Archive for March 28th, 2007

The 600th Anniversary of Zheng He


70 years before Christopher Columbus sailed across the Atlantic in search of a water route to Asia, the Chinese were exploring the Indian Ocean and western Pacific with seven maritime expeditions that solidified themselves as the major power in Asia. In 2005 China celebrated the 600th anniversary of the first voyage of the navigator and explorer Zheng He.

In 2005 China celebrated the 600th anniversary of the first maritime expedition of Zheng He (1371-1435), also known as Cheng Ho. Zheng He is China’s most famous navigator, making a total of seven expeditions over 28 years to 30 countries across Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean, the Persian Gulf and even the east coast of Africa. Some historians even argue that Zheng He’s ships traveled as far as Australia, some 300 years before Cook. He was born in the Yunnan province in 1372, about the time that Genghis Khan was defeated by the emerging Ming dynasty. His parents were Muslims who fought for the Khan, and at 10 he was captured by the Ming army and castrated. He became a servant to a Ming prince, who later rose to become Emperor. The new leader wanted Chinese to extend its reach and influence, and charged his loyal servant with the task of raising and equipping a large fleet for exploration.By the turn of the 15th century, China was already a highly advanced civilization, rich in culture, technology, weaponry, and sea navigation. The expeditions of Zheng Ho resulted in China expanding its influence over much of Asia, and spreading Chinese culture to many parts of the world. Soon after the final expedition, during which Zheng He died during a stopover in India, China became a closed culture, cut off from much of the world during subsequent reigns of emperors and dynasties. As China has begun to emerge from this 500 year period of relative isolation, the memory and legacy of Zheng He has awakened along with it.

For more information on Zheng He, his expeditions, and his legacy, here are a few links:

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April 2007 Read

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Love. Sex. Betrayal. Scandal. Taboo. All the ingredients for a great story. This month’s read is no exception. What makes it so interesting is that it is all true. At the end of the 18th century, England and France were engaged in a global conflict that spanned three continents and every ocean. India was a colonial province of both superpowers, with both governments vying for the right to call India there own. For the British officers who served in India during this time, the allure of the people, customs, and women in particular was endearing for most, and particularly enticing for many. In William Dalrymple’s White Mughals, this mutual attraction is told through the story of a British officer and young Indian princess. From the fields of Yorkshire to the gardens of Hyderabad, here is this month’s read.

India is a vast country of different cultures and sub-cultures, multiple languages and dialects, varying geography, and competing religions in Islam, Hinduism, and Christianity. The Mughals, a Muslim dynasty which ruled India from 1526 to 1858, lived in and fostered a society rich in architecture, arts, literature, and cultural diversity. Western Europeans had very limited exposure to and contact with this country up until the Portuguese began navigating the waters off southeastern India in the early 1500′s. Over the next 250 years the British and French made various attempts to ingratiate themselves into India culture and politics, with varying degrees of success. By the end of the 18th century, the two superpowers had broad designs on global domination, and the British, through the East India Company, made a concerted effort to thwart the French’s similar efforts within India’s complicated political landscape.

William Dalrymple’s “White Mughals” tells the true story James Kirkpatrick, an officer for the East India Company stationed in the Indian city of Hyderabad. As the title suggests, Kirkpatrick was a “White Mughal,” one of the many British soldiers and Company men who completely ingratiated themselves in Indian culture. Through extensive research of handwritten journals, letters, Company accounts, and books – many of which were written only in sanskrit – Dalrymple provides a detailed picture of what day-to-day life was like. This description extends to things like how the typical Indian household was managed, the design of and use of gardens, food preparation and cooking, sexual attitudes and mores, architectural styles, and much more. It also does a good job of illustrating the political landscape in which both the French and the British had to operate and attempt to advance their own interests. For a White Mughal, the fact that he immersed himself so deeply into the culture while at the same time serving as an officer in the Empire presented unique challenges.

But the most interesting pieces of the book center on the love affair and subsequent marriage between Kirkpatrick and a young Muslim princess, Khair un-Nissa. Through the spyglass of history, most people would see such a union as taboo, if not altogether scandalous from the 19th century viewpoint of both the British and the Indian Muslim perspectives (Kirkpatrick not only took Khair un-Nissa, a relative of the region’s prime minister, as his lover, but even converted to Islam to marry her). However, Dalrymple goes through great pains to provide many examples of how this type of “crossing over” and cultural mixing was not unheard of and, in many cases, encouraged before the British expansionist movement in India.

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March 2007 Read

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As the 19th century drew to a close, the word “Panama” was synonymous with failure. The French, amid scandals and financial ruin for throngs of public investors, had ceased operations to build a canal linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Thousands of workers had already died on “the Isthmus”, great fortunes had been made and lost, and the entire nation of France looked upon the whole affair as a stain of dishonor on the entire French people. Yet the promise of a canal beckoned. With Theodore Roosevelt now in the White House, the United States began its own effort, picking up where the French left off. In David McCullough’s Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal 1870-1914, the story of how one of the greatest engineering feats in the history of man is told. From the White House to the jungles of Central America, here is this month’s read.

