Review of “Heirs of the Founders: The Epic History of Henry Clay, John Calhoun, and Daniel Webster, The Second Generation of American Giants” by H. W. Brands

The period from 1815 to 1825 is often referred to (sometimes ironically) in American history as the “Era of Good Feelings.” Maybe. But the next 35 years were anything but. The interim between James Monroe’s presidency and the Civil War was marked by extreme sectional division over many political issues, including protectionism v. free trade; annexation of new territories (Texas, California, and Oregon); and state nullification of federal law. But lurking behind these controversies was the overarching problem of slavery.

The Constitution of 1789 never explicitly mentioned slavery, but that institution was entrenched and enshrined in the very marrow and character of the southern states. The Missouri Compromise of 1820, engineered largely by Henry Clay, temporarily settled the issue of where slavery would be permitted in the United States, establishing the Mason-Dixon Line as the boundary between free and slave states. But as a result of the Mexican War of 1846-48, the United States greatly expanded its territory to include Texas, California, and what is now Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico. As new states were to be admitted to the Union, would they be free or slave-holding?

H. W. Brands tells the story of a somewhat neglected period of American history in Heirs of the Founders. The subtitle of the book names the three towering figures that dominated the political arena during the period between the last of the Founding Fathers and the Civil War: Henry Clay of Kentucky; John C. Calhoun of South Carolina; and Daniel Webster of Massachusetts. Curiously, although the three came to be known as the “great triumvirate” and each of them sought the presidency to one degree or another, none of them ever achieved it.

“The Great Triumvirate: Clay, Webster, and Calhoun

Webster was an unsurpassed orator who forcefully advocated for the northern or free states interests on the floor of both the Senate and the House; Calhoun was the most formidable expounder of southern or slave state positions; and Clay was the man most responsible for working out various compromises that held the Union together for 40 years. But in the last of these agreements, the Compromise of 1850, the slave states achieved nearly all they had advocated. Even Webster accepted the expansion of slavery into new states, chastised the North for not cooperating in returning fugitive slaves to their southern masters, and criticized abolitionists and “extremists” for hurting their own cause. Nevertheless, the Compromise lasted only 10 years.

All three of the triumvirate had died by the outbreak of the Civil War in 1860. Calhoun surely would have supported the South’s secession. Webster probably would have supported the North’s military action to prevent the dissolution of the Union. And Clay would have striven mightily, but most likely unsuccessfully, to preserve the Union.

Brands’ book is part pure history, part biography. Because it deals perceptively with the issue of the extent of federal power and other sectional and ideological debates, it is surprisingly timely.

I listened to the audio version of the book, unabridged on 12 CDs (15 listening hours) read capably by Eric Martin.

Rating: 4/5 stars.

Published in hardcover by Doubleday Books, 2018 and in audio by Random House Audio, 2018


June 6, 1944 – Normandy Invasion & Review of “The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945” by Rick Atkinson

June 6, 2019 marks the 75th anniversary since the D-Day landings, the largest seaborne invasion in history.

Why yet another book on the battle for Western Europe in World War II? As Atkinson explained in an interview:

I think lists 60,000 hardcovers on World War II. So that is a daunting thing. On the other hand, I think the greatest events in human history are really bottomless. So for World War II, the archive is stupendous. The U.S. Army records alone for World War II weigh 17,000 tons, and even the best historians have not done more than just scratch the surface. The story is such that 500 years from now people will be writing and reading about it.”

Atkinson set a high standard for popular military history in his earlier books about the American involvement in the Western Theater. He has succeeded once again in The Guns at Last Light, the third and last volume of his Liberation Trilogy.


The Western Allies of World War II launched the largest amphibious invasion in history when they assaulted Normandy on the northern coast of France on June 6, 1944. The invaders were able to establish a beachhead as part of Operation Overlord after a successful “D-Day,” the first day of the invasion. This book covers the period between D-Day and the final Allied victory.

Atkinson sprinkles his narrative with relatively unknown (at least by me) small-scale anecdotes without ever losing view of the major strategic issues faced by the allies. Moreover, nearly every chapter contains at least one excellent map to guide the reader through the details of the geographical maneuvering of the armies.

