Once again David McCullough has produced a masterpiece. In 1776, he traces the origins of the American Rebellion in the years leading up to the outbreak of fighting in 1775. In April 1775, the militia in Concord fought back the British regulars and as the British soldiers retreated back towards Boston. More and more militia joined the attack and the British retreat turned into a rout. At the end of the day the British soldiers were besieged in the city of Boston. In June the British soldiers attacked the Rebel fortifications on Breed's Hill. They carried the field, but suffered about 1,000 casualties. This put an end to any attempt by the British Army to break out of Boston. In July, George Washington took command of the newly named Continental Army and began to organize it. The year 1775, ended with the British entrenched in Boston, but unable to leave.
In March 1776, the British finally gave up the city of Boston and sailed away. Washington suspected that their next target would be New York. He moved his army from Boston to New York where they began to prepare for the defense of the city. In the city of Philadelphia the decision had finally been reached to declare independence from Great Britain. The news was met with much rejoicing by the army in New York. They were no longer fighting a rebellion against the King of England. Now they were soldiers fighting for a nation of their own. The British began to arrive in New York in July. In August the American army was pushed off of Long Island. By September it had been pushed out of the rest of New York. Then came the long retreat. In December, with his army starting to fall apart, Washington decided to risk it all on an attack of the Hessian garrison at Trenton. The battle was a success and the Continental army had it's first major victory. A week later the Americans successfully attacked the British forces at Princeton. These two victories gave the army the encouragement that it needed to keep fighting.
McCullough's writing is always masterful. He understands how to use language to engage the reader throughout. One of his great strengths is bringing these historical characters to life. George Washington is the pivotal character in the book. A man who had never commanded an army in battle Washington made a number of poor choices in the New York campaign. He would learn from his mistakes over time. We also see the great commanders Nathaniel Greene and Henry Knox. These two men would serve through the war and would be crucial supporters of Washington. We also get to see the rank and file soldier like Joseph P. Martin. It was the courage of these men and thousands like them that helped to create the United States of America. If you have not read this book then do yourself a favor and read it.
David McCullough narrates this book which makes it even more enjoyable to listen to. My first experience with McCullough dated back to when he used to narrate documentaries for Ken Burns. His voice is always a delight to listen to.
The world is changing. That is the theme of The Sundering, the new series from Forgotten Realms. In this six book series the writers promise us new and world changing events. The first novel in this series is The Companions by R. A. Salvatore. As a fan of the Drizzt series of novels I was very excited when I saw this title.
First with The Dragon King and then in Gauntlgrym the friends of Drizzt knows as The Companions of the Hall died. It was heartbreaking to lose these characters. In the following three books Drizzt spends his time trying to come to grips with his loss and move on. Little did we know that something this special and amazing was in store.
There are so many surprises and changes in this book that it is hard to review. I don’t want to spoil any of the surprises. Let us just say that we get to see our favorite companions again. They have been sent back with a mission. They must help Drizzt in his greatest struggle. Their path back will be strange. It will be dangerous. As they move through the challenges before them they grow and mature in new and powerful ways.
Salvatore uses this book to really develop the characters of the Companions. After reading this book I can’t wait to see how the story continues. To avoid spoiling the story I won’t say much about the plot. I will say that this is one of Salvatore’s best novels to date and it made me laugh, it made my cry, and it left me wanting more. If you are a fan of the Drizzt novels then I suggest you buy this book now.
There are thousands of books about the classical world so one might ask if we really need another. The answer is yes we do. Our understanding of the past is constantly changing as new information is discovered. New writers have new ways of looking at old subjects. Most of all as the world we live in changes we need new books to help us connect with a past that is constantly moving.
