History

Book Review: Confederate Cabinet Departments and Secretaries

confederate

McFarland: 2016

My career in the publishing industry was a short one. Yet during that time, I was able to indulge my enjoyment of combing through resources and turning them into a narrative, a cohesive whole. My writings were small-time, my name on the contributing writers page printed in what was probably a size 6 font. After many history classes and many years of reading history books and biographies, I admit that I sometimes dream of writing a work of my own.

A colleague from my writing days, Dennis Peterson, recently realized the dream of having his own name on the cover of a published work. Dennis has long been an enthusiast for Southern history and the history of The War Between the States in particular. He found his niche in researching Jefferson Davis’s cabinet and bringing together all of the scattered knowledge of the secretaries and their accomplishments in one volume, Confederate Cabinet Departments and Secretaries. I am thrilled for him that he achieved such an accomplishment and, of course, I am more than a little envious. He asked me to do the honor of reading and reviewing his book here.

Confederate Cabinet Departments and Secretaries is perhaps the most thorough treatment of the subject available to historians today. As Mr. Peterson points out in his preface, authors who attempted a similar objective were published more than sixty years ago. Many personalities and cabinet positions continued to remain unknown. Mr. Peterson’s book is devoted to a detailed explanation of each cabinet department and sub-department and the men who filled the varying positions within them and a narrative of how each department operated during the war.

Certainly there are so many individuals catalogued here that, aside from the most influential personalities, it is hard to keep a firm grasp on them. Yet taken together, a pattern, or narrative arc, emerges; that is, the story of the Confederate cabinet is largely a story of failure. Many highly-educated and politically experienced men filled these positions, yet, nearly to a man, they were unsuccessful in their given task. Part of me wonders if this was largely because the Confederate government was thrown in over its head far too soon after its birth. There was no honeymoon period in which to streamline operations; it was immediately in crisis mode. Looking at the flip side of this situation, it’s obvious that the Union had a great advantage in its own momentum as a working government (all other advantages aside).

The greatest blame for the failure of the Confederate cabinet, however, appears to lie with Jefferson Davis himself, who had deeply flawed ideas about leadership. One of the recurring themes of Confederate Cabinet Departments and Secretaries is that Davis could not or would not delegate; he micromanaged his deputies and, in many instances, purposely installed yes-men. He also chose men who he thought would be political assets, but who had no experience in their appointed field. These factors led to natural frustrations and a high turnover rate—another reason the Confederate government never gained any momentum. And he failed to understand the political dynamics at work in the states of the Confederacy; these states, which had felt so strongly about their rights as to leave the Union, were not eager to work again with a central government. I cannot help but contrast Davis’ management style with the way that Lincoln strategically assembled his cabinet. Whether or not we like the way Lincoln managed the war from his end, it’s apparent that Lincoln was an immense advantage to the Union, whereas Davis was a disadvantage to the Confederacy.

Aside from some of the intriguing and new-to-me information found in the book (my favorite being the history of torpedoes and submersibles), what I appreciate the most about Confederate Cabinet Departments and Secretaries is that Mr. Peterson found a hole in history and he set out to fill it. Time and again in my casual reading of history I find mention of people whose stories are yet to be told. Confederate Cabinet Departments and Secretaries goes a long way toward telling some of those stories.

Confederate Cabinet Departments and Secretaries appears at an opportune time—or a very unfortunate one, if Americans are trying to run as fast as they can from any hint of the Confederacy. My opinion, however, is that now is the time to learn all that we can about our American past, approach historical people and their ideas with objectivity, and place the current American sociopolitical climate in context. In that case, works such as this one are necessary.

Jane Austen’s Bath

“I really believe I shall always be talking of Bath–I do like it so very much . . . Oh, who can ever be tired of Bath?” —Northanger Abbey

Visiting Bath, England, was a treat for this Brit-lit lover because the city has, to a great degree, the same form and appearance that it had in Jane Austen’s lifetime. Its eighteenth-century Georgian architecture and honey-colored Cotswold limestone have been lovingly maintained and an Austenite can walk from Jane’s lodgings at the eastern end of town to the Assembly Rooms or Pump Room following the same streets and taking in the same sights (cars and tourists aside) that she did.

The streets hum with activity as walkers take in the shops, peruse the Roman Baths, stop for tea and Bath Buns, and admire the Abbey. The mind’s eye can easily overlay 2017 with a vision of the past—the outlying farmers bringing their produce to market, the elegantly dressed young ladies out for their morning air, the grandest women riding across town in sedan chairs, or Beau Nash himself (the King of Bath) marshaling the cream of society for a daily round of polite gambling and dancing.

The Royal Crescent, with No. 1 at far right.

