Edward G. Lengel. General George Washington: A Military Life . New York: Random House, 2005. xlii + 450 pp. ISBN 1-4000-6081-8. $29.95 (hardcover).
At the outset of this book, Edward G. Lengel recounts the various perceptions of George Washington that biographers and historians have manifested over time, beginning with the prevailing view of the former president at the time of his death, after he had been called out of retirement to oversee military operations as commander in chief of the United States army during an undeclared war with France. To most Americans in 1799, the chieftain who was buried with military honors at Mount Vernon was the country's foremost soldier first, and a man of peace and politics afterward. "Light-Horse Harry" Lee's famed eulogy embodied the popular image of the heroic Washington leading his small army through years of privation and defeat in battle to final triumph over the British. The biographies that followed depicted him in this light, beginning with Parson Mason Locke Weems's mythmaking Life and Memorable Actions of George Washington, General and Commander of the Armies of America (1800). Inevitably, Washington was compared to history's great commanders.
Eventually the pendulum swung the other way. Digging beneath the edifice of military glory, historians uncovered a different Washington, one not without personal shortcomings as well as limitations as a commander. They argued for reassessment of both his character and his abilities on the battlefield. Washington's dimming reputation was in time restored, buffed and brightened by writers who concerned themselves with his life as planter, politician, and president of the fledgling nation, whose statesmanship and unselfishness helped unite the young country. By the dawn of the twenty-first century, so far had historiography strayed from the original view of Washington as warrior that no book focusing exclusively on his military career had been published since 1899.
Washington was, as an
earlier historian declared,
"the indispensable man."
The need for a modern study of Washington's wartime leadership has been admirably met by Lengel, who, as an associate editor of The Papers of George Washington at the University of Virginia, is perfectly situated to reevaluate the general's career. A specialist in military history, Lengel is intimately acquainted with the commander's wartime correspondence and other documents. These materials, which comprise about two-thirds of the vast collection of papers that the project has so far assembled, transcribed, and published in fifty-two volumes, provide the basis for Lengel's book.
Lengel follows Washington's military career from its beginning in 1753, when the young major and adjutant of one of Virginia's four militia districts was picked by Lieutenant Governor Robert Dinwiddie to deliver an ultimatum to the French in the contested Ohio Valley. The grueling winter journey resulted in a French refusal to withdraw from the region. The subsequent defeat of Washington by French forces the following summer at Fort Necessity set the stage for the French and Indian War. A year later, Washington was aide-de-camp to Major General Edward Braddock, commander of British forces in North America, as that veteran officer led his red-jacketed army against Fort Duquesne, the French outpost at the Forks of the Ohio River. The ambush and near destruction of Braddock's army and the British commander's death were witnessed by Washington, whose Virginians acquitted themselves well as the army disintegrated before the onslaught of French and Indians forces. Despite the debacle near the Monongahela River, Washington emerged unscathed and something of a colonial hero.
From this disaster, Washington learned what not to do as a commanding officer. When placed in charge of the Virginia Regiment, he schooled himself on how to assemble, train, drill, discipline, provide for, and lead a military unit. The regiment reflected his growing maturity and performed well under his leadership during British Brigadier General John Forbes's expedition against the French in the Ohio Valley in 1758.
In the war's aftermath, Washington returned to private life and focused on his responsibilities as family man, planter, and involved citizen, his romantic notions of military glory swept away by the grim reality of warfare. Later, when selected to lead the American army on the eve of the Revolution, he expressed doubt about his credentials. Some observers charged that his self-effacing protestations were a ploy masking an overweening ambition, but Lengel credits the veracity of the letters that reveal a man not only bound to duty and willing to sacrifice his life, fortune, and even his closely guarded reputation in the colonies' cause against imperial England, but also aware of his limited experience and, estimating the odds, unsure of his ability to lead his country to victory.