The Birth of Classical Europe is a wonderful introduction to the ancient world. The authors focus on Greek history and then move on to Rome. They do not spend a lot of time on the civilizations of Mesopotamia, the Ancient Near East, and Egypt. That is not because of any Eurocentric prejudice, but rather they focus their story on one specific region. They spend a lot of time on Minoan and Mycenaean cultures. Using archeological discoveries from the last 20 years they build up a picture of the ancient world that is a little less catastrophic than the previous pictures that we have had. They argue more for a story of a sequence migrations that ends with assimilation. This is a little less sudden than the image of hordes of invaders wiping out the natives and resettling the region.
The authors spend a lot of time with ancient authors and recognize the value of the ancient sources. They do not accept the ancient stories at face value, that would of course be a mistake. Instead they look at the archeology and see how that illuminates the stories. Often credible theories of the past can be built when one uses this method.
This book is not meant to be a comprehensive history of the ancient world. Instead it is an introduction to the period. As the first volume of The Penguin History of Europe its purpose is to give the reader an understanding of the foundations of European civilization. The book is designed for the general reader. If you are not well read in the period you can pick this book up and learn a lot. I consider myself to be moderately well read in the period and I learned a lot. The Further Reading section at the end has a wonderful list of books, both scholarly and general reader, that should keep the person interested in the period satisfied for a long time to come.
I highly recommend this book for anyone who would like to learn about the ancient world. This can be read as a general reader book and could also be used as a high school level textbook for home schoolers or others interested in providing young people with well written book that is informative and enjoyable.
Neil Gaiman is one of the most interesting storytellers of our time. From his award winning Sandman comic book series to his award winning novels like American Gods he has shown an amazing ability to look beneath the surface and give us a dream like experience of reality. His newest book The Ocean at the End of the Lane is no different. It is often hard to tell what is real and what is a dream. Or is it all a dream?
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is, at one level, the story of the narrator as a seven year old boy. The novel begins as the narrator is taking a drive down memory lane after a funeral. He drives past his childhood home and then finds himself going to the home of a childhood friend. He goes around to the back and sits down. As he sits he begins to remember the events that took place when he was seven. The seven year old boy is very familiar to me. At one level he is a reconstruction of Neil Gaiman as a child. I see myself in the boy as well. I too found my friends in books and preferred their company to that of other children. Like the narrator and the author some of the first books I remember are the Narnia books by C. S. Lewis.
The world of this seven year old is turned upside down when the man who is renting a room in their house commits suicide. This suicide wakes up something primordial. At the scene of the suicide the narrator meets Lettie Hempstock. At first Lettie seems to be nothing more than an eleven year old girl living with her mother and grandmother. These three women are far from normal. They are something larger and more powerful. By accident the narrator lets a great evil through into our world. Now, with the help of the Hempstock women he has to try and contain this evil and send it back where it came from.
This is more than just a story of childhood fantasy. It is the story of good against evil. Of powers beyond our control invading our world and trying to turn it upside down. It is the outside world trying to rob the innocence of children. It is the story of losing something, of something being taken as we grow older. Actually it is a story of childhood fantasy. It’s not the awakening to evil, it is the realization of good. Gaiman lists G. K. Chesterton as one of his childhood influences. Perhaps this quote from Chesterton’s essay “Red Angel” would help illuminate this book:
“Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.”
This is an amazing book. I am not sure that it would be appropriate for small children. I say I am not sure, not because it is frightening. I think that this book is more than that. I think that this book is for those who need to find the belief in something bigger than themselves.
Grant, Sherman, Lee, Longstreet. These are all names familiar to people who have studied the CIvil War. These were the men who fought each other in the most devastating war in United States History. In Training Ground Martin Dugard reminds us that these men were not always enemies. In the war with Mexico these men and many others fought side by side. Training Ground is not a full history of the Mexican War, it is more of a history of the men who fought the war together as young officers and would later command opposing armies. Dugard traces the early biographies of US Grant, James Longstreet, William Sherman, and Robert E. Lee. We see how these men went to West Point and entered into an army that promised very little in the way of a career and promotion.
