Lincoln Assassinated!! The Firsthand Story of the Murder, Manhunt, Trial and Mourning: A Library of America Special Publication – Harol Holzer

LincolnThe assassination of President Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865), remains a pivotal moment in American history when the nation was truly at a crossroads.  A brutal civil war had just ended and millions of former slaves found themselves unsure of their future post-bondage.  The former Confederacy was left in shambles and the Radical Republicans were intent on reconstructing the south in the model of the Union as a whole.  Lincoln, was either loved or hated depending on who you asked. In the Confederacy, there was no love lost when he was murdered and as Jefferson Davis (1809-1889) bluntly stated: “Well, General, I don’t know; if it were to be done at all, it were better that it were well done; and if the same had been done to Andy Johnson, the beast, and to Secretary Stanton, the job would then be complete.”  Investigators had tried to link Davis to the assassination but the former Confederate leader was never tried or convicted for Lincoln’s murder. The crime cast a dark cloud over the nation and millions of American went into mourning at the loss of the fallen leader.  Author Harold Holzer takes us back in time as we re-live the murder and events that followed as they happened in 1865.

The author opens with a brief description of events at Ford’s Theater as Lincoln and his wife Mary Todd Lincoln (1818-1882) watched the play Our American Cousin. Around 10:15 p.m, a stage actor named John Wilkes Booth (1838-1865) fired a single shot sending a derringer bullet barreling into the back of Lincoln’s head, mortally wounding him and changing American history. The assassin made a quick escape as he jumped down to the stage and uttered the infamous words “sic semper tyrannus”. Pandemonium ensued as doctors and guards rushed to Lincoln’s side. But doctors quickly realized that the president was beyond help. He was moved to the dwelling of William A. Petersen and at 7:22 a.m. on April 15, 1865, Lincoln succumbed to his wounds. The shocking murder of the president sent shockwaves across the city and nation but before long, authorities knew the identity of the man they were looking forward and his conspirators including Lewis Powell (1844-1865) who had also attacked Secretary of State William Seward (1801-1872). The chain of events comes roaring back to life through cables to Washington, newspaper articles and statements from witnesses and the even the officer who shot and fatally wounded Booth, Sgt. Boston Corbett (1832-1894), whose own life story is beyond puzzling.

At the beginning of the chapter’s the author provides relevant information to help the reader keep things in context but lets the writer of the letter or article presented do the talking. A majority of the statements are from those who knew Lincoln and loved him while at least who are from Southern sympatizers who rejoiced at the news of his death. Their statements are also included and some readers may find themselves filling with anger at the words. Remarkably, even those who had once mocked Lincoln, found the appropriate words of endearment for the fallen president. Journalists and politicians alike make amends in the book while offering their words to Lincoln’s memory. Today it may be hard for some to appreciate how loved Lincoln was by many during his time even in spite of his detractors. Included in the book is this statement by historian George Bancroft (1800-1891) that truly captures the majority of opinions at the time:

How shall the nation most completely show its sorrow at Mr. Lincoln’s death? How shall it best honor his memory? There can be but one answer. He was struck down when he was highest in its service, and in strict conformity with duty was engaged in carrying out principles affecting its life, its good name, and its relations to the cause of freedom and the progress of mankind. Grief must take the character of action, and breathe itself forth in the assertion of the policy to which he fell a victim. The standard which he held in his hand must be uplifted again higher and more firmly than before, and must be carried on to triumph. – George Bancroft (1800-1891)

What I did notice in many of the statements provided is that the issue of slavery always remained prevalent. Some speakers addressed it head on while others included as an addition to their main point. But what is clear in the book is that the issue continued to be a hot topic of discussion with many wondering how the United States would move forward with millions of freed black men and women. Reconstruction was the goal of Lincoln and his associates in Congress but their efforts would be undermined by Lincoln’s successor Andrew Johnson (1808-1865) who narrowly escaped impeachment in 1868.

The constitution was weighing heavily on the hearts and minds of prominent figures who sought to carry on Lincoln’s legacy and make America’s black population a legitimate part of the American experience. But first, Lincoln’s funeral needed to be held and sadly, even with him lying in state and on his way to the grave, blacks would feel the wrath of discrimination as they were initially barred from the funeral procession. It truly is mind-boggling but did actually happen and the criticism leveled at the Common Council in New York City is included as well. The order was defied and reversed but left a sour taste in the mouths of blacks who had already experienced their share of indignations at the hands of bigots. Outrage ran so high that even the Secretary of War Edward Stanton (1814-1869) stepped in and personally ordered that blacks be permitted to march in the funeral procession. As I read this part of the book, I shook my head in disbelief. But this was America in 1865.

The amount of speakers who appear in the book is extensive and include Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) and Confederate Vice-President Alexander H. Stephens (1812-1883) whose statements in tribute to Lincoln may surprise some readers. As to how sincere Stephens was in his words regarding slavery, we shall never truly know. However, he did show Lincoln the utmost respect in death even if they were at odds during the war and made the following proclamation:

Indulge me a moment upon this subject of the institution of slavery, so called, in the Southern States. Well, Mr. President and Mr. Speaker, it was not an unmitigated evil. It was not, thus much I can say, without its compensations. It is my purpose now, however, to bury, not to praise, to laud, “nor aught extenuate.” – Alexander H. Stephens (1812-1883)

The above quote is just a sample of the extensive amount of statements in the book that are crucial in American history. They are voices in history who were guiding the republic as America split in half and nearly destroyed itself. Lincoln sought to preserve the Union and had preferred to avoid conflict but was left with no choice but to wage war. The conflict had been a long and brutal campaign but the president had his eyes set on the future and how to move America forward. But on April 14, 1865, an assassin’s bullet put an end to his goals. The world would see a similar event take place in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963. Old Abe as he was sometimes called is fondly remember as the first Republican President and an astute politician who came from a simple background in Kentucky. And at the time of his death, he stood ready to move America forward. His death was a profound loss to the nation and that sorrow is captured here perfectly. As I read the book I felt as if I stepped back in time and had been provided with a ring side seat as a president was mourned and the hunt for an assassin was on.