During the Revolutionary War, Washington did not display the gifts of an extraordinary commander, and his impatience, stubbornness, and other failings, all recorded by various writers, testify to his ordinary human fallibility. Yet, as Lengel makes clear, his essential greatness remains intact because he did possess, as no other American leader did, in full measure and faultless calibration, the unique combination of overall qualities that the circumstances demanded, including those required by the battlefield. Washington was, as an earlier historian declared, "the indispensable man." In this highly recommended book, Lengel rigorously defends and reasserts that claim.
–reviewed by Donald W. Gunter, Assistant Editor , Dictionary of Virginia Biography
Andrew Levy. The First Emancipator: The Forgotten Story of Robert Carter, the Founding Father Who Freed His Slaves . New York: Random House, 2005. xviii + 310 pp. ISBN 0-375-50865-1. $25.95 (hardcover).
Neither the first emancipator nor a founding father, Robert Carter (1728–1804) was one of the wealthiest men in the United States when he set in motion a carefully designed plan to manumit approximately 450 slaves in 1791. Andrew Levy's insightful book endeavors to answer two central questions: Why did this grandson of Robert "King" Carter, this heir to privilege and power who sat on the colonial governor's council and came of age alongside Virginia's Revolutionary leaders, free his slaves while his contemporaries did not? And why have Carter and his "Deed of Gift" vanished from the narrative of American history? By examining this undeservedly obscure episode, Levy challenges the notion that the founders' equivocation on slavery was somehow an essential component of the American experience and points to the possibility of an alternative path in which the spirit of the Revolution might have liberated blacks as well as whites.
Though born into Virginia's elite ruling class, Carter marginalized himself in a variety of ways. For decades he struggled to resolve an internal conflict between the trappings of his economic status, which depended on the maintenance of the social order, and his desire to ally himself with dissenters and outsiders. Profligate in his youth, he failed to impress his neighbors and was twice an unsuccessful candidate for the House of Burgesses during the 1750s, thus missing an opportunity to serve in the dynamic body that launched the political careers of many of the nation's founders. Carter's appointment to the council in 1758, secured through the influence of his wife's uncle, did not curtail his eccentric interests, including his affinity for religious nonconformists and his growing misgivings about the institution of slavery. Carter's actions undermined the slave economy in ways that went beyond the typical accommodations masters often deemed expedient. He alienated his wife's relatives rather than liquidate their slave property, which he controlled after his father-in-law's death; he avoided separating slave families on his own plantations, refused to sell slaves to offset his increasing tax liability, and despaired when his children sold slaves he had given them; and he sent his sons to Northern schools to prevent them from growing dependent on slavery.
Carter's empathy for his slaves intensified as he abandoned the deism of his youth and embarked on a quest for spiritual fulfillment. Captivated by the emotional preaching of dissenting ministers and profoundly impressed by the conversion experiences his slaves underwent, Carter in 1778 became the most prominent Virginian to cast his lot with the Baptists, a persecuted sect populated largely by the poor. At the Morattico church, which he supported financially, he worshiped alongside blacks and referred to them as "brothers" and "sisters." Still, he did not immediately free his slaves, though a 1782 law legalized private manumission and though he supported emancipation proposals considered by the House of Delegates. Later in the 1780s he left the increasingly proslavery Baptist church and embraced the teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg's Church of the New Jerusalem, which held that the Apocalypse had already occurred and that a period of tumultuous social change was underway. This sense of upheaval convinced Carter — who, unlike the founding fathers, welcomed obscurity and had no political office to lose — that the time to liberate his slaves had arrived.