A major theme discussed throughout the book is the bickering that took place among various generals and political leaders about the correct strategy to defeat the Nazis. Churchill bitterly opposed the Allies landing in Southern France after the Normandy invasion, preferring instead bolstering the attack in Italy. Although Churchill and Roosevelt had agreed that an American (Eisenhower) would be Supreme Commander of the allied forces, they apparently never fully convinced British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery that he should not be (in some cases, was not) in command. An even pricklier “ally” was the imperious Charles De Gaulle, who managed to provoke the enmity of every non-Frenchman with whom he dealt. One British wit said that a staple of De Gaulle’s diet was the hand that fed him. Eisenhower once told George Marshall, “Next to the weather, the French have caused me more trouble than any other single factor. They even rank above landing craft.”

The supreme commander of Allied forces in Western Europe, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, crossing the English Channel en route to Normandy from southern England on June 7, 1944

The supreme commander of Allied forces in Western Europe, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, crossing the English Channel en route to Normandy from southern England on June 7, 1944

Some of the fascinating details that vivified the narrative included:

  • Prior to D-Day, the Allies identified senior German railway officials for assassination by the French resistance in order to complicate enemy logistics once the invasion took place.
  • GI’s who received the Medal of Honor also received a $2 per month raise.
  • American dentists extracted 15 million teeth (more than one per soldier) from the men serving in the military during the war.
  • American soldiers smoked more than 1 million packs of cigarettes a day, an addiction that strained shipping resources. Dwight Eisenhower himself smoked four packs a day. When his blood pressure rose too high, he banned doctors from taking further readings, lest they order him home.
  • Soldiers learned to make do with what they had. On one occasion, German soldiers, lacking white flags with which to surrender, waved chickens instead. G.I.s forced to retreat across the Moselle River fashioned water wings from inflated condoms.
  • Churchill was said to speak French “remarkably well, but understands very little.”
  • The U.S. Army hospitalized 929,000 men for “neuropsychiatric” reasons (battle fatigue, shell shock, or PTSD) during the war, including as many as one in four during the Battle of the Bulge.

Atkinson is even-handed in his evaluation of the actions of key leaders, which often means he is highly critical of them. Montgomery and De Gaulle are seen as capable, but monumentally egotistical. Patton is shown to be an able tank commander, but occasionally very unwise, as with his unimaginative tactics to take the city of Metz.

George Patton, the U.S. Third Army commander, seen here after his promotion to four-star in 1945. (U.S. Army Military History Institute)

George Patton, the U.S. Third Army commander, seen here after his promotion to four-star in 1945. (U.S. Army Military History Institute)

Evaluation: This book can serve as an excellent introduction to the war in Western Europe for readers unfamiliar with those events, but it can also be edifying for those who have read a great deal about them. I highly recommend it.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Henry Holt and Company, 2013

Note: As stated above, this is book three of a trilogy about the Allied liberation of Europe in World War II. The first volume, An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943, received the Pulitzer Prize. The second volume, The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944 also received wide acclaim. A multimedia website about the three books and their subject matter offers an interactive time line of the war; maps from all three volumes, historical videos, photos, and other documents.

A French woman welcomes an American soldier on November 25, two days after French and U.S. troops liberated Strasbourg, the capital of Alsace.

A French woman welcomes an American soldier on November 25, two days after French and U.S. troops liberated Strasbourg, the capital of Alsace.

April 27, 1822 – Birth of Ulysses S. Grant and Review of “Grant” by Ron Chernow

Chernow’s book follows closely on the heels of a similarly weighty biography by Ronald C. White. The question is, why do we need two new books of this depth? The answer is: both have the goal of “rehabilitating” Grant’s reputation from its historical downward slide, but each has a slightly different emphasis. Chernow’s book is more thorough [in the audio version, 38 compact discs unabridged versus 22] and is less complimentary to Grant. Nevertheless, it seems clear Chernow would agree with White that Grant’s diminished reputation is not commensurate with his great achievements for the nation, nor with the magnanimity of Grant’s character.

White is less focused on explaining why Grant’s reputation has receded over time, and more on setting forth a new way to evaluate him. Chernow not only provides more historical context for Grant’s life, but frequently interjects theories as to the reasons why Grant’s reputation became (unfairly) tarnished. “Pernicious stereotypes,” Chernow argues, “grossly impede our understanding of the man.”

In the main, Chernow notes three factors. Notably, all three of them were loudly bruited by those who were either hurt personally by Grant’s decisions, or who objected to his policies.

