Shaara’s Killer Angels

Killer Angels, Michael Shaara

The book that really started my obsession with the civil war.  A novel about the battle at Gettysburg told from the perspective of a commanders from both the Union and Confederate sides. A stunning work. I’m generally not a fan of military history, I could care less about troop movements and tactical decisions. There’s always something a bit macabre, I think, in treating battles as if they were football games. Analyzing the most efficient way to kill men generally leaves a bad taste in my mouth, so I generally stay away from military history and historical novels set during war.

But this book is different. Yes, there is quite a bit of discussion of the mechanics of the battle, but those tactical sections are grounded by the time Shaara spends developing Lee, Chamberlain, Longstreet, Buford, and their men as complex, compelling characters. The scenes of Chamberlain and his men holding the line against a confederate attack, and suffering horrific losses in the process, left me in, no joke, in tears, as did the penultimate scene of scores of confederate soldiers run to their deaths in Picket’s charge.

The civil war was a bloody, awful, horrific thing. This book does not sugar coat it. Though perhaps it does glorify the violence and sacrifice.  I dare you to come away from this book not admiring Chamberlain for his bravery, or loathing Lee for his horrific politics, belief in human bondage and arrogance.  Still and all, though it may wallow a bit in the glory of war, it’s still well worth your time. Not just one of the best novels written about the civil war, one of the best books written about it, period.

Review: Swanson’s Manhunt

Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer (P.S.)
James Swanson

I am an American male who has reached middle age. This means I must read at least one civil war related book a year for the next twenty-five years. This year, I read this gripping account of Lincoln’s assassination, the flight of his killers, and their eventual capture. Its captivating stuff told with a scholars attention to detail but in the moment by moment style of a page-turner.

Swanson is also an interesting guy. He was for a number of years a justice department lawyer and a very serious amateur Lincoln scholar. I love the serious amateur scholar, and am amazed at how well versed he is in the history of the assassination (and apparently how much he owns that is connected to it). I love writers like this, and books like this, I wish there were more of them.

Review: Oakes’s The Ruling Race

Ed note: this and the many other reviews I’ll be posting over the coming weeks come from a now long defunct livejournal and are posted here for my records and (hopefully) your enjoyment.

The Ruling Race: A History of American Slaveholders
Jim Oakes

I know many smart people (people much smarter than me) who have read Oakes and loved him, but I found this book to be more than a little disconcerting. It is almost entirely the story of slaveholders and the way they lived and thought. Which is fine, this is an important area of inquiry. We need books on slaveholders. But I find Oakes’s attempts to humanize a class of people few in the modern age want to reckon with, he ends up downplaying the horrific nature of slavery.

There talk here about the striving of slave owners, and their view of slaves as another commodity for advancement. And the book goes a long way in showing that most slave owners weren’t of the Thomas Jefferson plantation type, but were hard working people with less than a handful of slaves who were just trying to get ahead. There is talk of the violence and casual cruelty suffered by the slaves, to be sure, but I think it is lost in the examination of the lives of the slaveowners.

Humanizing slaveowners is all well and good. Its important to remember that these were not monsters, but regular people, but lets not pretend they weren’t horrible regular people. Lets not gloss over the routine horrific violence slaves suffered at the hands of their masters, rich or no. Maybe I am just not sophisticated enough in my reading of the book, but I think in portraying the way slave owners thought about themselves, Oakes may have begun to loose sight of what they actually were – motherfuckers to a person.

Recommended for the enthusiast

Review: Kolchin’s American Slavery

Ed. Note – this is one a 100 or so book reviews I wrote for a now long defunct livejournal. I’m posting it, and many others like it for my own records and hopefully your enjoyment.
Name Your Link
Peter Kolchin

If you’re going to read one overview book on the history of slavery in America, and you want it to include not only the racism and sexism that were endemic in the slavery era, but you also want a good discussion of the economic consequences of slavery, and at least some explanation of why the practice was beginning to fail both morally and economically by the late 1800s, you could do worse than read Kolchin’s book.

How’s that for sentence? Read Kolchin, and you’ll get a number just as long.

All kidding about Kolchin’s sentence structure aside, this is one of those rare books which walks the line well between the exhaustiveness of an academic work and the readabilty of popular history. While it isn’t as good as Battle Cry of Freedom, the book on the Civil War, if you ask me, it comes close.

And in fairness to Kolchin, in some ways, a history of slavery is a harder thing to write. The subject matter is unrelentingly horrific. And yet, if you are to do the subject justice, you need to more past the horror to the economics and politics behind it not in a way which trivializes the plight of the enslaved, but goes at least part of the way towards explaining their enslavement. Walking that line is difficult, and Kolchin doesn’t always succeed, but its clearly what he is going for in this work and for that he should be applauded.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

Review: Oshinsky’s Worse Than Slavery

Ed note: this review originally appears in a now long defunct livejournal.

Worse than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice
David M. Oshinsky

This is the must read book on the faailures of reconstruction and the horrors of the Jim Crow era. When I was reading it, there were times I felt sick to my stomach. Oshinky lays out the horror and despicable racism of the Jim Crow South better than any other author I have read. If you have a conscience, the book will leave you shaken despondent and angry.

Worse Than Slavery focuses primarily on the infamous Parchman Farm, a prison farm in Mississippi. In the Jim Crow era, Parchman was work camp you were lucky to survive and the stories of how people got there, why the farm was useful for the Mississippi government, and what the experience of life on the farm was like for those unlucky enough to end up there gives you a real sense of both the physical and emotional assault on people of color that was the Jim Crow era and the economic impact it had on the deep south.

This book isn’t only about Parchman. It is more generally about the total failure of reconstruction, the abandonment of the idea of equality by America, and the very real price many, many African Americans had to pay for the nation’s lack of guts in the face of Southern White Racism.

It’s a hard read, but a necessary one.