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Summer Reads 2017

Churchill & Orwell: The fight for Freedom by Thomas E. Ricks

New York: Penguin Press, 2017, 339 p. $29.00

Thomas E. Ricks is perhaps best known for his book, The Generals, but his latest work, Churchill & Orwell, is a volume that seals Ricks’ reputation as one of our finest historical observers and commentators. Ricks is a fine writer and his erudite style adds much to what is both a dual biography of Winston Churchill and George Orwell, as well as an essay on the legacy and importance of these two domineering figures in world history. This latter observation, placing Churchill and Orwell in a global context, is not overstated. While Churchill saw his political and public career rescued from the ashes of catastrophe only to be once again neglected in his old age return to public affairs, Orwell died scarcely knowing how his work would inspire and instigate generations of those who followed in his wake. The importance of his books Animal Farm and 1984 and the continuing discussion of his work today is something that Orwell could not have imagined. In telling the story of two, somewhat parallel lives, Ricks is perhaps more pointed in his critique of Churchill. The former Prime Minister lived a long public life and record and Ricks had much to work with. The early years of World War II stirred Churchill’s eloquence and inspired a nation, but Ricks laments Churchill’s precipitous slide after 1942, when U.S. entry into the war seemed to depress and mute Churchill’s battling spirit. Ricks criticizes Churchill’s rhetorical embrace of American brotherhood with England, as a denial of the wane of the British Empire. He is troubled by the long tail of that “partnership,” and how it entangled lesser men and leaders in the more recent wars in the Middle East. In a somewhat snarky recitation, it is as if Ricks is poking Prime Minister Tony Blair with the challenge, “Mr. Blair, I knew Winston Churchill and you, sir, are no Winston Churchill.”

Ricks has performed admirably in this fine book. His gift to history in his tight writing style and the way in which he provides, through solid writing, a biographical account that is as much the story of two men, as it is the story of their times. There is a great deal packed into this little volume.

Their Backs Against the Sea: The Battle of Saipan and the Largest Banzai Attack of World War II by Bill Sloan

New York: Da Capo Press, 2017, 278 p. $27.00

Bill Sloan is a military historian that I have admired. He has written some fine books on the Pacific Theater of World War II. Sadly, this book misses its mark. Their Backs Against the Sea promises much but delivers little. In many ways, the book seems thrown together from notes intended for a longer study. It is as if this truncated volume was extracted from some larger work. The book simply does not tell a story with a chronology that engages the reader. In this, what is left is a disappointment.

I have studied the history of the U.S. Army’s 27th Division for many years and have published several articles on different phases of the Division’s history. Formed by the federal activation of New York’s National Guard units in the early months of World War II, the Division was devastated at the Saipan battle. In this book, the story of the Division is muted. The intense conflict between the Division and the United States Marine Corps is discussed, but Sloan’s account seems more concerned with the relationship of the two commanders, the 27th’s General Ralph Smith, and General Holland Smith of the Marines. Conflicts between generals, especially on the field of battle, are important, but it was the soldiers that I wanted to hear from. Sloan did mine some of the oral histories archived in New York’s Military Museum at the old armory in Saratoga Springs, New York, but his fishing expedition seems insufficient. Had the author spent more time with this collection, he would have uncovered more accounts that would have filled out this story with more detail and more pertinent observation. I expected a great deal more from this book.

The story of Saipan is a tragic one, like the story of all battles. In the history of this fight, there are generals to be sure, but it is within the ranks that the story has real relevance and I think Sloan has missed that. His tale of this fight is confused and disorganized and filled with extraneous details at just the wrong time to confuse and annoy this reader. Someday, a fuller book on the Saipan battle will be written. It will be a book that brings all of the disparate forces together into a cohesive and meaningful story of heroism, tragedy and sacrifice. This book has missed that mark.

Lincoln’s Lieutenants: The High Command of the Army of the Potomac by Stephen W. Sears

Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017, 884 p. $38.00

Lincoln’s Lieutenants is one of those important books that comes along from time to time and hits it mark perfectly. What the historian Stephen W. Sears has achieved in this impressive work is very significant. Sears has always been a reliable and competent writer. He has published excellent books on General McClellan, the Peninsula Campaign, Antietam and Gettysburg. The former editor of American Heritage polished his style in the shadow of the great Bruce Catton, and his work demonstrates the strength of that partnership. In this book, Sears has achieved in a single volume, what took the Southern historian Douglas Southall Freeman, three volumes in his history of Confederate leadership.

In this hefty book, Sears combines great writing with a solid understanding of the historical evolution of Lincoln’s troubled Union army, and tells the story of that army’s travails, its defeats and victories, in a very moving and informative way. Because of the importance of the Union Army of the Potomac, telling its story is really telling the story of the whole war, with proper difference to the important battles of the western campaigns and naval operations. I cannot speak more highly of what Sears has done in this volume. Lincoln’s Lieutenants is likely the most important Civil War book to be published in 2017, and may stand as one of the great works of Civil War history to appear on the subject in the last twenty. Lincoln’s Lieutenants is a fine achievement and a crowning moment for a fine historian. It will be impossible for any historian to write on the Army of the Potomac in the future without consulting this well researched and finely written work.

Madness Rules the Hour: Charleston, 1860 and the Mania for War by Paul Starobin

New York: Public Affairs, 2017, 268 p. $27.00

How did the young American nation slip into war and fight a devastating and costly Civil War between the years 1861 to 1865? In this book, Paul Starobin analyzes how the Southern city of Charleston, a hotbed of secession, helped to ignite the flame of war in 1860.

It is a unique approach and the focus of this City of controversial economy so intimately linked to places like New York and London is fascinating. How strange to think that in this town of Yankee haters, the place wealthy Charleston slave owners and merchants traveled to escape the summer heat and humidity (and disease) was Saratoga Springs, New York. Charleston has always been a city of contradictions.

This is a relatively slim book for a historical study, but there is much packed between the covers of this fine work. Paul Starobin has a fine style and mixes sound historical analysis with interesting observations about Charleston’s spiral into war. Many Charleston leaders believed that they could channel the passion for secession and stop it short of war, but Starobin chronicles how best laid plans went awry and events churned faster than Charleston’s leaders could redirect. In this book, the pro-secession advocates, of differing agendas, are like small town boosters whose efforts toward promotion take a tragic turn. Secession led to conflict and standoff and these factors led to war once the little rock of a fort in Charleston’s harbor was bombarded. The rest is the story of loss and destruction.

To his credit, Starobin does not get into the Fort Sumter ordeal – the tense negotiations or the story of the artillery barrage and surrender. Starobin ends his account with the convention that led to a vote for secession. Dramatically, and in a literary convention that works masterfully, the final chapter of the book jumps from 1860 to 1865 and portrays a Charleston that was pummeled and punished by war – a town that suffered so much devastation because it was viewed as responsible for the Civil War that tore our nation asunder.

This is a fine book and Paul Starobin is a fine writer. Madness Rules the Hour is a book that adds much to the historical understanding of how the United States tripped into a conflict that took the lives of some 750,000 soldiers of the Union and Confederate armies. I highly recommend it.

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