The most salient was the accusation, endured throughout his life, that Grant was a drunken sot. Apparently, in his younger days, he did have a problem with drinking, but largely overcame it in later years (an accomplishment Chernow compliments often). Nevertheless, whenever anyone was opposed to Grant, the accusations resurfaced. In particular, during the Civil War, when Grant undertook an effort to remove incompetent political appointees from positions of military power, there were quite a few such detractors.

Ulysses S. Grant at his Cold Harbor, Va., headquarters

Secondly, when Grant was president, there were a number of scandals in his administration. Chernow observes:

It is sadly ironic that Grant’s presidency became synonymous with corruption, since he himself was impeccably honest. . . The mystery of Grant’s presidency is how this upright man tolerated some of the arrant rascals collected around him.”

Not only could he not see the “swampiness” of those around him, but he also believed those in his inner circle who were attacked were innocent dupes, “showing the sympathy for human frailty was his tragic undoing.”

President Grant, 1869

There are a number of theories about Grant’s naivety. For one thing, because of his own fundamental decency, he too often expected that others would act as he would. In addition, because he was acutely aware of the unfairness and lack of veracity of the accusations made about him over the years, he was inclined to give those around him the benefit of the doubt.

Chernow writes:

“The world of politics was filled with duplicitous people and Grant was poorly equipped to spot them, remaining an easy victim for crooked men. . . . Again and again he was stunned by scandals because he could not imagine subordinates guilty of such sleazy behavior.”

But Chernow wants us to be aware, not only of Grant’s better cabinet picks, but of Grant’s many accomplishments as president in spite of the distracting scandals. He points out that as a president coping with the aftermath of the Civil War, Grant “wrestled with herculean challenges,” from restoring a sense of one nation to the North and the South, to integrating four million blacks into the society as new citizens.

Hamilton Fish, Grant’s Secretary of State, was an excellent choice & beyond reproach

But it was this last achievement that contributes to the third reason Grant’s reputation suffered: the period of Reconstruction after the Civil War. As Chernow indicates, for years the Reconstruction Era was excoriated, viewed as a “catastrophic error, a period of corrupt carpetbag politicians and illiterate black legislators, presided over by the draconian rule of U.S. Grant.” It is only quite recently that historians, led by Eric Foner, have recast that time as “a noble experiment in equal justice for black citizens in which they made remarkable strides in voting, holding office, owning land, creating small businesses and churches, and achieving literacy.”

In addition, what is not often revealed, especially in history books for schools, is the shocking and inhumane violence employed by many whites throughout the South. Unable to countenance the freedom of their former slaves, white Southerners tried to suppress blacks in every way they could, with many joining the newly formed Ku Klux Klan to ensure that blacks stayed “in their places.”

Nathan Bedford Forrest, former Confederate Army General and 1st leader of the KKK

This quasi-military organization and its offshoots throughout the South attempted, as Grant said himself:

. . . by force and terror . . . to deprive colored citizens of the right to bear arms and of the right to a free ballot, to suppress schools in which colored children were taught, and to reduce the colored people to a condition closely akin to that of slavery.’”

The Klan in essence launched a new civil war by clandestine means. Grant, to his lasting credit, took up this new battle as unrelentingly as he did the fight to save the Union. Chernow writes: “Klan violence was unquestionably the worst outbreak of domestic terrorism in American history and Grant dealt with it aggressively, using all the instruments at his disposal.”

Chernow astutely observes that the incidents in the South:

. . . showed the fundamental weakness of a political revolution that had relied heavily on force applied by outsiders in Washington – something that couldn’t be maintained indefinitely.”

Those in power in the South (many of whom had been Confederates during the Civil War) resisted efforts by Grant to ensure civil equality and to rein in the violence of the Klan. And unfortunately, there arose “a certain moral fatigue” in the North, where racism remained widespread in spite of an opposition to the institution of slavery.

From Harper’s Weekly, 1876

Chernow does not flinch in recounting horrifying incidents of beatings, rape and murder in the South, especially around the time of elections, with Grant responding vigorously at first, but then retreating in the final stages of his administration. Grant later confessed that pulling back was a mistake, but he was bowing to pressure from party bosses, who in turn were bowing to pressure from their constituents. But Grant knew the situation for blacks in the South was indefensible. In 1875, he predicted that the northern retreat from Reconstruction would lead to Democrats recapturing power in the South: It requires no prophet to foresee that the national government will soon be at a great disadvantage and that the results of the war of the rebellion will have been in a large measure lost….”