Bath’s most elite citizens at the end of the eighteenth century made their homes on the Royal Crescent: that iconic, gently curved row of stately houses with a wide-angle view of the countryside. Having a Royal Crescent address, or even a house on its sister The Circus, was just as sought-after as the medicinal effects of Bath’s renowned waters. For many of England’s nobility, it was enough just to rent one of these houses a few months out of the year. Others came and, flush with cash, decided to stay. Such was the case at Number One, Royal Crescent, where Henry Sandford of Ireland lived from 1776 to 1796. Number One is a house museum today, restored and decorated as it would have been during Sandford’s years in the house.

Number One Royal Crescent is one of the better-presented house museums that I have visited, including many of my favorites here in the U.S. The house appeared to be professionally cared for and in tip-top shape. I was interested to note the many similarities between Number One and the houses from the same period that survive in Charleston—the architecture, furniture, and attention to fine, classical details. It is obvious that Charleston’s wealthiest residents were connoisseurs of English taste and lived in just as high a style as their counterparts in England. The docents in the museum here were, however, the best part of the house. An elderly (I’m assuming volunteer) lady was stationed in each room, supplied with fun facts and ready to answer questions. Each one was cheerful and gracious, just as you would imagine an English lady to be, and all together they left a wonderful impression on me.

Of course, my imagination was also piqued here because it was only a few short decades later that Jane would have rubbed shoulders with occupants of houses like Number One. The interiors looked like a BBC costume drama and there was a pianoforte in one room fit for Georgiana Darcy. However, I learned several startling things about that time period while visiting the house that forcefully reminded me that the past is a foreign country. Think, for example, of the chamber pots kept in each room of the house (I used to think they were just for, well, bedchambers). There would have been one in the dining room, of all places, behind a screen. Fortunately the men would have waited for the women to withdraw from the room after dinner before using it, but they still had no reservations about using the pot while continuing a conversation with their friends. The women who needed to use a chamber pot had to return to their bedrooms, where they would have needed the assistance of their maids to sit down on one. Then—there was the meat rotisserie in the basement kitchen, operated by a captured stray dog. Opinions wavered as to whether this was cruelty or kindness, since the dog would have been fed well in payment for his labor. I was also confronted in the kitchen with the lack of refrigeration, or really even an icebox, and the terrible question of what did they do with their food? I guess you would have had to eat up—because the leftovers won’t be any good tomorrow!

Eavesdropping

Abacus, 2014.

I found a fun book along these lines while I was in Bath—Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England: How Our Ancestors Lived Two Centuries Ago, by Roy and Lesley Adkins. The Adkins follow English men and women, rich and poor, from birth to death, as Jane would have found them. While some sections were dry and fact-laden, others were intriguing and even at times appalling or downright hilarious.

I laugh to read of the “smock weddings,” where a bride could appear naked or in her shift to make plain that she brought nothing to her marriage or to release her groom from paying her debts, and of wife-selling, the easiest way for the poor to “divorce.” As a mother, I shudder as I read about dangerous birthing practices and infant and mother mortality rates, and I have to scratch my head at the common practice, even in Jane’s family, of fostering out infants “until deemed old enough to return home.” What? And then I have to be thankful for modern sensibilities that allow for women and poor people to be educated; in the nineteenth century I would have been way out of my place as a woman. My stomach turns at the lack of personal hygiene and heads filled with lice and at the idea of not wearing underwear.

There are aspects of Jane’s world that are attractive, such as the quiet, the slower pace of movement, and even the thought of sharing books around the evening fire. I also admit I like her time-period’s taste for classical beauty in its art and architecture. Yet after a day spent wandering Jane’s Bath, I was thoroughly grateful to eat fresh, tasty food, take a hot shower, and throw myself on a clean bed in an icy, air-conditioned room.

The River Avon from the Pulteney Bridge

The Pump Room

One of the Assembly Rooms

Great Pulteney Street

Bath Abbey

Book Review: The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family

Hemings

Gordon-Reed, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family. W. W. Norton, 2009.

A couple of months ago, Sally Hemings meant nothing more to me than a political “distraction”—a woman who, like Monica Lewinsky in the 1990s, was used as a weapon to disparage the character of the sitting president. When allegations are made against a famous person, I never know who is telling the truth. Hype can be manufactured, facts distorted, words twisted beyond all meaning. All I knew was that Sally Hemings was a fallen woman—an unmarried slave, perhaps a temptress, in a scandalous relationship with Thomas Jefferson.

I recently listened to an episode of “The Way of Improvement Leads Home” podcast featuring historians Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter Onuf discussing their collaborative work in “Most Blessed of the Patriarchs:” Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination. When I looked for the book at the library it was unavailable, but they had another by Gordon-Reed, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family. I had seen the book cover before and assumed it was more of the speculative fiction I’ve seen on the topic. Finding it on the non-fiction shelf instead, I picked it up.

I did not make it far into the book before Gordon-Reed overturned all of my misconceptions about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. The parallels I drew off-hand between Sally and Monica Lewinsky broke down quickly in the light of Gordon-Reed’s interpretations. The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family humanized the players, both black and white, in the Hemings and Jefferson story and showed me several of my own historical blindspots.

