Tag Archive | Civil War

Book Review: The Civil War: Strange and Fascinating Facts

The Civil War: Strange and Fascinating Facts by Burke Davis, has been out for a while, first published in 1960.  But of course, the Civil War has been done for a while too.

The Civil War: Strange & Fascinating Facts

It is a compilation of unique and interesting facts about the war, collected into chapters of similar information.  Want to know about the spies of the war?  You got it.  New technologies, like submarines, machine guns, mines, grenades and hot air balloons?  Yep.  Want to know about the money that was minted by the Confederacy?  Families that were split on both sides of the conflict – there’s a chapter on that too.  There is much, much more among the pages as well.

Some of the stories I had heard before, but many were brand new to me.  They were interesting and well researched.  They add in a touch of humor along with the sadness that goes along with war.

3 stars.

Book Review: Manhunt

Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer, by James L. Swanson

As a fan of our 16th President Abraham Lincoln, I have been wanting to read this book for awhile. It did not disappoint!

Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer

We are all familiar with the story of our 16th President’s untimely death due to an assassin’s bullet in April 1865.  However, do you know the story of the plan that lead up to it?  A plan to not only assassinate Lincoln, but also to kill Secretary of State William H. Seward and Vice President Andrew Johnson.  It is believed that General Ulysses S. Grant was also a target of the plot, as he was supposed to be attending Ford’s Theatre with the President that evening.

Of course, Lincoln was the only man killed, shot in the Presidential Box at the theatre about 10:15 pm by John Wilkes Booth, who with dramatic flair, jumped to the stage, breaking his leg in the process, and fled.  Booth was well known, so he went into hiding as he attempted to cross the Potomac River and get deeper into Virginia, where Confederates still held territory.

Swanson book documents the plot, the conspirators, and Booth’s flight into Virginia after the assassination.  He uses primary sources to tell the story of where Booth went after he crossed the bridge outside of DC, and why it took twelve long days to pin him down in Garrett’s barn, where the final standoff occurred.  He also weaves in little known stories of the players involved, filling out these important chapters in American history.  Did you know that Laura Keene, the actress in the play that night, made her way into the box after Lincoln was shot, asked and was incredulously granted permission to cradle the dying President’s head in her lap?

For fans of Lincoln, this book fills in some of the gaps of his assassination and the days following, and is not to be missed.

5 stars.

Book Review: Gone With the Wind

“After all, tomorrow is another day.”

I began reading Gone With the Wind in early February, after a late January trip to Atlanta put me at the Margaret Mitchell House, a house museum dedicated to the author and located in her old apartment.  My discussion with the guide at the museum piqued my interest about the book again, and so I wanted to read it with my new perspective in mind.

Gone With the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell

Margaret Mitchell was the granddaughter of two Confederate officers, so the nostalgia of the Old South ran deep in the stories she heard in her childhood.  In addition, she was a strong woman, a young adult during the roaring twenties, when women were testing the boundaries of freedom and women’s roles.  You have to consider that Margaret Mitchell was writing her novel shortly after the women’s suffrage movement, the Flapper era, and during Prohibition.  She had a unique perspective on the role of women in society, at a time when women were pushing the boundaries of traditional female roles.

Mitchell made her main character an incredibly strong female role model; you can love Scarlett or hate her, but you have to recognize that she was a woman who never bowed down to men, nor to society’s expectations of her.  You have to respect a woman who goes through the kind of trials that Scarlett goes through and still manages to continue to get up and fight another day.  And that is essentially the theme of the book – never give up, fight another day…

There is no doubt that Gone With the Wind depicts African Americans as simple-minded, inferior souls who need the protection of their white masters.  It is simplistic at best, and completely ignores the brutal reality of slavery.  It is challenging to read Mitchell’s linguistic portrayal of the way the black characters in her novel speak.  However, it does make sense given Mitchell’s upbringing, in an upper class white society, with a family who undoubtedly glorified the way the South was before the war.  She most likely didn’t believe that there was anything but truth in her grandfather’s patriarchal, fatherly depiction of the treatment of the slaves during the antebellum period.  Mitchell was very sophisticated in some ways (divorcing her abusive, alcoholic husband and working in the newspaper business at a time when few women worked outside the home), and very naive in others.

I’m not a fan of banning books, or shunning a book simply because it no longer fits within the societal norms of today.  I do believe that we should read books and try to understand the context from the era in which they were written, and the belief system of the author.  Sometimes understanding is the best way to ensure that history doesn’t repeat itself.

