A MONUMENTAL WEEK IN CIVIL WAR HISTORY!

The first week of July, 2013 commemorates the 150 anniversary of the Civil War Battle of Gettysburg, considered by many historians as the greatest battle of the war and the fateful turning point leading to the ultimate defeat  and surrender of Robert E. Lee and the demise of the Confederacy.  The great battle took place in three engagements on July 1, 2 and concluding with the disastrous Confederate Pickett’s Charge on July 3rd, 1863.  The sun rose on July 4th over a battlefield that witnessed over 5,700 killed and more than 27,000  wounded, thousands of whom died from wounds in the ensuing weeks.  More has been written regarding this great battle than any other in history, including  D-Day.

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This week another new book,  Gettysburg by Allen C. Guelzo is added to the library of Gettysburg non-fiction.  Simultaneous to the release of Guelzo’s book and in conjunction with the Gettysburg 150th anniversary, the Smithsonian has released a fabulous interactive map that helps explain why General Lee made a critical mistake in underestimating the depth of the Union Forces he faced. The map addresses the issue of the extreme lack of intelligence and reconnaissance on behalf of either side during all of the Civil War engagements.  Prior to the commencement of hostilities, Lee climbed to the top of  cupolas, one at the Lutheran Seminary and the other at Gettysburg College to survey Union troops.  The Smithsonian GIS generated map, together with the research of Middlebury College professor Anne Knowles, clearly shows that deceptive terrain made it impossible for Lee to judge the magnitude of the Union forces. Lee’s problems were of course magnified  by the absence of his cavalry led be Jeb  Stuart. To examine the new GIS map of the Gettysburg battlefield go to : http://bit.ly/1crQWYd

DO NOT OVERLOOK VICKSBURG!

With the natural focus this week on the Gettysburg anniversary it is easy to overlook yet another monumental Civil War battle that historically may equal and in some sense eclipse the great Gettysburg turning point. General  U.S. Grant’s victory at Vicksburg  which culminated on July 3, ( the same day as Pickett’s Charge) in some sense had a greater impact on the war’s outcome than Gettysburg.  

Following two weeks of battle including fierce fighting at Jackson Mississippi and Champion Hill  Grant turned his forces West to Vicksburg, the last remaining Confederate obstacle to opening the entire Mississippi River to Union control.  Following days of brutal fighting and bombardment Grant laid siege to the city and finally on July 4th, 1863 accepted the surrender of General Pemberton’s  Confederate forces and took control of  what had been an impregnable citadel above the river.

While there  continues to be much debate over the work of Civil War historians  ( See David Blight’s  article That a Nation Might Live in the July 1 Book Section of  New York Times ), it will come as no surprise to followers of Gordon’s Good Reads  that I have turned to historical fiction and Jeff Shaara’s new Civil War book A Chain of Thunder, A Novel of the Siege of Vicksburg. Jeff Shaara is the son of Michael Shaara, author of Killer Angels, the story of  the Gettysburg battle. Like the writing of the father, Jeff Shaara places the reader in the boots of the front line soldiers and additionally, in the case of A Chain of Thunder the devastated lives of the Vicksburg’s citizens.

Why does Vicksburg equal the historical importance of Gettysburg? The answer lies in President Lincoln’s recognition  that  he found in Grant following Vicksburg and his earlier victory at Ft. Donnelson,  a commander who could ” win.”!   There is little doubt that the victory at Vicksburg catapulted Grant into being named General In Chief of all Union Forces. In that capacity, Grant’s tenacity, with Lincoln’s unbridled support,  forged the final Confederate surrender at Appomattox Courthouse in 1865.   There is no doubt that the Grant Civil War legacy led to his becoming President of the United States, following the failed short-term of Vice President Andrew Johnson following Lincoln’s assassination.

Whether you prefer non-fiction or historical fiction of any combination thereof, The Civil War is an epic human story that changed the future of not only the nation, but the world.

Other Civil War historical novels by Jeff Shaara”  Gods and Generals, The Last Full Measure, A Blaze of Glory.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

FROZEN IN TIME BY MITCHELL ZUCKOFF

Mitchell Zuckoff’s new book Frozen in Time ranks  among the best non-fiction works of survival and rescue during the Second World War. Furthermore,  the book  is testament to the strength of the human spirit.