The focus remains mostly on Lincoln but Holzer does discuss the arrests and fates of the conspirators Lewis Powell, David Herold (1842-1865), George Azterodt (1835-1965), John Surratt (1844-1916), Mary Surratt (1823-1865) and Dr. Samuel Mudd (1833-1883). Of the group, Powell, Herold, Atzerodt and Mary Surratt were sentenced to death and she became the first woman in American history to be executed. The group mounted their defenses and the statements by their attorneys are included as part of the author’s discussion on the investigation and convictions that followed. The attempts by defense lawyers were admirable if not also quite ludicrous. Authorities had the guilty parties and left no stone unturned as they hunted Lincoln’s killers. It was a conspiracy in the making from the beginning and the trail of evidence is presented out in the book. However, neither at that time or in the years that followed, has there been any evidence conclusively linking anyone in the Confederacy’s highest level of government to the crime.

America continues to grapple with race and equality but we have the tools and the will to continue the goal of improvement life for all. And as we embark on our path for true equality we can look back at the life and death Abraham Lincoln as a reminder of just how far we have come as a nation and where we should want to go. Old Abe’s ghost will always be with us and he will continue to be lauded as one of the greatest presidents in Unites States history. Great book.

ASIN : B00SW8BNVM

American Holocaust: Columbus and the Conquest of the New World – David E. Stannard

StannardEarlier this week, my boss mentioned during a Zoom office meeting that Columbus Day needed to be re-examined.  He had learned of many dark aspects of Christopher Columbus’ (1451-1506) arrival in the Caribbean.  The movement to end the celebration of Columbus’ life has gained considerable traction over the past several years.  Some states in America have renamed the Columbus Day to  “Indigenous People’s Day”, in honor of the Native Americans who sufferend immensly at the hands of Spanish and other European explorers.  It is a sound recommendation and one that may even happen here in New York City as it becomes harder for people to ignore the disturbing actions by Columbus and his group of marauders.  Many of us learned in school that he was the man who “discovered America”.  But is that what really happened?  An uncontested fact is that Columbus never set foot on North American soil, making the claim of discovering America misleading.  And we know today after many years of neglect by mainstream media, is that indigenous populations were decimated when exposed to the new visitors from abroad.   The true story however, goes far beyond Columbus, who was just one of many bloodthirsty religious fanatics who favored violence over peaceful assimilation.  David E. Stannard revisits the Columbus story in this eye-opening and chilling account that resulted in a stiff drink and a long moment of silence after I had finished reading.

I need to point out from the start that this book is not for the faint at heart.  If you are easily upset by graphic descriptions of barbaric actions, then this book may not be for you.  It is dark, chilling and beyond tragic.  And that is exactly why the way history is taught in the United States is in need of change.  Although the cover of the book gives the impression that the story is solely about Columbus, there is actually far more included in the book regarding the arrival of Spanish and English explorers whose wave of destruction spread across North America, the Caribbean, Central America and South America.

One question that has always typically been asked about the Americas is how long did the native population live there?  It is a good question and Stannard does provide a discussion about the original inhabitants of the Americas.  And what he says might suprise some readers.  I found the topic of Berengia to be highly interesting. The Berengia theory for human migration into the Americas is plausbible and the Bering Land Bridge which no longer exist, gives credence to the author’s point.  However, what is clear is that what we call the Americas had been populated by anicent civilizations thousands of years ago.  Creationists may believe differently but to completely diregard the science at hand would be highly unfortunate as the author provides a thorough discussion of humanity’s existence.

The story picks up pace as the Spanish arrive in the New World.  in August of 1492,  Columbus and his crew wasted no time in implementing their program of terror upon the natives.  The violence is nothing short of gratuitous and disease proved to be just a deadly.  The combination of the two as detailed in the book, had long reaching and long-term effects from which the Americas have never fully recovered.  And in case defenders of Columbus and other explorers point to disease as the major killer, Stannard has this to say:

However, by focusing almost entirely on disease, by displacing responsibility for the mass killing onto an army of invading microbes, contemporary authors increasingly have created the impression that the eradication of those tens of millions of people was inadvertent—a sad, but both inevitable and “unintended consequence” of human migration and progress.

The names of the tribes that suffered so much destruction are voluminous and I learned the name of several that I had no prior knowledge of.  Their names are almost endless and I am sure that only a fraction of the true number of indigenous tribes that called the Americas home are covered here.  In North America alone there were hundreds of tribes, some of which are now extinct including the Canarsie, who have a neighborhood and high school dedicated in their honor right here in my hometown of Brooklyn, New York.  Sadly, most do not know the true story of the Canarise but this book certainly does provide an idea.

Aside from the grim account at hand, Stannard takes yet another approach and explores the reasons behind the Spanish exploration across the ocean.  The true reason for Columbus’ voyage should cause readers to take notice about how much he knew about navigation and the position of the Spain in the European hierarchy.  Putting that aside, there is a much darker aspect to the Spanish missions and this is where religion enters the story.   Many of us know of the Crusades and the horrors of Christianity but in regards to Columbus, there is far more than meets the eye.  The mind-boggling details are included in Stannard’s account revealing yet another side of Columbus that will make many stare in disbelief at the words they are reading.   And if that is not enough, there were yet other reasons for the Spanish conquest and the end result left me shaking my head.