The primary character in the story is a young US Grant. Each chapter is introduced with a quotation from Grant’s Memoirs. In his later life Grant was highly critical of the actions of the US Government in both provoking a war and then in the way that the Democratic leadership sought to run the war in a highly politicized manner. Of course the young Grant that we meet in these pages is less concerned with the political implication of the war. He is far more interested in getting back home to his love Julia.
The Mexican War was indeed the Training Ground for the Civil War. If you are familiar with the history of the Civil War you can’t help but feel a little sad as you read this book. You know the history of these young, anxious, promising young officers. You know how they will end up opposing each other. Reading this book I couldn’t help but wonder what the US Army would have looked like had the Civil War not occurred. What would have happened if an army commanded by Lee with Grant, Longstreet, Jackson, Sherman, and the others have been able to do. With that much brilliance they could have stood against any army in the world. Instead they were forced by political forces to fight each other.
Training Ground gives a good overview of the Mexican War. It also gives an insight to men who would shape history only thirteen years later. This is something that a lover of American History or the Civil War should enjoy.
It seems that we will never run out of new books about World War II. That is not a bad thing. World War II saw more combatants than any other war in history. It affected a large percentage of the world’s population. Much of the war was fought between literate soldiers, officers, and civilians on both sides. This has left us with a mountain of material. Every author has his own reading and prejudices that he brings to the study. This means that we will receive many different views of the same subject. Rick Atkinson’s The Guns At Last Light: The War In Western Europe, 1944-1945, brings us his view of the war. The book starts with the invasion plans for Normandy. Atkinson goes in to a lot of detail about the logistical troubles that the allies had to prepare for what would be the largest amphibious assault in history. The information on D-Day itself and the Normandy campaign is very comprehensive, but not overwhelming with minutiae. The author points out the successes and failures of the campaign. One of the great failures was the lack of preparation by the commanders for dealing with the hedgerow country.
Many books on the campaign in France tend to focus on the Normandy campaign and the subsequent breakout. There was a subsequent invasion of the south of France known as Operation Dragoon. Atkinson spends a good deal of time talking about Dragoon. He also spends a lot of time discussing Operation Market Garden. Market Garden was one of the more controversial campaigns of the war and it is covered quite well here. One of the reasons Eisenhower was willing to try Market Garden was the need to stop the new rockets that Germany had developed. First the V1 then the V2 rockets were causing a lot of havoc in London. The other reason was the need to gain Antwerp. Logistics was a nightmare for the Allied force. The port in Antwerp would significantly increase the supply capacity.
The Battle of the Bulge is portrayed in the book as the greatest failure of Allied intelligence during the war. The Battle is portrayed in very vivid scenes. This section contains some of Atkinson’s best prose. One can almost feel the cold when reading the book.
Atkinson spends a lot of time discussing generals who are not as well known to the general reader. Almost everyone has heard of Eisenhower, Patton, Bradley, and Montgomery. Here we also get to see generals like Roosevelt, Truscott, Hodges, Devers, and others. Atkinson is obviously not a fan of Omar Bradley and never passes up a chance to criticize him. He tries to be fair to Montgomery, but it is hard. I’m not sure that it is possible to portray Montgomery accurately and in a positive light. There are a lot of stories about the British intrigues against Eisenhower. The British never approved and never understood Ike’s large front strategy. They always favored a narrow front with a heavy strike force. Of course they also wanted Monty in charge of it. Eisenhower knew better. Ike favored the same kind of battle order that Grant used in the Civil War. He knew that the Germans simply didn’t have the manpower to hold the entire front.
