Sunday, October 26, 2014


A review of Tony Horwitz’s Confederate’s in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War (1998)

(Rating 5 of 5)

I should begin with a simple disclaimer.  I have absolutely no sympathy or respect for “the Lost Cause of the South.”  I do not see the entire event as “complicated.” It is actually very simple.  In 1860, Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the United States.  He was first president who would not pay lip service to the institution of slavery as all of his fifteen predecessors had done, regardless of whatever their personal feelings on the matter.  He even dared to suggest that slavery in the territories of the United States should no longer be permitted and all new states admitted needed to be Free states.  This was so offensive to the leaders of the South that they went forth and committed treason by breaking up the nation and attempting to form their own where slavery could be practiced without challenge.  If you do not believe that go and read all the secession documents of the Southern legislatures, the Confederate Constitution, and speeches by Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stevens. 

            Nevertheless, the book is fascinating as Horwitz explores the South in the 1990s amongst those who care about the Civil War.  He comes across a diverse group of people from armature to hardcore reenactors, modern-day secessionists, and a famous historian in the now late Shelby Foote.

Confederate Reenactors
            Despite my disdain for the Lost Cause, I came to like many of the Southern characters that I came to know reading the book.  People like Rob Hodge one of the hardcore reenactors who distinguish themselves from those lesser reenactors they call “farbs.”  I do not have anything against the average Confederate soldier who took up arms for what he saw was an invader.  These reenactors also seem quite harmless.  They just excessive history buffs who want to know more about their ancestors and how they use to live, fight, and die.  I even felt very close to one of them, Mike Hawkins, who seemed the real world just disappointed him and he felt down about his life.  Hawkins finds his escapism following his own ancestor’s trials in the Civil War.  I can imprecated that.  As someone who has often felt let down by life, I often find an escape into the past but I do not take it to the same extremes that he does. 

            I also find some of the old Southern generals interesting, such as Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.  I think if I was from the South, I might view those men the same way a German might view Erwin Rommel, I would appreciate genius while still despising the cause that they served.  One of the scenes that I thought was interesting was the comparison to Jackson’s early death to that of famous musicians.
            “The analogy wasn’t airtight.  Morrison and Hendrix were sex-crazed hippies who OD’d on drugs; Stonewall was a Bible-thumping teetotaler who sucked on lemons and sipped warm water because he thought the human body should avoid extremes.  But Rob was onto something.  If Jackson had survived and failed to change the course of the War, his luster might have dulled by the South’s eventual defeat.  ‘Better to burn out than to fade away,’ Rob wailed, echoing Neil Young.” (p.229)
            One of things I appreciated about this book is that it does not shy away from controversy.  It could have just as easily focused on small groups of hardcore reenactors but instead Horwitz chose to take on some of the more difficult questions, such as “Is there any real way to remember the Confederacy when the driving cause behind it was slavery?”  Should schools be named after men such as Nathan Bedford Forrest, who in my mind was nothing but a war criminal and hatemonger who founded the Ku Klux Klan.

            In the end I must say that this a great book that I would highly recommend to people who are interested in people who are interested in the U.S. Civil War.

{Video was created by DontcallmeMikey72 on YouTube}

Wednesday, October 22, 2014


A review of Collin Woodard’s The Republic of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Down (2007)

(Rating 5 of 5)

A small disclaimer: I actually had the opportunity to meet Mr. Woodard at the Maine Festival of the Book a few years back.  While there, I ran into him as he was on the way out.  I would have missed him entirely if he hadn’t noticed the fact that one of the two books I was carrying was one of his.  Woodard then stopped me and asked me if I was looking to get those signed.  When I told I was, he then told me that ‘Tony’ (author of a book I will be reviewing next) had left but he would gladly sign the other one.  It was an interesting forty seconds to say the least.  So if you think this is a biased review it might be.  However if you read it for yourself I think you will agree that it is an interesting book.

            What this book covers is the Golden Age of Pirates that took place in the first half of the eighteenth century.  During this time a group of pirates gained enough power in the Caribbean after the colonial governments there practically collapsed and pirate ships roamed almost unopposed.  They had been inspired by the example of Henry Avery, the first modern pirate who helped establish the principals that the pirates would come to live by.  What Avery started was the idea of ‘sailor reform’ where the shares of profit was more evenly distributed, decisions made more democratically, and leaders could be held accountable to their crews.
Blackbeard's Flag

            Pirates have been glorified in our culture.  Reading this book it is easy to see why.  The pirates did some nasty things but the people fighting them were hardly any better.  The European navies and merchants sold slaves, had crew that were literally kidnap victims who were treated as slaves, and acted in ways that were not honorable.  The situation with the British Navy of this time period kind of reminds me of problems with prohibition agents in the 20s and drug enforcement officers in present time.