Halfway through the book I felt as if I needed a break but pressed on as I knew there was much more to learn about extermination of Native Americans in what is today called the United States.  Stannard keeps the discussion streamlines but does mention the Trial of Tears and Wounded Knee.  Each of those topics would require a separate book to fully go into the stories behind the tragedies.  The purpose here is to show the different ideologies behind Spanish and British actions in the Americas which both led to the same result for native populations.  The atrocities committed against Native Americans by the United States Government aare beyond upsetting and amount of gore found in recollections of the events might cause some readers to revolt in disgust.  Quite frankly, the European arrival in North America was just as deadly as the Spanish pillaging of Central and South America.  Each empire had its own reasons but for both, religious ideology, finanical motives and beliefs in racial superiority resulted in what Stannard believes to be the worst genocide in world history.   In fact, he states pointedly:  “the destruction of the Indians of the Americas was, far and away, the most massive act of genocide in the history of the world

After I finished the book, I had to sit in silence for a while to digest what I had just taken in.  Columbus’ actions were not a surprise to me as I had already known of his dark legacy.  What I did not know were the names of the numerous forgotten tribes of the Americas who no longer exist today.  The systematic destruction and eradication of their lives and culture is indefensible and nothing short of genocide, sexual exploitation and the plundering of territory inhabited by others whose way of life was completely changed by new faces upon their shores. If this book does only thing, I hope that is to shatter the myth of the new settlers in the Americas arriving with open arms and becoming fast friends with the native peoples.   Revisiting the past is often painful and reveals many disturbing facts that we would rather not know.  But if we are to have a frank and honest discussion about the people we have long called “heroic” and trailblazing” then all of their deeds should be open to examination.  This book is masterfully written, haunting but yet eerily relevant even today.

ASIN: B004TFXREI

I Am Perhaps Dying: The Medical Backstory of Spinal Tuberculosis Hidden in the Civil War Diary of LeRoy Wiley Gresham – Dennis A. Rasbach MD FACS (Author), Janet Elizabeth Croon (Editor)

leroyIn November, 2019, I had the opportunity to read “The War Outside My Window: The Civil War Diary of LeRoy Wiley Gresham 1860-1865” by author Janet E. Croon. The book is a collection of the diary entries made by LeRoy Wiley Gresham (1847-1868) during the American Civil War.  He lived in Macon, Georgia and was born into a slave-owning family committed to the Confederacy.  Before reading the book I had no idea who Gresham was.  But what I found after reading his diary, is that he was a bright young man whose intellect improves as the journal progresses.  However, I also noticed that throughout the book he is in poor health that does not improve but instead declines as the diary moves towards 1863 and beyond.  LeRoy did not know he was dying until nearly right before his passing.  His parents and older sibling Thomas, most likely knew how severe his condition was but kept it hidden from him probably with the thought that telling him would break the will he had left following the devastating injury in 1856 that resulted in his left leg being crushed by a falling chimney.   We know that tuberculosis is what eventually took his life but at the time, there was much about his condition that doctors did not know and were unable to treat. Dennis A. Rasbach, M.D., F.A.C.S., has taken a look at LeRoy’s medical history to understand how his condition progressed and the various treatments prescribed to him by his treating physicians.

Dr. Rasbach has concluded that Mycobacterium tuberculosis is what ultimately took Leroy’s life.  It is formally known as Pott’s Disease, name after the late English surgeon Percival Pott (1714-1788).  Today, tuberculosis is rarely heard of and a diagnosis y would raise eyebrows and result in reactions of shock and surprise.  But during the time in which LeRoy lived, tuberculosis was the world’s deadliest killer and a diagnosis such as the one received by LeRoy, almost always resulted in death.  Dr. Rasbach elaborates further with the following statement:

In the second half of the nineteenth century, tuberculosis was the deadliest disease in the world, accounting for one-third of all deaths. Even today, a quarter of the world’s population is infected with TB, and the disease remains one of the top ten causes of death, claiming 1.7 million lives annually, mostly in poor and underdeveloped countries.”

Throughout the diary, LeRoy utilizes a number of medications and remedies to combat his deteriorating condition.  Each are examined in detail to see why doctors resorted to those specific remedies and how they affected his daily condition.  Readers might express surprise at some of the things LeRoy was given to take, most notably significant servings of alcohol. Today, we would not even think of giving a teenage alcohol to treat a condition but in the 1800s, it was a widely accepted method of treatment.  Incredibly, some of the things LeRoy used are still used today. Dr. Rasbach mentions where and some readers might be surprised to see exactly where.

The second half of the book is a collection of journal entries related mainly to his health which he notes is declining rapidly.  The descriptions are graphic and I can only imagine how difficult it must have been for those around him to tend to him daily.  He often complains of his back, headaches, upset stomach and contracted legs making it impossible for him to even think of walking.  The pain is so bad that in one entry, he writes “saw off my leg”.  This young man lived in daily pain and sadly, his doctors and family were powerless to help as the medicines we have today did not exist at the time. For LeRoy, it was a slow and agonizing death.  But he gave us plenty of clues about his health and in hindsight, Dr. Rasbach has connected all of the dots, revealing the culprit behind LeRoy’s death at just eighteen years of age.

If you have read LeRoy’s journal and want to know more about the health condition that plagued him throughout the book, this is a must read.  And even if you have not read it but want to know more about the deadly history of tuberculosis, this book will be a valuable addition to any library.

ASIN: B07D7G7RJ8

Iran Contra: Reagan’s Scandal and the Unchecked Abuse of Presidential Power – Malcolm Byrne

contra1I still remember the video footage taken during the live testimony of Lt. Col. Oliver North (Ret.), as Congress sought to unravel  interconnected covert operations that revolved around Iran, Israel and Nicaragua. North appeared on television in full military dress, earing the sympathy and admiration of a large segment of American citizens.  There were some who felt he should have been incarcerated and that his actions were a dishonor to the very uniform he had on.   Regrettably, his testimony did little to help fully understand what had really taken place.  And even my father who follows politics and news religiously did not fully understand what had taken place.  What was clear, is that the administration of President Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) had engaged in questionable and possibly illegal activities that sent shockwaves of panic through Reagan’s cabinet and raised alarm bells on Capitol Hill.  As more information came to light, the media began to call it the Iran-Contra scandal and even today, it is still known by that description.  It remains one of the darkest moments of Reagan’s time in office.  Author Malcolm Byrne revisits the Iran-Contra scandal to tell the full truth about how and why it developed, and the actions of a president abusing the powers of the Oval Office. 

