June 28, 1914 – Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand – Did it Really Cause WWI? Review of “The War That Ended Peace” by Margaret MacMillan

Anyone under the illusion that the outbreak of World War I was the result only or even mainly of the assassination of an Austrian Archduke in Serbia will be disabused of that conception after reading this thorough account by Oxford University scholar Margaret Macmillan. In fact, after reading this book, one can only wonder how war was averted until 1914.

Macmillan provides a detailed introduction to all the major players in European international affairs at the turn of the 20th century. She also reviews the alliances, competitions, hostilities, jealousies, and the sociological currents feeding the inchoate war machine: in particular, inflated senses of honor, nationalism, imperialism, and what one might call a racist interpretation of Darwinism.

At this time, the major European powers (Britain, France, Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary, and Italy) were competing for hegemony in several dimensions:

First, they wanted to be seen as strong and powerful military states.

Second, they wanted as big a share of the colonial pie as they could grab. Colonies could be exploited for natural resources, laborers, soldiers, and the psychological benefit of the impression of world dominance. Britain and, to a lesser extent France, had stolen a march on the others by gobbling up large tracts of Africa, India, and China. In addition, the Ottoman Empire was correctly viewed as on the verge of dissolution, which would soon open up great opportunities for colonizing oil rich areas of the Middle East. Germany in particular was trying to make up for lost time. Each of the powers feared that if it didn’t leap into the fray first, it would lose out, and a hated rival would steal “its place in the sun.”


Third, each, albeit in varying degrees, had a sense of racial and/or ethnic superiority, which contributed to their determination to dominate lesser groups.

Fourth, the very powerful memes of nationalism, radicalism, and anti-Semitism all were roiling around in the air and causing destabilization.

An important factor adding to instability was the fact that no one Power was in position to dominate the others. Accordingly, all the Powers sought to ally themselves with any other strong Powers whose interests did not conflict too seriously with their own. By 1910, Europe had divided into two rather hostile (but not yet warring) camps: (1) the Triple Alliance—Germany, Austria-Hungary, and (rather reluctantly) Italy; and (2) the Entente—France and Russia and (maybe) England.


Members of both the Alliance and the Entente perceived their own agreements to be primarily defensive in nature. But MacMillan points out that those same arrangements seemed to outsiders to be offensive in purpose. As a result, every continental Power perceived itself to be surrounded by hostile forces, and endeavored to prepare for what seemed like an inevitable outbreak of war.

In addition, advances in technology, particularly railroads, made it possible to mobilize a country’s army in a much shorter time than in previous years. This situation created pressure on the others to be ready to mobilize at a moment’s notice. Otherwise, you could be caught at a great disadvantage, if an enemy Power was ready to deploy before you were.

Thus, Europe was a powder keg, with players just waiting for an excuse to light the fuse.  The Balkans, being the most volatile area at the time, was merely the most likely source of the much-anticipated spark.  [Ironically, Europe had weathered at least three very close calls (the Moroccan Crisis and two Balkan Wars) between 1908 and 1913 that had nearly resulted in war but were smoothed out in the end. But the pressure was building, and no leader took the necessary steps to defuse the new crisis adequately.] After the death of Franz Ferdinand, Austria-Hungary issued a humiliating ultimatum to Serbia that could never be accepted, and the game was on.

Discussion: This is a detailed history of the period immediately preceding World War I, rather than a history of the war itself. To that end, MacMillan tells you everything you always wanted to know about the situation in Europe at that time. While she spreads plenty of blame all around, she is probably in the camp assigning the most blame for the war to Germany, with its possibly insane kaiser and its power-hungry and ideologically extremist ministers.

Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1902

Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1902

One criticism is that the author could have forgone the minutiae about the predilections of various ministers and their wives for fishing or gardening and the like. Instead, she would have served readers better by adding background on the influential writers of the time, such as Houston Stewart Chamberlain, whose popular book Foundations of the Nineteenth Century (1899) argued that Germany, constituted primarily of the (allegedly) superior Aryan race, needed to come out triumphant in the never-ending struggle among ‘the chaos of races.” [Chamberlain was British, but later became a German citizen.] The anonymous and infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion, first published in Russia in 1903, and positing a worldwide Jewish conspiracy to take over the world, was also widely translated and disseminated. Many of the racist tracts at the turn of the century, such as The Social Role of the Aryan by the Frenchman Georges Vacher de Lapouge (1899) explicitly cited Darwin to provide a scientific imprimatur to the advocacy of racial eugenics. These ideas caught fire among the political and intellectual elite in Europe at the century’s end, and indeed, were still fueling social policy before and during World War II. Some background on these writings would have provided a much-needed explanation for the currents of thought that roiled these turbulent times, and would have helped displace another commonly held misconception that it was mainly the unsatisfactory resolution of World War I that resulted in World War II.

Evaluation: This book is an excellent addition to any World War I library. MacMillan provides a fascinating backstory to many of the events leading up to the war. While some may take issue with her emphases, this book is definitely worth consideration.

We listened to an audio version of this book. The narrator, actor Richard Burnip, is quite competent and has a delightful British accent. Our only complaint is that each disc ended and then started over with nary a breath in between.

Rating: 4/5

Published unabridged on 25 compact discs by Audible Ltd. Books on Tape, an imprint of the Random House Audio Publishing Group, 2013


June 24, 1941 – The German Army Occupies Vilna

As the Holocaust Museum online site explains:

Under the terms of the German-Soviet Pact, Vilna, along with the rest of eastern Poland, was occupied by Soviet forces in late September 1939. In October 1939, the Soviet Union transferred the Vilna region to Lithuania. The population of the city was 200,000 at this time, including over 55,000 Jews. In addition, some 12,000-15,000 Jewish refugees from German-occupied Poland found refuge in the city. Soviet forces occupied Lithuania in June 1940 and in August 1940 incorporated Vilna, along with the rest of Lithuania, into the Soviet Union. On June 22, 1941, Germany attacked Soviet forces in eastern Europe. The German army occupied Vilna on June 24, 1941, the third day after the invasion.”

German occupation of Lithuania during WWII

German occupation of Lithuania during WWII

The destruction of the Vilna Jewry began soon thereafter.

Vilna was known as the “Jerusalem of Lithuania.” It was an important center of the Jewish Enlightenment and had a number of famous institutes of research and education, including the Jewish Scientific Institute, YIVO. The book Stronger Than Iron reports on the fate of Vilna Jews from the moment the Germans came in June, 1941 until the Soviet liberation in September, 1944. Some seventy thousand Jews died. The author notes that “by the most optimistic assessment only one thousand Jews [of Vilna] survived.”

I have read quite a few books written by Holocaust survivors, but I think this one stands out because of the astute observation skills of the narrator, who was a prominent member of the Jewish community in Vilna, Lithuania. (The book was originally written in Yiddish by Theodore Balberyszki, and translated into English by his son Mendel.)

As you read about the amazing sequence of events that led both Theodore and his son to live in spite of all they endured, you will understand how rare and crucial this eyewitness account actually is.

One of two ghettos for Jews established by the Nazis in Vilna

One of two ghettos for Jews established by the Nazis in Vilna

Mendel Balberyszski, in his Preface, explains the title of this book:

“My book is entitled Stronger Than Iron, for a human being had to be stronger than iron to endure the savage brutality and hatred of the Germans and their Lithuanian helpers, who were determined to implement a policy of the extermination of Vilna Jewry.

One had to be tough as iron to absorb the blows of the ‘good’ German during the slave labor; to survive when the body was swollen from hunger; to overcome disease and lice and to work from dawn till night in rain, snow, blizzards, winds, frost and heat.

“One had to be tough as iron not to collapse physically as well as morally when witnessing the pain of an old mother, of one’s wife and most importantly of one’s little children who all of a sudden, from a beautiful, cultured, materially secure life, were thrown into the abyss of need, confinement, dirt, hunger and horrible suffering.”

Evaluation: I will say that, in spite of having read many survivor accounts, I found this book riveting. If you are at all interested in this genre, this is a book you won’t want to miss.

Note: There is a good article on Vilna Jewry and what happened to them on the online site of the U.S. Holocaust Museum, here.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Gefen Books, 2011

Book Review of “The Rock and The River” by Kekla Magoon

In this absorbing coming of age story, you will learn along the way something about why this country has had a vested interest in deifying the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr. and in vilifying the reputation of his more activist rivals for power in the black community.