Chernow emphasizes:

This wasn’t a minor statement: the victorious Union general of the Civil War was saying that terror tactics perpetrated by southern whites had nullified the outcome of the rebellion. All those hundreds of thousands dead, the millions maimed and wounded, the mourning of widows and orphans – all that suffering, all that tumult, on some level, had been for naught. Slavery had been abolished, but it had been replaced by a caste-ridden form of second-class citizenship for southern blacks, and that counted as a national shame.”

After Grant’s presidency ended, Reconstruction ended as well. Northern troops were withdrawn from the South. “Jim Crow” laws taking rights away from blacks were enacted in one state of the South after another. The Klan was given free reign to exercise police power over blacks without fear of reprisal. Schools and other public services for blacks were defunded. History textbooks used in southern schools were designed to teach white superiority and black backwardness, so that children imbibed these ideas from the earliest age. These practices persisted until the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.


Furthermore, Southerners, producing the greatest volume not only of textbooks and histories but also pictures, statuary, and movies, purposefully structured a mix of information laden with emotional impact that reinforced the view they chose to promulgate of the Civil War and its aftermath. These commemorative patterns came to inform the dominant narratives of American history, and thus kept alive the misunderstandings about Reconstruction. They have also become embedded in the subconscious of the American mind, helping to legitimate discriminatory political policies and practices over the years. And they have contributed to a negative impression about the accomplishments of Grant.

As for Grant, he didn’t stop caring about the fate of freed blacks, but he was no longer in a position to act directly on the matter. Thus he left politics aside for a while and went off on a tour around the world, to widespread acclaim abroad.

After two years, out of money, Grant and his family returned. Grant died on July 23, 1885, after losing his final battle, this time against cancer.

Ulysses S. Grant working on his memoirs just weeks before his death in 1885. Photo: Library of Congress

The book ends with William Tecumseh Sherman (Grant’s lifelong friend) and Mark Twain (the editor and publisher of Grant’s memoirs) at a bar after the funeral: drinking, smoking, and trying to make sense of Grant’s life. But it was Frederick Douglass, speaking at a memorial service in Washington, D.C. that same August, who may have summed up best who Grant was and what he meant to the country:

He was a man too great to be envious of the fame of others; too just to detract from the merits of the most brilliant of his companions in arms; too enlightened to be influenced by popular prejudice; too humane to despise the humblest. In him the Negro found a protector, the Indian a friend, a vanquished foe a brother, an imperiled nation a savior.”

Frederick Douglass, ca. 1879. George K. Warren. (National Archives Gift Collection)

Discussion: Chernow’s thorough coverage of Grant’s life especially excels during the period of the Civil War, when Chernow takes us on a riveting tour of the most important battles. He reveals Grant’s devotion to the idea of Union, his implacable calmness in adversity, his indomitable will, his rarely failing instincts, his courage under fire, and his unwillingness to back down. He also shows Grant’s less admirable qualities, especially his fixation on loyalty during his presidency, but doesn’t believe they should detract from his achievements.

Chernow concludes that “Grant deserves an honored place in American history, second only to Lincoln, for what he did for the freed slaves. He got the big issues right during his presidency, even if he bungled many of the small ones. . . . In the words of Frederick Douglass [in 1890], ‘that sturdy old Roman, Benjamin Butler, made the negro a contraband, Abraham Lincoln made him a freeman, and Gen. Ulysses S. Grant made him a citizen.’”

Evaluation: As with his other books, Chernow does an excellent job of providing a deeply researched portrayal of an important figure in American history. Chernow’s detailed exposure of the horror of the Reconstruction Era in the South, not only for blacks but for whites who dared sympathize with them, will be eye-opening for readers not familiar with the outstanding scholarship of Eric Foner. And truly, it is a history about which Americans should be aware.

This excellent history is highly recommended.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published in hardcover in 1104 pages by Penguin Press, 2017

A Few Notes on the Audio Production:

The narrator, Mark Bramhall, had strong competition for finding Grant’s “voice” because of the excellent job done by Arthur Morey in the Grant biography by Ronald C. White. Bramhall too managed to master all the different voices he presented, such as those of Lincoln, Sherman, and even Julia Grant. After a time I could pick out the person by the voice, even before Bramhall identified the speaker.