If you have decided to read this book, I am sure that there is a good chance that you are already familiar with the Iran-Contra scandal. But even if you are not, the story will still be of interest and easy to follow. The story begins by revisiting the events of October 5, 1986, when a C-123 plane carrying arms for the contras fighting the Sandinista government is shot down while over Nicaraguan airspace.  Several days later, a revelation on Iranian television sent Washington in panic mode.  Nearly everyone began to question the actions of Reagan and his cabinet.  The full story was carefully hidden from the public through omissions and in some cases, deception.   Here we have the whole account and Byrne take us on quite a ride as he peels back the layers of obfuscation employed by key officials close to the President.

Although prior knowledge of the events that gave way to the scandal is not necessary, I do believe that it will help if the reader has some prior knowledge of the political climate of Central America and the Middle East during the time period in which the scandal took place.  In fact, the histories of Nicaragua, Honduras, Israel, El Salvador an Iran are all relevant to the information that Byrne is presenting to the reader.   The fear of a communist expansion under the thumb of the Soviet Union, continued to shape U.S. foreign policy following World War II.  The rise of left-leaning and popular figures across Latin America had caused Washington to pay close attention and subvert several governments through the Central Intelligence Agency.  Central America became the next battle ground and as Byrne shows, Reagan intended to pull out all of the stops.

There are many acronyms in the book due to the complexity of Washington’s design with regards to intelligence and foreign policy.  Several departments play a role in the story and Byrne keeps track of them all, keeping the story flowing smoothly.  Chapters one through twelve alternate between Iran and Nicaragua. It was a good decision by the author, for it allows the reader to focus one part of the story before going to the next and then back again.  The two tracks eventually merge but not before Byrne provides a ton of staggering and shocking information.  When the tracks do merge, the book takes another turn as Reagan’s cabinet goes into damage control and the full weight of Congress comes down on his administration.

The hearings and testimony are summarized here so readers should not expect full transcripts but only snippets of the most critical statements.   In fact, the section regarding the hearings and prosecutions by the Department of Justice do not make up a large portion of the book.  The majority is devoted to the developments in Central American and the Middle East.  But that in no way diminishes the importance of the later chapters and they are just as surprising as the rest of the book.

One section in the book that caught my attention was the discussion about Reagan’s health.  Putting aside the attempted assassination in 1981, there were other health issues that arose during his presidency that caused many to question whether he was fit for office.  His actions and later testimony provide evidence that the conditions he later suffered from, had began to manifest as early as the 1980s. Byrne does not give Reagan a pass because of this but is equally mystified at how he was able to function.  He also makes a compelling point regarding Reagan’s mental state and his interactions with subordinates. It is certainly food for thought about the 40th President of the United States.

America has always said that it does not negotiate with terrorist.   On the surface it sounds tough and gives off the impression that the United States can take as hardline of a stance as anyone else.  However,  the events described in this book, challenge that position and Byrne’s research shows that negotiation became as common as public denials.  For many Americans, the scandal is an afterthought.  Reagan died in 2004 and the suriving members from his cabinet who are still alive had faded out of the public light, well into their later years in age.  However, I do believe that the story is still important in light of the recent events regarding the administration of Donald J. Trump.  Impeachment and investigations are two words that give rise to fear and concern but the founding fathers knew early on that such a system of governing was needed if the United States would truly be a democracy.  Future presidents may also want to read this book so that they too are never accused of abuse of power.

This account of the Iran-Contra scandal lays it all out for the reader to digest. It is an incredible and unnerving story about the very dark side of United States foreign policy.  Highly recommended.

ISBN-10: 0700625909
ISBN-13: 978-0700625901

Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area – Henry M. Caudill

caudill Recently, I have become more interested in the Appalachia region in the Southern United States.  What many of us have come to know as “coal country” is a region with a long story, often underrepresented in discussions about poverty and greed in America.  The people of this region are sometimes the butt of jokes with images of “backwoods hillbillies” from the movie ‘Deliverance’ coming to mind.  However, the true story of Appalachia and in particular the Cumberland region in Kentucky is an American tragedy with residual effects that continue to this day.  The late Henry M. Caudill (1922-1990) looked into the lives of the miners and the region that have called home.  And what he reveals in this book is sure to open the eyes to many and confirm for others, beliefs they have long held about coal country.

Caudill begins by revisiting Lyndon Johnson’s famous visit to the Paintsville, Kentucky in April, 1964.  The visit was used to support Johnson’s “war on poverty” in America.  More than fifty-five years later, poverty still exist and in many parts of Appalachia, there are no jobs, doctors and sources of hope for its people.  They do the best they can with what they have.  The sad truth is that for decades, they have been taken advantage of, ignored and forgotten.  The story of the Cumberlands is a textbook example of profits over people and is nothing short of mind-boggling.

Before reading this book, it is necessary to abandon any pre-conceived notions about Appalachia. You have to approach the material with an open mind free from any bias about “mountain people” or any other term used to describe the people of the Cumberlands.  Caudill takes us back in time to the original settlers in North America and traces their path from the coastal cities to the Appalachian mountains.   It is a good lesson in history and will help readers understand how and why the region came into existence.  Undoubtedly life was rough, far rougher than in big cities but the people of this region are accustomed to it.  In fact, as I read through the book, I had to marvel at how they adapted to the rigidness of life in the mountains.  To survive there required true grit and an iron will.  That is all is on display here and the author does not sugar coat anything.  The descriptions of mountain life are graphic and some readers might recoil at some sections.

As to be expected, coal enters the story and it is at this point that the region is transformed completely and the story develops its tragic course. The arrival of the coal companies and other business to the region offer at first the possibility of prosperity for the people of the Cumberlands.  But as we learn through Caudill’s words, there was much to be seen that was carefully hidden from the people, a majority of whom lacked basic literacy skills.  I simply cannot find the words to describe the shock that I felt as I learned about the level of manipulation by businesses as they reaped enormous profits at the expense of the common folk.  I am certain that you too will shake your head in disgust at the actions of corporations in the Cumberlands.  And sadly, this was just one of a long list of revelations about the reality of life in Appalachia.