When looked at within the context of the time when it is written, Gone With the Wind is a very interesting portrayal of the South.  History is often seen through the eyes of the victors, and this novel obviously portrays Georgia from the perspective of the vanquished.  Although it does oversimplify parts, it also provides information that is often glossed over in the literature of the Civil War and Reconstruction.  There was a whole group of citizens who were mourning their way of life, and who had to fight to survive a brutal taxation and political system after the war.  There were hardships – even if the modern era doesn’t have a lot of respect for that way of life.

It took me a long time to read this book.  It is rare for me to be reading the same book for 10 months.  During this time, I have gone through over a dozen audio books.  This one took a while for a variety of reasons; it is long (719 pages), it has super tiny print, and I was traveling the country for part of the time I was reading it.  I didn’t have a lot of time for reading books on my trip; once I got settled for the night at a campground, it was time to make dinner, get my car ready for sleeping, keep up on my travels in my journal, etc.  Not to mention, as soon as the sun went down, my brain said it was bedtime!  Hopefully I will be able to get through my next book a bit more quickly.

Relaxing with a book on the patio

This novel is a classic for a reason, and it is still worth the read.

 

Atlanta 2018: Atlanta History Center Exhibits

Day 5, Friday, January 26, 2018

Friday was my last full day in Atlanta and I decided to head over to the Atlanta History Center.  I took the subway over – the furthest distance I had traveled on the subway so far, and then had to walk about a mile to get to the Center.  It is an easy walk through a busy neighborhood with a sidewalk, but there was lot of traffic on that road, passing lots of big hotels, chain stores and strip malls, so it isn’t really much of a leisurely, scenic walk.

The center has multiple parts.  A full museum inside, an annex building with a special exhibit, and three historic homes outside, two of which have been moved to the property.  This place is fascinating!

Inside the museum, there were exhibits on Atlanta’s history from its founding to the present day.  It touched a little bit on the Civil War, but focused more on businesses and industries in Atlanta, its civic pride, and daily life.  I have to admit the KKK shield was disturbing, but an important reminder of the dark side of our history.

 

Another exhibit went into detail on the Civil War and had a lot of great artifacts.  The exhibit explained which major events were happening during each year of the war.  It told about life in camp, life at home, the customs of mourning the dead, and about the occupation of the south by the Union Army.

 

Another exhibit explored the Trail of Tears, and the removal of the Cherokee and other tribes, but it didn’t go into as much detail as I would have liked.  They did have a lot of first-hand accounts from Native Americans about their present-day experience and the experience of their ancestors.

Another exhibit was on folk art objects and they had a lot!  There was crockery, from the 1600s all the way up to present day, musical instruments, furniture, and tools.  It was really interesting to see how some items have changed over time, and others really haven’t!

 

I did skip the exhibit on golfer Bobby Jones; I have just never been much into sports and I am really not into golf…  I am sure that golf enthusiasts would find it fascinating, but there are a few things that I just can’t muster up the motivation for…

I had lunch at Souper Jenny, the onsite café, and it was really good.  I had a soup and salad combo, which came with a roll and cookie.  It was so much food that I saved my roll and cookie for later and ended up eating those for dinner instead of going out.

I would have liked to see the special exhibit on the Doughboys of World War I, but I wanted to see the historic homes outside first and by the time I was finished, I was a bit worn out.  Sometimes you can’t see it all, but I will share about the center’s historic home exhibits next!

Virginia 2015: Jackson Shrine and Spotsylvania

Day 9: Monday, October 12, 2015

In the afternoon, after visiting the Hugh Mercer Apothecary, and the Mary Ball Washington House in downtown Fredericksburg, Jon and I decided to do more exploring of the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania NMP.

We started by visiting the site in Guinea Station where Stone Jackson was evacuated after he was wounded and had surgery to amputate his arm. They were going to evacuate him by ambulance, and then get him on a train to Richmond, where he could recuperate in a hospital.  Jackson was taken to Thomas C. Chandler’s plantation, called Fairfield, and placed in the farm office, but his condition had deteriorated and he was unable to be moved further.  He developed pneumonia, and died six days after coming to the farm.  Fortunately, the Army summoned his wife to his bedside, so they had a chance to say their goodbyes.