According to Gordon-Reed, the story of Sally—the most well-known Hemings—is incomplete without telling the story of her family, beginning with her grandmother and ending with her own siblings and children with Thomas Jefferson. The family’s history shows how cruel and perverse American slavery was and how inextricably linked the black and white races were in the South, all the way down to the family level. Sally’s grandmother, an African brought as a slave to Virginia, had a child with a white man, a Captain Hemings. Their daughter Elizabeth lived for many years as her owner John Wayles’s “concubine,” bearing him many children, one of whom was Sally Hemings. Thomas Jefferson married Wayles’s white daughter Martha and, through their marriage, acquired Elizabeth and her children and moved them to Monticello. Put another way, Sally and her siblings were slaves owned by their half-sister Martha.

After Martha’s death, Jefferson’s political career took off and he served as Ambassador to France for nearly a decade. For part of that time, Sally lived in Jefferson’s household in Paris. At some point in Paris, Sally and Jefferson entered into a sexual relationship; Sally was pregnant with their first child when the household prepared to return to Virginia. Sally and Jefferson reached an agreement, a “treaty,” in which she would willingly continue in their relationship in exchange for Jefferson’s granting their children’s freedom when they reached adulthood. In time, Jefferson fulfilled the agreement.

This is only a brief glance at the family history, and the facts alone leave behind a bad taste. But beneath this outline lie layers of meaning and subtleties lost over time. Starting with the facts (including the DNA evidence that Sally’s children were Jefferson’s children), Gordon-Reed connects the dots, bridging the psychological gaps between known events and turning Jefferson, Sally, and all of the Hemingses back into real people with thoughts and emotions. It is hard to condense what takes Gordon-Reed hundreds of pages to say, but the central idea, I believe, is this: the relationship between Jefferson and Sally was, in all likelihood, not what it is (or was) popularly thought to be. And because they were two very real people, it is worth trying to discover the truth. There is, of course, a lot of extended conjecture involved, but in Gordon-Reed’s words, we can “reference what we know of human beings as we try to reconstruct and establish a context for their lives.”

According to Gordon-Reed’s construction, it is vital to remember the context of Jefferson’s relationship with the Hemings family. Jefferson, a man who was always torn between his enlightened ideals and his dependence upon slavery, found a middle ground at Monticello where he could live with the enslaved Hemings family in a way that did not injure his conscience. He treated them in what he considered to be an enlightened manner; we can assume he treated Sally the same way.

In Paris, where their relationship began, Jefferson allowed Sally to earn a salary and enjoy a freedom of movement unknown to her counterparts in Virginia. In France, she was free to leave slavery and continue her independence with the legal backing of the French government. At Jefferson’s request, she did not. This fact, coupled with Jefferson’s temperament and personality, makes it unlikely that he coerced her into a sexual relationship. It is likely, instead, that they formed a genuine attachment.

Jefferson and Sally created as conventional a relationship as possible, given the constraints of their eighteenth-century slave society. Sally used their attachment to bargain for her position in the household and the eventual freedom of any children they had together. Marriage, of course, was not an option between a master and a slave. Sally could never be the respectable society wife that Martha Jefferson had been. But she could fill many other “wifely” roles—lover, companion, mother, and housekeeper. So she requested a “treaty” (their son’s word for the agreement) to formalize their relationship in the absence of marriage. They then lived in a faithful marriage-like relationship for over thirty years until Jefferson’s death.

Jefferson prepared his children with Sally for a life of what we would call “middle class” independence. Knowing that they were only one-eighth African and would likely pass for white, he invested years in their training in respectable trades. Gordon-Reed points out the irony in Jefferson’s public belief in the impossibility of moving slaves to freedom in one generation, while accomplishing it for his own children.

The Hemingses of Monticello was an intriguing read for me. Not only did Gordon-Reed turn my expectations on their head, she told a great story about the people behind the facts. I found the narrative fresh because she avoided the many de-humanizing stereotypes about slaves and she wasn’t afraid to look at Jefferson’s character in a new way. It was interesting to think, for example, of Jefferson in Enlightenment Paris, where he was a relatively small-time provincial man trying to camouflage his dependence upon an antiquated labor system. Seeing him in that light knocked him down off of that “Founding Father” pedestal too often used in Revolutionary history. I was also impressed with how Gordon-Reed managed to walk a fine line between advocating for the humanity of slaves and turning the slaveholder Jefferson into a monster. 

The Hemingses of Monticello is not a perfect book. It took a long time to get through and sometimes it was repetitive. A few times I found Gordon-Reed to be overly suspicious of the white people in the narrative. And I could not agree with every conclusion she drew. But the bottom line is, she came across as a historian who listens to the people of the past and thinks deeply about what she hears.

History Matters

“What does the history major say?”