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Frozen in Time details the crash of a B-17 Flying Fortress  on the Greenland ice cap, while itself on a mission to find the crew of another downed plane. A Grumman Duck  amphibious rescue plane also vanishes, adding to the complexity of what becomes an epic tragedy.

Imagine, 9-men huddled in the tail section of a broken B-17 bomber, who during the first month on the ice, had no verification that anyone knew where they were!  They survived 148 days of 50-degree below zero weather with 100 mile per hour winds threatening to dump their makeshift shelter into bottomless crevasse only inches away. Then came the disappointment of many failed rescue attempts and further loss of life by those who tried to save them.  Zuckoff unveils a determination and fortitude of the human spirit that defies comprehension.

The dimension of this gripping survival story is enhanced with the telling of the parallel expedition that took place in 2012, to find the wreckage of the U.S. Coast Guard Grumman Duck rescue plane and to return home the remains of the heroic crew.

 

 

 

There are four other books of this genre and caliber that I highly recommend reading:

The Endurance, by Caroline Alexander, Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition

The Terrible Hours, by Peter Mass, The Greatest Submarine Rescue in History

In Harm’s Way, by Doug Stanton, The Sinking of the USS INDIANAPOLIS

FLYBOYS, by James Bradley, The Tragedy of Chichi Jima

Lost in Shangri-La, by Mitchell Zuckoff, A True Story of Survival and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II.

 

BUNKER HILL- A FIGHT FOR LIBERTY BECOMES A WAR FOR INDEPENDENCE

Nathaniel Philbrick’s new non-fiction work  BUNKER HILL, A CITY, A SIEGE, A REVOLUTION is a rewarding  history of the early stages of the American Revolution including the battles of Lexington and Concord,  Breeds Hill/Bunker Hill and the siege and eventual evacuation of Boston by the  British.  Philbrick, as was his style in his previous books Mayflower and  The Last Stand,  Custer, Sitting Bull and the Battle of Little Big Horn ( see review at gordonsgoodreads.com ) , is focused. His  historical research is precise  and the development of the characters of the  historical figures adds new dimension to this period of American History.

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Set in 1775 and 1776, Philbrick explores the passions and the conflicts between Patriots , Loyalists and the multitude of  views  of those suspended in the middle. Many Patriots remained loyal to King George but simultaneously reviled against the British Parliament, clearly defining the difference between a call for “Liberty”  and the pursuit of  “Independence.”   In the ensuing American Revolutionary War, liberty and independence became synonymous.

Readers will meet a key revolutionary who stands unique among the better-known  Sam Adams , John Adams, John Hancock and Paul Revere.  Thirty three-year-old physician Joseph Warren cobbled together a group of independent thinking community leaders  and often unmanageable  farmers turned militiamen  into what would become the Continental Army.  Warren was  a self-styled political and military leader.  If it were not for Warren’s  death at the Battle of Bunker Hill,  Philbrick  speculates that relatively obscure George Washington may never have been called  upon to assume  leadership  of the Patriot  forces, which  of course ultimately lead to Washington becoming the nation’s first president. Thus , Bunker Hill gains even greater historical importance.

The Battle of Bunker Hill  ( June 17, 1775) , which came two  months after  Concord and Lexington  ( April 19, 1775  “The Shot Heard Round the World” ) , is considered the actual beginning of the Revolutionary War.  Concord and Lexington are referred to as ” skirmishes.”  British loses were so great at Bunker Hill, despite a technical victory, General Howe concluded that the British had in fact lost the battle for Boston, and was later forced to withdraw to Halifax, Nova Scotia following  a winter long siege of the city .

I greatly appreciate well researched non-fiction  like BUNKER HILL that focuses on specific events and the individuals  that played a vital role in the larger story.   Another example is David McCullough’s  biography  John Adams , critical to understanding  the American Revolution, the  drafting of the Declaration  of Independence and the Constitution.  An enlightening part of the puzzle pertaining to  George Washington and the Revolutionary War  is David Clary’s book Washington Lafayette, and the Friendship That Saved the Revolution. The book details the relationship between  the childless George Washington and a glory seeking teenage French Aristocrat,  Marquis de Lafayette. They become unlikely comrades-in-arms , forming  an unbreakable trust with great impact on  the war’s outcome and the forming of a new nation.  

BUNKER HILL, A CITY, A SIEGE, A REVOLUTION is worthy of your time and your library.

NATHANIEL PHILBRICK- FROM THE MAYFLOWER TO THE LITTLE BIGHORN

Author Nathaniel Philbrick makes it easy and joyful to love history. I first became a fan when I read  Philbrick’s Mayflower.

