Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Midnight in America (Five Stars)

In this book Mr. White looks at sleep and dreams during the Civil War and does an excellent job on a unique study of the Civil War. To be honest, when I picked up this book I thought it might be an intellectual study, one that "tries to link the excess sleep of urbanized Union soldiers towards a thoughtful approach of war vice the more rural Confederates who lacked sleep and thuis were more inclined to brutality and bigotry." Instead, this is a carefully considered look at sleep and how its lack affected soldiers. How Lincoln declined to have sleeping sentries shot even though this was the standard punishment for such an offense. The types of dreams soldiers had during the war. The types of dreams civilians had during the war. How soldiers dealt with dreams of their own deaths in combat. And, of course, the dreams of President Lincoln and his own supposed premonition of death.

White uses first-hand accounts of dreams written in journals and newspapers and excerpts from documents talking about sleep. It makes for an interesting read and is illustrated with contemporary artwork and photos. Well worth taking time for, especially if you're a Civil War reader.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Lincoln's Labels (Five Stars)

I was very pleased with this book. While it primarily focuses on Northern companies which are well known today it looks and the way the Civil War made their brands household names it also looks at the scientific and industrial might of the Union, taking individuals who were effected by the war and the way that Squibb's medicines or American Express became a part of their stories. Brooks Brothers, Du Pont, Tiffany, Borden Milk, Scientific American... none of these brands were made by the Civil War but they all certainly benefited and became greater for being forged in its fire. Well-written and well-illustrated, Lincoln's Labels is informative and thought-provoking while being thoroughly entertaining.

I review almost exclusively history books (with rare exceptions). I will eagerly review any book having to do with antiaircraft or air defense. I am also interested in books on Africa, but again, mostly the history of the continent, especially in the 20th Century. Get in touch with me for more information. Most of my book reviews are also on Goodreads and Amazon.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Worst Seat in the House (three stars)

While everyone almost everyone knows the circumstances of Lincoln's assassination at Ford's Theater, how he was killed, who the perpetrator was, etc., very few know that the Lincolns had company that fateful night. The story of Maj. Henry Rathbone and Clary Harrison only adds to the tragedy that was Lincoln's fate.

Maj. Rathbone was a New Yorker, a man of some means who nevertheless volunteered for duty during the Civil War and did not seek to use his political connections to get the command of a regiment as so many other affluent New Yorkers had done. He was satisfied with a captain's commission and took part in many of the battles fought by the Army of the Potomac. By the end of the war he was assigned to Washington D.C. and since his wife-to-be was a friend of Mary Todd Lincoln he and Clara were invited to join the Lincolns for a performance of Our American Cousin. When Booth shot the President it was Rathbone who attempted to capture the man, receiving a serious wound in the arm from a hunting knife that the assassin had with him. His efforts may, or may not, have resulted in Booth's own injury upon dropping to the stage.

The histories that even mention that much usually leaves Henry and Clara to disappear into history. However, for them the story didn't end there. In his efforts to release Booth's "bar" at the door and to remain close to the President as he lived the last hours of his life Rathbone neglected his own injury, which led to a serious blood loss. Clara rushed him to her father's nearby house where he would be physically incapacited for some time.

But what of his psychological injuries? Stephens pushes hard for a diagnosis of PTSD in Rathbone... a problem which would result in madness for the man with horrible results many years later. In fact, the author pushes a little TOO hard for his view of PTSD, letting it creep in throughout the book and making it hard to really get a feel for Rathbone as a man rather than a victim. This defect in the book is compounded by issues with the layout (no page numbers for the chapters) and some grammatical errors. There are photos and other illustrations in the book but they often seem misplaced or irrelevent. I did think that the discussion of where Rathbone was actually seated in the box and whether he could have stopped Booth before he shot Lincoln is relevent and worth further discussion but there are several explanations which would make allow for Rathbone's seating and his testimony that he was watching the play.

If you are interested in the Lincoln assassination I believe this book would make good reading for you. It certainly covers an aspect I have not seen elsewhere.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Raven Rock (Five Stars)

Following the Soviet detonation of their first atomic bomb the United States government had to look at the possibility that Washington D.C. could be destroyed, totally and with little or no notice. Thus began the plans for Continuity of Government (COG) to ensure that the government of the United States would go on and, perhaps more importantly, that the United States' nuclear retaliation would be swift and sure.

