Italy play into the American war? Was this going to be a war to set people free or a fight between two different ideas of government?
These questions and many others are answered in this fascinating and well-written book. The biggest takeaway for me and something that I had never really realized before was how close Europe came to intervention. I mean the fleets were in the harbors close to turning this into a world war. I knew it was close, but not that close. The other fascinating bit is the role the Vatican played in the American Civil War. Tiny, but interesting. I would love to see if some of those letters survived.
Doyle has told and informative and compelling narrative. If you are picking this up you most likely already know the basics of the story. What the author does is allow you to see the conflict from the perspective of the rest of the world. It also provides insight into exactly what the United States meant to the world in the 1860’s and provides insight into what we mean to the world today.
It is well worth the read and as always you can click the cover above to find it at Amazon.
This People’s Navy: The Making of American Sea Power
It seems odd to call a book that clocks in around 460 pages as short, but when you consider the subject of the book it seems like barely enough. Hagan, however, does a very good job in making the story of the US Navy compelling and interesting.
From its birth during the American Revolution to the eve of the Gulf War, the mission and methods of the Navy have changed. From coastal defense and commerce raiding to the carrier based projection of power that it is today, Hagan takes you on a history course that weaves its way around a changing mission and a changing world taking into account the politics and technological advancements of the various ages.
Certainly not a swashbuckling adventure, he also does a fine job of capturing the personalities that at times seemed to move the Navy forward on their own shoulders. From John Paul Jones to Teddy Roosevelt, they are represented in the book.
While a good survey of the topic it should also be said that there simply is no room for the kind of details that the hard-core historians would call for. As a single volume it is effective but serves merely to whet the appetite and if nothing else the stage is set for you to delve deeper into any of the epochs of the storied history.
Of course, now it has been over twenty years since it was published and the world and role of the of the Navy have changed yet again, but if the lessons of this book are adhered to, the Navy should have no problem adjusting and moving forward.
If you have any interest in the subject, this book will be well worth the read.
The Quartermaster: Montgomery C. Meigs, Lincoln’s General, Master Builder of the Union Army
By Robert O’Harrow Jr.
In studying the Union war effort during the Civil War you read a lot about the main players. Lincoln, Sherman, Grant, McClellan, are all names that pop out usually on the first page of any summary of the war. As you dig deeper another name comes up, almost as a background player to each of them, Montgomery Meigs. When I started reading this book that was the thought I had in my mind, here is the background player to the war, as the Quartermaster General I knew he played a role and looked forward to some behind the scenes look at the war effort.
What I found was the story of an amazing man who truly deserves a spotlight all his own. Even before the war, he was responsible for some of the most incredible engineering projects not just in the country but in the world. He navigated the choppy waters of Washington politics as an honest man and stayed that way during his entire tenure. He not only drew his architect inspiration from Roman and Renaissance models, bringing them to the New World, but he innovated and created styles and methods used today.
Then came the Civil War.
An army had to be built and provisioned on a scale that the United States, and most anywhere else, had never known. The man put in charge was Meigs, and no one ever doubted that decision. He became an adviser and ally to Lincoln and Stanton. He built a military machine unrivaled for the age and brought it to bear against the enemies of his country. Very few biographies actually leave me in awe, but this was one.
Knowles brings Meigs’s story to the page in a bright and loving way. It would be easy to get bogged down in the minutia that was so important to everything Meigs had a hand in. Whether it was negotiating contracts for bricks for the Capitol, or gathering horses to pull the machinery of war. Every detail was necessary and well described. What helps was short chapters and breaking it up into nice bite-sized chunks. Many authors would have tried piling on and that would have ill-served this story.
I highly recommend this book.
Then topic of Reconstruction after the Civil War is one that is usually either handled very heavy-handed, or simply glanced over. The fact is while the war part of the Civil War ended in 1865, the civil aspect of it is still being fought today. Yes, there is a school of thought that contends the Civil War has not yet ended. Luckily in this book, Langguth doe snot take that tact.