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In 358  concise pages Philbrick manages to capture the essence of the complete story of the Pilgrims voyage, The Plymouth Colony,  Native Americans, King Philip’s War and of course Massasoit,  Miles Standish and William Bradford.  Philbrick’s  historical narrative  flows with an ease , in great part, because the reader never loses track of the principal players  and their recurring roles as history unfolds.  This single volume  painlessly educates  the reader about Puritan history, the odd collection of mankind called Pilgrims, the Mayflower’s voyage,  King Philips War and the beginning of the two century’s  of deceitful treatment of Native Americans .  The efficiency with which Philbrick tells this story is remarkable.

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For all of the aforementioned good reasons I eagerly purchased Philbrick’s THE LAST STAND, Custer, Sitting Bull and The Battle of The Little Bighorn.  Once again the author distills this often told story into 312 pages of narrative that places all of the elements of a  complex story, distorted by time and ideology,  into laser-like focus.  Interwoven in  both books is the vivid picture of  how not much had changed between the white settlers engagement with the Indians of  New England in 1620 and the duplicitous treatment of  America’s Great Plains Indians in the later part of the 19th century.  In both cases the author explodes many myths carried forward over the two centuries.   THE LAST STAND, much to absorb about American culture, Manifest Destiny, Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Custer, Reno and what can occur when a presidential administration becomes distracted!

Because the subject matter of the Mayflower and Custer’s Last Stand is so much in the public domain you may think you already have a firm grasp on the narrative.  Think again! Take a second look  at these two landmarks in  American history through the eyes, mind and research of historian  and story-teller Nathaniel Philbrick.

Also by Nathaniel Philbrick In The Heart of The Sea, Sea of Glory; The Epic South Seas Expedition 1838-1842 .  I am currently reading  Philbrick’s latest work , Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution.

DAN BROWN’S INFERNO

The Da Vinci Code, The Lost Symbol and now  Dan Brown’s Inferno, another thrilling novel that will surely fly off the shelves and dominate downloads in the days and weeks ahead.

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Inferno is art, history, science and a travelogue through Florence and  Venice worthy of being transplanted to the pages of a Fodors Guide.   For fans of Dan Brown, Inferno is so fast paced that the book is a three or four session read, thrilled to follow the familiar exploits of Harvard University professor of symbology  Robert Langdon.

Brown’s multiple short chapter writing style  keeps the reader connected  despite the speed with which the plot evolves.   Fair warning, assume nothing and expect to be deceived again and again as this thriller develops.  Typical of Brown you will never know who is friend or foe until the very conclusion. Paging ahead is forbidden!  You will learn more about Dante Alighieri’s  The Inferno, and the seven rings of Hell than previously imagined and be exposed to Italy’s art and architectural treasures that are alive in the narrative.  Those who have traveled to Florence ,Venice  and Istanbul will be transplanted, imagining the  tale with even greater intensity.

Beyond the expected suspense and surprises, Inferno adds a Transhumanist dimension of  cutting edge scientific technologies that are unimaginable,  calling into question enormous moral and ethical issues in facing  threats to the world’s population. ” You know that nature has always found a way to keep the human population in check–plagues, famines, floods. But let me ask you this–isn’t it possible that nature found a different way this time?”

With the  popularity of The Da Vinci Code , The Lost Symbol, Angels and Demons,   and now Inferno  do not overlook an earlier great Brown novel, Digital Fortress.  Familiar themes and an ever-present ” mystery container” that can wreak havoc on the world. Brown also wrote Deception Point, which I have not read.

When I return to Venice I am convinced I will see Robert Langdon in St. Marks Square and just perhaps,  as the violins play, he will be holding Sienna’s hand.  I hope so!  You will understand.

Another Anya Seton Classic

British historical novelist Philippa Gregory in her foreword to Anya Seton’s Katherine  is correct in identifying Seton among those writers who  ” Dominated historical fiction  following World War II.”   In the opinion of Gordon’s Good Reads,  Seton’s historical novel  Katherine , a huge best seller in the 1950s ,  is perhaps her very best.  Katherine is without doubt a love story, a romantic novel indeed, but the attention to the detailed setting in  Medieval  England in the 1300s , gives this book high marks as a classic historical novel. Just as she did with Winthrop Women, Seton traveled to the novel’s setting and has marvelously recreated a world that only a novelist of her calibre could bring to life.