Carter's intriguing story generated little publicity in his own day and is virtually unknown to students of American history, an oversight for which Levy offers several explanations. Carter did not fit neatly into the narrative advanced by any particular group of chroniclers: Southerners ignored him because they regarded him as a traitor; Northerners were blind to nuance within the South; historians dismissed him as merely eccentric; and, not least, Carter rendered himself invisible because he did not try to communicate with posterity and wrote no eloquent denunciation of slavery. Above all, Levy asserts, Carter remains marginalized because his Deed of Gift forces modern Americans into the uncomfortable realization that his contemporaries, the architects of American government, could have transcended their vacillation about slavery and created a nation based on liberty for all. Levy's final argument — that Americans have deliberately rejected Carter because our attachment to political "incrementalism" is easier to justify when we can point to a founding generation beset by "heroic ambivalence" — is a bit overstated; no one has known enough about Carter to issue such a purposeful rejection. That is precisely why Levy has done students of Virginia and United States history such a great service by retrieving Carter from the shadows and by raising thought-provoking questions about our past and ourselves.
–reviewed by Jennifer R. Loux, Research Associate , Dictionary of Virginia Biography
Angela Boswell and Judith N. McArthur, eds. Women Shaping the South: Creating and Confronting Change . Southern Women Series. Columbia and London: University of Missouri Press, 2006. viii + 269 pp. ISBN 0-8262-1617-X. $44.95 (hardcover).
… he worshiped
alongside blacks and
referred to them as
"brothers" and sisters."
Women were involved in many aspects of public life long before gaining the right to vote in 1920. In Virginia, women were influential leaders and diplomats in the Powhatan chiefdom. Their voices were heard even without the franchise — in the seventeenth century, Frances Lady Berkeley made Green Spring the headquarters for burgesses and councillors who opposed the Crown's policies, while in the eighteenth, Hannah Lee Corbin boldly proposed that women who paid taxes be allowed to vote. The pivotal role of women in shaping Southern history is the subject of the essays collected in Women Shaping the South, the latest in a series of books developed from the Southern Conference on Women's History sponsored by the Southern Association for Women Historians.
Three of the book's ten chapters focus on Virginia topics. Phillip Hamilton's thoughtful essay describes the experiences of gentry women and the transformation of daily life in Jeffersonian and antebellum Virginia. He addresses the long-term effect of the Revolutionary War on Virginia women's roles and concludes that the proliferation of political offices after American independence led to an increased number of women managing plantations and households in their husbands' absence. After the war, "Virginia women led very different lives," Hamilton argues, "and became very different people," especially when a drop in tobacco prices forced agricultural changes and prompted westward migration. Women guided the rebuilding of community ties in newly settled areas. They fought isolation, family strife, and physical hardships to create new lives for themselves and their families.
Women likewise participated in defining the memory and meaning of the new nation. Jean B. Lee sheds light on the little-known activities of Jane C. Washington, who worked to preserve Mount Vernon (which she inherited in 1832) and make it available to visitors — unlike Bushrod Washington, who attempted to ban steamboat passengers from the property after a rowdy group danced and spread a picnic on the mansion's lawn. For Jane Washington, who established what would later become basic protocol for visiting historic homes, Mount Vernon held transcendent importance as a national treasure.
Clayton McClure Brooks studies Mary-Cooke Branch Munford, Janie Porter Barrett, and others in examination of interracial cooperation and the making of segregation in early twentieth-century Virginia. White and black women managed to create an arena in which they could work together to improve social services for African--Americans. Brooks delves into the records of the State Board of Charities and Corrections to trace these cross-racial reform efforts and describes how female reformers used the limited space created by segregation to publicize the needs for cooperation across the lines of race and gender. Brooks effectively demonstrates that together these women created "a unique feminine space for public work and interracial dialogue."
Other chapters in Women Shaping the South present new scholarship on topics in Georgia, Kentucky, Missouri, and North Carolina. Women participated in, and created, change as energetic volunteers and able fund-raisers. They raised money for orphanages, sewed clothes for the needy, and supported female missionaries. They petitioned seeking legislative action, financial aid, and divorce. As early as the 1840 presidential election, they were active in political campaigns and participated in debates on the most important issues of the day — among them slavery, the public debt, and education. They wrote letters to governors requesting pardons, appointments to office, and assistance. Throughout history, the efforts of women in the public sphere have paved the way for change.