In the late 19th century, the desire for a means of traversing the Atlantic and Pacific oceans via an aquatic “bridge” was not a new idea.  From the earliest New World expeditions, the benefits of not having to circumnavigate what would become known as Cape Horn were well understood.  However, it was the California gold rush of 1848 that put the issue in immediate economic terms.  One of the greatest “enabling technologies” of modern history was the Panama Railroad, built to serve traffic across what was then a remote territory of Colombia.  In fact, before the railroad was built, numerous stagecoach companies sprang up to carry people and cargo back and forth from ships sailing to and from San Francisco and those serving the eastern United States and Europe.The first serious effort to understand what it would take to build a water canal to replace the railroad was undertaken by the French, specifically, Ferdinand de Lesseps. De Lesseps was part of the team that built the Suez Canal, and a hero of France for the engineering and commercial success of that project.  According to David McCullough in his magnificent Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal 1870-1914, it was the perception of de Lesseps and many of his colleagues that they already had a firm grasp of the scope of the Panama project, even before making a survey of the land itself.  The reasons for this vary from intellectual pride to greed, but nonetheless the French team was able to raise enormous funds from numerous public offerings for the project.  After years of toil and financial intrigue, de Lesseps and the company he built for the undertaking eventually went bankrupt, leaving the way clear for other superpowers to consider involvement.  McCullough makes very plain that the individual will and vision of newly elected president Teddy Roosevelt, more than any other American, drove the United States to pick up the existing infrastructure, machinery, railroad, and vast quantities of material already on the ground in Panama for a bargain.  Years later, it is clear that he even indirectly pushed for the revolution that removed Panama from Colombian rule and brought the new country within America’s influence.

The story of how the canal project was actually executed is a very complex one.  More than 20,000 men died during the four decades of surveying, excavation and construction.  Fortunes were made and lost.  McCullough does his usual magic of telling this extraordinary story in terms that are not only thorough, but exciting and interesting to read.

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It is perhaps convenient for us as Americans to believe that our struggle for independence in the latter half of the 18th century was solely due to the efforts of like-minded volunteer militia and well-heeled gentry of the original 13 colonies. The legends of men like Paul Revere and Daniel Morgan have rolled down to us as examples of independent-minded, patriotic heroes standing toe-to-toe with the world’s greatest superpower. But while it can be said without a doubt that the victory of independence was largely due to the collective decisions and actions of the militias, regular army, and representative leadership, it is an incomplete picture. Given recent political antagonisms it might be unpopular to advance this point; however, it would be wrong to forget the contributions- economic, strategic, and physical- that the French made towards our victory. In fact, the French played a critical, if not the critical role in helping push George III’s court to accepting terms of independence. As is typical within historical circumstances, this story is best told within the confines of a single person’s experience. In this case, the story of Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roche Gilbert du Motier, the legendary Marquis de Lafayette.

You can find his name in every major American city- street names, national and state parks, public buildings, statues, and even city names themselves.  The greatest of foreign-born soldiers in the Continental Army was a man George Washington himself held in the very highest esteem.  50 years after the founding of the United States, Lafayette made a return tour of the country for which he gave so much as a youth.  He was met with throngs of adoring Americans wherever he traveled.  Crowds cried out his name and even fought just to get a glimpse of a man that they felt was a hero of their recent Revolution. Yet most Americans have no idea who this man was, let alone the enormous contribution he made to our country’s fight for independence.Whether the Colonies would have had the necessary strength to implement the Declaration of Independence, let alone win the War, without the aid of France is a question we do not seriously consider in modern-day history classes. Certainly the leaders of the Continental Congress realized the importance of French assistance and began to seek out such help soon after the outbreak of the American Revolution. In the fall of 1775, the Congress appointed a Secret Committee of Foreign Correspondence. Early the next year the committee decided to send an agent to France to seek the aid of that Nation in the struggle against Great Britain. Silas Deane was selected for the task. Within a few months after his arrival in France, Deane, covertly aided by the French Government, obtained and sent to America clothing and arms in large quantities. At the suggestion of Deane, the Compte de Vergennes, French Minister of Foreign Affairs, obtained permission to lend America money. Until 1778, France continued to give America all aid short of actual military support. Lafayette had heard about, and became sympathetic towards, the romantic American cause, which to him represented an opportunity not only to distinguish himself, but also to pursue what he deemed a truly noble cause.  He made the passage to America, after seeking and gaining assurances by the American ambassador, Silas Deane, that he would receive a commission as major generals in the Continental Army. He arrived in Charleston, South Carolina, in June, 1777, and traveled to Philadelphia to meet with members of Congress who welcomed him enthusiastically as he announced that he would serve without pay as a volunteer. In August he met General Washington and a friendship developed between the two men which lasted throughout the remainder of Washington’s life.  He spent the winter of 1777 at Valley Forge with the rest of the army.  It was there that Lafayette first demonstrated his value to the army in general, and to Washington in particular.  It was at Valley Forge where several of Washington’s subordinate officers conspired against Washington to have Congress relieve him of overall command.  However, they were unable to gain the support they expected. They tried to secure the cooperation of Lafayette, as well as Alexander Hamilton, but both men declined. Washington found Lafayette to be not only a loyal officer, but a devoted friend as well.

