Thursday, February 9, 2017

New & Notable: Wrestling With His Angel

by Sidney Blumenthal

Release Date: May 16, 2017

Volume II of Sidney Blumenthal’s acclaimed, landmark biography, The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln, reveals the future president’s genius during the most decisive period of his political life when he seizes the moment, finds his voice, and helps create a new political party.

In 1849, Abraham Lincoln seems condemned to political isolation and defeat. His Whig Party is broken in the 1852 election, and disintegrates. His perennial rival, Stephen Douglas, forges an alliance with the Southern senators and Secretary of War Jefferson Davis. Violent struggle breaks out on the plains of Kansas, a prelude to the Civil War.

Lincoln rises to the occasion. Only he can take on Douglas in Illinois, and he finally delivers the dramatic speech that leaves observers stunned. In 1855, he makes a race for the Senate, which he loses when he throws his support to a rival to prevent the election of a proslavery candidate. Now, in Wrestling With His Angel, Sidney Blumenthal explains how Lincoln and his friends operate behind the scenes to destroy the anti-immigrant party in Illinois to clear the way for a new Republican Party. Lincoln takes command and writes its first platform and vaults onto the national stage as the leader of a party that will launch him to the presidency.

The Washington Monthly hailed Blumenthal’s Volume I as, “splendid…no one can come away from reading A Self-Made Man without eagerly anticipating the ensuing volumes.” Now, in one of the greatest American success stories, Wrestling With His Angel brings Lincoln from the wilderness to the peak of his career as he takes control of the nation’s most profound spiritual crisis—slavery—and enters the battle for the nation’s soul.

ISBN 978-1501153785, Simon & Schuster, © 2017, Hardcover, 592 pages, Photographs, Maps  & Illustrations, End Notes, Bibliography & Index. $35.00.  To purchase a copy of this book click HERE.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Hallowed Ground: A Walk at Gettysburg, The Illustrated Edition

By James M. McPherson

In 2003 Crown Publishing released “Hallowed Ground: A Walk at Gettysburg,” written by James M. McPherson, the George Henry Davis '86 Professor of History Emeritus at Princeton University, and author of the Pulitzer Prize winning “Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era.”

Having over the years led countless tours of Gettysburg National Military Park, Dr. McPherson leads his readers on a tour of the battlefield, stopping at Seminary Ridge, the Peach Orchard, Cemetery Hill and Little Round Top, as well as many other key sites related to the pivotal battle which in conjunction with the surrender of Vicksburg, Mississippi marked a turning point in the American Civil War.  McPherson reflects on the meaning of the battle and sets Battle of Gettysburg in its proper context in American and World history, while describing the action of the battle at each site. He debunks many popular myths about the battle, and relays stories of his own encounters.

Zenith Press has recently given Dr. McPherson’s text a bit of a facelift with its new release of “Hallowed Ground: A Walk at Gettysburg – The Illustrated Edition,” enhancing it with period photographs, color photographs (many of which are modern photographs of the battlefield and its monuments), maps, paintings and illustrations.  Many of the books photographs and artwork consume an entire page and sometimes even a two-page spread.  Zenith Press transformed McPherson’s 2003 book from its original 144 page, 5.2 x 7.9 x 0.6 inch size to a 9.6 x 11.2 x 0.9 inch coffee table book of 224 pages. The illustrated edition has given more depth to McPherson’s original text, and in the process has made a beautiful book just to sit and thumb through.

McPherson is often accused of resting on the laurels he received for “The Battle Cry of Freedom,” by writing “popular history” books for eager readers who will buy his books; that his books forgo historical detail and new research, to appeal to a wider and more general reading audience.  Even the topic of Gettysburg can set some academically minded reader’s eyes spinning to the back of their heads.  With hundreds of titles dedicated to the three-day battle of July 1st – 3rd, 1863 why do we need yet another book on Gettysburg.  Indeed there is some validity in both arguments, but Dr. McPherson knows his audience, and as long as there are people willing to buy books about the Battle of Gettysburg, there will be people who will write them.  Putting James M. McPherson’s cachet as one of this country’s greatest historians together with Gettysburg as a topic seems like a win-win scenario for publishers, and making an illustrated edition is a brilliant marketing strategy.