            Avery disappeared from historical record and is believed to have lived a reasonable long—for late seventeenth-early eighteenth century standards—and comfortable retirement.  Most of his imitators who followed in his footsteps would not be so fortunate.  They would die young by hanging or going out in battle. 

            The book covers many of the post-Avery pirates, such as the ruthless Charles Vane, Sam Bellamy an early pirate commodore, and of course Edward Thatch more popularly known as ‘Blackbeard.’ Blackbeard is by far the most famous of all the pirates of anytime period.  The funny thing was prior to reading this book the only exposure I had to Blackbeard was in that silly Disney movie about his ghost and Ian McShane’s portrayal of him in the last Pirates of the Caribbean movie.  The later film shows Blackbeard still alive in 1750 sailing in the Queen Anne’s Revenge, which was decades after his ship was wrecked and Blackbeard himself had died.  The real one was more impressive despite the lack of superpowers that he displayed in the movies.  

           What I found the most surprising while reading this book was the politics of the pirates themselves.  These pirates not only tried to change how ships were run, but they had very strong opinions on who the King of England was supposed to be.  Almost every single pirate was an outright Jacobite, who regarded the present king, George I, as impostor who needed to be over thrown.

            Speaking on Jacobitism, there was one little passage in this book that I took a point with:

“Queen Anne had died, childless, in August of 1714.  Under normal circumstances, the crown would have passed to her half-brother, James Stuart, the next in the line of dynastic succession, a situation that, to thinking of many at the time, was ordained by God himself.” (pg. 101)

            Okay ‘under normal circumstances’ King James III would have received notice of the death of his sister, the Princess Anne, and would have been very sad that in twelfth year of his reign he was now devoid of siblings.  To Jacobites, Queen Anne may have been a Stuart but she and her sister Mary were just as much usurpers as William III and the Hanoverians who followed Anne.  I am sure Woodard was trying to simplify a complicated topic and did not have the space to go into things like the Glorious Revolution, but still false is false. 

            This is great a tale the sea of the sea.  I am so glad that I had finished it in time for the new Starz series Black Sails.  Reading this book before hand made the series more enjoyable.  This is a book I would highly recommend to anyone who wanted to know about the real pirates of the Caribbean.

{Video is from a Smithsonian Documentary}


Thursday, October 16, 2014


A review of Annette Gordon-Reed’s The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family (2008)

(Rating 5 of 5)

Despite that the rumors of the relationship between he and Sally Hemings plagued President Jefferson throughout his presidency, as people faded into history Thomas Jefferson’s secret family became more invisible to historians.  Some of this is understandable; after all if James Callender reported a sunny day you would logically assume that it had been hailing.  Also Jefferson’s legal white family did a good a job of covering it up, making sure that there would be no letters surviving in which Sally was acknowledged. 

            In 1998, with DNA test results it was confirmed that it was most probable that Thomas Jefferson was father of Sally Hemings’s children.  When the DNA results came out denial was replaced with a different reaction.  Jefferson suddenly became a sex-crazed man who fornicated with every female slave he saw.  (Remember the Jefferson DNA results came out when President Clinton was being investigated.) Every story about him was now believed.  By the year I graduated High School a TV movie was made called An American Scandal: The Sally Hemings’s Story starring Sam Neill (from Jurassic Park) as Thomas Jefferson.[1] The movie seemed to involve everything that was said about Jefferson from Callender himself. 
Early attack ad against Jefferson
            Dr. Gordon-Reed wrote her first book on Jefferson-Hemings story in 1997.   That book titled Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, which I have not yet read, was proven right within a year.  This book continues on some of the themes of first one with a larger scope.  The Hemingses of Monticello focuses on the entire Hemings family that resided at what is now a historic landmark.  Gordon-Reed recreates events for her readers as best possible with the remaining evidence to uncover what really went on at Monticello.

