Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Book Review: Waking Giant

David Reynolds' Waking Giant aptly demonstrates the innumerable revolutions that transformed America between 1815-1848.

A quick read, David Reynolds' Waking Giant is an excellent primer in early-to-mid-19th century American political, cultural and social history. First, from an "interesting things to say at a cocktail party" aspect, the book is filled with numerous "a-ha" moments. For example, ever wonder where the expression "O.K." came from? Well, wonder no more: it came from Martin Van Buren's 1840 reelection campaign against Whig William Henry Harrison. Known as Old Kinderhook, the Democratic convention campaign used those initials and included them in the slogan "Down with the Whigs, boys, O.K."

Another example - ironically also from that 1840 campaign - is "keep the ball rolling". Harrison supporters would push large leather balls from town to town for each campaign rally - an activity that became an American expression shortly thereafter. I know, I know, 'who the hell pushes a ball from town-to-town'? This is what you did when there was no TV or porn to occupy your time, folks.

Yet another example is "the peanut gallery". During this era, the rise of theaters in America led to a democratization of "the play". There were three separate seating arrangements in theaters. Upper class patrons were in the box seats, middle class folk were in the wooden benches in front of the stage, while the working class (not to mention the prostitutes) were in the cheaper seats known as the "gallery". Those seated in the gallery smoked, drank booze, and chewed peanuts, disposing of the shells on the floor, leading to the phrase "the peanut gallery".

Reynolds argues - persuasively - that the Age of Jackson gave rise not only to democracy in politics, but to a wide range of cultural, social and religious revolutions from 1815-1848. The era of "isms" included abolitionism, transcendentalism, spiritualism, among others and they all made the era one of dizzying changes. Every aspect of American life underwent fundamental change. Sex, religion, politics, even cultural activities all expanded and changed so that a person awaking from a 30-year sleep in 1848 would find American unrecognizable from the world he left in 1818. Few eras in American history - our own perhaps being one of them - can claim to have had that much transpire in such a short period of time.

Reynolds looks at literature, the arts, music, dance and other aspects of social history with the same crisp and concise analysis he gives to politics. Children from the "Summer of Love" in 1967 would be shocked to learn that such sexual liberation had transpired 130 years earlier in Jacksonian America. A "free love" movement during the era challenged Puritan sexual mores. Women's rights and abolition began to expand upon who, exactly, "We, the people" really were.
The sexual revolution of the era - granted on a smaller scale than the "fuckfest" that was the 1960s and 1970s - led to other revolutions in the culture. For one thing, the number of abortions performed in the United States increased dramatically. The number of abortions went from 1-in-25 live births in 1830 to 1-in-5 live births a short 20 years later in 1850. Indeed, it was only after the Civil War that what we would recognize as a true antiabortion movement first took hold in the country.

I think my favorite aspect of the book, though, are those "a-ha" moments I mentioned earlier. Whether it's "O.K", "keep the ball rolling", "the peanut gallery", or the even fact that the word "homosexual" did not even appear in the English language until 1892, Reynolds laces his narrative with interesting facts that link the bygone era of mid-19th-century America to our world today. Now, the next time someone says, "we don't need any comments from the peanut gallery," you'll know where the expression came from. Chicks dig that, guys.

copyright 2009 by EBBP Redux. If you are reading this on a blog or website other than EBBP Redux or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Book Review: Tried By War

Of all the amazing accomplishments of Abraham Lincoln's career, perhaps the greatest was his ability to overcome the urge to travel to General George McClellan's headquarters and blow his head off.

James McPherson - whose Pulitzer Prize-winning Battle Cry of Freedom has become one of the great studies of the Civil War era - focuses on Abraham Lincoln as commander-in-chief. Citing a dearth of such studies in the Lincoln historiography, McPherson concentrates on the day-to-day military leadership Lincoln provided to what seemed to be a never-ending line of big-talking do-nothing generals.

One of the main premises of the book is that Lincoln was forced into taking a far more active role in military affairs than he had ever intended, largely because of the ineptitude of his commanders. He spent countless hours studying military histories late at night at the White House, talked with generals and military advisers, asking probing questions that helped to shape his military strategy.

It was not until Ulysses S. Grant's rise through the ranks that Lincoln found a general who shared that strategy: defeat of the Confederate army. More important than capturing Richmond, Vicksburg, Atlanta or even defending Gettysburg was the pursuit and defeat of that army. Lincoln - and Grant - realized that until that army was defeated, the war would continue even if the Union successfully captured every major city in the South.

Throughout McPherson's work, we see an agonized Lincoln waiting at the War Department telegraph office for his generals to attack. He wrings his hands at their lack of movement, at their over-caution, and at their short-sighted aims of capturing pieces of land at the expense of pursuing the enemy. There is the possibly apocryphal story of Lincoln saying, "If General McClellan isn't going to use his Army, perhaps he won't mind if I borrow it." That, in a nutshell, was Lincoln's first two-plus years as commander-in-chief. You only need substitute the names of Joe Hooker, George Meade, Ambrose Burnside and a half-dozen others in place of McClellan to get the full impression of what Lincoln faced.

McPherson confronts head on the natural question that might arise: if these generals were so incompetent, isn't Lincoln at fault himself for appointing them in the first place? As McPherson points out, in each and every case where Lincoln appointed these men, they were universally recognized as the most qualified for the position....on paper. There were some exceptions, military appointments Lincoln made with politics in mind [the appointment of Democrat-turned-Republican Benjamin Butler being one of the more famous].

Incorporating his thesis from Battle Cry of Freedom, McPherson points out the evolution of Lincoln's thinking as to the main goal of the war. What started out in 1861 as an effort to reunite the Union as it was, evolves into creating a new Union free of slavery. The abolition of slavery gave the War a greater meaning than simple reunion: there had to be a greater purpose for all of this carnage than simply restoring the Union as it was in 1860. That purpose was abolition.

By 1862, it was abolition and the complete destruction of the Confederate army that served as Lincoln's two main war aims. Many times, however, Lincoln would be frustrated by his generals' inability or unwillingness to comply with his commands. In September 1862 he has to actually spell out for McClellan, "Destroy the rebel army." In June 1863 he says in frustration to Hooker, "Lee's Army, and not Richmond, is your true objective point." In anguish, he chastises George Meade after the latter's inability or refusal to pursue Lee's army out of Gettysburg. If Meade had only accomplished, "the literal or substantial destruction of Lee's army, the rebellion [would] be over."

As McPherson points out, many generals won battles capturing territory. But the war was won by those generals carrying out Lincoln's edict to destroy the enemy army: Grant at Vicksburg, Philip Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley, George Thomas at Nashville and - ultimately - Grant at Appomattox.

Indeed, it was not until the team of Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, Thomas and Sheridan came to the fore by 1864 that Lincoln had "his man". That is, a general (or, in this case, generals) who would fight the war the way Lincoln wanted it fought.

Destroying an army is not easy, however. It is bloody, lengthy and hard. The sheer number of Americans who died in these battles staggers the mind today. Grant was known as "The Butcher" - and that was what Northerners called him, so appalled were they at the casualties he [and, ultimately, Lincoln] was willing to endure in the pursuit of his war aim.

Tried By War is a quick read, and not too heavy on the detailed military analyses that sometimes makes reading military history a little like watching paint dry. As with most works that analyze Lincoln, the reader comes away from Tried By War with an even greater appreciation of the man and in amazement at all that this brilliant "backwoods lawyer" accomplished in saving the Union.

copyright 2009 by EBBP Redux. If you are reading this on a blog or website other than EBBP Redux or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.