“Do you want fries with that?”

I remember my dad throwing out that old line about history majors years ago when I was choosing an area of study. At the time I am sure I just sighed and rolled my eyes at that “dad humor.”

Fast-forward fifteen years. My bachelor’s degree in history is not earning me any money at the moment. I never finished a master’s degree. And yet, a couple of months ago, in the midst of some kind of intellectual dialogue (I can’t remember the topic but in our house it’s usually either religion or, at that time of year, politics) I heard myself say, “It’s my job as a historian to bring history into the conversation.” Almost as soon as I said it I realized how pompous it sounded. I mean, major disclaimer, I don’t work in the history field anymore and I don’t have an advanced degree. (My inferiority complex about all of this is a discussion for another time.)

Yet I can probably claim that I am more historically well-versed and more historically aware than the average American. Is it my job, then, to bring up history, to correct the myths and misunderstandings I encounter or, even more to the point, to address the at-times willful ignorance of how we got here? Over the past couple of months and especially over the past couple of weeks, given our current political climate, I am starting to be convinced of it. Presidential personalities and precedents, immigration, women’s rights—each with a long and varied history of their own—are just a few of the hot topics du jour.

For a less politicized example, look at motherhood. The blogosphere is chock-full of women proclaiming how hard motherhood is. Just yesterday a “viral” article partially titled “Why Parenting Used to Be Easier” appeared on my Facebook feed (view the original here). The article features a struggling Australian mum with two children pondering how on earth her grandmother survived life with eleven. Her father’s response? In her grandmother’s day, mothers didn’t have as much pressure put on them. This explanation is easy to understand, for even I feel the societal pressure to avoid processed foods, buy organic, keep the TV off, make sure we spend 60 minutes outdoors, get involved in sports and music, teach my kids to read (but not TOO early!), never leave them alone in the car, have a Pinterest-worthy house, throw Pinterest-worthy birthday parties—you get the picture.

So if mothers even fifty years ago experienced motherhood somewhat differently than I do, how does my experience stack up to motherhood throughout history? Is my job harder than theirs? Through the lens of history, I have to look at this fairly. I have to admit I have myriad advantages over my foremothers; I have a house full of time-saving devices, I have virtually anything I’d ever want at my fingertips via the internet, my children are growing stronger and healthier than ever thanks to modern medicine, and, let’s not forget, I don’t have to grow my own food (vegetable or animal) and I don’t have to make my own clothes (unless I want to).

But on the other hand, mothers in certain times and places had great advantages over me. I believe that for hundreds of years, many mothers lived in tighter communities and had stronger support systems (please indulge a few generalities here). Men and women rarely moved away from the area they grew up in and, more often than not, had elderly or unmarried family members living with them. They really knew their neighbors and shared with them in experiencing childbirth, sickness, and death. They exchanged labor and services with each other. And we can’t forget the advantage of the elite and even middle class who regularly employed maids and nannies (obviously this is still an advantage for some today). This type of community brought several benefits—safety in letting children run around, built-in “babysitters” in the house, a division of labor, and the sharing of years’-worth of wisdom and timeless advice.

The modern American mother (even probably so far back as the mid-twentieth-century as the world began to change), however, is often isolated, hundreds of miles from her parents, living with society’s expectation that she be self-sufficient and independent. Many, many mothers add working outside the home and are still expected to do it all in both spheres. Modern mothers are solely responsible for their children’s care in a minute-by-minute way. Few are brave enough in our paranoid society and sometimes legitimately scary world to turn their kids out of the house in the morning and call them in again for dinner at night.

Looking through the lens of history shows me it’s dangerous to say my life is harder or easier or better or worse than a mother’s life one hundred years ago (or even fifty). Maybe it’s a wash—motherhood has and always will be hard. But the bottom line is, everything has a history. Even my day-to-day motherhood. And history matters insofar as we use it to think about ourselves and frame our circumstances. So the Australian mum with the grandmother who had eleven children? I’m sure grandma would say there were parts of motherhood that were terribly hard for her—diseases, cooking and cleaning, you name it. She might say her grand-daughter has it easy. We’ll never know. But thinking historically helps us to think empathetically and to be more willing to live with “grey areas.”

So what made me think through all of this? I’ve discovered a new podcast that has made me feel brave enough to bring history into the conversation. John Fea’s “The Way of Improvement Leads Home” podcast has been endlessly fascinating and thought-provoking. John Fea is the history chair at Messiah College and the author of such works as Why Study History? and Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? (the latter I recommend for anyone interested in the topic). His podcast is a little over a year old and has already covered a lot of territory. In his first episode, he lays a foundation for why bringing historical thinking to bear on the problems of today is so important. Historians provide, among other things, context, causality, and show us how complex any issue truly is (see all Five C’s of Historical Thinking here). In the words of Fea’s first guest, Executive Director of the American Historical Association Jim Grossman, “everything has a history.”