Washington’s confidence in the young Frenchmen was proven correct at the Battle of Monmouth. The command of the force entrusted with the attack against the British general Clinton was assigned to Charles Lee, Lee having the highest officer rank next to Washington himself. Lafayette commanded one of Lee’s divisions. Monmouth is famous for the high degree of disorder during the American’s retreat from the field (Lee was later chastised strongly by Washington for his unwillingness to engage the enemy).  It was Lafayette who sent a messenger to Washington urging him to come to the filed himself.  During the remainder of the battle, Lafayette commanded the second line of infantry. In early 1778 Washington sent General John Sullivan to Newport, Rhode Island, where the British had fortified a strong defensive position.  Sullivan was to later combine his forces with supporting troops from Nathaneal Greene Lafayette, as well as a highly anticipated French force. The Americans hoped that the French forces would provide the badly needed strategic tipping point required to defeat the British. Unfortunately the French fleet suffered serious damages during the voyage to Newport, and retired to Boston for repairs.  Lafayette was ordered to Boston to urge the French to get back underway as soon as possible.  Traveling back to Newport, with little rest, Lafayette found that the British had taken the initiative and attacked Sullivan’s forces, and the Americans were retreating to higher ground.  Lafayette immediately went to Sullivan and requested that he be given command of Sullivan’s reserve forces.  Sullivan agreed, and Lafayette brought the reserve forces to the front lines to combine with the main force, which subsequently forced the British to withdraw.  In his subsequent report to Congress, Sullivan noted Lafayette’s skills, whereupon on September 9, 1778, Congress passed a resolve formally thanking Lafayette for his commitment to the Revolutionary cause.  Soon thereafter, Lafayette returned to France where he received accolades from the French court for his devotion to the American cause.

But Lafayette’s service to America was just beginning.  Lafayette made numerous formal and informal efforts to secure additional aid from his government for the colonists. In June of 1779 Lafayette wrote Washington and expressed his desire to back with the army again. In 1780 Lafayette’s efforts (among others, to be sure) resulted in the deployment of French troops and supplies to America. So insistent was Lafayette for aid to the Americans that one day the Minister of Finance said in the royal council: “It is fortunate for the King, that Lafayette does not take it into his head to strip Versailles of its furniture, to send to his dear Americans; as his Majesty would be unable to refuse it.” The King appointed Jean-Baptiste-Donatien de Vimeur, the Count de Rochambeau, as overall commander of the force’s twelve battalions of infantry, with Lafayette to take command of the American division serving directly under Washington’s command.

Upon their arrival, Washington deployed Lafayette to the southern states to help thwart Lord Cornwallis’ movements.  By autumn of 1781 Cornwallis and his troops were penned into Yorktown, Virginia, where his position was made precarious by the arrival of a large French battle fleet.  After a long siege of the British positions, Cornwallis was compelled to surrender on October 19, 1781. After the British surrender, Lafayette again asked for permission to return to his native France.  Before he sailed Washington wrote Lafayette: “I owe it to your friendship and to my affectionate regard for you, my dear Marquis, not to let you leave this country without carrying with you fresh marks of my attachment to you, and new expressions of the high sense I entertain of your military conduct and other important services in the course of the last campaign, although the latter are too well known to need the testimony of my approbation.” Lafayette sailed for France on December 23, 1781, but before sailing he wrote Washington an affectionate reply: “Adieu, my dear General; I know your heart so well that I am sure that no distance can alter your attachment to me. With the same candor I assure that my love, respect, my gratitude for you, are above expression; that, at the moment of leaving you, I felt more than ever the strength of those friendly ties that forever bind me to you.”

Upon his return to France, Lafayette was hailed as a hero on both sides of the Atlantic.  In 1782, he was promoted to the rank of marechal-de-camp (major general) in the French Army by Louis XVI.  During the following 20 years, he aided the American government on numerous Franco-American political and economic issues. He also threw himself completely behind the questions of reform in his homeland. He was one of the first Frenchmen to advocate a National Assembly, and supported the establishment of a constitutional monarchy. He favored many radical positions for France such as the abolishment of formal titles, instituting trial by jury, religious freedom, and political rights for blacks. By the late 1780′s, Lafayette became one of the most popular and powerful men in France. On the first anniversary of the capture of the Bastille, Lafayette himself administered the oath of loyalty to “the nation, the law, and the king” to a large assembly of troops and sailors. But, being a fierce independent thinker, eventually he was attacked by both sides of the French political spectrum. Lafayette himself rescued Queen Marie Antoinette from the mob that stormed the Palace of Versailles on October 5, 1789.