The Stonewall Jackson Shrine, in Guinea Station, Virginia

The Stonewall Jackson Shrine, in Guinea Station, Virginia

The Fairfield home is no longer there, having fallen into disrepair after the Civil War.  The railroad acquired the property in 1909, and tore down the main house, but also restored the farm office.  The railroad donated the the site to the National Park Service in 1937, and it is open to visitors. The Jackson Shrine, as it is now known, contains the bed in which Jackson died, and other period pieces from Jackson’s ill-fated stay.

The front door of the Jackson Shrine

The front door of the Jackson Shrine

 

The bed where Jackson died of pneumonia

The bed where Jackson died of pneumonia

After the shrine, we saw the Spotsylvania Court House battlefield. Spotsylvania was the second major battle of General U.S. Grant’s Overland Campaign in 1864.  The campaign’s target was the destruction of Lee’s army, rather than a city.  And it was brutal war – although the battle was a tactical draw, there were 32,000 casualties on both sides, one of the costliest battles in the war.

A marker showing the battlefield trails.

A marker showing the battlefield trails.

We were still getting over our colds, but we did take a few walks on the battlefield to various points of interest. There are some remaining Confederate earthworks, which look like gentle hills and valleys in the landscape. There are also a couple of old farmhouse foundations, marked with foundation stones.

Earthworks at Spotsylvania Court House Battlefield. Would you have known?

Earthworks at Spotsylvania Court House Battlefield. Would you have known?

A cannon overlooking the Spotsylvania Court House Battlefield

A cannon overlooking the Spotsylvania Court House Battlefield

The site is well marked with several markers, so visitors can tell what happened at a specific area of the battlefield.  It is always hard to contemplate that such peaceful farmland was the site of such horrible death and destruction.  It really was a beautiful place to enjoy a walk on a warm, sunny fall day.

A turkey vulture flying over the battlefield.

A turkey vulture flying over the battlefield.

That evening we had a low key dinner at Panera Bread, which was close to our hotel, and relaxed.  A perfect way to unwind for our big driving day the next day!

Driving Distance for Day 9: 51 miles – Fredericksburg, VA – Stonewall Jackson Shrine – Spotsylvania Court House Battlefield Fredericksburg, VA

Hotel for the night: Another night at the Sleep Inn in Fredericksburg.

Virginia 2015: Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania NMP

Day 8: Sunday, October 11, 2015

On this land, within a radius of only 17 miles, over 100,000 men were casualties of Civil War fighting between 1862 and 1864.  After leaving Montpelier, we headed to our next destination, Fredericksburg, VA. On the way into Fredericksburg, we passed by the information shelter for the Wilderness Battlefield. The Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park is made up of land on which five Civil War battles were fought over the course of the war – Fredericksburg in 1862, Chancellorsville and Salem Church in 1863, and The Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House in 1864.

To be honest – looking out at the battlefield, it didn’t look anything like The Wilderness that I had seen in old Civil War photos. I had heard about the horror of the Wilderness; a battle fought through such thick undergrowth that it was impossible to see 20 feet in front of you. A battle where the artillery and bullets lit the undergrowth on fire, and wounded men lying on the battlefield were consumed by the blaze. But why was there so much thick undergrowth – and why wasn’t I seeing it now?

An area of the Wilderness Battlefield where some of the heaviest fighting occurred. It looks a lot different now than it did then.

An area of the Wilderness Battlefield where some of the heaviest fighting occurred. It looks a lot different now than it did then.

The short answer – development. The creation of the Orange Plank Road and several iron mines in the area before the Civil War had destroyed the virgin forest there. A thick second growth forest had grown; all the trees were about the same size – 25-30 feet tall and 3-5 feet wide. These shorter trees allowed the light to reach all the way to the ground, so the forest floor was clogged with vines and briars. It was difficult for a few men to penetrate the undergrowth, much less a whole army…

There is one building remaining on the Chancellorsville battlefield (right in the same area as The Wilderness) from the time of the Civil War – the Ellwood house. Ellwood was a prosperous but not ostentatious plantation that belonged to the Lacy family at the time of the Civil War – although they were not in residence at the time. It was interesting to see this more modest plantation home – Ellwood was a large house (probably four bedrooms), but certainly not a mansion like Monticello or Montpelier and the decoration was much more modest.