The Malta and Yalta conferences are the subject of a chapter and they help to set the stage for the end of the war. It is interesting to see the interaction of the three leaders (Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin) as the decide the fate of Europe in the post-war. The section on the liberation of the concentration camps is also very well done and very interesting. I was intrigued to lean that at Buchenwald American troops and officers took it on themselves to kill a number of SS troops who surrendered. The only really weak point in the book occurs here. Atkinson seems outraged by the actions of the American troops and seems them as simply murderers. His language gives the impression that it makes them no better than the SS thugs that they killed. I think that the context certainly gives the lie to any such moral equivalency. The GIs were well aware that the SS had massacred American POWs during the Battle of the Bulge. Now they see this fresh hell and in front of them are the men who committed the atrocities. I doubt that any of the soldiers who took part in the executions slept poorly over what they did.
That one criticism aside this is an excellent book. Atkinson’s style is easy to read and the information is presented in such a way that the average reader will not be overwhelmed. He tries on the whole to give a thorough look at the campaign and the players. This should not be the only book that you read on this subject, but it is a book that you should read.
The Battle of Bunker Hill. Most Americans have heard of this famous battle. June 17, 1775, the British forces led by General William Howe attacked the newly fortified Colonial position on Breed’s Hill and were repulsed on the first two attempts. On the third attempt the Colonial forces were finally forced to pull back due to lack of powder. The battle was not a large battle, fewer than 6,000 soldiers were involved. This would have been considered barely a skirmish in Europe. Yet this fight lives on in American legend.
Nathaniel Philbrick turns his talent to the story of this famous battle. He starts the book well before the events of that fateful day. He recounts the struggles between the colonial population and the British government over issues such as taxation. He gives a lot of detail about the nature and use of mob violence in colonial world. Philbrick spends a lot of time on this subject. He paints a rather terrifying spectacle of these mobs. One of the stories he relates is of an outspoken supporter of government policy who is taken from his home, dragged through the town, tarred, feathered, beaten, and almost hanged before the crowd is through with him.
There are two prominent characters in this book that we don’t hear enough about today: Joseph Warren and Samuel Adams. These were the two primary leaders in the anti-government movement. Samuel Adams, the elder of the two was a well known rabble rouser. He understood how to work the crowds and to use every situation to his advantage. Joseph Warren was one of the most respected physicians in Boston. He was also dedicated to the cause of liberty. He was, by all accounts, a great orator and a tireless worker on behalf of the cause. Philbrick spends a lot of time speculating as to whether he fathered a child by a maid. This may be the weakest part of the book. It really doesn’t matter whether or not Warren fathered this child and it does nothing to tell the story.
A good amount of the book deals with the lead up to the British march on Lexington and Concord, and with the actual fights on that April day. I was not aware of the British atrocities committed on the retreat to Boston until I read this book. Many of the dead Americans were civilians who were simply murdered by the British who were enraged over being forced to retreat.
Philbrick spends a lot of time on the battle itself. The main part of the battle was actually fought on Breed’s Hill, not Bunker Hill. The colonial forces were supposed to fortify Bunker Hill, but went to far forward and dug in to a less defensible position on Breed’s Hill. The British success drove the colonial forces off of Breed’s Hill and then Bunker Hill. It was in the defense of Breed’s Hill that Joseph Warren has killed. His loss was felt strongly by all who knew him.
Philbrick is a very good writer and knows how to keep the narrative flowing. He has found a lot of interesting stories and a lot of interesting characters. This is an easy to read, enjoyable book that can read with little or no background knowledge of the subject.
Patrick Henry is one of those characters in history that many people know his name, but know little about him. Many are familiar with the line from his famous speech where he declared "Give me liberty or give me death." Few know much more about him. Harlow Giles Unger has set out to change that. In the past Unger has written about James Monroe and John Quincy Adams. In this book he turns his attention to Patrick Henry. Henry was not like a lot of his Virginia colleagues. He was not born to a wealthy planter. After failing at a few business ventures he finally took up the study of law. Before long he had established himself as a well respected attorney. Henry's strong appeal was his common sense and his love of liberty. He was a radical long before it was popular.