In 1790 Lafayette was promoted to Lieutenant General in the French army, but resigned shortly thereafter. When war against Britain broke out in 1792, he prepared troops for war, winning the confidence of his men by, among other things, organizing mounted artillery. Against his wishes, he was ordered to move his troops to what is now Belgium even though they were not prepared. As Jacobin radicalists gained favor in Paris, he was unable to help his king and queen and bring his troops home to deal with the mobs now roaming Paris, and was summarily declared a traitor. He fled to Belgium with members of his immediate staff, but was arrested by the Austrians, who in turn surrendered him to the Prussians. For five years he remained in jail, despite English and American political pressure aimed at his release. Finally the Austrians turned him over to the U.S. consul in Hamburg.  He returned to Paris in 1800, his family fortune all but gone. He then turned his attentions to La Grange, his home just outside of Paris, where he apparently settled into a quiet agrarian life, the only major interruption being his refusing allegiance to Bonaparte himself during a visit Napoleon made to Lafayette’s home.

In 1818, after three years of seclusion at home, he was elected to the chamber of deputies, where he sat till 1824, as a leader of the opposition, opposing the censorship of the press, and voting for various liberal measures. In 1824 President Monroe invited Lafayette to visit the United States. He arrived in New York, and was warmly greeted by virtually everyone he met.  In  the course of the next fourteen months he traveled through the whole country, visiting each of the 24 states and all the main cities.  In consideration of his services in the Revolutionary war, Congress  voted him a grant of $200,000, and a Florida township of 24,000 acres. His sixty-eighth birthday (September 6th, 1825) was celebrated at the White House with then President John Quincy Adams.  He was the last surviving major general of the War of Independence.

Returning once again to France, Lafayette was retired until, at 73, he led an opposition movement to new restrictions on citizens’ rights. In 1830 he took part in his third revolution- he was offered command of the Army of National Guards that drove Charles X from France, but declined the popular demand that he be named president of a new republic.  Instead, he supported the ascension of Louis Philippe to the throne.  He remained a member of the chamber of deputies until his death.  It is interesting to note that Lafayette was truly unique among his French political peers; he refused to cooperate with the Bourbons, the Jacobins or with Bonaparte himself; and all three sides tried to discredit him for many years.  Yet his support from the populace, although inconsistent at times, remained substantial throughout his adult life.  Lafayette died in Paris on May 20, 1834.  When news of his death reached America, Congress ordered the Liberty Bell muffled.  He received a huge state funeral, and his remains were interred beside those of his wife in the cemetery of Picpus in Saint-Antoine. He left one son, George Washington, and two daughters.

Further Reading

Lafayette left a journal, which was published along with various ancillary materials (including letters to and from Washington) by his son George under the title “Memoires, manuscrits et correspondance du General de Lafayette ” (6 volumes, 1837-’38).

See also  Lafayette by Harlow Giles Unger; The New Cambridge Modern History: Volume 8, The American and French Revolutions 1763-93 (The New Cambridge Modern History by A. Goodwin; General and Madame de Lafayette: Partners in Liberty’s Cause in the American and French Revolutions by Jason Lane.

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February 2007 Reads

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Most people believe that World War II was largely the result of the “bad peace” negotiated at the end of World War I. Much unwarranted blame has been laid at the feet of Woodrow Wilson and his peers for the series of events which followed the truce signed by all parties in 1918. It is important to remember that most of the world turned a blind eye to Germany’s rise to war between 1933-1938. But a true appreciation of what happened cannot be gained without a thorough review of the first great conflict, the “War to end all Wars”, and the events leading up to August 1914. In this month’s read, we look at The First World War by Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson.

The dawn of the 20th century found Europe under the influence of a variety of changes. Germany’s military and industrial juggernaut had firmly established itself as the dominant force on the continent. France still held bitter resentment towards Germany as a result of their defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, which signaled the gradual rise of German power. However, given that relative peace had reigned over Europe for more than two decades, the various monarchs expected more of the same: little to no aggression towards one another, industrialization and modernization, and so on. However, changes which occurred during this period had laid the foundation for a much different century.Many scholars point to the web of alliances that spanned the continent as the primary cause of what became known as World War I. However, as masterfully laid out in the Introduction of The First World War by Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson, alliances have rarely ever been honored by countries when it conflicts with their true national goals and priorities. A strong case can be made that the true origin of the conflict can be found in Germany’s imperialistic ambitions. When viewed in this context, the “war to end all wars” perhaps was only a matter of time given that an entire generation of Germany’s entire military institution was trained for implementation of the “Schlieffen Plan”- the invasion plan for France first conceived by Germany’s hero of the Franco-Prussian War, Alfred von Schlieffen. Schlieffen’s overall strategy was to support the countering of a joint attack. His premise was that when (it was not really an “if” in the mind of the German general military staff) war broke out again with France, it was absolutely vital to kill off the French war machine in a lightning manner, before her allies Russia and England could rally to her defense. As France had a series of massive forts on their mutual border, his plan called for the bulk of Germany’s forces to simply move through Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg around the defensive wall. The French forces would be caught in a pinch as other forces would press the French from the east. The remainder of Germany’s army would stop any proposed advance from Russia. When Helmut von Moltke replaced Schlieffen as chief of staff in 1906, Moltke modified the plan slightly to press directly across Flanders (modern day Belgium) and Luxembourg only.