ISBN 978-0760347768, Zenith Press, © 2015, Hardcover, 224 glossy pages, Photographs & Illustrations, Maps, & Index. $35.00.  To purchase a copy of this book click HERE.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Co. "Aytch": The First Tennessee Regiment or a Side Show to the Big Show: The Complete Illustrated Edition

By Sam Watkins

Even before it was prominently featured in Ken Burns’ award winning documentary, The Civil War, Sam Watkins’ memoir Co. “Aytch” The First Tennessee Regiment or a Side show to the Big Show, was a classic of Civil War literature, and widely heralded my many historians as one of the best memoirs of the war written by a common soldier.

At the outset to the Civil War Watkins was one of 120 men who enlisted in Company H of the 1st Tennessee Infantry.  He and his comrades were in virtually every major battle of the war in its Western theater.  By the time the war ended in April 1865, Watkins was one of seven members of the company who were still alive when General Joseph E. Johnston surrendered the Army of Tennessee to Major-General William Tecumseh Sherman.

Soon after his return home Sam Watkins began to write his memoir.  His engaging narrative captures the pageantry and monotony, the glory and misery, the humor and drama, the pride and horror experienced by a common soldier of the Confederate in the Western Theater.

Zenith Press has pulled Watkins’ dusty and well worn volume from the shelf and republished it in a new and glorious illustrated edition.  Every word of Sam Watkins’ text has been preserved and supplemented with 175 color photographs, illustrations and maps.  Period photographs and illustrations of politicians and military men, places and landmarks, camp life and battle scenes take their place beside post-war artworks, modern photographs of artifacts, battlefields, monuments, and reenactments which have been gathered from the Library of Congress, the George Eastman House, the National Parks Service, the National War College, as well as many other of this country’s major Civil War collections.

Supplementary text is added from the Civil War generals such as James Longstreet and William T. Sherman as well as modern Pulitzer Prize winning historians Doris Kearns Goodwin, James M. McPherson, Allan Nevins and Bruce Catton.

Zenith Press’ Co. "Aytch": The First Tennessee Regiment or a Side Show to the Big Show: The Complete Illustrated Edition breathes new life to Watkins’ memoir for its 21st Century readers.  It would be a welcome addition to any Civil War student’s library, even if he already owns an earlier, and I’m sure dog-eared and well read, edition.

ISBN 978-0760347751, Zenith Press, © 2015, Hardcover, 9.5 x 10.5 x 1 inches  256 glossy pages, Maps, Photographs & Illustrations, Index. $35.00.  To purchase a copy of this book click HERE.

Monday, October 27, 2014

General Grant and the Rewriting of History: How the Destruction of General William S. Rosecrans Influenced Our Understanding of the Civil War

By Frank P. Varney

Just a few days before his death on July 23, 1885, former President, Ulysses S. Grant, penned the final pages of his memoirs.  Published posthumously, consisting of two volumes, the “Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant,” was an instant best seller, and the income derived from its royalties restored the Grant family fortune which he had lost through several bad business decisions.  Mark Twain, Grant’s publisher, lauded the memoir as a “literary masterpiece.”  The memoirs are highly regarded by military historians and literary critics alike, and nearly 140 years after its author’s death it has yet to go out of print.

Ulysses S. Grant parlayed his fame as the victor of the Civil War into a political victory when he was elected the 18th President of the United States in 1868.  Periodically historians tend to rank the Presidents from best to worst, and Grant’s lack luster performance as President, combined with several political scandals of those in his administration, typically leaves him ranked near the bottom, with most historians summarizing Grant as an honest man but a poor judge of character.