He was married twice. He had six children with his first wife and twelve more with his second. Many in his own time joked that he was the true father of his country. Henry was a man who believed in personal liberty. The belief was so strong that he opposed the ratification of the Constitution. Like many in his age he feared the dangers that a strong national government posed. He particularly feared the lack of a Bill of Rights in the Constitution. He was not happy that the Constitution was ratified, but he refused to oppose the new government.
Unger is an entertaining writer. If he has one major flaw it is to take the side of his subject a little too freely. In his biography of Monroe he felt the need to downplay the importance of John Quincy Adams. In his biography of Adams he builds him up as being incredibly important. One glaring example stuck out in this book. When Edmund Randolph and Thomas Jefferson gave their approval of the Constitution, despite serious reservations, Unger implies not only that Henry thought that there was a conspiracy between these men and Washington, but also that such a theory might have credence. It is absurd to imply that George Washington bribed Randolph and Jefferson with cabinet positions. No evidence is given, just a random thought thrown out. The occasional lapse aside Unger is a good writer, if a bit on the enthusiastic. There are so few books on this important founder that it is well worth checking this book out.
The Battle of New Orleans is a strange battle to discuss. It was the last battle in the War of 1812. It was fought after the war had actually ended. Since transportation was so slow the news of the war’s end did not arrive in time to prevent the battle. One one side were the invaders. General Packinham led an army of battle hardened British soldiers. Many of them had campaigned against the French armies in Portugal, Spain, and France with the Duke of Wellington. They were not an army used to defeat. Against that force was General Andrew Jackson of Tennessee. Jackson had assembled a motley crew of Louisiana, Tennessee, and Kentucky volunteers, US Army regulars, Baratarian pirates, and Choctaw warriors. When on January 8, 1815 the 11,000 man British force attacked it was repulsed with heavy losses by the Americans.
Winston Groom, best known as author of Forrest Gump takes the reader on a fascinating ride through the story of this war. Groom introduces the conflict by discussing an ancestor of his who fought at the battle. Then he gives a long background on the history of Jean Laffite and his Baratarians. He discusses the city of New Orleans, the background of the war, Andrew Jackson, and a host of other things. Groom is a brilliant author and his prose really shines forth in this book. He doesn’t pretend to be a professional historian. Where the records are confusing or contradictory, which is often, he gives several possibilities and then shares which one he like best. This is a great book about a fascinating battle. Do yourself a favor and read this.
The phrase “What Hath God Wrought” was the first message sent long distance over the telegraph. This was in some ways the beginning of the communications age. This book covers the period from 1815 to 1848. Many viewed the War of 1812 as the second American Revolution. In the aftermath of that war the American nation began to grow quickly. By the end of the period another war would be fought. This one with Mexico. That war would complete what we today call the Continental United States.
This period is rich in American history. The nation grew in size, but also in many other areas. Religion flourished in many new and differing ways. An American culture began to grow in the areas of science, literature, and the arts. The tasks of governing a Republic of vast proportions was a novel concept and continued to perplex many leaders. This period saw the end of the Federalist party with the government becoming a one party system with the Republican party in control during the Monroe years. After that the Republican party split itself in two as the followers of Andrew Jackson created the Democrat party and the opponents of Jackson creating the Whig party. Some of the greatest orators and politicians of 19th century America lived and served in this time. It was the period of Jackson, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, John Calhoun, and John Quincy Adams. Towards the end of the period new leaders like Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas began to rise.
Slavery was the elephant in the room that could no longer be ignored. As abolitionist societies began to grow in the North the Southern planter class become more and more adamant about protecting slavery. This conflict would continue to pull at the fabric of the nation until, a dozen years after the final period of this book, it would tear the nation in two.
These are only a few of the areas covered by Daniel Walker Howe in this outstanding volume in the Oxford History of the United States. Even a seasoned reader of history is bound to discover some new gems in these pages. Howe’s prose is never wooded and the subject is made very accessible. With magnificent books like these it is a shame that so few Americans read history. This is a great place to begin the study of a crucial time in our nation’s history.
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