Published unabridged on 38 CDs (approximately 48 listening hours) by Penguin Random House Audio, 2017

Book Review of “Eisenhower 1956” by David A. Nichols

Generally when one thinks of our thirty-fourth president, one thinks of golf. Or at least, Eisenhower was the president most closely associated with golf before Trump was elected. During Eisenhower’s eight years in office (from 1953-1961) he played almost 800 rounds of golf. Plagued by a football knee injury however, he was never satisfied with his score, and once grumbled, “If I don’t improve, I’m going to pass a law that no one can ask me my golf score.”

Eisenhower playing golf in 1956 (Time Life Pictures - Getty Images)

But Eisenhower was much more adept than his diversionary life suggested, even if the fact that the press played up his avocations (he was also fond of painting) tended to obscure his successes as President. One of the greatest of his achievements was the commanding way in which he handled the Suez Crisis of 1956.

In that year, America’s closest allies pursued a course of action profoundly adverse to U.S. interests and which also brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. In the greatest secrecy, Britain, France, and Israel prepared and conducted an invasion of Egypt in response to Gamal Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal.

Gamal Nasser came to international attention in 1952, when he and a group of army officers overthrew the monarchy of Egypt and Sudan. He became president of Egypt in a military coup in 1956. Nasser wanted to build the Aswan High Dam to regulate the flow of the Nile River, and sought financial aid from the United States. The U.S. was willing to assist the Egyptians only if they installed financial controls that the Egyptians considered infringement on their sovereignty. The Soviet Union was willing to assist Egypt under less onerous terms, but the U.S. used its leverage in arms sales to dissuade the Russians. Unable to find satisfactory financing for the dam, Nasser then nationalized the Suez Canal, planning to use revenue from operation of the canal to pay for the dam.

Gamal Nasser

The British envisioned the canal as an important strategic asset because it greatly reduced travel time by sea to its prize colony, India. Even though the canal lay entirely within Egyptian territory, Britain and France owned nearly all the stock in the canal company and Britain had controlled and operated the canal since the 19th century. The British stationed 80,000 troops in the canal zone to protect its interests.

The British and the French could not envision the canal to be operated by mere Arabs (thought to be not even able to make water run down hill). Moreover, the Europeans distrusted Nasser, a dictator in his own country who was openly seeking to be the leader of the Arab world. Meanwhile, Israel and Egypt had been engaged in numerous deadly border skirmishes since 1948. The Israelis were eager to attack Egypt and annex more territory as a buffer zone between the two countries.

The British, French, and Israelis secretly concocted a wild scheme whereby the Israelis would attack Egypt from the East. Britain and France would then intervene militarily to protect their vital interests in the canal.

In mid-October 1956, just before the American presidential elections, the Israelis invaded Egypt, and the British and French launched a large expeditionary force that they had secretly assembled in Malta and Cyprus, ostensibly to separate the Egyptians and Israelis, but actually to retake the canal. Seeking to establish their influence in the Mideast, the Soviets threatened to use all necessary force, including nuclear weapons, to prevent the Europeans from taking the canal.

Eisenhower was just recovering from a severe heart attack. His Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, was also very ill. Nevertheless, during this crisis with the world at the brink of war, Eisenhower managed to keep his composure. Through deft diplomacy and careful manipulation of the procedures of the United Nations, he led an American effort to persuade the British and French to withdraw from Egypt and avoid a world war, all the while keeping the Soviet Union from establishing a foothold in the oil rich Mideast. (It may have helped that the Soviets had their hands full elsewhere, as they were busy brutally putting down popular uprisings in Hungary and Poland.)

Eisenhower realized that Egypt was completely within its right to nationalize the canal with appropriate compensation to the British and French shareholders of the canal company. He also firmly believed and asserted that the law was the same for Egyptians as it was for his long time allies. He rightfully felt betrayed by Britain and France, which had kept their machinations secret from him. He had to take sides against his close friends and allies from World War II to prevent World War III. Moreover, he had to confront a strong pro Israeli lobby and a staunchly pro-Israeli Democratic party during a period immediately before the presidential election. All this while conducting his own re-election campaign while his Secretary of State was hors de combat and he himself was recovering from his own medical crisis!

Discussion: Nichols gives us an arresting description of a strong, decisive leader under great pressure. If anything, Eisenhower is portrayed even more favorably than in Michael Korda’s stridently positive Ike, An American Hero.