This is just the tip of the iceberg. If you’re ready to think in a fresh way about the world around you (and sound smart around the dinner table), I recommend “The Way of Improvement Leads Home.” You don’t have to be a historian to get something out of it. In the meantime, make room for history in the conversation.

Book Review: Mary’s World

Miles Brewton House. My own image, August 2014.

 

My fondness for old houses is no secret to those who truly know me. It started at an early age and, as the years go by, becomes more and more what I’d call my “passion.” (I’m baring my nerdy soul here.) There is nothing that captivates me as much as entering an old house—furnished or unfurnished, preserved or not—and walking through, absorbing its lay-out and quirks, and running my imagination in high gear. It’s a feeling that is hard for me to articulate to other people because, frankly, I imagine that other people find old houses about as interesting as lawn clippings or anything else mundane. But for me old houses are quite the opposite of mundane; they offer a perfect marriage of my liking for history and my love of stories.

An old house holds an endless echo of questions and, hopefully, answers that tell a story. Who built the house? Who were the workmen who wielded the tools? Could the owner afford it? Where did the furniture (if it’s still here) come from? Who slept in this bedroom? What did they eat in this dining room? Who cooked the food? What were they wearing when they sat here by the fire? Who cleaned the house? What life-changing events took place here? Was it a house filled with happy memories?

In a city like Charleston, South Carolina, where you can look up one side of the street and down the other and just about the only modern disturbance you’ll see is cars parked and passing by, my mind literally goes crazy. So many houses, so little time. So many stories, so little knowledge of them! I want to immerse myself in them, know everything about them, and tell their stories. Of course in my life as it is the opportunities and outlets for this are few and far between (okay, nearly nil), but when I dream, this is how I dream.

Mary's World

Richard N. Coté, Mary’s World: Love, War, and Family Ties in Nineteenth-Century Charleston. Corinthian Books: 2001.

There is at least one house in Charleston for which someone else had a similar vision. The Miles Brewton House on King Street (which I’ve never entered because it is a private residence) and the family that lived there are the subjects of a book entitled Mary’s World: Love, War, and Family Ties in Nineteenth-Century Charleston by Richard Coté. Coté served as the historical researcher when Peter Manigault, a descendant of Miles Brewton and the owner of the house, decided to renovate the house in the 1990s. He had a privileged view of the house, inside and out, and access to the innumerable historic resources connected to the house and its centuries’-worth of inhabitants. Concurrently, Coté worked on a collection of Alston, Pringle, and Frost family papers. Coté pulled all of these resources together into a narrative form in Mary’s World.

While Mary’s World is primarily concerned with the life of Mary Pringle (1803-1884) and her descendants before and after the Civil War, Coté’s story begins with the Brewton family of Charleston and its most well-known member, Miles, Mary’s great-uncle. Miles was one of the foremost merchants and land-owners in colonial South Carolina and began building his King Street house in 1765 when he was only 34 years old. The house—then and now—is considered to be one of the best Georgian-style homes in America. Miles and his family were lost at sea in 1775 and the house passed to his sister, Rebecca, Mary’s grandmother. [I have to say, right up front, that my favorite anecdote from the book involves Rebecca hiding her daughters in the house’s attic from the British soldiers who made her home their headquarters during the Revolution!]

Mary Motte Alston was born in the house in 1803 and married in its drawing room to William Bull Pringle in 1822. While the Alston and Pringle families both owned many rice plantations in the lowcountry, Mary and William lived in and managed their empire from the Miles Brewton House. There Mary delivered thirteen children, all but one of whom lived to adulthood, and there she died in 1884.

It is difficult for me, the modern reader, to grasp just how different Mary’s life was from the life of any modern Southern woman—just how complex the rice plantation system was and how wealthy the families at the top of it came to be. I imagine that with running her household, personally educating her children in their youngest years, and her involvement in the running of their rice business, Mary had more on her plate than the average CEO. While her life was certainly one of privilege compared to other Southern women of her time, Mary did not live a life of ease.

All busyness aside, the Pringles did live in grand luxury. Coté’s book details the layout of the house and its gardens and outbuildings, the decoration and uses of each room, and the inventories of furnishings and art in the house during Mary’s lifetime. For me, the early story of the house’s construction, the important events and people surrounding it during its first years, and this tour of the house in Mary’s time made for some of the most fascinating reading in the book.

With the hindsight of history, the reader knows that the way of life familiar to young Mary and her children was rapidly coming to an end. Unfortunately for the Pringles, they allowed themselves to fall into financial trouble even before the Civil War began. Their overspending before the war, combined with the tight economic situation during the war, doomed them to disaster. When the Union troops occupied Charleston in 1865, all was lost.

My own image, August 2014.