In the late 1960’s, Dr. King was battling the more militant elements among the black leadership over the direction that the fight for civil liberties would take. (This was not a new conflict; Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Dubois also went head-to-head on this issue.) Groups like the Black Panthers saw the non-violent, “gradualism” approach of Dr. King as too slow and too tolerant of abuses against black citizens. As Paul Robeson observed years before: “[I]n no other area of our society are lawbreakers granted an indefinite time to comply with the provisions of the law.” Magoon explains the philosophy of The Panthers, on whom this book focuses, in her afterword:

“The Panthers rejected ‘passive resistance’ in favor of self-defense and self-determination. They believed it was up to black communities to demand equality, defend their rights, and look out for their own needs. [To this end they] initiated landmark community organizing efforts to bring much-needed services into black neighborhoods. Their programs included free neighborhood health clinics, drug-awareness education, GED classes, clothing supply, tutoring, legal aid and referrals, free dental care, free ambulances, bussing families to visit loved ones in prison, and free breakfast programs for school-age children.”

In Magoon’s story set in Chicago in 1968, thirteen-year-old Sam and his seventeen-year old brother “Stick” are compelled to confront the difference between these two philosophies of the black civil rights movement, and to make a choice. Their father, Roland Childs, is a well-known (fictional) colleague of Dr. King’s and an important figure in his own right in the non-violence movement. But the impatience and optimism of youth are powerful catalysts. Stick begins to sneak out of the house to attend meetings of the Black Panthers, in direct violation of their father’s wishes.

Sam, younger and more trapped by the tug between parental worship and rebellion, not to mention the pull between love for his father and love for his brother, can’t decide what to do. He is also influenced by his sweet and smart girlfriend, Maxie, who is drawn to the Black Panthers. Faced with Sam’s vacillation, Stick tells him:

“‘Well, you can’t be the rock and the river, Sam.

‘The rock is high ground,’ Stick explained to Sam. ‘Solid. Immovable.’ ‘The river is motion, turmoil, rage. As the river flows, it wonders what it would be like to be so still, to take a breath, to rest. But the rock will always wonder what lies around the bend in the stream.’

‘I want to be both,’ [Sam] whispered.”

In the midst of the boys’ own political growth and turmoil, Dr. King’s assassination takes place, and Chicago erupts in riots. King’s death makes a profound impression on Sam:

“Dr. King’s speeches and his life were all about peace and brotherhood, about finding justice. And we listened. Yet, all we had learned was that when you stand up, you get shot down.”

The Panthers carried guns to protect themselves, but their purpose was deterrence, and in fact, in those years, blacks needed deterrence from the violence of the police perhaps even more than now. Ultimately their goal was changing hearts and minds, not killing. As Sam’s father (who, inexplicably to Sam, cooperated sub rosa with the Panthers) pointed out, “People are more afraid of ideas than of guns.”

Nevertheless, the story ends with guns and ends tragically, as it unfortunately did with dismaying frequency back in those years. And because I am part of a family with educators, I hear – also with dismaying frequency – “why teach that history to today’s blacks? It will only stir them up and make them angry.” And so it is not often taught. And the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s call for nonviolence is hyped and praised and honored with a special holiday.

The author states in an interview she gave to Zetta Elliott that she wanted to write this book because in school she only learned about the champions of non-violent protest. She never heard about all the social programs of the Black Panthers, nor about the effect that the threat of more direct action had on the government’s desire to appease Dr. King and elevate his reputation to the detriment of his rivals. With this book, she aims to contribute to a more balanced presentation of the history of the movement.

Evaluation: This book won the American Library Association’s Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award for New Talent, was nominated for an NAACP Image Award, and has been named a 2010 ALA Notable Book for Children and a YALSA 2010 Best Books for Young Adults. It is an excellent way to find out more about relatively recent American history in a gripping format that provides a fair look at both sides of the question of civil rights strategy. I believe it is a must-read for those born after the events described in this book.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Aladdin, 2009

Review of “50 Things You Should Know About The Tudors” by Rupert Matthews

This small book on the Tudors is replete with excellent pictures, entertaining fact-boxes, and reader-friendly infographics.