Mining is dangerous and dirty business, and it is not long before automation enters the story.  For the miners of Appalachia, it proved to be a death kiss and caused the demise of coal, a fuel which has been replaced in many parts of America by cleaner and more efficient sources.  The integration of automated technology and decline of coal combine to form the book.  During the 2016 United States Presidential election, Donald Trump promised to “bring coal back”.  His words were promising for the legions of miners hoping to be put back to work to earn for their families.  But there was much about coal that Trump did not say and the truth about its demise can be found in this book, directly from the Cumberlands. And while there are plenty of articles online today regarding coal, the words here predate many of them by several decades.  The decline of coal is a story that the locals know all too well but for many of them, there is little semblance of a way out of the gripping poverty that can be found all around them.

The decline of coal, flight of professional young men and women and the emergence of clean sources of power, permanently changed the lives  of those in the Cumberlands and Appalachia.  There would be no return to the days of the past and moving forward, the future was uncertain.  Today the future is still uncertain for those in Appalachia.  At the time Caudill wrote this book, he did not have the availability of social media or the internet.   What he saw and experienced was unknown to many Americans.  Appalachia was seen as a hidden region full of backwards people who had no use for outsiders.  The reality is quite different and as Caudill shows, it is a complicated place created by exploitation yet sustained by government assistance. It is also paradox in a country that can spend billions in foreign aid but find itself either unwilling or unable to help its own citizens.

I had always wondered why Appalachia developed the way that it did.  I found the answers to my questions are far more in this deeply moving account by Henry Caudill.  If there is anything I could change about the book, I would have included an index and/or list of references. Dates and events can be cross-referenced without question but an index would have given the book even more of an authentic feel. Nonetheless, it is presented as an autobiography and Caudill was highly familiar with the region having traveled there himself. He also discloses that he has been there to visit family.  Having finished the book, I have a new understanding of the miners and their plight.  And as I sit comfortably in my home in New York City, I remind myself that the struggle to survive for people throughout Appalachia continues. Time will tell if there is indeed a brighter day for them.  It is said that the past is prologue.  This book should be read prior to any discussion regarding Appalachia and the issue of coal.   Many years have passed since it was published but the information contained within remains relevant.

ASIN: B0774XHYT3

The War Outside My Window: The Civil War Diary of LeRoy Wiley Gresham 1860-1865 – Janet Elizabeth Croon

CroonI was browsing through recommendations on Amazon when this book caught my attention.  As one would expect, the words Civil War stuck on the cover.  However, the name LeRoy Wiley Gresham (1847-1865) did not sound familiar at all.  My interest peaked and I decided to see why the book had earned a five star rating.  And to say that it is a hidden gem would be an understatement. It is indeed special and the author did a remarkable job of putting it all together.

Janet Elizabeth Croon admits early in the book that she had no idea who Gresham was.  I would wager that a majority of Americans are unaware of him as well. He was never mentioned in any of the history books I studied while in school. Nor is he mentioned in literature regarding the Civil War.  But I firmly believe that this journal is one of the most overlooked accounts of the war from the point of view of the Confederacy.  The story is told from the Gresham family home in Macon, Georgia.  LeRoy is what we would call an invalid, having survived a dangerous accident in 1856 in which his left leg was severely broken by a falling chimney. Following the injury, he developed a dangerous and persistent cough in addition to other symptoms that were later diagnosed as tuberculosis, also known as the “white plague”.  LeRoy is never told of the diagnosis and the journal was written by a young man who did not think death was coming for him until his very last moments.

Readers will notice instantly that Gresham is highly articulate for a young man of his age.  It becomes obvious early on that his mobility is limited and he does not get out often.  However, he is a keen observer of the news and those around him.   His awareness and understanding of the raging conflict between the Union and Confederacy speaks volumes about his level of maturity.   And although he was not always correct in some of his observations, that can partly be attributed to faulty reporting in a time before social media and live news broadcasts.  In fact, news moved so slowly at times, that it could be an entire day or two before information reached its final destination.  Regardless, LeRoy follows the war closely, offering detailed insight into the war’s progression.

As I read through the journal, I did notice that most of his days were actually quite eventful with relatives and friends coming and going constantly.  Games are played,  the weather detailed, various foods eaten and plenty of conversation takes place.   Sadly though, LeRoy’s illness does not let up and he comments on his own physical condition nearly every day.  Readers have the benefit of the doubt in knowing what was wrong with him but he was unaware of his terminal diagnosis.  He mentions old medicinal treatments common during the time and some of the names will be foreign to some readers.  The reports of the war’s battles may also be unfamiliar to those that are not Civil War buffs. But the author provides a ton of invaluable footnotes at the end of the chapter to explain almost everything contained in the journal for each year.  Without these footnotes, the journal would have assuredly been a far more challenging read.

As a Black person, I could not ignore the “elephant in the room”.  LeRoy’s family were slave owners and supporters of the Confederacy under Jefferson Davis (1808-1889). As I started the book, I did feel a bit of uneasiness about what I would find.  I did not find anything extreme in the journal but I did notice he was not averse to using racial terminology that was commonplace at the time, in particular for a slave owning family.  However, he does not lace his journals with it and refers to family slaves by their first names in describing the day’s events.   But I was under no illusions that he believed in the abolitionist movement.  LeRoy believed in the Confederacy and was no fan of Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865), but as the journal progressed, I did notice a few changes in his beliefs that will cause the reader to take notice.   And had he lived, perhaps his views might have changed over the course of time.

The journal only covers between 1860 and 1865, so we do not know all of the details regarding the accident that caused him to break his left leg .  The author explains the accident but LeRoy does not talk of his leg much in the journal. In fact, his back is the main focus in addition to his hacking cough and the abscesses that would plague him as the tuberculosis raged through his body eventually reaching his spine.   As a bonus in the book, the author was able to get a doctor to examine what was known of LeRoy’s medical history, the medications he was taking and the care he received to render the most likely diagnosis.  At the end of the book, the doctor takes a very detailed look at the medications which explain even further exactly what LeRoy’s condition was and why he would have been given them.  Reading the journal did make me grateful for modern medicine.

I strongly advise and recommend that anyone interested in the Civil War to read this book.  It is by no means an authoritative source on the war but it is a very intimate look at the conflict through a very different set of eyes.