It is easy to say that this is one of the best books on Reconstruction out there. It covers the main characters from the just before Lincoln’s assassination and how the Federal government sought to bring the nation back together once the bullets stopped flying. It also though spends some time on the ground level with the people who were living the local aspects of the overall governments policies. The book even goes so far (almost) to tie the struggles of the African-American community during Reconstruction to the modern-day Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s. As such I would consider this book a good jumping on point of the subject interests you.
There are a few things to watch for. There is a bit of a tendency to jump around in the time line based on which person the story is following in any given chapter. So it is not a directly linear read. It did throw me off a couple of times. The other thing, as I said it makes a good attempt at tying the post Civil War era to the more modern times, but in the last chapter when it tries to do so it seems almost like an epilogue that has been tacked on. Not a negative as it lead me to wanting to read more, but something to be aware of.
All in all worth the read. Click the image to visit Amazon and pick it up
Review: Illinois in the War of 1812
It is actually quite a shame that the War of 1812 does not get more focus outside the hallowed halls of academia. It was a war that didn’t need fought, was almost lost and the most famous battle was fought after the treaty was signed. Some very interesting stuff. Most of the time the focus of studies of the war deal with the fight for Canada and the Great Lakes, or the sack of Washington DC or the Battle fo New Orleans. This book by Gillum Ferguson forgoes all that t do with one certain aspect of the larger war, the frontier war in Illinois.
For the most part this was a side of the war fought between the Native Americans and the American settlers. What few regular troops were engaged by the US and the British had an impact but never enough to sway the outcome one way or the other. No, this was a war fought against the old by the new. As such the topic is one that can a little difficult because we know the ending.
Ferguson, to his credit. does not shy away from the brutality on either side. For every Native village burned a dead settler family can be found. For every attempt at justice there was an ambush. This was not so much war as it was a contest to see who would be standing at the end.
One of the most fascinating aspects was learning about some of the Native leaders, the ones who knew that siding with the US was in their best interest, but took up the fight against them anyway. Some of the leaders, such as Gomo of the Potowatami was one of these that would do whatever was needed to protect his people. the political interplay between the tribes is something in this book that brought a new aspect to the time and struggle.
The other really great thing about the book was the author’s use of primary sources to “debunk” local legends. Some communities claim to have been the site of a famous battle, yet oddly no records of the fight exists. Or even using sources from the time to locate where battles actually occurred in a frontier that no longer exists.
The down side is that it can be a little dry. Keeping track of the names and the geography can get a little overwhelming. It’s not a long book, but it is a meaty read. Don’t take this one lightly.
I recommend this book for anyone that more insight into the frontier wars and the impact of British and Native interactions in the period. If that sounds interesting dig in.
As always you can get a copy of the book from Amazon by clicking on the cover image above.
The World Remade: America in World War I
by G..J. Meyer
Every now and then a book comes along that shifts your way of thinking on a subject. Sometimes that shift comes from learning about a subject things you never knew before. Sometimes it comes in the way that material is presented. And sometimes it comes from being able to put the present in perspective thanks to the past. My experience in reading this book was shaped by each of those three things.
I thought I was well versed in the events that led up to the dawn of WWI. Reading this book I now realize I have always just skimmed the surface. This was a war that should never have happened, but by the time it did, no one could find their way out of it. Once the ball got rolling, America acted almost as if it needed to keep it going as long as it could, with as little cost to them as possible. The war was terrible, the peace and peace process even more so. After reading this come away with a bitter taste in your mouth from the way the British, French and Americans acted. Not giving Germany a pass, but there were no “good guys” in this fight. (I speak of governments, not the brave soldiers and sailors on either side.)
The way that G.J. Meyer presented the material was fresh and informative. Sometimes the statistics could bog it down a bit, sometimes debates of international law seemed a little long-winded. Still though those things were necessary to provide context. The author shone best when providing that context.