Ellwood - a plantation home in the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania NMP

Ellwood – a plantation home in the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania NMP

 

The fireplace at Ellwood, with some Civil War artifacts

The fireplace at Ellwood, with some Civil War artifacts

Ellwood does have a unique claim to fame – in the family cemetery behind the house lies the grave of Stonewall Jackson’s arm. Yep – just his arm. During the battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863, Jackson was wounded by his own troops, and had to have his arm amputated at a field hospital nearby. The division chaplain saw the arm lying on the ground outside the tent, and thought it would be more appropriate to give it a proper burial, so he brought it over to Ellwood where his brother lived, and buried it there. Interestingly, none of the 14 family graves have markers, but Jackson’s arm does. Being famous got you perks, even back then…

Selfie with Stonewall Jackson's arm's grave. Is that weird?

Selfie with Stonewall Jackson’s arm’s grave. Is that weird?

We had just a little while to get stamps and postcards at the Visitor’s Center before they closed for the day, but we wanted to check it out because we didn’t know if we would get back again.

Then, we headed into Fredericksburg for dinner downtown – we happened upon a place called J. Brian’s Tap House. It is a pub in a historic building – but we sat outside on their back patio. It was perfect – the temperature was wonderful and we were surrounded by plants and flowers. I had the shrimp and grits with a mixed greens salad – it was delicious, with a bit of Cajun spice on the grits to make them less bland. My Adventure Brewing Backpack Wheat beer hit the spot too. Jon had the Blackberry Salmon with rhubarb greens, and mashed potatoes. He loved his Hardywood Great Return IPA too – it was a NW style bitter IPA.

My shrimp and grits at J. Brian's Taphouse

My shrimp and grits at J. Brian’s Taphouse

We finished our evening with a short walk along the Rappahannock River Walk – we walked until the light was getting too low in the sky to see the view.

I loved this random sign in downtown Fredericksburg!

I loved this random sign in downtown Fredericksburg!

Driving Distance for Day 8: 101 miles – Waynesboro, VA – James Madison’s Montpelier – Fredericksburg, VA

Hotel for the Night: Sleep Inn, Fredericksburg, VA.  It had an odd space shower, with a unique bubble on one end.  It was clean and quiet, but had an abandoned steak restaurant and house next door that looked a bit sketchy. The housekeeping looked a bit haggard too.

 

Virginia 2015: Monocacy National Battlefield

Day 2: October 5, 2015

Our last stop of the day after visiting Gettysburg and Harpers Ferry was actually a series of relatively quick stops. We managed to make it to the Monocacy National Battlefield shortly before the Visitor’s Center closed for the day. This is one of the lesser visited battlefields, with annual visitors estimated at about 17,985 – strange, I thought, for being so close to Washington, D.C. 

The Battle at Monocacy occurred on July 9, 1864, when Confederate General Jubal Early tried to cross the Monocracy River at Frederick, Maryland, in order to make an advance on a mostly unguarded Washington, D.C.  He also hoped to divert Union troops away from the Siege of Petersburg. Frederick did not have Union troops stationed there, and Union General Lew Wallace only had about 2,300 mostly unseasoned troops in Washington.

Monocacy National Battlefield

Monocacy National Battlefield

Railroad officials in nearby Harpers Ferry contacted the U.S. Army about Early’s move toward Washington and their concern about protecting the railroad bridge at Monocacy Junction. General Wallace acted without orders to station some troops at the crossing, because he understood what it meant to the defense of Washington should the Confederates get across the river there. After gathering as many troops as he could, the Union had approximately 6,800 troops, compared to estimates of the Confederate forces between 14,000 and 28,000 men.

The Union objective for the battle was to secure the road to Washington. The Union troops fought valiantly, and were able to hold Early’s men for about a day; although at a particularly high cost – 1,294 Union troops were killed, wounded or missing.  The battle and the resulting delay in the Confederate advance meant that the Union was able to get reinforcements to Washington. Early probably could have occupied Washington if he had attacked just a day earlier – the Battle of Monocacy achieved the one day delay needed to protect the capitol. So although the battle was technically a solid Confederate victory, the Union was able to thwart the attack on Washington. 

No Retreat from Destiny: The Battle that Rescued Washington is a 2006 docudrama that discusses the battle. I plan to check it out!

Monocacy National Battlefield is also known for being the spot where Robert E. Lee’s Special Order 191 was found in 1862, wrapped around three cigars.  The orders gave valuable information on Lee’s troops and their movements before the Battle of Antietam.  Unfortunately, most military historians believe that General McClellan did not utilize this information to its full advantage at and after Antietam. 

