A century of war, a summer of reading

In many ways, you could say I’ve spent my summer vacationing in the 19th century.

In my last post I touched on some subjects stemming from World War II and my reading of “No Ordinary Time” by Doris Kearns Goodwin. I have since finished that book, and my what a work it is. I would add a synopsis of it here, but it doesn’t really fit with the theme of the other books that primarily span the years of 1844-1877. At some point I will tackle “Team of Rivals” and “The Bully Pulpit” and do a Goodwin-only post, but I will say I bought The Bully Pulpit after finishing No Ordinary Time as I want to read more of her books. However, they are massive and take a lot more investment and effort than other books do.

So instead of going into the depths of World War II, I am going to comb through the periods marked by the Mexican-American War, the Civil War, and the Indian Wars. The following books are listed in chronological order, give or take origins and epilogues.

“Polk: The Man who Transformed the Presidency and America” by Walter Borneman


I first became aware of the need to read about Polk after watching a documentary on the Mexican-American War and realizing that it was in fact “Mr. Polk’s War” of conquest. I won’t go into a year-by-year analysis of the war, but it is clear this was a turning point from which America began to grow into an empire. It was a war of conquest, not democracy, like many of the American wars eventually came to be. The Mexican-American War is also probably the point in which people should start in their studies of the Civil War, as so many major players in that conflict were involved here as well. Books on Grant or Lee discuss Generals Taylor and Scott, but in Borneman’s book you get a hearty explanation of their strategies and campaigns and what the president thought about them. (Also, it is so confusing that there is Winfield Scott and Winfield Scott Hancock). I would be interested in a book on Zachary Taylor one day, as well as Henry Clay: the Essential American, but hopefully I have plenty of decades left to dive back into that period.

james sarah polkAs for the subject of the book, James Knox Polk, it is a relative quick read compared to a Kearns Goodwin-type massive tome, but Borneman provides an exceptional overview of Polk’s life and rise to power as well as his presidency. And like Goodwin’s story of FDR and Eleanor, Borneman’s story of focuses a great deal on the president’s better half. Polk discusses how important Sarah Polk was to James and also D.C. society and the country. If Polk was “the most important president between Jackson and Lincoln” (I read this somewhere, maybe on the back cover of the book, but I’ve since returned it to the library and cannot properly cite that quote), Borneman’s story of Sarah Polk’s life made me come to think she was the most important First Lady between Dolley Madison and Julia Grant. In regards to James, most interesting to me was about just how much of an ardent partisan he was. Polk was very resentful of the military glory going to the Whig generals instead of Democrats, and this greatly influenced his appointments and strategy. Still, the work of Winfield Scott and Nicholas Trist managed to see the war through, despite Polk’s partisanship, and it eventually ended successfully* (with the U.S. winning a war of conquest over its neighbor) and things wound down. I found the end of this book quite sad as Polk died shortly after his presidency ended, likely due to cholera encountered on a voyage from Washington back to Tennessee. Borneman discusses Polk’s legacy, which is obvious in the concrete land gains his administration made (Oregon, California, New Mexico, and kinda Texas even though Tyler gets the official credit) but also apparent when one examines the institution of the presidency itself and how Polk impacted it. He was in fact “Old Hickory’s Boy” as Borneman repeatedly refers to him, not only in the Tennessee political heritage but also in the actions as a strong executive in the White House. This book is worth a read for anyone interested in the Mexican-American War and also in learning about the expansion of presidential powers. I am personally glad I read it only because of how it helped to flesh out some of the characters from Andrew Jackson’s story in “American Lion” and the stories of many Civil War actors.

“Grant” by Jean Edward Smith

Grant“Grant” is the book best I have read this summer. Immediately after finishing it I thought it was a masterpiece, but in the succeeding weeks I’ve come across other things which have made me realize that this was an overly positive portrayal of Grant by Smith. Still, this positive narrative is what I was seeking, and why I chose this book over several other Grant biographies. I had heard it re-imagined Grant’s presidency, and it certainly does that, but in this re-imagining some dark truths are glossed over or mentioned in passing. That being said, I would still read it again for several reasons. It flows very well and has a strong, clear narrative with Grant as our hero and protagonist. Smith does paint Grant as a hero, but then again Grant was a hero. While I now have my issues with some of the hard truths about U.S. treatment of Native Americans, along with other shortcomings of Grant in his presidency and war career (which we can expect, everyone is human after all), the book itself is a tour de force of history. Particularly after reading “Grant and Sherman,” I realized how in-depth, detailed, yet exciting Smith’s discussions of Civil War battles and campaigns in this book are. Grant’s presidency doesn’t even begin until page 456, and if you only read the parts on Grant’s life up until his election, this book would enlighten you on how ingenious, bold, and stoic General Grant was. It is not the preeminent book on Grant’s presidency, but it does summarize his achievements and shortcomings in a relatively satisfying way. Grant was not a great president, but he also was not a failure as many have come to believe thanks in large part to the Dunning school and biased Southern historians of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

I would say that this book should be paired with a few other readings on Grant’s presidency, but if you are looking for an introduction to Grant and a Civil War book which reads like a novel, it has my highest recommendation. As I said, it touches on the negatives, such as the scandals of Grant’s presidency, and his General Order No. 11, but for the most part the point is to show Grant as a stoic American hero. This book also talks about about Sheridan and Sherman’s views on American Indians, but in that area particularly you can find totally different perspectives in other works. Smith devotes a chapter to arguing that Grant’s peace policy toward Indians was a major redeeming factor of his presidency, but then in another book I read (Crazy Horse and Custer) you get an entirely different viewpoint on the Grand administration’s Indian policies.