In his memoirs Grant makes several negative representations of a few fellow Union Army generals.  If Grant was such a poor judge of character, then why do most historians take what Grant wrote in his memoirs as the gospel truth?  If Grant could be wrong about the character of the men that he appointed to places of high esteem during his administration, couldn’t his negative characterizations in his memoirs be incorrect as well?  Frank P. Varney, Professor of History at Dickenson State University, has asked that very same question and his research has led him to some startling conclusions about what we think we know about the Civil War, and how much of it was shaped by the writings of Ulysses S. Grant.

Citing multiple historians, tracing their sources Dr. Varney uncovered many noted historians have taken Grant at his word, using his memoirs as a single source for various incidents of the war.  Professor Varney, using multiple primary sources, compared them to Grant’s writings to uncover striking differences compared to what his contemporaries wrote.  And in at least one instance it appears that Grant falsified the records of the War Department to the detriment of others.

Though several of Grant’s brothers-in-arms careers were, or were very nearly ruined, by his unflattering assessments of their abilities, Dr. Varney’s book, “General Grant and the Rewriting of History” focuses mainly on William S. Rosecrans, and discusses in some depth the battles of Shiloh, Iuka, Corinth, Stones River and Chickamauga.

Dr. Varney’s chapters are organized much like a geometric proof.  Each starts out with “The Context” where he sets the stage for what is about to be discussed.  “The Controversies” follow, first giving a brief bullet point list of the controversies discussed in the chapter, and then one by one discussing each controversy in depth.  Varney’s “Evaluation” follows, and when appropriate the professor discusses the historiography of the topic discussed.  He compares what both Grant and other historians have said against the primary records, and states his conclusions.

“General Grant and the Rewriting of History” is a stunning example of the craft of history.  Professor Varney may have changed future narrative of the Civil War, and William S. Rosecrans may at long last get credit where credit is due, for both his triumphs and his failures.

Professor Varney’s book is well and convincingly written and exhaustively written.  Though not a book for Civil War novices, students of the war will have their long held views of the war challenged by this thought provoking work.

ISBN 978-1611211184, Savas Beatie, © 2013, Hardcover, 336 Pages, Photographs, Maps, Footnotes, Appendix, Bibliography & Index. $32.95.  To Purchase the book click HERE.  

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Smithsonian Civil War: Inside the National Collection

by Smithsonian Institution,
Edited by Neil Kagan,
and photography by Hugh Talman.

Established in 1846, The Smithsonian Institution has often been described as “the nation’s attic.”  Stored within its many museums and research facilities are 137 million items, the treasures of the United States.  Its facilities contain items from every era of American History, including the 1903 Wright Flier, and Archie Bunker’s chair from the television series “All in the Family.”

One Hundred Fifty years have passed since the end of the Civil War, and the Smithsonian’s collection of items related to the war began during the war and continues to grow today.  The very best of the Smithsonian’s collection has been gathered together in a lush “coffee table” book, “Smithsonian Civil War: Inside the National Collection.”

Issued to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, “Smithsonian Civil War,” contains 150 brief chapters, each dedicated to some aspect of the war, its participants, or items in the Smithsonian’s collections.  Its article by article narrative begins with the antebellum era, works its way through the war and ends with reconstruction.  It also spans the breadth of those who experienced the war, from Secessionist “Fire-Eaters,” abolitionists, The Union, the Confederacy and also African-Americans; men, women and children.

Contained within its covers are hundreds of photographs, sepia toned, black and white, and lush color photographs of the items within the institutions vast collections.  Among the items featured are a slave ship’s cargo manifest, flags of the Confederacy, soldier’s uniforms, weapons and accoutrements, camp equipage, period photographs of many of the war’s participants, letters, drawings and paintings, Major-General Phil Sheridan’s mounted horse “Winchester,” Mary Lincoln’s purple velvet dress and Varina Davis’ jewelery, Abraham Lincoln’s pocket watch and stove-pipe hat, the chairs from Wilmer McClean’s parlor in which Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee sat and the table on which Lee’s surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia was signed, the cuff from Laura Kean’s dress stained with Lincoln’s blood, the hoods that covered the faces of the men accused in the Lincoln assassination conspiracy, just to name but a few.