Graff's book follows the efforts to build bunkers, first in D.C. and later in the surrounding states when the USSR detonated their own H-bombs. Plans were laid to keep the Selective Service System running so new soldiers could be drafted and trained and deployed to fight WWIII. The Federal Reserve printed and stored $4 billion in currency to spend in the aftermath of a nuclear attack. Congress would meet in a secret underground facility under a luxury hotel, ready to pass new laws for a post-nuclear USA. The post office would track who was alive and who was dead... and use their vehicles to transport casualties.

Using declassified material, interviews with personnel involved in COG planning and those who were to participate in emergency plans, Raven Rock discusses not just the plans to preserve the government but the extraordinary measures in place to ensure that U.S. nuclear weapons would be available to hit back. When even underground bunkers seemed unlikely to survive then airborne options became the means to preserve command and control. In all of this, the efforts to protect the ordinary U.S. citizen fell by the wayside but there were plans for that as well.
A very well-written account of a government we never knew we had. Illustrated with excellent photographs.

Monday, January 22, 2018

The Complete Infidel's Guide to Free Speech (and its enemies) (Four Stars)

Robert Spencer looks at free speech and how it is under assault by leftists and Islamacists using public correctness, threats, intimidation and double-standards. Protected under an umbrella that states "you shouldn't offend this group" verbatim quotes from the Quran and the accurately-rendered Muslim names of terror suspects are squashed in an effort to placate the Islamofascists; on campus snowflakes confronted with ideas they disagree with (or simply can't understand) are protected by limiting the dissemination of such ideas to "Free Speech Areas," also known as liberal gulags.

We must wake up and recognize that free speech is a cornerstone of our civilization and Robert Spencer does an excellent job of discussing the importance of such speech. He provides many examples of how free speech has been threatened, everything from threatening emails to the producers of South Park to the murder of the Hebdo Charlie staff. And far from defending free speech, those who should be its greatest proponents (artists, writers, politicians, clergy) are almost desperate in their efforts to excuse those who attack (physically and verbally) those they disagree with but even imply on occasion that "they had it coming."

 If we lose the power to say "2+2=4" then we truly are lost.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Shooting Lincoln: Matthew Brady, Alexander Gardner and the Race to Photograph the Story of the Century (Four Stars)

When the Civil War broke out photography was barely past being a novelty. No longer the realm of experimenters, photo studios became the closest thing to a mass media product in the 19th century outside of newspapers. Anyone with a few dollars could go to a studio and get a few pictures made of themselves on carte de visites, small cards with the image printed on them. When war came photographers by the thousands came to get their pictures made before going to battle.

Matthew Brady and Alexander Gardner were the best of these and they had different philosophies about how to cover the war. At first Brady was determined to photograph a battle as it happened, but the cameras of the time required many seconds of exposure and were large and vulnerable devices. Brady's experiences at First Bull Run, whatever they were, taught him that photography would have to be done differently.

Brady sent out teams to several fronts and had them photograph scenes of camp and in the immediate aftermath of battle (being a northerner, this relied on the battlefield remaining in Union hands). Gardner, a former employee of Brady, also went to the battlefields (usually beating Brady and his teams) and looked for the unique and the macabre... and not shrinking from "rearranging" the battlefield on occasion to "better reflect" the nature of war. This was in contrast to Brady's pictures of the site of Lee's surrender at Appomattox and even a photo of Lee himself. Pistor characterizes Brady's approach as "artistic" and Gardner's as "journalistic."

Of course, it was Lincoln's assassination which saw photography really come into its own. Carte de visites of the conspirators were used in wanted posters and distributed to the military who hunted Booth and they were (briefly) used as a measure of loyalty among those interviewed by law enforcement. Gardner used photography to help document the conspirators for all time. Photos were used by artists to create propaganda concemning Booth as well as memorials to the slain president.
Overall, a very interesting study of the role of photography in the Civil War, although not in depth, and a study of two rival photographers. As would be expected, the book is illustrated by excellent photographs.