            The author tends to write from a left-wing academic perspective.  That is not a criticism just an observation.  What is interesting however was reading some of the reviews of goodreads, many accused the professor of being ‘angry’ something I find absurd.  Yes, she calls American slavery out for the evil oppressiveness that it was.  Yet, if anything she almost strikes me as a Jefferson apologist; when discussing Jefferson she often brings up the culture he was raised in, political, economic, and social pressures that he was facing.  One can argue that she makes a ‘judge by his own time period not ours' defense except, unlike some of her critics, she actually does it very well.  
As a teenager I thought was movie was bad, after reading this book I downgraded it to awful.
            The most famous member of the Hemings family is Sally, seeing that she is the one who was involved intimately with President Jefferson.  This makes sense when one considers the only reason we know about any of these people is because of the legal status of ownership that Jefferson had over them.  Since Thomas Jefferson was so important to the history of the county and the world, anyone who played a role in his life by default becomes important.  Yet the fact that Sally is the one we most know presents a type of misconception, if anyone had spent any time at Monticello they would know who the Hemings were.  In slave hierarchy of Monticello the Hemings family was one of the two at the top.  (The other was the Grangers.) Nevertheless while explaining this Dr. Gordon-Reed reminds the reader that they are still slaves, and cautions us against thinking of them as privileged.  Most of Jefferson’s personnel body servants were Hemings.  Members of the Hemings family did not wait on guests as maids or waiters; they were carpenters, chefs, and other artisans.  Most of the men had free reign to come and go as they pleased, the reason why is most of the story.  

The story of the Hemings family begins with the birth of Elizabeth Hemings.  Her mother was an African who had been brought to Virginia as a slave by the international slave trade; her name is lost to history but the name of the man she was with is not.  He was Captain John Hemings and he was not her owner.  As Dr. Gordon-Reed explained, slave status was inherited from your mother. (Mom was free, you were free; Mom was a slave, you were a slave.)  Gordon-Reed also explained what the term concubine meant in an early eighteenth century context, far from the more foreign exotic definition the word would later take on, in this time period it meant ‘unofficial’ wife.  She explains that it was rather common for Southern slave owners who were widowed, to take a concubine.  This would be the fate of Elizabeth Hemings as she became the concubine for John Wayles, whose daughter Martha would go on to marry Thomas Jefferson.  Elizabeth Hemings was already a mother before she became involved with Wayles, they would several children together mostly famously Sally Hemings.  When Wayles died the Hemings matriarch and her children would have their world transferred to Monticello.  

This story however is not only about one person or a couple but about a family.  Robert and James Hemings, who were the famous Sally’s full-blooded brothers, were a major part of both hers and Jefferson’s lives.  Their lives were interesting and atypical for slaves, the brothers had freedom of movement, could earn money by hiring out their services during times that Jefferson had no need of them.  Robert would go on to marry outside of Jefferson’s slave system and James who would go on to be become a fully trained chef in France. 

It is very rare that a book can completely change your view of something.  This book however made me change my view on a very important historical topic.  That is oral history and tradition.  I have been one of those who compared oral history to playing the game of telephone throughout the generations.  I think my overall hostility to it is driven from some of the way some of its advocates will often present it: as if these are almost sacred words that can be challenged.  To me, evidence should always be viewed with a healthy degree of skepticism, one of the things that studying written sources show us is there can be contractions in various accounts, trying to get at the truth can rather tricky and I tend to distrust people who claim ‘my relative’ was there and get really weary when someone tries to add it to the historical record.  How Dr. Gordon-Reed won me over was showing how oral tradition can be balanced against written and archeological sources and used as evidence. 

First, not every person who had a family history that claimed linage to Jefferson was right.  Gordon-Reed actually debunks a couple of them, while showing the strong case for Jefferson and Hemings.  She also shows how actions of family and descendants can be used to determine what the relationship between a mother and a father who were slave and owner actually was.  Gordon-Reed explains that sexual encounters were often between slave women and masters were done in one of three ways.  Rape was a primary method through violence or threat.  The second was a causal consensual sexual encounter, and third was in an actual secret relationship.  How the family of the woman acted and later spoke of the man is a good indicator on what happened.  When investigating the question of whether or not Hemings and Jefferson actually loved on another the author concludes in the affirmative, and she bases this not only on Jefferson’s actions but the actions of those around him.                               
“On the other hand, if they saw him acting in as decent a fashion as possible, that he was now bound to them by blood might have made at least some of them more inclined to see him in a positive light, thus shoring up the affective role that they certainly played in his life.  As will be shown in the chapter to come, members of the Hemings’s family, free and enslaved, sometimes responded to Jefferson in ways that suggest they thought of him as more a version of an in-law than the rapist of their family member.” (p.363)

            In a bizarre twisted way in that relatives owned members of their own kin, the Jeffersons and the Hemingses were family.  Thomas Jefferson was united to them by both blood and marriage, his lover was his late wife’s half-sister and her children were his.  When each of them became adults they were freed and left Monticello with pockets full of money and, for the boys, a completed training in carpentry.  By leaving they would never see either parent again, for they would go into society with their true identities hidden.  This book is full of eye opening information.  I highly recommend it.

[1] I think since the movie’s release the name has changed a couple of times. 

{Video is and interview Dr. Gordon-Reed did for the Big Think. Video is located on their page.}