The Visitor’s Center had a store on the first floor and a nicely done exhibit upstairs, with a digital map and audio about the battle.  I’ve said it before, but I love the maps that show the lines of troop movements during a battle – I find it so much easier to understand what happened!  The upstairs also has a nice deck outside where you can survey parts of the battlefield and the nearby hill where locals tried to hide their livestock from the Confederates. 

The digital battle map at Monocacy

The digital battle map at Monocacy

We drove around to three farms that were pivotal points in the battle. The Best Farm has a farmhouse and several outbuildings.  The stone house at the site is known to have been built in the 18th century, when the farm was owned by plantation owners from Haiti.  They named their Maryland plantation L’Hermitage, and owned over 90 slaves, a large number for Maryland at the time.  They were also known to be quite cruel, as slaveholders go.  By the time of the Civil War, the farm had been sold and was leased to tenant farmers from the Best family.  The main farmhouse on the site is believed to date to the late 1700s as well, with modifications and additions done in the 1860s.   

The side of the Best farmhouse, showing the original home, and the later addition.

The side of the Best farmhouse, showing the original home, and the later addition.

The Stone House at the Best Farm - built late 1700s.

The Stone House at the Best Farm – built late 1700s.

A photo of the Best barn, through another Best barn.

A photo of the Best barn, through another Best barn.

The farmhouse at the Worthington Farm was built about 1851, and I loved the red brick and the wide front porch.  Confederate troops set up positions in the farm’s fields and front yard to assault the Thomas Farm next door.  The Worthington family took shelter in the basement of the home during the battle, and the home was also used as a hospital.  In one of the more amusing anecdotes of the war, the Worthington’s rooster would apparently crow every time one of the Confederate artillery pieces would fire!  While we were wandering around the Worthington Farm, we saw a whole herd of White-tailed deer and a beautiful sunset.

Sunset at the Worthington House

Sunset at the Worthington House

 

The interior of the Worthington house.

The interior of the Worthington house.

 

White tailed deer at Monocacy National Battlefield

White tailed deer at Monocacy National Battlefield

Our last Monocacy stop was at the Thomas Farm, whose farmhouse is believed to have been built in 1780.  The Thomas farmhouse suffered extensive damage during the battle from the Confederate artillery on the Worthington Farm – they were trying to dislodge Union sharpshooters.  The Thomas’, like their neighbors the Worthington’s, were hiding in the basement of the home.  It is a miracle that no civilians were killed!  The Thomas Farm now serves as the park headquarters. 

The farmhouse at the Thomas Farm

The farmhouse at the Thomas Farm

 

The barn at the Thomas Farm. Why would they put outhouses here to ruin my pretty picture!

The barn at the Thomas Farm. Why would they put outhouses here to ruin my pretty picture!

The structures at all three farms are in various states of preservation, but it was nice to see them protected for future generations.  The entire battlefield hasn’t had such a happy ending though, as I-270 was routed right through a portion of the battlefield.

Once the sun went down, we went off in search of dinner. We ended up at the Brewer’s Alley in downtown Frederick, where the blackened catfish dinner caught both of our eyes. I had mine with the Caesar salad and a Hefeweizen; after dinner I tried a 5 oz. Oatmeal Stout.  Jon had his catfish with a regular salad, and their Riot Rye Pale Ale.  He finished his meal off with a 5 oz. beer too – their Oakily Dokily Neighbor.  We did something rare for us that night too – dessert!  The Peach Cobbler with homemade peach ice cream sounded delicious, and it was!  It was a great meal! I would have loved to see more of downtown Frederick, but it was time to call it a day – we had done a lot! 

Driving distance for Day 2:  123 miles – Frederick, MD – Gettysburg National Military Park – Harpers Ferry National Historical Park – Monocacy National Battlefield – Frederick

Hotel for the night: Back to the Sleep Inn in Frederick Maryland for one more night.

Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee

The last time I read a book about Robert E. Lee, I was in middle school. I don’t remember the book, but I wrote a book report on it and didn’t get a very good grade. I’ve always suspected it didn’t have anything to do with my report, but rather it was because I choose to read about a Confederate General, all the way up here in the North.

Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee, by Michael Korda

Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee, by Michael Korda

Lee is an integral part of any book on the Civil War; but Clouds of Glory, by Michael Korda is a true biography of Lee. It begins with his birth in 1807, progressing through his childhood, his early days as an Army Engineer and more.