ASIN: B07D6QQT77

The Hatfield and McCoy Feud after Kevin Costner: Rescuing History – Thomas E. Dotson

HatfieldsIn American folklore, there are two families whose names are recognized as being part of what is arguably the longest running feud to have ever taken place in the United States.  The Hatfields and the McCoys have become ingrained in the American experience and the alleged feud between the two families has been re-told through films, documentaries, websites and books. In 2012, the History Channel released a multi-part miniseries about the feud starring Kevin Costner as William Anderson “Devil Anse” Hatfield (1839-1921) and the late Bill Paxton (1955-2017) as Randolph “Ran’l” McCoy (1825-1914).  The series is highly rated but just how accurate was it?  And were the Tug Valley in West Virginia and Pike County in Kentucky, really that deadly in the late 1800s?  Thomas E. Dotson is a descendant of both families and here he rescues history and sets the record straight about what really did happen between the years of 1882 and 1888.  And what he reveals will undoubtedly change the way you view the “feud” between the two famous families.

Dotson takes a different approach here and instead of re-telling the story, he examines other sources of information that have been published or released that have contributed to the often repeated “official” story about the conflict.   There is no official narrative here, the purpose of the book is correct information that is simply inaccurate.  Urban legends and published works have led many of us to believe that the conflict began over the issue of a stolen hog from Randolph McCoy and that as a result, blood was shed in large numbers, turning the Tug Valley into a shooting gallery.  Admittedly, the story is sensational and its seductiveness has allowed many to fall victim to misinformatio.  However, through hindsight, Dotson’s work allows us to go back in time and take another look at the “deadly” conflict.

The amount of research that went into this book is nothing short of staggering.  Dotson means business here and has had enough of the lies and omissions that have persisted for more than one hundred years.  I have seen the reviews of some readers on Amazon, who complained that the author did not tell the story as it happened. However, Dotson does tell the story, just not in the conventional format. By going back and breaking down the myths, the story is re-told, one section at a time.  And by halfway through the book, a clear picture of the origin of the tensions between the two families is clearly evident. The death of Ellison Hatfield on August 1, 1882 in Pike County, Kentucky, is widely accepted as the beginning of the conflict.  But as Dotson shows us, the seeds of discord were sown many years before, going all the way back to the Civil War.  Further, the tensions between the two were only a part of a much larger battle being waged between many high-powered figures over land, money and the settling of old grudges.

Surely, some secrets of the conflict have been lost over time as those who were alive at the time have long been deceased.  But their heirs and official records that have survived, give us a clearer picture of the mindset of both families during the time and refute myths about the events that were supposed to have taken place.  Dotson rectifies those long held beliefs, dissecting them like an expert surgeon. For more than a century, the alleged theft of a hog has been the referred to as the start of the troubles.  But what Dotson shows is that there was far more to the story than any of us could have imagined.  To the Hatfields and the McCoys that are now deceased, any notion of a feud probably would have been seen as ridiculous.  To be sure, the families did have their tensions but a feud in the sense that we think of might have seemed bizarre to them.

As I read the book,  I found myself shaking my head in disbelief at the surreal amount of misinformation that has been propagated many forms of media.   Hollywood has always been known to take certain liberties with stories and Costner, while a great actor, was not responsible for every part of the production.  However,  I do believe that with the story of the Hatfield and the McCoys, the truth has been sacrificed for too many years while those responsible have profited greatly.  And the full story of what did happen has remained hidden until now.  Dotson is proud of his heritage and does an incredible job of presenting the truth while completely demolishing any perceptions that people from the Tug Valley are hillbillies obsessed with violence and illiterate. In fact, as can be seen in the book, it was the exact opposite in many places and the full story reveals a long running chest match that eventually did see a checkmate take place.

Perhaps one day, a film will be made that tells the story of the Hatfields and McCoys as it did happen, removing the fanfare and eliminating the tendencies of storytellers to embellish their accounts to be more appealing.  But until then, we can rely on this phenomenal compendium that tells the truth about what may be the greatest “non-feud” in history.

ASIN: ictB0s73V6B55d

Trail of Tears: The Rise and Fall of the Cherokee Nation – John Ehle

cherokeeAmerica often has an uncomfortable relationship with its past.  The dark moments in the founding of the nation are sometimes left out of history books and never discussed in conversation.  Native Americans are either viewed with empathy or disgust, typically depending on the observer’s knowledge of history.  Alcoholism, depression and economic instability have continued to plague Native American reservations, given as a token gesture by the United States Government.  In Hollywood, they have often been presented as wild savages determined to murder Americans, only to be repelled by heroic soldiers and cowboys seeking to preserve the union.  The reality however, is that there is much about the Native Americans of North America that remains largely unknown.  In the State of New York where I reside, virtually nothing is taught about the Lenape Indians who owned what is today the Tri-State area, in addition to other vast territories.  In the South, the once mighty Cherokee nation owned land, lived under their own rules and were content with life before the arrival of new  nation, created following the independence of 13 colonies from British imperialism.  Today the Cherokees are an afterthought for most, but at one time, they ruled large parts of what became the future United States of America. This is their story and that of the infamous “Trail of Tears”, that would permanently change the lives the Cherokee Indians.

John Ehle takes us back in time to the late 1700s as George Washington takes his post as the first Commander-in-Chief.  The new colonies need land and expansion is their answer.  But the land they seek is owned by Native Americans who have no desire to leave the only homes that they have ever known.  New settlers become engaged with native tribes and the stage is set for some of the bloodiest conflicts in United States history.   The Creeks, Choctaw, Sioux and Iroquois are just a few of the dozens of tribes that composed North America.  Their removal and partial extinction is similar and relevant to the current story.  And I assure you that after you have finished this book, you will look at American history quite differently.  Further, there is more to the story than just the seizure of land and it is a story that proved to be more than I had anticipated as I began to read this book.

The early parts of the book are detailed with the many skirmishes that occur as the two opposing forces become entangled in conflict.  Reminiscent of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant, released in 2015,  relations between White settlers, French settlers and Native Americans were at times fragile and the battles deadly.  Ehle provides detailed and sometimes graphic descriptions of the brutal conflicts that developed which break down the facade of the glorious creation of America.  In fact, I warn readers easily upset that this part of the book might prove to be challenging to read.  The words are uncomfortable but so is the truth and the author minces no words.