The most engaging part to me was the deep dive into the man who was President Woodrow Wilson. In this production he was the man who was sent to save Europe, nay the world, from itself and nothing would stand in his way. He was apolitical weather vane when it suited him, moving up and down the ideological scale as he saw fit. He would be your best friend if you agreed with him, but become your worst enemy if you didn’t. In a lot of ways the way he is presented in this book reminds me of the current President. There was no middle ground.
So is it worth a read? Yes. Will you end up shaking your head reading about the starvation blockade the allies imposed. Yes. Will you cry a little when you realize that Wilson sent thousands of Americans to die simply to get a place at the peace table? You should. Will you shudder when you learn how the American public and press were treated by the administration? Without a doubt.
As always you can pick up a copy via Amazon by clicking on the cover above.
The Unruly City: Paris, London and New York in the Age of Revolution by Mike Rapport
During roughly the same time period all three cities mentioned in the title of the book underwent revolution. New York had the American Revolution and in the wake of that a softer revolution based around how the country was to be run. London, while not an outright revolution, went through a period of political turmoil that was spawned by the American and French Revolutions. Paris, well in their revolution Paris pretty much burned.
So the question is, why did the French Revolution become such a violent event while the revolutions in New York and London, though just as world changing, stay relativity violence free? Part of the answer according to the author lies in the cities themselves. How they were built, where the public buildings were located, how the grew in response to the turmoil outside. This is a book not about revolution but about the geography of revolution and how the construction of the cities themselves shaped the events.
Yes, it sounds a little out there, at least to me. The author however handles the topic well and treats the cities themselves as characters in the narrative. They comes off as living breathing entities that react and sometimes even guide the events purported by the people residing in them.
It can get a little heavy at times, not boring, but a lot is going on as the narrative bounces between locations. The one thing that is totally and unquestionable accomplished with this book is perspective. A lot is happening at the same time and events in one city effect the others and this is handled very well.
It is my opinion that one can not truly respect what the American Revolution was until you understand what the French Revolution became. If that interests you, then this book needs to make your list. It is highly recommended and as always you can pick up a copy via Amazon by clicking on the cover above.
Lincoln’s Lieutenants: The High Command of the Army of the Potomac
by Stephen W. Sears
On paper it should have been easy for the United States of America to put down the rebellion that broke out in April 1861. The North had the population, resources and industrial capacity that the people of the South could only dream of. The first battle, fought at Bull Run, should have been the first battle, but there was one problem that the Union had that almost cost it the war. A lack of military leadership that hamstrung every attempt to put the rebellion down by force. No where was this lack of leadership so apparent as in the Army of the Potomac, the Union Army that was tasked with capturing Richmond and ending the war.
Starting with General McClellan, who loved the army so much he refused to actually have it fight. To General Meade who took command two days before the largest battle ever fought on the continent, the leadership had issue that allowed the Confederates to win almost every major battle in the first few years of the war.
This book by Stephen Sears digs deep into the officer corps of the Army in a way that a general history of the conflict will not. Several times I found myself thinking how a single sentence about a battle would open up into a flurry of blame throwing and general incompetence that other wise would be missed.
As a general example: General Meade ordered an assault on a fortified Confederate position at 6;30pm on a given day. Orders were sent to all his Corps commanders to make the attack at that time. Where a general history of the battle would say, “the attack did not launch as planned”. In this book you learn that several commanders claimed to not have received there orders, or decided that they were not ready so attacked later, earlier or whatever. Then each blames the other and in the meantime the rebellion continues.
Sears’s cast of characters is wide and varied and he does a good job in making sure you never lose track fo who is who among the officers. Each has their moment, some heroic, some less than but all are heard from.
This book is recommended if you have a general knowledge of the Civil War and are ready to start the deep dive. The focus on the Army of the Potomac means not much is covered in the Western Theater or other areas and that is good. I would love to see the same sort of book done to bring the same level of focus to the other main Armies of the Republic.
As always, you can get a copy of this book by clicking the cover pic above.