Eisenhower is surely our most underrated modern president. He had the guts to tell our two closest allies to discontinue a policy near and dear to them. Moreover, he defied a recalcitrant and uncooperative Israeli government, just before a presidential election no less, and forced them to cede territory they had just taken from Egypt by force of arms. Compare the reluctance of our more recent presidents to sacrifice electoral advantage and assert American strategic interest by not objecting to Israel’s construction of additional settlements in occupied land!

Eisenhower 1956 reads almost like an adventure novel with the president as the chief protagonist. But that quality may be its biggest shortcoming. It contains more detail (at what time did Ike arise, how did he sleep, what did he eat) than I found interesting in a book even about very important historical events. On the other hand, Nichols’s analysis is keen, albeit sparse.

Note: An excellent map is included, as well a number of photographs of the key players.

Rating: 3/5

Published by Simon & Schuster, 2011

Review of “Germania” by Simon Winder

I enjoyed Simon Winder’s book Danubia enough to seek out his earlier combination travelogue/history, Germania – a “personal response,” as he calls it, to German history.

Screen Shot 2014-09-30 at 8.27.28 AM

Writing “German” history prior to 1871 presents a daunting task because before that date there was no country known as “Germany.” The land we think of as Germany was composed of numerous principalities, dukedoms, bishoprics, and independent city-states that popped in and out of existence owing to the vagaries of hereditary suzerainty and noble marriages. Winder notes that successive historical maps of the country resemble nothing so much as “an explosion in a jigsaw factory.” He does not undertake to present a chronological narrative; rather, he travels around the countryside and regales the reader with stories relevant to the place he is visiting, although the history still manages to be presented in roughly chronological order.

Winder is not one to make heroes of long-gone historical characters. Of Charlemagne he writes:

“As usual with such leaders, historians – who are generally rather introverted and mild individuals – tend to wish Charlemagne to be at heart keen on jewels, saints’ relics and spreading literacy, whereas an argument might be made for his core competence being the efficient piling-up of immense numbers of dead Saxons.”

Rather, the “heroes” of Winder’s story are the Free Imperial Cities such as Strasburg, Nuremberg, and the Hanseatic League that endured the middle ages as independent entities fostering trade and cosmopolitan values.

German Empire, 1871

Winder breaks off his history in 1933 with the rise of the Nazis, avoiding not only the nastiest period in German history, but also its remarkable economic recovery after World War II. But he does manage to get in a few jabs at modern Germany, as with his exploration of what it means to “be” German, spoofing the Nazi’s efforts to create a pure Aryan race. After a short summary of the shifts of various unrelated tribes over the territory for about a thousand years, he says, “In practice Germany is a chaotic ethnic lost-property office, and the last place to be looking for ‘pure blood.’” Indeed, he sees German reverence for their deep past as having a corrosive and disastrous effect:

“There can be few stronger arguments for the damage that can be done by paying too much attention to history than how Germany has understood and taught its ancient past, however aesthetically pleasurable it can be in operas.”

Winder livens up his sweep of German history with a tourist’s eye for the unique and noteworthy in his travels, describing the Christmas markets, the Ratskellers (with their massive glasses for serving beer), the ubiquitous castles, dense forests, flower-bedecked windows on half-timbered houses, marzipan in a variety of shapes (including, in one Lübeck shop, models of the Brandenburg Gate, the Eiffel Tower, and the Houses of Parliament) and “endless sausages.” He quips, “There is always a pig and a potato just around the next corner…..”

Half-timbered house in Germany

Half-timbered house in Germany

Evaluation: Germania, like Danubia, is a quirky book that could hardly be classified as serious history, although it contains a lot of factual information on an important topic. (“Germany,” the author writes, “is a place without which European culture makes no sense.”) Perhaps “travelogue with historical background” might be a more apt description. The writing is sprightly and entertaining, and the book presents an often delightful and decidedly unique guide to the region.

Rating: 3.75/5

Published in Great Britain by Picador, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, Ltd; Published in the U.S. by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010, and in paperback by Picador, 2011

Review of “The Somme” by Peter Hart

The combined British and French offensive in the Somme River Valley of 1916 was one of the deadliest battles in the history of warfare. It lasted from July 1 until the middle of November when winter weather compelled a relaxation of hostilities. The British suffered 419,654 casualties, with 131,000 dead; the French had 204,000 casualties; the Germans 450,000 – 600,000.