It goes into significant detail on his service during the Mexican War, outlining major successes with placing troops and artillery at specific, strategic points before and during various battles. Lee distinguished himself as a brilliant strategist, frequently risking his own safety to ensure that troops and artillery were placed to best advantage, scouting terrain in enemy territory, engaging in night missions to find artillery placements and routes, and occasionally supervising troops during battle.

Most folks know that Lee resigned his commission in the United States Army at the outbreak of the Civil War. But did you know that he was quietly offered the United States Army’s top post before his resignation? Lee was torn on many levels about the war because he did not want to take up arms against the United States, but felt his first loyalty was to his home state of Virginia. He did not believe that secession was the right decision. He urged his family to hoard U.S. money, as he knew the Confederate scrip would be worthless.

He also freed his father-in-law’s slaves in 1862, in accordance with his will, and set up an illegal school to teach them to read and write, so they would be able to survive as free people. However, at the same time that he considered slavery a “moral and political evil”, he considered abolitionists troublemakers and did nothing to promote the end of slavery in the south.

He was an honorable man, refusing to accept privileges he could not grant to his men. He slept in tents even when citizens offered their homes, and gave away replacement socks and underwear and fancy foods that were delivered to him. He did not take leave to visit his family when they were only 10 miles away. He was polite to a fault, with one of his biggest weakness his inability to be directive and firm with orders to his senior commanders.

He had some colossal battle failures during the war, to be sure, like his assault on the third day of Gettysburg and the Battle of Malvern Hill. But he also made some brilliant decisions that led to an under-provisioned, out-manned Army of Northern Virginia being able to survive and fight for four long years, against all odds.

Lee lost his home and his citizenship during the war; neither were restored in his lifetime. Several of his senior officers openly criticized him after the war, publishing scathing critiques of his command in their memoirs. Yet he steadfastly refused to defend his own record of achievement, instead choosing to work on defending his father’s tarnished reputation.

He died only 5 years after the end of the war, a massive stroke causing the pneumonia that took his life. He was still working at the time of his death, having built a successful second career as the President of Washington College. They renamed it Washington and Lee College (now University) in his honor.

Lee wasn’t perfect, and for the most part, Korda’s book candidly discusses the mistakes he made in battle and in life. He is not made out to be a saint; simply a flawed man like the rest of us, who had to work through some significant conflicts during the war in order to reconcile what he felt was his duty and what he felt was best for his state and the nation.

It is hard to reconcile the inconsistencies of his life, but we also must consider how many of us have expressed our disagreement or outrage on a topic to our friends and family, while doing nothing of substance to right the wrong. Is it fair to judge Lee by a different standard?

There is no doubt that Lee will continue to be debated for years to come, but this was a generally well written, balanced account of his life. There are some irritating factual/editing errors, mostly incorrect dates and statistics, but it is still a worthwhile read for anyone who wants to explore the life of this complex man. Of course, I’m sure my middle school teacher would disagree.

 

Book Review: April 1865 by Jay Winik

At long last, I was able to finish a book!  I’ve had a lot taking up all my time lately – work, helping out family, half marathon training, the deck and sometimes just vegging out in front of the TV.  But it feels like this one has been a long time coming.

The book is April 1865: The Month That Saved America by Jay Winik.  And true to its title, it is a non-fiction exploration into the events of… April 1865!  The April 1865 when the Civil War ended (mostly) and Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth.  Prior to becoming an author, Winik had a distinguished government career in foreign policy (working in Yugoslavia, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Cambodia during their civil wars).  His experience on the ground during these conflicts gives him a unique perspective.

April 1865: The Month That Saved America by Jay Winik

April 1865: The Month That Saved America by Jay Winik

The book examines in detail the events that occurred that month, beginning with the lead up to Lee’s surrender on April 9th, continuing with Lincoln’s assassination on April 14th, Joe Johnston’s surrender on April 26th, and John Wilkes Booth capture and death, also on April 26th.  Winik discusses events candidly and without bias.  He describes the respectful way that Grant treated Lee and the Army of Virginia and the grace in which Lee returned to his civilian life and provided a role model to Southerners.  Lee’s way of encouraging soldiers and civilians alike to set aside the differences of the last four years in order to make a lasting peace must have made a huge difference in the days after the war.

Winik details an incident in a church, where a black man goes to receive communion in Richmond, VA, and does not wait until whites have finished.  The congregation is stunned, and while the minister to trying to decide what to do, Lee stands up and quietly kneels to accept communion with the man.  I never knew this before, but it fits with everything I have read about Lee.  Although he was a defeated General, his character was unequaled.