I was eager to read this book. I didn’t make it through Hilary Mantel’s acclaimed book Wolf Hall because I couldn’t tell all the Thomas’ apart. Or the Catherines, Elizabeths, Henrys, or Richards. Who can keep them straight? So I was excited for any new enlightenment I could get from this new entry in the “50 Things You Should Know” series.

The era of Tudor monarchs in England lasted from 1485 to 1603. This book provides nice background on the wars between branches of the royal family – the Lancasters (which included the Tudors) and the Yorks.

I would have liked to see more on the 1485 Battle of Bosworth, one of the most interesting battles in British history, in my opinion. This is where Richard III was betrayed and hacked up by supporters of Henry Tudor. Richard, as you may know, is the one who (allegedly) arranged for the murder of his two nephews (aged 9 and 12) in the Tower of London. Richard was supposed to be their “protector.” [Shakespeare’s depiction of Richard III as a monster, albeit one with great lines (“Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York…”), and his fingering of Richard for the crime had a great influence on the historical record.]

Portrait of Richard III by an unknown artist. (National Portrait Gallery)

Portrait of Richard III by an unknown artist. (National Portrait Gallery)

How Henry Tudor managed this battlefield victory is a riveting story of greed for power and land, insecurity, fear, paranoia and bribery, and goes far to illustrate the nature of political life in this period. (Historian Desmond Seward goes into great detail on these issues in a number of books on the Tudors. Another good resource is Richard III: The Maligned King by Annette Carson.)

Henry VIII (1491 – 1547) gets a lot of play in this book. There is, for example, a spread entitled “Marriage Troubles.” [One of those troubles probably would not have been getting the names wrong of his wives, since there were two Annes and three Catherines (albeit spelled differently). One additional wife, Jane Seymour, might have worked out since she actually produced an heir for Henry, but she died soon after childbirth.]

Portrait of Henry VIII by Hans Holbein the Younger circa 1540

Portrait of Henry VIII by Hans Holbein the Younger circa 1540

Henry’s attitude toward marriage was never without repercussions. He declared war on Scotland to force agreement to a marriage between his son Edward and the infant Mary, Queen of Scots. (Since Edward himself was only nine when he became king, there wasn’t much of an age difference…)

There were also a number of religious wars, initiated after Parliament – at Henry VIII’s instigation – made him head of the Church of England, so he could carry on with his annulments and remarriages.

And religious turmoil was not only related to Henry VIII’s interest in serial marriages. This was also the era of the Reformation and Martin Luther (1483 – 1546), causing a great deal of upheaval, as well as dissent over revisions of the Book of Common Prayer. Then there was the see-sawing of the religious affiliation of the royals. When the Catholic Mary I came into power in 1553, she decided to bring back Catholicism, and ordered hundreds of executions, earning the nickname “Bloody Mary.” Her successor, Elizabeth I, was a Protestant. Now Catholic services were outlawed, and this time it was the Catholics’ turn to be drawn and quartered.

Queen Elizabeth I

Queen Elizabeth I

When Elizabeth died in 1603, King James VI of Scotland came to London to rule as King James I and the Tudor period was said to be at an end. Even though James VI was the great-grandson of Margaret Tudor, he was thus a Tudor by virtue of his female descendants, which didn’t seem to count. He was descended in the male line from the House of Stuart. The author does not explain, however, how consideration of this fact made James a “Stuart” rather than a “Tudor.” But the book makes up for brevity by all the fascinating trivia and factoids it includes.

For what it’s worth, after reading this book, I still couldn’t tell you which Henry or Edward was which, in spite of the inclusion of a “Who’s Who Family Tree.” But that is my own failing, or perhaps that of all these historical parents: couldn’t they come up with different names? Thank heavens for the 20th and 21st centuries, when we have more distinctive names for kids like Apple and North and so on. [It’s too bad no one we know of before 2015 (Lil’ Kim, we’re looking at you), came up with the potentially great Tudor name for a baby, “Royal Reign.”]

Evaluation:  There is good reason for the continuing popularity of books and television series and movies about the Tudors – between the political machinations, religious turmoil, sex, violence, assassinations, plotting, jealousies and betrayals, there is really never a dull moment. The author found many ways to include engrossing aspects of a huge subject. I don’t think anyone is going to be bored by the history lessons in this book.