On August 2nd, 1914, the plan was put into effect. The Belgian army, in a heroic effort that most likely salvaged the entire war for the Allies, stalled the German advance long enough for the French army to re-organize its defenses, and for the British to deploy an initial force across the channel. In a theme to be played out many times for both sides, things were made worse by the Germans overextending their forward troops- essentially they did such a good job of driving forward that they exhausted their ability to maintain momentum as supply lines lagged far behind. Together with an unexpectedly strong push by the Russians along the eastern Prussian front, the modified Schlieffen Plan was thwarted. A mad dash for the sea ensued over the next few weeks as both sides began to entrench their lines from the Swiss border all the way to the English channel.

Still, all across the military and political spectrum of both sides with little exception, everyone expected a short war that would be “over by Christmas”. Instead, the world was introduced to the brutality of trench warfare and stalemate all along the western front, with death counts in the millions. Russia was absolutely devastated which contributed, in some measure, to the Russian Revolution and the overthrow of the tsar in favor of the socialists. By late 1917 the United States, a British and French ally, was bringing hundreds of thousands of troops (the infamous “doughboys) to the field each day. An armistice was signed on November 11, 1918. Many believe that the treaty signed at Versailles illustrated the French and British desire to punish the Germans still further. However, Prior and Wilson make a good case that Germany was in fact not punished enough, that the German industrial machine was left virtually untouched.

The First World War is an excellent introduction to the conflict, its roots, and its aftermath. With liberal use of illustrations, maps and vintage photographs, the book offers a concise history of the subject, and feeds a desire to discover more about individual topics.

Further Reading

Two other great books on the subject include The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman and The First World War by John Keegan. Jeff Shaara’s recent historical novel, To the Last Man, offers an interesting perspective from both sides. The Web also offers three very good sources for articles, maps, timelines, photos, and even some vintage video. They include PBS’s site (, the BBC’s site (, and Michael Duffy’s personal site (

Add comment March 28th, 2007

January 2005 Read

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Howard Zinn is perhaps best known for his landmark 1980 book A People’s History of the United States which offers a chronicle of American history from Columbus through Clinton’s presidency through the eyes of “the street, the home, and the workplace.” This popular book pokes holes in traditional history’s treatment of events and people and is, if nothing else, a unique perspective on our nation’s formation and rise to power. Here is this month’s read.

Originally published in 1980, Howard Zinn‘s A People’s History of the United States tells the story of America from a grass-roots level. Zinn, a historian and social activist whose other books include You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times, and The Twentieth Century: A People’s History, maintains that traditional American history is very one-sided because it is presented from the perspective of the powerful- from the first Spanish conquerors to modern-day capitalist aristocrats. As an alternative, Zinn provides a storyline from the “common man” perspective- labourers, immigrants, women & children, slaves, Native Americans, the poor, etc. who made and continue to make up the vast majority of the population.

Although the balance of perspective tips way too far the other way at times, this is truly a scholarly piece of research. Spanning Christopher Columbus’s arrival through President Bill Clinton’s first term, A People’s History combines a very diverse collection of letters, diary entries, newspaper accounts, and official records with commentary and analysis. This book caused some stir in academic circles because of its attacks on traditional views of American history. Nevertheless, this book offers an important ballast to any serious student of the subject.

If you enjoy this theme, you might also find Ray Raphael’s book A People’s History of the American Revolution of interest. With a forward by Howard Zinn, this book continues the theme of the common man’s history, but focuses exclusively on the events surrounding the American Revolution.

Add comment March 28th, 2007

April 2004 Read

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In late June 1863, the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia were both on the move. Robert E. Lee had successfully convinced Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederacy, that the best chance for their hopes for victory (or at least intervention by a foreign power such as Great Britain) was to take the battle to “those people.” On July 1st, his scouts unexpectedly encountered some Union cavalry on the outskirts of a small Pennsylvania village. What followed over the course of the next three days changed, or perhaps sealed, the course of American history. This event is expertly portrayed in Shelby Foote’s classic, Stars in their Courses. From the fields of rural Pennsylvania, here is this month’s read.