“The Man Who Would not be Washington” by Jonathan Horn

RELeeI actually read this book in late May right after my post “Reflections on May Readings.” It was at the library in the new books section, and I wanted to read something about Lee before diving into books about Grant. I read the reviews before checking it out as I did not want to read something that was overly romantic of Lee. This book was a sober assessment of Lee and some of the contradictions of his life, but it also filled in the picture of what his family life and lineage meant and talked quite a bit about his wife, Mary Custis Lee. Throughout the book, Horn tries to explain Lee’s decision to join the Confederacy, but eventually the reader comes to the conclusion that Lee was a man of contradictions (Perhaps more like Jefferson than his grandfather-in-law-by-adoption Washington). Horn goes to some lengths to discuss slavery at Arlington, and Lee’s views and actions on the subject. You come away from this book knowing that most of the romanticized views of Lee are just simply wrong. He owned slaves and led the army to preserve slavery. While he did try to emancipate his own slaves, it was simply because he was trying to honor his late father-in-law’s will. As the title indicates, it talks about how connected Lee was to Washington and how he could have continued his legacy. In a way, for southerners, he was the second coming of Washington, but as the author concludes, there is no Lee monument on the National Mall, there is a Lincoln. Things could have been much different if Lee had stayed with the Union, but instead he chose a path that eventually led to his surrender to Ulysses Grant. Horn’s book leaves you thinking that Lee’s decision to leave the Union was something that, despite Lost Cause narratives and Southern glorification, ultimately harmed his legacy and his potential. Still, it was Lee’s choice, and I’ll gladly take Grant instead.

“Grant and Sherman: the Friendship that won the Civil War”

Grant and ShermanCharles Bracelen Flood is the author of Grant’s Final Victory, which I read in May. “Grant and Sherman” is another book of his, and this book is thought by many to be one of the best Civil War books in recent years. I just finished it today, and would not argue with them. While much of the tales of Grant I already knew from Jean Edward Smith’s volume, you can get plenty of Sherman here, particularly at the end. Oh, how I wish I could’ve been a member of his western army! Lest I start to romanticize war, there are plenty of accounts here of grotesque death and violence. At one point, Sherman was standing next to his orderly when that poor orderly’s head was blown off. I can’t even imagine what living and fighting through the Civil War must have been like, and that’s what angers me so much about today’s  understanding of it. I grew up in the South and the things people think about the Civil War are just simply wrong and based on a century of Southern mythology not based in the reality. Still, in this book you are presented with some of the realities that Grant and Sherman were also not perfect like so many Southerners want you to believe about Lee, and Sherman’s views on other races in particular are brought into the light in Flood’s book. Flood mentions how Sherman and Grant’s friendship faded during Grant’s presidency, and this is only mentioned in passing while Jean Edward Smith thoroughly explains the saga which led to that. And Flood’s book on Grant’s last year thoroughly explains how the two rekindled their friendship as Grant was dying. If you want a thorough summary of the Civil War from the perspectives of Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, then this book will not disappoint. While Smith’s descriptions of Grant’s battles are more in-depth, in Flood’s book you are given more perspectives such as Julia Grant, Ellen Sherman, Charles Dana, and even Joshua Chamberlain.

For all intents and purposes, the book ends with the Civil War, and only briefly mentions the rest of the two men’s careers and lives. As the next book indicates, Sherman still had much more generaling to do after the war.

“Crazy Horse and Custer: the Parallel Lives of two American Warriors” by Stephen E. Ambrose

crazyhorsecuster“Crazy Horse and Custer” is the book I read which made me aware of some of the shortcomings of Smith’s “Grant.” You get a much different picture of Sheridan, Sherman, and the U.S. government’s actions towards Native Americans. In Smith’s book on Grant, he mentions how the Grant administration tried to pay for the Black Hills before American miners and immigrants totally overwhelmed the area, but in Ambrose’s book this particular saga is presented with a much more sober assessment. The fact is that the U.S. government stole the Black Hills from the Native Americans for gold. Americans stole a lot of land from Native Americans, and I have yet to read enough about it to pretend to be an expert, but after reading this book by Ambrose I am simply ashamed. I am just glad I read this book and learned more about Sheridan and Sherman and their attitudes towards Indians before I went around singing their praises on the Internet.

In terms of the actual book, and the two main protagonists, I chose it out of the library over several other Little Big Horn books because of the duel nature of the biography and it did not disappoint. If you read this book without knowing anything else about Crazy Horse and Custer you would think they had to be fictional characters because of how much their lives and deaths embodied the time period and their cultures. Ambrose argues that Custer did drive his troops past the point of exhaustion and that they were extremely tired on the day of THE battle, but he also argues that Custer was simply out-generaled (is that a word?” by Crazy Horse. If you are looking for an interesting examination of their two lives and America from 1850-1880, this book will not disappoint. At first, I was struck by the account of Crazy Horse’s death, but you could not find a better story in a thousand years of mythology. Crazy Horse, the warrior, refused to be taken prisoner. While has betrayed and double-crossed by jealous people on both sides, and his death was itself not “a glory day to die,” he never became a prisoner and lived and died a free man.

I should note, as many know, that Ambrose has been found to plagiarize, and this book was one of his which was found to contain plagiarism. I found that interesting as he seems to go out of his way to praise other authors and historians and recommend their works, but in some instances in his numerous books he apparently he copies whole paragraphs. Oh well. Forbes: Ambrose has done it before

Throughout the past few months I have been watching several Ken Burns’ documentaries, and one story from “The War” is quite fitting to share right now. It is a story from Chief Joseph Medicine Crow. While the Crows were the enemies of Crazy Horse’s Oglalas, in the end they were still Plains Indians and this tale from Burns’ documentary is poignant. It’s also worth noting that Native Americans made the greatest per capita investment in World War II. The Role of Native Americans During World War II