Lincoln’s assassination will be old news for most readers; there really isn’t anything new there.  But Winik doesn’t gloss over the rage that overwhelmed the public sentiment, and President Johnson’s shortcomings with the reconstruction process.  The reader certainly picks up on the impression that Winik conveys; the aftermath of the war and the reunification of the nation would have been dramatically different had Lincoln lived.  We will never know quite how, but the struggles that blacks faced during slavery and the black codes of reconstruction still have an impact to this day.

Joe Johnston’s surrender and Jefferson Davis’ retreat through confederate territory are also well documented in the book.  While Davis was on the run from Union officials, going deeper and deeper into the South, he had given orders to his Generals to prepare for a guerrilla war.  Thankfully, Johnston defied Davis’s orders and surrendered to Sherman.  After hearing of Lee’s surrender, Nathan Bedford Forrest, a genius of guerilla warfare, also chose to surrender.  The outcome could have been very different if these two Confederate Generals had decided to continue to wage war from the woods and swamps of the South.

I have to admit, parts of the book are a bit slow – that probably has something to do with why it took me so long to finish it.  Winik’s style can be a bit disjointed – each time he introduced a new character, he would stop and introduce the character with several pages of biography.  While it is helpful to have the background, it really interrupts the flow of the book.  It would have been better to weave those details into the narrative.  But overall it is a well-written perspective on a small slice of American history.  It will be too focused for people who aren’t very interested in the Civil War, but Civil War enthusiasts should appreciate it.

Have you read it?  What did you think?

The Assassin’s Accomplice: Mary Surratt and the Plot to Kill Abraham Lincoln

My most recent audiobook read was The Assassin’s Accomplice: Mary Surratt and the Plot to Kill Abraham Lincoln, by Kate Clifford Larson.  Published in 2008, it is a comprehensive study of the role Mary Surratt played in the plot to kill President Lincoln.

The Assassin's Accomplice: Mary Surratt and the Plot to Kill Abraham Lincoln

The Assassin’s Accomplice: Mary Surratt and the Plot to Kill Abraham Lincoln

Larson begins her story with her belief that Mary Surratt was innocent of the charges that she was tried, convicted and hanged for.  It is a fair assessment; there certainly are plenty of people who believe that Mary was caught up in the public fervor to swiftly find and punish the guilty parties.  But then, she begins presenting the research, and the evidence stacks up.

Larson methodically presents the case, beginning months prior to the assassination, going over Mary’s role and what she knew, and how her actions convinced investigators of what she knew.  She interweaves the story of Mary’s family life, abusive marriage and eventual life as a widow trying to clear her alcoholic husband’s debts after his unexpected death.  It has the rhythm of a novel, so you are never bored with the numerous records that she introduces and the facts she describes.  She describes Mary in vivid detail for the reader, so you really end up feeling like you know her as a person.

She describes the arrest, the subsequent investigation and interrogations, and the trial of the conspirators before the military tribunal.  She doesn’t glorify either side, pointing out the flaws in both the prosecution’s and defense’s case, and explaining the part that media and public opinion played in the trial.  She detailed the fragile emotional state of both Mary and her daughter Anna, and how it influenced observers both in her favor and against.

She matter of factly describes the shortcomings of Mary’s inexperienced attorneys, and how Mary’s own unwillingness to provide any sort of alternate explanation against the mountain of evidence was critical in sealing her fate.  And of course, one cannot ignore that fact that Mary basically took the fall for her son John Surratt, who undoubtedly had significant knowledge of the plot, but remained hidden after Mary was arrested, tried and executed.  Would the outcome have been different had John come forward to stand before the tribunal?  We will never know.

Larson also describes the execution, making the reader feel that they understood what happened, without making it into a gory scene.  And finally, she examines the debate about Mary’s innocence by firsthand witnesses and her attorneys that continued well into the early 1900s.  The pendulum swung from the public believing in her guilt, to outrage over what was thought to be the execution of an innocent woman.

In the end, Larson has made it clear that the project did not reaffirm her belief in Mary’s innocence, as she expected it would, but led her to a deep understanding of Mary’s guilt and her knowledge of the plan.

Well researched and well written, this book is a must read for anyone who wants to more fully understand a humble, pious woman’s role in the conspiracy to kill the President.