Henry Cavill as Charles Brandon, duke of Suffolk and Henry VIII's closest friend, in BBC's The Tudors

Henry Cavill as Charles Brandon, duke of Suffolk and Henry VIII’s closest friend, in BBC’s The Tudors

The real Charles Brandon at the time of his marriage to Princess Mary Tudor - give me the BBC Brandon any time!

The real Charles Brandon at the time of his marriage to Princess Mary Tudor – give me the BBC Brandon any time!

Rating:  3.5/5

Published in the US. by QEB Publishing, 2016

Review of “The Myth of the Great War” by John Mosier

In The Myth of the Great War, John Mosier seeks to dispel several views held by historians about WWI. He shows that the Germans were invariably more successful on the battlefield than either the British or the French, even though Germany lost the war. He concludes that were it not for the influx of money, explosives, and men from the United States, the Allies could never have won. He contends “the myth” that the British and French essentially won the war came about because the allied professional soldiers did not tell their respective publics, or even their political superiors, what was really happening.

Mosier avers that the striking success of the Germans in the early part of WWII should be attributed not only to the achievements of the German Army of 1914, but to an equal extent, the foolhardiness of Germany’s adversaries.

WWI was unusual in that it was the first war in which the majority of combat deaths were caused by artillery, not by small arms fire. The Germans suffered far fewer combat deaths than did the British because of superior tactics and training. They seldom if ever launched the kind of massed suicidal attacks that were standard British tactics, but rather, fought more on the defensive. They also used mortars and heavy artillery to a greater extent than did the Allies.

France’s army on the eve of WWI was weak because of lack of central command, underfunding, poor doctrine, and lousy tactics. French doctrine posited that battles would be won by bayonets! At war’s end, casualties caused by edged weapons were less than one quarter of one percent of total casualties. Increasing numbers of soldiers with machine guns could mow down any infantry wielding bayonets.

French WWI Bayonet Charge

French WWI Bayonet Charge

The Germans knew they would be greatly outnumbered, but they had a big advantage in firepower. They had much heavier artillery pieces and could fire them at a much higher trajectory. In the first month of the war, the Germans swept through Belgium without any real infantry engagements—their artillery reduced the Belgian forts to rubble, and the forts simply surrendered. The army marched into northern France, then turned southeast in an effort to surround two French armies and pinch off Verdun from Paris. But the Germans found themselves overextended, and so drew back to a defensible position north of Paris. The so-called Battle of the Marne was hardly a battle at all: the Germans had simply abandoned the position near the Marne to take an entrenched position along a more northerly ridge.

In the first half of 1915, a German engineer-general, Bruno von Mudra, developed tactics for seizing terrain at relatively low cost. It started with an intense, but short, bombardment, followed by small groups of men attacking with flamethrowers, pistols, and grenades. The French, by contrast, attempted large scale assaults, involving hundreds of thousands of men over a large segment of the front. The French typically gained a few hundred yards at the cost of tens of thousands of men. The Germans typically gained a few hundred yards at the cost of dozens of men. French Chief of Staff Joseph Joffre thought the French could overwhelm the Germans by sheer numbers. He was mistaken because the Germans had greater firepower and did not need superior numbers.

French Chief of Staff Joseph Joffre

On July 1, 1916, the British and French launched the Battle of the Somme, a massacre in which they sustained about 700,000 casualties (compared to 250,000 for the Germans) and gained about 200 square kilometers. The British tactics were especially suicidal, using waves of infantry walking slowly in formation, carrying over 40 pounds of provisions per man.

The year ended with the British launching another semi-suicidal attack at Cambrai. The initial result was the gain of a few kilometers of ground and the announcement to the home government of a great victory. However, the Germans, as usual, held back their troops until the British had exhausted their charge, then counter-attacked successfully, driving the British back to their original start line.

In 1917, the Germans switched to the offensive, hoping to knock the British and the French out of the war before the Americans could arrive with a whole new army. Mosier sees the years 1917-18 as a great race between Germany and the U.S.A.