The story has its central characters and it becomes slightly difficult to follow as they each make an appearance.  Major Ridge, John Ridge and John Ross become the power players at the top of the Cherokee command. The United States is represented through President Andrew Jackson and Georgia Governor John Forsyth, among others.  Their names and actions often intersect and the story may seem a little confusing at first but once the government’s position is established, the  narrative becomes highly focused as Georgia and Washington put the official plan into action, and the removal of thousands of Native Americans commences. It is here through the Treaty of New Echota in 1935, that the “Trail of Tears” is born and the story takes a dark and regrettable turn.

Earlier I mentioned that there was more to the story and there is one aspect of Cherokee life that is largely unknown and never acknowledge and that is its relationship with slavery in America.   It came as a surprise to me and I am sure that many Americans never learned this in school.   But it is relevant to their story and a part of history that we must understand as we continue to revisit the legacy of the United States.

Predictably, the latter part of the book is focused on the Trail of Tears itself and the deadly impact it had upon the Cherokees and African slaves, forced to march mainly by foot, from Georgia and other parts of the South, out west to Oklahoma, the territory designated for them by Washington.  The full number of people who made the journey is still up for debate but it is quite possible that up to 100,000 were forced from their homes and ordered to move west. The number of Cherokee deaths ranges anywhere from several thousand to as high as 16,0000.   Harsh winters, disease and famine combined to produce a deadly plague that took the lives of many.  And for those that did survive the journey, their lives were never the same again.   And to this day, they have never reclaimed the lives they once had.

In recent years, more U.S. States have taken the bold step of renaming Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day, recognizing the complicated and violent history America has with its Native American citizens.  And if we are going to continue to move forward while acknowledging  wrongdoing and correcting it, then we must first learn the true history of America’s birth.

ISBN-10: 9780385239547
ISBN-13: 978-0385239547

 

Go Down Together: The True, Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde-Jeff Guinn

On May 23, 1934, citizens across America tuned into news broadcasts coming from Bienville Parish, Louisiana that outlaws Clyde Barrow (1909-1934) and Bonnie Parker (1910-1934) had been shot and killed by law enforcement officials after a carefully laid trap to snare the wanted fugitives.  Their deaths bring an end to crime spree that left several police officers dead and put the couple on the list of America’s most wanted.   At the time of their deaths, both were under the age of twenty-five and their story has been both romanticized and distorted in films and books.  The film taken of their car following the shooting can easily be found online.  It is a chilling piece of a postmortem recording with Bonnie’s body sitting limp inside the front passenger side seat still clutching the partially eaten sandwich she had ordered for breakfast that morning.   In death, they would become part of American lore from an era in which banks were robbed, V-8 engines ruled the road and the middle of the country was home to nearly every outlaw known to authorities.  But who were the real Bonnie and Clyde?   And how much of their story is truth and how much is fiction?

Author Jeff Guinn has investigated these questions and others as he presents to us the untold truth of the story of the couple.  The story beings and takes place mostly in Texas with West Dallas serving as home base for both of them.  But their life of crime spread out across several states, earning them the wrath of law men determined to see their demise.  Without questions, their exploits are what attracts people to them.  Like Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd (1904-1934) and George “Baby Face” Nelson (1908-1934), Bonnie and Clyde are poster figures produced in a time in which the depression was in full swing, cars were easy to still, guns plenty and an organization known as the FBI was developing under the direction of J. Edgar Hoover (1895-1972).  The past seems distant but it was less than one hundred years ago when these notorious figures traversed America on paths of destruction before meeting violent ends. But to understand these figures, it is necessary to understand their lives and this is where Guinn excels in revealing the truth to the story of Parker and Barrow.

The tendency we have when examining a person’s life is to seek a moment that explains their evolution to a new level of greatness or infamy.   But with Parker and Barrow, it was not so much a moment but a series of events in each of their lives that led to the development of the most dangerous couple in American history.  And what Guinn tells us might surprise readers expecting to find tragic childhoods for both.  In fact, although poverty was an issue in rural Texas, both the Parkers and Barrows found ways to make ends meet and maintained strong bonds with the couple until the time of their deaths. Barrow’s mother Cumie, is perhaps the most pitiable for throughout her life she never stops loving her son.  Bonnie’s mother Emma, is cut of the same cloth, never-ceasing to love her daughter even as she sinks deeper into a  life of crime.  And through Guinn’s words, they appear not just as violent outlaws, but as a couple deeply in love, dependent on each other and unable to keep their families’ hearts from breaking. Theirs’ is a tale of tragedy and violence that could not possibly end with redemption and a second chance.

In addition to presenting their story, Guinn clears up many erroneously reported facts, setting the record straight once and for all.  In an era before television, the internet and social media, word of mouth spread quick and with each crime, Parker and Barrow grew into larger than life characters that put fear in the hearts of anyone they crossed.   Clyde is rightfully credited as the leader of the Barrow Gang and the reason for Bonnie’s descent into a life of crime.  But to understand the dark mind of Clyde Barrow, a visit to his past, in particular his time at Eastham prison, is necessary for his transformation from small time crook to feared outlaw begins there.  That section of the book, like the shootouts with authorities, may not be an easy read for some.  The descriptions are graphic leaving no stone unearthed so that the reader can fully understand the presence of death that was formed and remained with the Barrow Gang. The full nature of their murder spree and their willingness to gun down law enforcement officials was a times shocking and at other times jaw-dropping. In fact, as I read the book, I felt as if I were transplanted back in time looking over the shoulders of the gang as they slept in cars, traveled back roads a high-speed and allowed their minds to become filled with delusions of grandeur about a life together in tranquility after their life of mayhem was over.

The book is well-researched and well-written.  Much has been written and said about the duo over the past seventy years but Guinn’s book stands as a complete and unbiased account from start to finish of the lives and deaths of Bonnie and Clyde. From the day I started it, I could not put it down as I was pulled into a masterpiece about two of America’s most dangerous and idolized historical figures.