“Smithsonian Civil War” is a fantastic book, its contents will provide many hours of page turning pleasure for both the Civil War enthusiast, scholar and novice alike.

ISBN 978-1588343895, Smithsonian Books, © 2013, Hardcover, 368 pages, 9.7 x 1.1 x 11.3 inches, 4.4 pounds, Photographs & Illustrations, Object List & Index. $40.00.  To purchase a copy of this book click HERE.

Civil War 360

Ashley Judd, Trace Adkins and Dennis Haysbert lead viewers on a journey 150 years back in time to learn about America’s greatest conflict in a Smithsonian Channel three part documentary, “Civil War360,” now available on DVD.

The documentary delves deep into the archives of the Smithsonian Institution to explore the war from three differing perspectives.  Ashley Judd hosts part one of the documentary, The Union; Grammy-nominated country singer Trace Adkins follows up with the documentary’s second segment, The Confederacy; and Dennis Haysbert heads the documentary’s final installment, Fight For Freedom, which traces the African-American experience and view of the war.  Each of the documentary’s three hosts have ancestors who were greatly affected by the war. Lincoln’s Washington at War, narrated by Barry Zate, is included on the DVD as a bonus feature.

Each of the documentary’s episodes bring insights and stories of the war to life through dramatic recreations, analysis by a long list of noted Civil War historians and scholars, and the Smithsonian Institution’s vast collection of treasured artifacts (including one of Abraham Lincoln’s stove-pipe hats).

Through its varied perspectives “Civil War 360” gives its viewers a panoramic view of the war’s events and those who participated in them.  It is a terrific addition to any history lover’s video library; it is a perfect introduction to the Civil War to those who are just beginning to learn about the war; and it presents sometimes overlooked stories of the war that students of the war may want to go back and revisit.

Not Rated, Region 1, Widescreen, 1 Disc, 184 Minute Run Time.  To purchase this DVD click HERE.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Of Blood and Brothers: Book Two

by E. Michael Helms

To say this is the second in a series is a little bit of a stretch.  It is, however, the second half of a single novel.  Helms frequently refers back to events from his first book with no exposition of those events.  A reader not having read the first book would not pick up on these queues nor understand their inferences.  Consequently, “Of Blood and Brothers: Book Two” is merely a continuation of the original story and not a stand-alone book.

That aside I thoroughly enjoyed catching up with the stories of the Malburn brothers.  Daniel, fighting on for the Confederates and Elijah fighting with the Union Army during the Civil War, their reunion and the fiery aftermath of the early stages of reconstruction in the South.

The war is not the only thing dividing the Malburn brothers.  The love of a woman also pits Daniel and Elijah against each other in a love triangle.  We already know that Elijah is the brother who won Annabelle “Annie” Gainer’s hand in marriage, now we find out how that happened and what the fallout from that event was.  Needless to say the Malburn’s reunion at the war’s conclusion does not bring forth only tears of joy but tears of anguish as well.

Calvin Hogue, the newspaper reporter who brings the saga of the Malburn brothers to the readers of his uncle’s newspaper, is noticeably absent during most of this book.  His interactions with the brothers and other members of the extended Malburn family were part of the driving narrative of the first book in this series.  In this second installment he only appears in the beginning of the book, to restart the story, and at the end of the book, asking what became of the rest of the family.

Taken together, the two parts of “Of Blood and Brothers” is a great retelling of the Civil War, from both sides (though Eli is not a willing volunteer for the Union Army) and shows the horrors of battle and its aftermath, as well as life in the Northern Confederate Prison Camps.  In an interesting twist to the Civil War Fiction genre, Helms demonstrates that the conditions in Northern Prison Camps was just as bad as those in the South, such as Andersonville and Libby, which are overly portrayed in Civil War fiction.

Helms’ writes in a smooth, easily read style, and the story of the Malburn brothers is a compelling page turner.  I just wish it had been published as one book instead of being split into two, as each is weaker without its other half.

ISBN 978-1938467509, Koehler Books, © 2014, Paperback, 274 pages, $17.95.  To purchase click HERE.