The Germans launched a great offensive in March 1918 and almost destroyed the British Expeditionary Force in Flanders. They were stopped by French reserves, however. The Germans then attacked farther east and south, but there ran into the Americans, who fought exceptionally well and defeated them at Belleau Wood. For the first time, the Germans did not dominate the battlefield. Shortly thereafter, the Americans took back territory the French had been unable to take for the last four years of fighting.

American Expeditionary Forces Commander-in-Chief John J. Pershing

The German general staff realized that the American army would probably prevail. Their government contacted President Wilson directly, and said it would be willing to stop the war based on Wilson’s Fourteen Points. The German army was still intact and on French and Belgian soil. Mosier argues that the Allies wanted to continue with the war, but they knew the Americans held all the cards. He writes, “The Allies caved in. … Suddenly, the Great War was over. Peace had broken out.”

Evaluation: Mosier, an English professor, is an amateur historian who relies on secondary sources for his analyses. He tends to focus on the operational level of war, and his observations on the course of individual battles are generally sound. But he lacks an understanding of the political milieu in which the war was fought. Nor is he willing to broaden his conceptual lenses to admit evidence that contravenes his uninformed theories. It is true the British were reluctant to give up the old tactics of war that worked so well in the past but proved woefully inappropriate in modern settings with advances in weaponry. Nevertheless, Mosier’s theory about the sudden collapse of the German army in the face of the American threat is simply inaccurate. This ignores the effects of the British blockade, to name just one significant factor, which led to the sinking of German ships carrying nitrates for explosives and fertilizer for farmers, the starvation of German citizens (a fifth of all the calories consumed in Germany before the war had come from abroad), and diminution of support for the war by the German public. Other factors were in play as well; Mosier’s alternative interpretation of history is just too simplistic to hold up in the complex light of reality.

Maps and pictures are included in the book. Recommended for details of battles, but not for the theoretical scaffolding in which Mosier places them.

Rating: 3/5

Published by Harper, 2001

April 13, 1743 – Jefferson’s Birthdate & Review of Jefferson’s Pillow by Roger Wilkins

I loved this book. Wilkins, former Afro-American historian at Virginia’s George Mason University, looks back at the achievements of four Virginian founding fathers – George Mason, George Washington, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson – in light of their inability to divest themselves of slaves or even push for the abolition of slavery, all the while touting the virtues of liberty.


Rather than adhering to a dry academic approach, Wilkins welcomes you into his own world to share with you his private thoughts and his personal history as well as his insightful analyses. His descriptions of the complexities of the Founders are masterful.

George Mason, he observes, “ruled as a sovereign over an estate that depended, in virtually all respects, upon the perpetual subordination of the people whose freedom, labor, hope, and natural rights he was stealing.” Slaves were even required to kneel when they spoke to him. Yet Mason was a staunch abolitionist.

Washington, who decreed that his slaves should be freed after the death of both him and his wife, “was a disciplined member of the landed gentry. The aristocrat could be haughty and distant and overly fond of pomp. He could also be worshipful of wealth and jealous of his property – including his human property.”

Madison is famous of course for favoring any compromise that would keep the South tied to the North.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

Of Jefferson, Wilkins notes: “[he] was a rather dreamy and self-indulgent rural aristocrat…” His slaves “gave him the leisure to study, to reflect, and to write.” …And also, to bear additional children, who, borne by slave Sally Hemings, were among the only slaves Jefferson freed upon his death. At the time Jefferson wrote the Declaration, he owned more than one hundred slaves. Many of Jefferson’s best ideas were rephrasings of Mason’s writing, but Wilkins finds no fault with this: “He didn’t have to be original; it was the elegance of his prose, fueled by his passion, that moved human spirits and made him immortal.” Wilkins writes, “He was a dizzying mixture of searing brilliance and infuriating self-indulgence, of idealism and base racism, of soaring patriotism and myopic self-involvement. He was America writ small.”

The founding generation was obsessed with the possibility of retaliatory violence from the slaves, and for good reason. Wilkins describes the conditions of eighteenth century slaves, including his own relatives, and takes us with him on his journey to reconcile his sorrow and anger with his pride and patriotism. He charges that the myths tying American virtue to American whiteness have wrought profound psychological damage on African-Americans, which Wilkins believes must be rectified.