The tale of the Pringles after 1865 is, at best, “grim.” The aftermath of the war seems, now that I’ve read about it, to be obvious, yet I think the lives of the plantation class in the months before Reconstruction came in full force are mostly unknown or ignored. In their confrontation with the Union, the Pringles lost not only one-third of their sons, but their country, homes (several plantations burned and they fled the Miles Brewton House in the city), labor force, food supply, and income. Most of the “wealth” that the Pringles managed to hold on to was so devalued as to be nearly worthless. This family, who had for generations lived in comfort and luxury, did not know where their next meal would come from.

The Pringles, having retreated up the state and scattered their belongings among relatives in hopes of preserving them, waited months before returning to Charleston and haggling with the occupying forces to re-enter the Miles Brewton House. When they finally returned home, the house was bare and they slept on the floor. They sold off more possessions to make ends meet and gradually turned away the few remaining house slaves because they could not afford to pay them. Their plantation fields were in ruins, their former field slaves unwilling to work. Despite years of effort in trying to revive rice production, the Pringle family never recovered. Mary and William died house-rich but impoverished in every other way.

The account of the twelve adult children given in Mary’s World illustrates how strikingly diverse life could be for the former plantation class after the war. The war itself took several Pringles—one died in battle, one of typhoid, and one of mental illness a few years later. One son became immensely wealthy as a planter in Louisiana and avoided the war by living in France. Another stayed in Charleston, becoming a distinguished civic leader. One daughter became an uncomfortable Yankee and endured years of separation from her family. Another daughter and son-in-law tried to revive the plantation lifestyle and failed. Three children migrated to California and nearly convinced their parents to join them. Truly, life in post-war South Carolina must have been devastating for thorough Southerners like Mary and William—who had given nearly everything in the war—to consider leaving their ancestral home.

Thankfully, for posterity’s sake, Mary and William never left the Miles Brewton House. The house eventually passed to a grand-daughter, Susan Pringle Frost, who must have been a true kindred spirit. Susan founded the Society for the Preservation of Old Dwellings in 1920, an institution which is still going strong and doing good work today as the Preservation Society of Charleston. Thanks to Susan’s initiative, many of those beautiful old houses are still standing, just waiting for someone to tell their stories.

These “Carolopolis” medallions are given by the Preservation Society of Charleston to honor historic preservation and restoration. They can be spotted on homes all over town. My own photo, October 2014.

Book Review: The Oregon Trail, Round 2

 

The Oregon Trail

Rinker Buck, The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey. Simon & Schuster, 2015.

I was a real sucker for the new bestseller with “The Oregon Trail” blazing big and bold on its cover. I mean, I grew up deciding whether to ford or ferry the pixellated rivers of the American West and finding ways to save my supplies and hunt big game (and all too often having “John died of dysentery” pop up in front of me). This nerd was ready to relive the trail. But because I borrowed this title from the library in e-book format, I didn’t really read the cover when I clicked “borrow.” I was expecting a history of the Trail—but I ended up with much more. The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey is actually the story of a modern recrossing of the trail.

Rinker Buck, a worn-out, middle-aged journalist, tells of how he stumbled upon an Oregon Trail site after a trip to the west and experienced a sudden, crazy wanderlust. Then and there he decided to jump on the Trail and see for himself if it could be followed again end-to-end. So in the spring of 2011, after meticulously researching the Trail, Buck and his brother Nick bought a reproduction covered wagon, three powerful mules, and more Hormel chili than I’ll ever see in my lifetime. They hauled their stuff across the Missouri River into Kansas, hitched up the mules, and hit the road—er, Trail.

By Paul Hermans - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36739932

Scotts Bluff, NE. By Paul Hermans – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36739932

What follows is a blend of travelogue, history, and psychoanalysis. Day in, day out, Buck unfurls the landscape of the American Midwest and West along the Trail—a landscape not just of prairie, butte, and mountain, but of people, generous and hardy, that surround the Trail both today and in its history. The Buck brothers rely heavily on what Rinker calls their “Trail Family”—the men and women who welcome them into their homes and barns, advise them on their way, and show great care for the condition of the present Oregon Trail. [The Bucks travelled with no support team!] There’s no doubt Rinker relies on the ghosts of the Trail, as well, for vision and inspiration. He generously scatters pioneer accounts and the backstory of many Trail elements throughout the book. And on the deepest level, Rinker finds that traveling the Trail forces him to confront his motivations and his past, particularly his relationship with his father.

I have conflicting feelings about The Oregon Trail. Some elements just plain drove me nuts. Rinker is not always a likable narrator. Many times he’s just a grouchy, judgmental old man. He hates RVers and assumes they’re stupid (I don’t own one, but I don’t assume all the owners are stupid). He hates religion and isn’t afraid to say so. But I was most annoyed with the crudeness of his language. I DO realize that’s how a lot of people talk, but in a book like this it was excessive and unprofessional.