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Katherine , from rags to riches , Knights in shining armor ( John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster), serfs, England’s feudal system, bastard children, the Black Death,  kept woman, love triumphs!  All of the elements of a great romantic novel are here but with page after page the reader is placed in a time and place of Fourteenth Century squalor, chivalry and treachery amid riches , castles and jeweled crowns beyond imagination.    Arranged marriages enthroned Kings an Queens  including  12-year-old King Richard, while the lower classes begin an epoch march to freedom, long before Cromwell and Henry the Eighth dashed all hopes of equality.  Seton gets the history right and delivers the lesson  within the framework of a wonderful love story well outside the confining lines of a text-book. Add to this novel the poetry and presence of Geoffrey Chaucer!

Put Katherine on your reading list. Anya Seton ( 1906-1990), through all of the years will, never disappoint.  See my previous reviews here at gordonsgoodreads of Seton’s Winthrop  Women and Dragonwick.  Also by Anya Seton:  Avalon, Devil Water, Foxfire, Green Darkness and My. Theodosia.

COOLIDGE, REVISIONIST OR ACCURATE PORTRAIT OF THE PRESIDENT?

Amity Shlaes new biography COOLIDGE  has received its share of controversial reviews including  charges of  a “white-washed” Coolidge presidency. There is little doubt that Shlaes places  ” silent Cal” in a favorable light. However, that is not at all unusual as historians review a presidency in a perspective from a hundred years distance.  Perhaps the best example of the retrospective is David McCullough’s  reincarnation  of John Adams.  I am not suggesting that the two books or presidencies are comparable but the passage of time allows authors the opportunity to look through a different prism.  Be assured that Shales portrait of Calvin Coolidge does not attempt to elevate him to John Adams status, however, she clearly establishes the image of a strong, independent thinking president capable of making unpopular decisions that he deemed correct for the country.

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Coolidge served as president, during the roaring 20s, from 1923 to 1929.  He remains famous for small government, balanced budgets and ” the business of America is business.”   Unlike some reviews, I do not think Coolidge is a whitewash of the administration, but rather an overview of the thinking in America following the First World War and the national desire to return to ” normalcy.”  Ironically, Coolidge came into his political career as an acolyte of Teddy Roosevelt  progressivism and acted accordingly during his tenure as Governor of Massachusetts.  Coolidge was a reluctant recruit as Warren Harding’s Vice-President, he disliked the position, but his New England work ethic underscored his making a best effort to support Harding’s policies.  The two were exact opposites, Harding the gregarious politician telling the electorate what they wanted to hear,  Coolidge, quiet and reserved.

Shlaes does an excellent job in depicting Coolidge’s transition to the presidency following Harding’s unexpected death.  He moves into the oval office with no great fanfare and picks up the reins of governing turning quickly to his zeal for a balanced budget, eliminating the war-time bureaucracy and establishing the concept of reducing taxes to stimulate the economy out of a post war recession.  Shlaes makes a case that Coolidge handed off a strong economy to Herbert Hoover after Coolidge kept his commitment that he would not run  for a second term.  However, Shlaes  book makes no mention of the rampant speculation on Wall Street that occurred during the later years of the Coolidge Administration which lead to the crash of 1929 and the beginning of the Great Depression.  Does Coolidge share the blame or does it all fall at the feet of  Herbert Hoover?

A most interesting part of the book is that once again we go back over 100 years to discover recurring themes facing today’s American economy:  The fairness of the tax policy, protective tariffs, balanced federal budget, government spending, the deficits of war-time spending, and the overriding argument of  big government versus small government.

COOLIDGE is well written and for lovers of history it is a look back at a presidency almost forgotten.  COOLIDGE  offers a  glimpse at the expectations of life in America following  World War I , the “War to end all wars. ”  It was the period of the first automobiles produced on the Ford assembly line, electrification,  the birth of the aviation industry, Lindbergh and the  passage of the Kellogg-Briand international treaty, the successor to the failed  Woodrow Wilson League of Nations.

You will learn much about Coolidge the family man, his wife Grace and the tragedy of the death of his son  Calvin, Jr. while Coolidge was in office.  The journey— from his birth in  Plymouth Notch, Vermont  to Amherst College, small town attorney in Northampton, Massachusetts, Massachusetts Senate, Massachusetts Governor,  Vice-President and President of the United States–a remarkable life.