There are many books on the subject of Gettysburg. James McPherson and other experts have written masterful accounts of those three days in July, 1863. For me, however, Shelby Foote’s Stars in their Courses: The Gettysburg Campaign, June-July 1963 is the most enjoyable. I say that because Foote’s account does not read like a history book. It is not a dry, minute-by-minute account of the battle, nor does it go overboard on the chest-beating. Foote is a good writer, having written fiction as well as being one of the foremost Civil War historians in the world. In my opinion, Stars in their Courses is a masterpiece.The book itself is actually taken from Foote’s 3 volume “The Civil War: A Narrative”, combining one complete chapter (titled “Stars in their Courses”) and pieces from other parts of the trilogy. Fresh off his decided yet costly victory at Chancellorsville (“Stonewall” Jackson was wounded during that battle and died shortly thereafter), Robert E. Lee moved his Confederate army into Pennsylvania in the summer of 1863. Lee had convinced Jefferson Davis that the best chance of success lay in taking the war to the Union in order to “force the issue”. Lee reasoned that ordinary citizens in the North would not stand for substantial losses in their home states, and would grow increasingly fearful if Lee could offer a few smashing blows to the federal troops on northern ground. In his mind (as well as other Southerners), Lee believed that outside intervention and aid, by way of England and/or France, would end the war more quickly. This was desirable as the North had virtually strangled the Confederacy by way of a massive naval blockade of the Southern states, thereby cutting off badly needed commerce.

On June 30, Confederate troops left their camps at Cashtown, Pennsylvania and marched toward Gettysburg in search of supplies. Nearing the edge of Gettysburg, Confederate scouts spied a column of Union cavalry south of town. This came as somewhat a surprise to Lee. He eventually sent two divisions toward Gettysburg the next day to investigate the arrival of the mystery cavalrymen. A very strong and decisive battle ensued as the Union troops tried to secure the high ground over the area. In the process they lost one of their most promising officers, John Reynolds, who was well known to and respected by many of the Confederate high command.

The opening battle occurred on July 1st, 1863. Located 50 miles northwest of Baltimore, Gettysburg was an unlikely spot for the largest battle of the war. Foote masterfully recounts and provides context for the dozens of battlefield decisions which were made during the course of the battle, providing background on most of the decision-makers. One truly comes away from this account with a sense of not only the strategic and tactical influences and judgments (right and wrong), but also the fears, ambitions, prejudices, and bravery of the men who made them.

Gettysburg ended two days later with the historic and fatal “Pickett’s Charge” which decimated General George Pickett’s entire division of confederate troops. It resulted in a Union victory for the Army of the Potomac and successfully turned back the second and final invasion of the North by Lee. Over 51,000 soldiers were killed, wounded or captured, making it the bloodiest battle of the Civil War. Although most historians agree that the Union lost a major opportunity by failing to immediately follow Pickett’s Charge with a counter-attack of their own, it was a major turning point in the war. Historians have referred to the Battle of Gettysburg as the “high water mark of the Confederacy.” Lee’s army never crossed into Northern territory again.

There is plenty of drama and characters within the historical basis, and Foote does a masterful job of storytelling that is gripping and respectful at the same time. All of the battle’s many nuances and subplots are woven together in a wonderful narrative. These include Union officer Joshua Chamberlain, his men under heavy fire and running very short on ammunition, leading a textbook battlefield maneuver to save the Union’s left flank. George Pickett’s famous and tragic charge across a mile of open ground, directly under fire from Union riflemen and heavy artillery. The attempts by Pete Longstreet, Lee’s most trusted General, to call off the attack by Pickett, and Lee’s subsequent answer- “I will fight the enemy here.” And Lee himself, meeting the retreating soldiers atop his white charger, announcing softly to his men “It’s my fault”. This is a great piece of history, and a wonderful read. If you have ever had an interest in the Civil War, or Gettysburg in particular, this is a perfect introduction to this subject.

Add comment March 28th, 2007

March 2004 Read

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Robert Kaplan is a frequent contributor to The Atlantic magazine, and the author of several books on war-ravaged regions of the world including the Baltics (Balkan Ghosts), the eastern Mediterranean (Eastward to Tartary), and Afghanistan (Soldiers of God). However, my favorite piece is An Empire Wilderness, in which Kaplan turns his attention to North America in which he produces a travel narrative filled with observations on our past, present, and potential future. The result is a commentary on our society from an American who has spent a great deal of time witnessing and thinking about political, social, and religious struggle and change in other parts of the world. From a border crossing near you, here is this month’s read.

“The world in the foreseeable future will depend more on the preferences of Americans than on any single factor. Whether in preserving the balance of power in Europe, in Asia, or in the Middle East, or in restructuring the United Nations, the wishes of the United States will be impossible to ignore. America’s enormous technological advantages will sustain it as the military superpower for decades hence. But America’s foreign policy, like that of any other country, is an extension of its domestic inclinations and conditions. Thus it is of the utmost importance to understand the direction American society is going in.”Thus begins An Empire Wilderness, a North American travel narrative written by Robert Kaplan. For anyone that has read Kaplan (The Atlantic, Balkan Ghosts, etc.), this book represented somewhat of a departure in focus. Before this book, the vast majority of Kaplan’s journalistic and authoring research had been spent in some of the poorest and war-stricken regions of the planet- the Baltics, Afghanistan, and the eastern Mediterranean to name a few. One of the reasons why his writing is so well-respected is because he seems to take nothing for granted. Kaplan’s objectivism forces him to get a first-hand account of what is actually happening on the ground, move among a given population, to get his context. And this is one of the primary reasons why this book is so interesting. In order to get what he felt was as objective a viewpoint on America as possible, Kaplan embarked on a 2-year journey across his home country. He traveled almost exclusively west of the Mississippi, which he deemed necessary because he felt that 1) he had spent most of his life east of the river and therefore felt his inspection should exclude that part of the continent, and 2) he felt that to truly understand the future of the United States, one must understand the social, religious and conservatory changes taking place across the various parts of the nation. These changes, Kaplan argues, are more acutely evident in the western half of the country. And so, Kaplan’s book begins at the historic “gateway” to the West- Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