In her essay on Confederate women in wartime North Carolina, Jacqueline Glass Campbell provides a moving account of the destruction of historical records. Soldiers raided courthouses, defaced account books, scattered papers, and tossed records outside. Some pocketed papers as souvenirs, and one spread a family Bible over the back of his horse in place of a saddle. As a result of this episode, readers of Women Shaping the South can better appreciate the importance of the region's documentary heritage and its sometimes-fragmentary nature, as well as the painstaking work of the scholars represented in this volume to piece together the story of the past from primary sources. Those interested in women's history and Southern history — from the eighteenth century to the twentieth — will find each chapter in this book a satisfying read.
–reviewed by Jennifer Davis McDaid, Deputy Coordinator , State Historical Records Advisory Board
Frank Towers. The Urban South and the Coming of the Civil War . Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2004. xi + 285 pp. ISBN 0-8139-2297-6. $45.00 (hardcover).
Slavery, secession, and the role of the planter elite in the coming of the Civil War are subjects that historians have analyzed through a microscope for the past one hundred years. Frank Towers, an associate professor of history at the University of Calgary, addresses these issues in The Urban South and the Coming of the Civil War , but his scholarly approach differs from most other works concerning Southern politics. The Urban South scrutinizes urban political development in three Southern cities in the decade leading up to the War Between the States: Baltimore, Saint Louis, and New Orleans. It is a study in local and state politics, the working class's developing political clout, and the influence these metropolises wielded in their states' decisions to secede or remain in the Union. Urban growth in the South's largest cities reflected similar trends in other American municipalities across the nation.
The book is not arranged in chronological fashion; it is a topical study. Towers introduces readers to an analysis of James Henry Hammond's "mudsill" speech, which reflected attempts by secessionists to link America's growing sectional conflict with urban growth. As later chapters show, Southern cities increasingly became home to thousands of wage earners, a new phenomenon in Southern culture. These propertyless workers pushed for municipal reform and challenged the entrenched power of the Democratic Party through membership in the Know Nothings (American Party) and the Republican Party.
The Know Nothings in Baltimore provided public works projects for the working class and placed party loyalists in party and government bureaucracies, including the police department. Baltimore Know Nothings supported worker-based strikes and openly worked to push African-Americans and immigrants out of trades coveted by white natives. The party also used its influence to squelch voter support for the Democratic Party on Election Day. Eventually, members of Baltimore's Reform Party were forced to align themselves with the Democratic Party to counter the Know Nothings' influence.
Across the South, slaveholders, whose power was increasingly challenged by city workers, feared that worker-dominated municipal governments would threaten the old political order and social system that slavery supported. The Republican Party, and many Know Nothings, supported the free soil movement. In Baltimore, city dwellers opposed to the pro-Union American Party embraced secession with the Democratic Party as part of the political course. Because members of the traditional Southern leadership believed it was imperative to stop the growing Northern influence in Southern cities, secession became an increasingly valid response. In Saint Louis, the Republican Party became the workingman's party. It was the anti-establishment parties of two of the South's largest cities that kept Maryland and Missouri in the Union. The Know Nothing presence in New Orleans was not strong enough to counter the planter elite's political influence.
The Urban South is divided into six chapters, with appendices and endnotes. Towers consulted a number of manuscript collections, nineteenth-century newspapers, and various secondary sources in compiling this historical study of the South's largest cities. His endnotes provide interested scholars with other books and articles to peruse. Students of antebellum America will find this book of interest and a necessary addition to their American history library.
–reviewed by Cassandra Britt Farrell, Map Specialist and Senior Research Archivist
Sharon Hatfield. Never Seen the Moon: The Trials of Edith Maxwell . Urbana and Chicago: University of -Illinois Press, 2005. xvii + 286 pp. ISBN 0-252-03003-6. $21.95 (hardcover).