But there are parts of the book that are absolutely wonderful. Buck displays an appealing affection for the land, for his wagon, for his mules, and for his brother. I have just enough wanderlust in me, too, that I became addicted to the rhythm of the Trail and the magnificent, ever-changing landscape. I was ready to follow the Trail myself (in the car, of course). He also writes with honesty and raw emotion. The peak of emotion—when they reach Oregon and he realizes that he somehow has to disengage himself from his months-long adventure—I wanted to cry with him. And I never thought I’d feel sad about mules, but I hated to see him say goodbye to them, too. I was also inspired by the great number of Americans Buck met along the way who care about their heritage and have gone to great lengths to preserve and mark the Trail.

If you enjoy history, but aren’t looking for a scholarly work on the Oregon Trail, or if you’re looking for an armchair vacation in the American West, this book may be for you. I would be interested to hear your thoughts if you read it.

Dead Wake

Dead Wake

“We had all been thinking, dreaming, eating, sleeping ‘submarine’ from the hour we left New York . . .”

What is it that draws us like flies to tales of human tragedy? Why, even when we know it will end badly, can we not look away? Is it because, like horror-movie-goers, we like a good scare? Is it the need to have everything explained away, to be assured that these bad things can’t happen to us? Is it the what-if, the fascinating downward spiral of unanswered questions?

Whatever that pull is, it pulls us toward books like Erik Larson’s Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania. Larson, who’s known for popularizing intriguing corners of history (such as in The Devil in the White City), brings his powers of research and storytelling to the disturbing tale of the sinking of one of the last grand ocean liners and of the world on the cusp of the modern era.

Before reading Dead Wake, my knowledge of the Lusitania went only as far as the text-book—I knew when it happened and its role in catalyzing the United States’ involvement in the first World War. But Larson brings into focus the larger picture—of Britain, Germany, the reticence of the U.S.—and also humanizes the event by following some of the men and women aboard the Lusitania.

Larson weaves together varied threads in recreating the last crossing. Some are familiar—the growing animosity among the European nations, the luxury of sea travel. But then there are the lesser-known individuals and incidents that all made their mark. There are the two captains set on a collision course: William Turner of the Lusitania—taciturn, experienced, confident in the face of threats—and Walther Schweiger of U-boat 20, determined and calculating in his pursuit of the enemy while he circled the British Isles. There is Room 40, the ultra secret British intelligence agency, which held the key to decoding German dispatches. And then the passengers: Charles Lauriat, rare book-dealer, crossed the Atlantic with an original Dickens; Theodate Pope, America’s first female architect, crossed the Atlantic trying to outrun chronic depression.

The rise and downfall of this book is in the details. Bookending the real meat of this story—the Lusitania’s 7-day journey across the Atlantic—are details so thick (and maybe irrelevant) that the reader is tempted to skim. What the passengers packed, what they did (even years) before departure, the contents of the cargo hold, the love life of President Wilson (!)—it all felt like information overload. Now, I know why the details are there; Larson wants to create an immersive historical experience and an intimacy with the passengers, but he doesn’t pull it off smoothly.

But there are times when the details are perfect. The history of submarines—U20 in particular—is fascinating. Who ever thought about how bad those early submarines smelled? Or that these men were submerged without radar, having only sea-floor maps and a periscope to guide them? And when the crucial moment is reached on the sunny morning of May 7, 1915, and U20 fires its torpedo at the Lusitania, the details of all those people fighting to live are intense. Then there are the details that bring the tragedy home. The passengers included an unusually high number of children—I am still haunted by the parents who had to choose which child to save, and the boy who couldn’t find his pregnant mother, only to hear later of a woman who died trying to give birth in the water.

The sinking of the Lusitania is what we would today treat as an act of terrorism—a blatant disregard for the rules of war and for innocent life, an act designed to provoke. The questions left behind about Britain’s role are haunting, for the Germans published a warning in the New York papers, telling the passengers of the Lusitania they would be sailing into a war zone; British intelligence knew exactly where U20 was and what its goal was; the admiralty had provided a safe passage for other, military ships. Why wasn’t the Lusitania diverted? Why didn’t the admiralty protect it? Why did the British intelligence machine blame Captain Turner for the sinking of his ship, instead of blaming the Germans? Unfortunately, the truths behind warfare are so muddy we often can’t see them. In trying to imagine if something similar happened today, I’m left feeling that you can’t trust people to do the right thing, even if and maybe especially if it’s the government.

As unpleasant as parts of this book are to read, I’m still glad I read it. In memory of all those who died needlessly—I’m glad to know what they endured.

“I know you must be tempted to have most terrible imaginings; may I tell you that although it was very awful, it was not so ghastly as you are sure to imagine it. When the thing really comes, God gives to each the help he needs to live or to die. . . . They were calm, many of them quite cheerful, and everyone was trying to do the sensible thing, the men were forgetting themselves, and seeing after the women and children. They could not do much . . . but they were doing their best and playing the man.”