Wilkins also explores the addiction of privilege, and how it could have easily afflicted the Founders. They themselves were all too aware of human weaknesses, but these do not gainsay the amazing accomplishments of these men.

Evaluation: If you are seeking a better understanding of how our Founding Fathers could be so favored and so flawed, and what our country owes to the contributions of the slaves who helped build it, this book will not disappoint. Highly recommended.

Rating: 5/5

Published by Beacon Press, 2001

April 6, 1862 – Battle of Shiloh Begins

The Battle of Shiloh, also known as the Battle of Pittsburg Landing, was a major battle in the Western Theater of the American Civil War, fought on April 6 and 7, 1862 in southwestern Tennessee.


The Confederates under General Sidney Johnston had massed 42,000 men at Corinth, Mississippi. Meanwhile, Union Commander Henry Halleck sent Ulysses S. Grant to Pittsburgh Landing on the Tennessee River, twenty miles north of Corinth, and ordered Don Buell to join him there with additional troops. Combined, they would have 75,000 men. As James McPherson writes in Battle Cry of Freedom, Grant should have been prepared but he was not: “Once again, he focused his mind so intently on plans for attacking the rebels that he could spare no thoughts for what the rebels might be planning to do to him.” Thus, Grant’s men did not prepare any defensive lines. Their picket posts and patrols were inadequate. William Sherman was also overconfident, saying “[Confederate General] Beauregard is not such a fool as to leave his base of operations and attack us in ours.”


Against all odds, the Confederates achieved a surprise, and early on the morning of April 6, thousands of screaming rebels burst out of the woods near Grant’s encampment at Shiloh Church. It appeared at first as though the rebels would win, but Grant was finally reinforced with Buell, and with fresh troops and more men, the Yankees beat the rebels back.

The number of killed and wounded at Shiloh was nearly double the casualties of previous battles combined. Before Shiloh, both Grant and Sherman thought the Civil War would be over quickly. After Shiloh, Grant “gave up all idea of saving the Union except by complete conquest.”

In the book Confederates In the Attic by Tony Horwitz, the author tours around various Civil War battlefields, and picks up some fascinating information from the park historians he meets about what really happened on the fields of battle.


At Shiloh in particular, what he finds out is extremely interesting. He spoke with Paul Hawke, a park historian trained in physical anthropology. Hawke observed that “[t]raditional historians tend to ignore the best primary source out there – the ground. If you read it right, you realize a lot of the written history is simply wrong.”

For example, most history books describe Shiloh during the battle as a thicket of impenetrable spring woods. But Allen studied old weather charts and farm records and discovered that spring came to Shiloh very late in 1862, and most of the trees were still bare. He suggests that the confusion at the battle was probably more due to smoke, dust, and poor maps than to dense trees.

Furthermore, after the two-day fight, Grant ordered the dead of both armies buried in mass graves right where they fell. What Allen discovered to his surprise was that no burial trenches had been found near the “Hornet’s Nest,” where a group of Union defenders supposedly held the line against repeated onslaughts and turned the battle. He then did time and motion studies of units that claimed to have fought in and around the Nest and concluded that many of them couldn’t possibly have been where they claimed they were. Also, the casualty rates for these units were comparatively light.

Hornet's Nest

Hornet's Nest

What does all this mean? Allen believes there are several reasons for the stories about the Hornet’s Nest. One is that the men there could not see the rest of the battlefield. They may have felt like they fought the battle all on their own. A second is that many of them became prisoners of war, and had months to talk over the battle and firm up, to their minds, what happened. They also formed a veteran’s group after the war called the Hornet’s Nest Brigade led by their commanding officer who had become an influential politician. “He was eager to foster the impression that the Hornet’s Nest and his role there were crucial to the battle,” Allen said. ‘He played it up big, particularly later in life.’”

So gradually, reports Horwitz, the myth grew, until the Hornet’s Nest became the battle’s turning point. Allen said to Horwitz, “Grant once said that Shiloh was the most misunderstood battle of the Civil War. It’s taken me awhile to grasp how true that was.”

There are many more interesting vignettes and insights into battles in this delightful book. It’s not by any means a complete history of the Civil War, but rather a series of “dispatches” as Horwitz follows Civil War reenactors around the country. Highly recommended!