The original goal of the British was to break through the German trenches on the western front, their first objective being the village of Bapaume, which lay about 5 miles behind the first German trenches. When the breakthrough proved impossible, the offensive continued in order to relieve pressure on the French, who were engaged in a battle of similar magnitude at Verdun. In the end, the British had moved the front line forward a few hundred yards, and the German trenches remained substantially intact. The village of Bapaume remained in German hands.

Bapaume, France, during World War I, May 1917

Hart’s narrative takes us from the first day of the battle, when the British incurred 57,470 casualties and 19,240 dead, to its sanguinary climax. He covers in significant detail virtually every significant attack, and there were many. His technique is to give a general overview, and then fill in the details with extensive quotes from letters written by the participants. Looking back nearly 100 years, one has to marvel at the literacy of the British army.

The book is a treasure trove for the serious student of World War I. However, it, like the battle itself, takes its toll on the reader. There were a great many individual attacks, all with agonizingly similar results: a heavy artillery barrage was followed by a “charge” of infantry men weighed down by their battle impedimenta, and a virtual slaughter in no man’s land. Sometimes the attackers actually made it to the German trenches, but even when they succeeded in taking the trench, they were seldom able to hold it because a prompt counterattack drove them back to the original starting line.

Cheshire Regiment, British Army, in a typical trench in the Somme, 1916

During the course of several months, the British adapted their tactics slightly, but only slightly. They learned that the intensity of the artillery barrage was crucial to any success. They became more adept at the “creeping” barrage that landed just ahead of the advancing infantry. The men learned to use shell holes for cover, but usually found them already occupied, often by corpses. The first tanks were introduced by the British in this battle, but though they at first terrified the Germans, they were very slow and prone to frequent mechanical breakdown.

Hart’s criticism of the British generals, Douglas Haig in particular, is less harsh than that of most other analysts I have read. Haig believed that the Germans might have prevailed in 1914 if they had only persevered in their attacks a little longer, and he did not want to make the same mistake. Thus, the British Army dug in for the long haul, and suffered heavy casualties that it could ill afford, for insignificant tactical gain.

Field Marshal Douglas Haig

Moreover, to win the war, Haig reasoned that it would not be sufficient merely to take back the French territory lost. The German army had to be defeated. To Haig, it was a waste of manpower to engage in battles in other theaters, as the “Easterners” like David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill advocated. Hart opines that Haig and (his second in command) Robertson “may have been unimaginative, they were definitely ruthless when required, but above all they were hard, practical men and they were entirely right” in assessing how to beat the Germans in the situation they faced.

There were political as well as strategic considerations in play as well:

“Even if Haig had fully realized the depth and breadth of the losses suffered by his assaulting divisions on 1 July he could not have aborted the offensive without seriously jeopardizing the Entente Cordiale with France and Russia … They were unlikely to look on with any great sympathy if Britain tried to evade her share of the ‘butcher’s bill.’”

Evaluation: Hart’s favorable analysis of Haig is pointed and controversial. (Some of the epithets that have been applied to Haig include “The Butcher of the Somme” and “The Worst General of World War I.”) It is also very terse, taking up no more than 15 pages of a 550 page book. The remaining 530 pages support Hart’s characterization of the military leadership as “unimaginative.” I would not recommend this book to anyone who did not want to read a blow-by-blow account of a five and one-half month battle.

Rating: 2.5/5

Published by Pegasus, 2009

Review of “The Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers” by Thomas Fleming

This overview of the lives of the Founding Fathers shifts the focus of our attention to the women who exercised the most influence over their lives.

Fleming looks at six Founders: Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Adams, Hamilton, and Madison and explains:

“Knowing and understanding the women in their lives adds pathos and depth to the pubic dimensions of the founding fathers’ political journeys. … In their loves and losses, their hopes and fears, they are more like us than we have dared to imagine.”

Several of the Founders had dashed romantic hopes with other women before they found their life mates. George Washington was said to be smitten by Sally Fairfax, the wife of his neighbor. James Madison, at age thirty-one, fell in love with fifteen-year-old Kitty Floyd, but she rejected him for a younger man. Jefferson was besotted by Rebecca Burwell for five years, to no avail. Even John Adams had a love before Abigail; he was infatuated with Hannah Quincy, but she chose another.