ISBN-10: 1416557075
ISBN-13: 978-1416557074

The Best and the Brightest-David Halberstam with a New Introduction by the Author

20180619_235509I have often wondered why my uncle and many other veterans that I have met, were sent to Vietnam.   He and others never speak of the war, choosing instead to internalize their memories and feelings.  But from the few things about being Vietnam that my uncle has told me,  I cannot image what it was like to be fighting a war in a jungle 13,000 miles away from home. Today he is seventy-two years old and his memories of Vietnam are as sharp today as they were when he left the country to return home.  And there is a part of him that still remains in Vietnam, never to leave its soil.    He is one of five-hundred thousand Americans that served in a war that claimed fifty-eight thousand lives.

The reasons for America’s involvement in Indochina have been muddled and in some cases omitted from discussions.   Secrecy became the standard method of communication in more than one administration in Washington as the United States became deeper involved in a conflict with no end goal in sight.  Daniel Ellsberg gained fame and infamy when he revealed the top-secret Pentagon Papers to the country.   The New York Times later published a review of the documents and today it is available in the form of a book titled The Pentagon Papers: The Secret History of the Vietnam War.  The book is enlightening and contains a trove of information regarding how and why decisions were being made in the White House as control of the government passed through several presidents.  Former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara (1916-2009) published his own memoir of the war, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam.  The book has its fans and critics. McNamara has often been blamed for the war and the vitriol towards him was so strong that in later years he declined to talk about the conflict.   True, he was a participant in the events leading up to the war, but many other players had a hand in the game which became deadlier as time went on.  To understand their roles and the policies enacted, it is necessary to revisit the  complete history of U.S. foreign policy in Indochina.  David Halberstam (1934-2007), author of The Unfinished Odyssey of Robert F. Kennedy, conducted his own research into the war’s origins and the result was this New York Times bestseller that is nothing short of mind-boggling.

Halberstam admits that he knew Ellsberg and in fact, he reviewed the Pentagon Papers as he wrote the book.  In addition he conducted hundreds of interviews but was careful not to reveal any of their names.  When Ellsberg was indicted and had to stand trial, Halberstam was subpoenaed to give testimony, unaware then of how Ellsberg came into possession of the documents.  But what started out as a look at the life of  former National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy (1919-1996), grew into this definitive account of the reasons for the Vietnam War.

The book follows a carefully guided timeline and the story of Vietnam begins in China before moving on to Korea and eventually Southeast Asia.  These parts are critical for they set the stage for foreign policy decisions in the years that followed and explain many of the mistakes that were made.  As President Eisenhower winds down his time in office, a new young Catholic Democrat gripped parts of the country as he declared himself the next person to occupy the White House.  By the time John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) took office, the road to Vietnam had already been paved.  It is at this point in the book where the pace picks up and never slows down.   The concept of the best and the brightest came to Halberstam as he thought of a phrase for Kennedy’s cabinet of intellectuals who were set on reshaping Washington in the image they believed was right to push the country forward.  One by one he introduces us to all of the characters that have a role in the story, tracing their origins and helping us to understand how they reached their positions in the government.  Some of them are as mysterious as the country’s then paranoia about communism taking over the world.  But as they come together, something still is not quite right and Vietnam becomes the issue that will not go away.  And for the thirty-three months Kennedy was in office, the American involvement would grow in Indochina but the nation had not yet entered a war.   The growing crisis however, had begun to cause a rift in the White House and the deception employed by those loyal to the military and war hawks is eye-raising and chilling.  I also believe that it helps explain Kennedy’s murder in November, 1963. We can only guess what would have happened if he had lived.  There are those who strongly believe we would have withdrawn from Vietnam. I believe that is what would have happened, probably sooner rather than later.  But Kennedy was gone and his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, inherited the nightmare of Vietnam.

As Johnson settles in to being the new Commander-In-Chief,  Indochina becomes a thorn in his side and he becomes conflicted with the decisions he will eventually make.  This part of the book is the crux and the key to the final push by the military for a war.  Many of Kennedy’s cabinet members continued to stay and at first worked under Johnson.  But as time passed and the ugly truths about Vietnam came back from Saigon, they would fade out as Johnson led the nation down the path of escalation.  Halberstam is a masterful story-teller and the scenes he recreates from his research are spellbinding.  Nearly everyone in the book is now deceased but as I read the book I could not help but to scratch my head at their decisions and actions.   The warning signs of Vietnam loomed ominously large but tragically were ignored or discounted.   Washington suffered from a tragic twist of fate: although it had the best and the brightest in Washington, they still made mistakes that literally made little sense. And that is a central theme in the book. The war’s architects were all brilliant individuals with endless accolades yet they failed to understand what was considered to be a peasant nation far away from home. Many of them would suffer in one way or another.  For Lyndon Johnson, Vietnam eventually became the final nail in the coffin that sealed his chances at reelection.

During the reading of the book, I also noticed at how Halberstam explained the actions of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and Vietcong.  In order to understand why Vietnam became a stalemate, it is not just necessary to understand the failures of Washington, but the strategy of Ho Chih Minh and the generals under him.  The small peasant nation took on a colossus and refused to give up. And the battles of  Vietnam changed warfare and showed the world what many believed to be impossible.  Arrogance and in some cases, racist beliefs laid at the base of some foreign policy decisions regarding the war.  History has a strange way of repeating itself and the repeated warnings from the French fell on deaf ears as American troops landed in a place many of them knew nothing about.  Looking back with hindsight, the critical failures are clearly evident and although Halberstam shows us how we became involved in Vietnam,  we are still baffled about why.  How could so many minds filled with so much knowledge make such rudimentary and baseless decisions?   The answers are here in this book in the form of official cables that withheld information, overzealous military advisors, an unstable South Vietnamese government, National Security Action Memos and the idea that the United States could solve any of the world’s problems.   This book is a must-read for those who are interested in the history of the Vietnam War.

ISBN-10: 0449908704
ISBN-13: 978-0449908709