In Never Seen the Moon , Sharon Hatfield examines the murder trials of "the Lonesome Pine Girl," Edith Maxwell, accused of killing her father in 1935. The story, which started with a mysterious death in Pound, Virginia, quickly spread across the nation, and by the end of Maxwell's ordeal, even Eleanor Roosevelt had loose ties to her case. Hatfield, writing from a journalist's perspective, exposes how the young, attractive teacher from a small Appalachian town came to represent a martyr of the woman's rights movement, an icon of the press, and a threat to traditional Appalachian values.
Hatfield begins by setting the scene of Southwest Virginia life during the 1920s and 1930s. She discusses the development and history of the area, the draw of its valuable natural resources, and the pioneers who settled it. As someone who is obviously sympathetic to Appalachian life, Hatfield includes a valuable explanation of the region's similarity to eastern Tennessee and Kentucky and its lack of connection to Central and Tidewater Virginia. Hatfield also writes of the Maxwell family's ties to the area, of Edith Maxwell's happy youth as a tomboy in Jenkins, Kentucky, and of her college experience, highly unusual for a young woman of her circumstances. After attending Radford State Teachers College (later Radford University), Maxwell reluctantly returned to Pound, where she associated with the "bright young set," tested the boundaries of acceptable behavior, and became frustrated by the limitations of small-town life.
Was he bludgeoned by
his daughter…? Or did
he have a freak fall…?
Using an array of primary and secondary sources, including newspaper reports, court testimony, letters, and interviews, Hatfield provides a detailed narrative of the mysterious events leading up to the death of Maxwell's father, Trigg Maxwell. Was he bludgeoned by his daughter in retaliation for his abusive and alcohol-soaked inquiries about her late-night whereabouts? Or did he have a freak fall against a meat block that caused head trauma during a heated father--daughter spat? What followed Trigg Maxwell's death were Edith's trials and a frenzy of national media attention akin to the O. J. Simpson fiasco. Ultimately, the story gained so much national attention that it inspired the Warner Brothers motion picture Mountain Justice (1937).
Along with sensationalist newspapers, which had found a perfect subject for exploitation in the young murder suspect, the National Woman's Party found in Edith Maxwell a compelling symbol for the struggle to change laws that excluded women from juries. "A jury of her peers," writes Hatfield, "the birthright of every citizen, was merely a hollow promise" for Maxwell. Clearly, there were reasonable doubts as to Maxwell's guilt. Hatfield also persuasively argues that various groups from the NWP to Hollywood production companies used the Maxwell case to advance their own agendas.
The strength of Hatfield's work is the historical framework she creates for the story and the insight she provides on the colorful cast of characters involved in the Maxwell case, from "Cissy" Patterson, owner of the Washington Times Herald , to Gail Laughlin, vice chair of the National Woman's Party. Never Seen the Moon includes several photographs, endnotes, a thorough bibliographic essay, and an index, always helpful to the historian and researcher. Although the book might be described as "true crime," it reads less like a riveting narrative and more like a work of history. It is an excellent addition to libraries with interest in Appalachian history and culture, twentieth-century journalism, the progress of women's rights in America, and law and politics in Virginia.
–reviewed by Kelley Ewing, Lead Project Cataloger , Virginia Newspaper Project
Joseph Blotner. An Unexpected Life . Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2005. xi + 295 pp. ISBN 0-8071-3039-7. $29.95 (hardcover).
This memoir hustles in about 300 pages through the life of a man who was an airman, author, scholar, and teacher. Joseph Blotner, who wrote biographies of William Faulkner and Robert Penn Warren, jars readers in the first five pages with his initiation as a combat flyer aboard a B-17 Flying Fortress over Europe in the autumn of 1944. He had earned his navigator's wings just that summer. His sixth mission that autumn ended with a crash landing in Germany.