There are lots of entertaining tidbits in this book. Perhaps the most interesting stories concern Dolley Madison, whose influence caused people to bestow on her the [new] title of “First Lady.” Dolley was determined to counterbalance her husband’s reticence, social ineptitude, and unpopularity. As Fleming notes, “by day she was a tireless visitor, leaving her calling cards all over the city.” At night, she organized lavish social events, inviting so many people the parties were known as “squeezes.” When the invading British army burned the White House in 1814, it was Dolley that stayed back despite the danger to save George Washington’s portrait and the White House copy of the Declaration of Independence. But Dolley’s influence wasn’t only of the social kind. Her husband kept her apprised of domestic and foreign affairs, and she used her visits and soirees to push positions amenable to the administration.

Dolley Madison

Dolley also expended a great deal of energy in a way similar to that of the other first ladies: supporting her husband and boosting his morale in the early, critical days of the Republic. These men were pioneers, and during their lifetimes they were often vilified, slandered, unappreciated, and subsequently dispirited. During the Revolutionary War, Washington’s spirits notably approved whenever Martha arrived in the encampments. Adams, who possibly was a manic depressive, was particularly dependent on Abigail to pick him up when his emotions laid him low. Hamilton’s wife stood by him when he was forced to admit to an affair that led him to be blackmailed for a time.

Fleming devotes the most space to Jefferson, and the Sally Hemings question. Despite his unflinching portrait of Jefferson’s shortcomings in other books, here, Fleming seems to want us to give Jefferson our sympathy. He portrays Jefferson as an airy, poetry-spouting, head-in-the-clouds kind of guy, who was totally devoted to his wife Martha. If emotionally upset, Jefferson would get stricken with a migraine that could incapacitate him for weeks. Martha had a weak constitution and constant pregnancies didn’t help. Jefferson hovered over her, nursing her himself. When Martha sank into a coma, Jefferson blacked out. She died in 1782, just ten years after they were married, when Jefferson was thirty-nine.

Thomas Jefferson

The Hemingses, a slave family, came to Monticello prior to Martha’s death, after Martha’s father died in 1773. Reportedly they were the children of her father by a half-black slave mother, Elizabeth Hemings. Thus Sally Hemings was Martha’s half-sister.

At the time of Martha’s death, Jefferson had three living daughters. He left them with a relative and went to France to help negotiate a peace treaty. Later, he returned to France, taking eldest daughter Martha with him. When Jefferson requested that his next oldest girl, Polly, come to France also, Polly’s aunt sent along Sally Hemings as Polly’s chaperon.

Eventually Sally had six children. In Jefferson’s will (he died on July 4, 1826), Jefferson freed all the Hemingses (except Sally – more on that momentarily). According to Fleming, who doesn’t accept the theory that Jefferson had a long term affair with Sally Hemings and fathered several children by her, Jefferson’s favorable treatment was a reflection of the Hemings’ relationship to his late wife Martha. He also was opposed to the slavery of third generation mulattos. Fleming does not indicate why Sally was not freed, but Virginia had a 1806 removal law requiring freed slaves to leave the state within a year. Later, Jefferson’s daughter gave Sally her “time,” which was an informal way of bestowing freedom without incurring the effects of the removal law. It has been speculated in other sources besides this book that Jefferson did not want to give fodder to rumor-mongers by freeing Sally outright; nor did he want to force her to leave the state. The Thomas Jefferson Foundation speculates that Jefferson probably made a verbal agreement with his daughter Martha before he died to adopt this strategy, but there is no evidence for it.

Fleming proffers myriad arguments that Jefferson was not the father of Sally Hemings children: (1) her children seem to have come from at least two separate fathers, going by their reported appearances [and showing that Fleming is better at understanding history than genetics]; (2) the DNA evidence only shows that someone in Jefferson’s family fathered (some of) the children; (3) Jefferson remained passionately devoted to the memory of his wife and to his living children and grandchildren; and (4) furtive sex for thirty-eight years would have been highly unlikely in a house “swarming with visitors and grandchildren” with all of the bedrooms in the same wing. [See our review of The Hemingses of Monticello providing evidence for a different view.]

Evaluation: Fleming’s dedication of this book, listing all of the women in his life, indicates that he wanted to give them a gift: an affirmation that women played an important role in the founding of the country. He does a fine job on that score. The portraits of both the Founders and their wives are a bit sketchy, since the author is covering six of them in one book, but he does a nice job in picking out the highlights of their careers. If you would like an overview of the lives of the Founding Fathers that also shows how much women contributed (to the extent they were allowed) to the country’s beginnings, this is a great place to start.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Smithsonian, 2009