This book is compelling and disturbing at the same time. Kaplan’s natural style draws you in; it is laced with interesting and fascinating characters (a somewhat shady American entrepreneur trying to start massive telecom projects in Mexico is one, personalities on a Greyhound trip across the Heartland, a driven conservation advocate in Montana). His observations on the changing physical landscapes, intertwined with commentary on the corresponding economic, social and demographic shifts is cool. So is his insight into the future of urban development and eco-sensitivity (or lack thereof) in places like Vancouver and Los Angeles.

But it is the disturbing, almost fatalistic nature of his views on the future of the United States as a nation that hooks you. The inexorable pull of economic liberation that draws immigrants through our massively porous southern border is given great attention, with lots of heart-breaking context around what this pull is also doing to the Mexican economy, the drug trade, and the break-up of the traditional rural Mexican family. The rise (or reprise) of Christian fundamentalism is described as prominent across the Great Plains and the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains, fading to obscurity once one reaches the secular pods of southern California and the eclectic culture of acceptance in places like San Francisco and Seattle. Kaplan’s perspicacious conversations with various public officials and private environmental advocates concerning the ravage of our national parks and waterways leaves one with a sense of gloom, bordering on panic. And the portrayal of the complete desolation of most central U.S. metropolitan areas (such as St. Louis), juxtaposed against the efforts of various community and religious organizations to save inner-city youth, is at once deperssing and prophetic.

Nonetheless, this is an important book. It’s important because once in a while, it’s good to read honest journalism about what’s happening within the social fabric of our own country. I get the strong sense, living in Texas at least, that most Americans are blind to most of the problems that we face, and choose to ignore or flat-out deny that we have some obvious challenges that need addressing. This book is a touchstone for taking an honest look at some of the forces shaping the future of our country.

Add comment March 28th, 2007

Daniel Boorstin Dies at 89

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In 2004, the great American historian Daniel Boorstin died after a long and prestigious career. In addition to winning the Pulitzer Prize for The Americans: The Democratic Experience in 1974, Boorstin served as the 12th Librarian of Congress from 1975 to 1987. Here is a brief of this great American.The American historian Daniel Boorstin died this weekend after a long and prestigious career. In addition to winning the Pulitzer Prize for The Americans: The Democratic Experience in 1974, Boorstin served as the 12th Librarian of Congress from 1975 to 1987. He was a truly great historian and one of the most vocal advocates of literacy in 20th century America. He championed the acquisition of volumes of manuscripts for the Library of Congress and helped create both the Center for the Book and the American Folklife Center.

Boorstin was one of the most important historical writers of the 20th century. He published 20 books, including a trilogy on the American experience and one on world intellectual history. But what made him wonderful was his absolute commitment to the value of books and reading. In his acceptance speech upon becoming Librarian of Congress in 1975, he commented that “Mankind has never produced a technical feat to match the book…the computer can help us find what we know is there. But the book remains our symbol and our resource for the unimagined question and the unwelcome answer.” During his term as Librarian of Congress, Boorstin established the Center for the Book to encourage reading and literacy. He also started the effort to renovate the Thomas Jefferson Building, restoring the Library’s main building to its original 1897 condition. Daniel Boorstin fit the perfect image of a university professor and librarian. Routinely donning spectacles and a twead jacket, he spent much of his life behind a typewriter or in a library.

Not long after his appointment as the Librarian of Congress, he organized a press conference. In front of the cameras, he produced an ancient blue cardboard box with a small key dangling from it. He then ceremoniously unlocked it. Inside were the contents of President Abraham Lincoln’s pockets on the night he was assassinated. They included: two pairs of spectacles; a lens polisher; a pocket knife; the fob of a watch; a leather wallet; a linen handkerchief; and nine newspaper clippings. Boorstin had found the box, on a shelf in his new office, untouched for many years. He said his purpose in doing this was to “throw open the great brass doors of the Library of Congress, to open unopened boxes, and to bring the world of books and learning to as wide a public as possible.” He had a mission to bring people closer to literature and history.

Boorstin was, above all, pragmatic. He said that he believed that America was founded on pragmatism rather than ideology. His favorite president was Thomas Jefferson, who also held pragmatism in high regard. His favorite historian was Edward Gibbon, the 18th-century historian who wrote The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire. Boorstin often commented that Gibbon was an amateur, not unlike himself: no professional association or doctorate in history and hence no need to adhere to the rules he was meant to follow.