Blotner writes well of the joys of flight, the military life, and vibrant young men at risk of their lives. Details such as a sergeant's pre-dawn statement of how much fuel was in the waiting airplane as the klaxon heralded Blotner's first combat mission illustrate the matter-of-fact measurement of life and death for young people at war. The gem of his war writing is the description of his months as a prisoner of war. Captured but not injured after the crash, Blotner was sent to successive camps filled with aviators. Hunger and activities to relieve boredom were interspersed with the realization that the end of war was near. When American forces bombed nearby Nuremberg, the airmen were relieved to see red flares dropped by waves of bombers. The flares were signals to following waves to avoid bombing the camp.
After his 1945 release and repatriation, Blotner earned a doctorate in English, married, and became a professor at several colleges. He landed propitiously at the University of Virginia in 1955. Two years later, he became one of two faculty members who shepherded the university's first writer in residence, William Faulkner, in his years in Charlottesville. An assignment blossomed into a friendship so deep that Blotner served in 1962 as one of the Nobel Prize winner's pallbearers.
The book glows with descriptions of Faulkner's interactions with people. Blotner, on first meeting the Mississippian, was surprised to be addressed with "Morning, Gin'ral." The humorous story, which would be a shame to reveal, illustrates Faulkner's comfort with long silences. Blotner traveled to Mississippi to visit Faulkner at home several times and even got to meet people who had served as models for characters in Faulkner's books in places as mundane as the grocery store. Blotner had sadder interactions as well: He brought Faulkner to a Richmond psychiatric hospital to recover from a drinking binge.
After Faulkner died, Blotner sat on the Mississippi porch with the writer's family, drink in hand, and talked about the writer and the family. This entrée formalized a few months later into writing a two-volume biography, editing a volume of letters and a book of stories, and lecturing extensively on the author. Later Blotner wrote a biography of Warren.
He brought Faulkner to
a Richmond psychiatric
hospital to recover from
a drinking binge.
This memoir has its drawbacks. It is written less for readers of Faulkner than it is for scholars of Faulkner, familiar not only with the books by Faulkner but also with the books about and criticism of the writer. Be prepared to be slightly confused and to read parts more than once. The references to elements of Blotner's academic career and Blotner's round of overseas teaching fellowships are interspersed with stories of his first wife, who had significant health problems. These episodes are less interesting, although they do round out Blotner's life and provide background if readers are curious about the life of a respected and successful scholar in the mid-twentieth century. Finally, the book has no index. Although memoirs do not have to have them, the better parts of this one hold treasures that would be more accessible to researchers were they easy to find. An Unexpected Life is worth the toil, though. Future Faulkner scholars had best read it.
–reviewed by G. W. Poindexter, Editorial Research Fellow , Dictionary of Virginia Biography
John Dinan. The Virginia State Constitution: A Reference Guide . Reference Guide to the State -Constitutions of the United States, Number 42. Westport, Conn., and London: Praeger, 2006. xv + 256 pp. ISBN 0-313-33208-8. $109.95 (hardcover).
Not since the publication in 1974 of the two-volume Commentaries on the Constitution of Virginia by University of Virginia law professor A. E. Dick Howard has the constitution of the commonwealth been the subject of a comprehensive reference work. One in a series of reference volumes on all of the state constitutions, Dinan's work on the Virginia constitutions differs from Howard's chiefly in that it contains full accounts of all of the conventions and constitutions of Virginia — those of 1776, 1830, 1851, 1864, 1868, 1902, and 1971, plus the aborted revision of 1861 and the significant overhaul of 1928. Howard's volumes focused on the Constitution of 1971 and the evolution of its provisions. Dinan's reference work contains good descriptions of the circumstances under which each of the state's constitutions was adopted and what its major provisions were. For that reason, the reference desk of any public or academic library that fields questions about Virginia's constitutional, legal, or political history may make good use of this thorough, well-organized, and well-researched volume.
–reviewed by Brent Tarter, Editor , Dictionary of Virginia Biography________________________________
Sara B. Bearss is senior editor of the Dictionary of Virginia Biography, published by the Library of Virginia. Volume 3, covering surnames from Caperton through Daniels, has just been -published.