[On a side note: for all the details, there were no pictures in the book, at least not in the ebook edition. I love pictures, and really felt their lack. Google “interior of the Lusitania” for some fascinating illustrations.] 

The Boys in the Boat

The Boys in the Boat“Spellbinding.” “Breathtaking.” “A Triumph.” All of those words that reviewers and authors throw at books in the front matter are absolutely true of The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown. It is one of the best books I’ve read in the last twelve months, if not one of the best books I’ve ever read in this genre.

If you’re like me, one of the most captivating aspects of the Olympics is the story films that run before the athletic events. These pieces explore the personalities of the athletes and the varied journeys that brought them to the Olympics. The Boys in the Boat is one of those films in book form, the difference being that you have hours to enjoy it.

The Boys in the Boat follows the story of a nine-man rowing crew from the University of Washington, with a specific focus on one oarsman, Joe Rantz. By some magic, Daniel Brown discovered Joe next door to his own property, living out his last days under the care of his daughter. Brown was spell-bound by Joe’s account and, happily for us, recorded it for history.

Joe’s story is similar to that of many other boys who came to adulthood during the Depression, and mirrors the lives of the boys that he rowed with in the Olympics. He grew up without money, without the love and support of family, yet somehow found the courage and backbone to care for himself, not ask for hand-outs, and work his way through college. He endured the emotional ups-and-downs of trying to make the varsity crew and then of pushing himself to make each race count. Through his eyes, we experience the wonder of those western boys as they saw the posh East Coast, and then Europe, for the first time. And looking back, we sense the eeriness of the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Daniel Brown has a wonderful way with words. His evocative portrayal of Depression-era Washington state and America brings that period to life. He describes the sport of rowing in a poetic and inspiring way. He tells Joe’s story with great compassion and beauty, making the life of this extraordinary ordinary man so addictive I didn’t want to put the book down.

The Boys in the Boat is one of those books like Unbroken that I’ll be keeping on the shelf for my children to read when they grow older. I believe it is vitally important that our kids, who, for the most part, have it so very easy, learn from the examples of men like Joe who worked and worked to make a life, even when the odds were stacked against them.

Our Man in Charleston

Sometimes reading history is a trip down the rabbit-hole—odd, fascinating, and endlessly complex. Christopher Dickey’s Our Man in Charleston: Britain’s Secret Agent in the Civil War South reminded me that history is huge and multifaceted and that there’s always another opinion. Our Man takes us down the rabbit-hole to the unfamiliar world of diplomatic relations between the firmly anti-slavery British and the wavering Americans, both northern and southern; a world of deceptions, near-misses, and high-stakes bluffs. It’s an easy, quick read, and you’ll enjoy it if you’re looking for a new angle on the Civil War.

In my mind, there are few American cities with the historic charm of Charleston, South Carolina—the perfect blend of Southern coastal climate and a centuries-old culture that has simmered and mellowed and kept a distinct flavor all its own. For me, one of its distinctions is its addictive beauty: time-worn brick and sky-blue porch ceilings and wrought iron, the sway of palms and crepe myrtles, and the scent of water and tea olive and gardenia. All these beckon you to linger in gardens and houses where history is preserved and honored. It’s no stretch to imagine the look of life at the turn of the 19th or 20th centuries.

Yet under all of that beauty lies an at-times ugly story of pride, greed, and injustice that’s enough to make the modern South-Carolinian-and-proud-of-it cringe and think, Well, what do I do with that? Slavery and all of its attendant evils built Charleston’s magnificent wealth and, no matter which side of the debate you take, was one of the ultimate causes of the Southern empire’s fall in the 1860s. Our Man in Charleston elucidates the uncomfortable political and social atmosphere of the city and the South’s relationship with Britain in the crisis years of the 1850s and 60s through the eyes of Robert Bunch, Her Majesty’s consul in Charleston.

While Robert Bunch was hardly a secret agent, he was advantageously placed and perceptive enough to be of great benefit to the engine of the British Empire. Tasked with eliminating South Carolina’s Negro Seamen Act, which allowed the city to seize and hold incoming black sailors of any nationality until their ship’s departure, Bunch ingratiated himself with the state’s leading politicians, journalists, and slaveholders (often all the same people). What Bunch learned of these men and women over the years turned his stomach, and the reports he passed on to his superiors in Washington and London painted southern Americans as snobbish, irrational, and inhumane. He watched the South alienate itself from the Union and did everything he could to prevent the South from gaining British assistance during the war.

Caution: sometimes knowing the past hurts. Bunch’s outsider’s view of antebellum Charlestonians (and Americans in general) is enough to make me squirm—there’s a great deal of uncomfortable truth about human nature here. And at times I felt that Dickey went out of his way to portray Americans in a negative light (using words like “insane,” or complaining of a drunk Secretary Seward) or to say that the war stemmed from the single issue, slavery. So if you’re a Southerner or even a sympathizer, guard your heart before you read.