He was also way ahead of his time in terms of cultural changes and perceptions. In his 1962 book The Image, he offered a truly unique understanding of the way our contemporary culture uses simulations and false appearances in a vain attempt to transcend everyday life. It was in this book that Boorstin commented, “The American citizen… lives in a world where fantasy is more real than reality, where the image has more dignity than its original. We hardly dare face our bewilderment, because our ambiguous experience is so pleasantly iridescent, and the solace of belief in contrived reality is so thoroughly real. We have become eager accessories to the great hoaxes of the age. These are the hoaxes we play on ourselves.”

In his eulogy of Boorstin, the current Librarian of Congress, James Billington, offered these words – “He was an exuberant humanist who brought high literary style to a wide popular audience. He put things together when others were taking them apart. He kept history alive by telling it as his story at a time when many were dehumanizing it, first with ideological prejudice and then with methodological pomposity. He was an optimist but also a critic — providing us an early warning of the difference between real and pseudo events, between people who actually do things and manufactured celebrities who are simply well-known for being well-known. Plato said that immortality lies in one’s children and one’s books. Dan and his incomparable wife and effervescent editorial collaborator, Ruth, have opened both of those pathways to an undying legacy. His outstanding children have spoken today; and a great extended family of readers yet unborn will be benefiting from his books in the years to come.”

Add comment March 28th, 2007

America’s Most Endangered Places

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In the late 1940s, a grassroots effort among environmental advocates and leading historians led to the formation of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. It was officially launched when President Truman signed legislation creating the National Trust on October 26, 1949.

Its primary mission was originally the acquisition and management of historic sites. Since then, the Trust has also taken on additional goals, including financial assistance. The Preservation Services Fund was set up in 1969 to provide financial assistance to local area preservation efforts. Since the 1970′s many other programs have been established including the National Main Street Center, which emphasizes the revitalization of traditional downtown business districts; Community Partners, which focuses on historic residential neighborhoods; and other efforts for rural preservation, heritage tourism, and other programs. The Trust also administers the Preservation Honor Awards, designed to “recognize individuals, organizations and projects that represent the best in preservation.” Since 1966, the Trust has relied exclusively on the financial contributions of private individuals, corporations, and foundations. Today, membership amounts to more than 250,000 individuals and organizations.

The List

In 1988, the Trust published the first of its annual listing of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. This list was created to try and create awareness for national historic places that are in the most immediate trouble from development and/or legislative efforts, and spark action to save them. Since 1988, the 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list has been one of the most effective tools in the fight to save America’s irreplaceable architectural, cultural, and natural heritage.

The 11 sites chosen each year are threatened by neglect, insufficient funds, inappropriate development or insensitive public policy. Some are well-known, such as Ellis Island in New York Harbor. Others, like the Kennecott Copper Mines in Alaska or the village of East Aurora, New York, are less famous but just as important, because they too represent preservation challenges facing thousands of communities. Each site raises awareness about the dangers to specific parts of America’s heritage and about preservation generally.

The list has now brought national attention to more than 140 significant buildings, sites and landscapes. At times, that attention has galvanized public support to rescue a treasured landmark, while in others, it has been an opening salvo in a long battle to save an important piece of our history. 11 Most has been so successful at educating the public that now more than 20 states and numerous cities and towns publish their own lists of endangered places.

See the 2003 list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.


Government policy profoundly affects preservation. Tax rules, zoning laws and building codes, and funding decisions can revitalize traditional downtowns, protect historic buildings, and improve America’s parks — or they can encourage sprawl, damage established neighborhoods, and allow the destruction of historic treasures. The National Trust advocates for better federal, state and local policies in the following areas:

Smart Growth & Sprawl: Not only does sprawl consume open space and demand costly infrastructure — it also drains the life from established communities.

Government Funding: Budget deficits at both the federal and state levels have endangered funding for programs that have preserved America’s heritage.

Tax Credits: Federal and state tax incentives have encouraged the rehabilitation of tens of thousands of buildings and created thousands of jobs.

Historic Schools: Fair funding formulas can keep historic schools at the heart of America’s communities and prevent mega-school sprawl.

Transportation: Federal protections have saved thousands of historic treasures from road building, and thoughtful funding rules have encouraged community-friendly transportation projects.

Housing: Revitalizing older communities is crucial for meeting the ever-increasing demands for affordable and market rate housing.

Getting Involved

Support smarter public policies by becoming a preservation advocate. Join the National Trust’s Preservation Advocate E-Mail Network and receive alerts and a newsletter, the Preservation Advocate News, that describe the latest policy developments and what actions are needed. Also find out more about current proposals in the Trust’s Legislative Action Center, which includes comprehensive information about bills before Congress and the voting records of each member.

* Note: Some of the copy on this page was taken directly from the National Trust website… there you go.

Add comment March 28th, 2007

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