Monthly Archives: May 2013

Additional King’s Mountain book news, albeit less definite and without a big name attached

Well, the good news is that somebody’s working on a new book-length account of the expedition which ended in Patrick Ferguson’s defeat, utilizing extensive research in the primary sources as well as the latest scholarship on militia and the Revolution in the Carolina backcountry.

Here’s the bad news.  The guy working on it is me.

I’ve actually been at this project for a while now, but I haven’t had the gumption to tell anybody about it.  I played this one pretty close to my chest until reassuring myself that I could actually pull it off, but at this point I’m far enough along that I think it might actually see the light of day.

King’s Mountain has fascinated me since I was in college, and I’ve long wondered why there are so few books about it.  The last really intensive treatment was Lyman Draper’s 1881 book King’s Mountain and its Heroes, which is thorough but also badly outdated, heavily dependent on tenuous oral tradition, and saturated with the filiopiety that characterizes many nineteenth-century historical works.

Since I can’t seem to stop poring over everything I can get my hands on related to King’s Mountain, I decided a good while ago that I might as well do something productive with my obsession.  I’ve gone over quite a bit of the published source material, both primary and secondary, and now I’m digging into the manuscripts and putting the finishing touches on a proposal.

Let me talk a little bit about what this project is and what it isn’t.  I’m studying the campaign which led to Ferguson’s defeat as a whole, so I’ll be looking into his organization of the Carolina Tories, the British march into North Carolina, and the Whigs’ march across the mountains, as well as the actual battle.  In other words, this won’t be a study of the tactics and troops movements alone.  I’ll be dealing with all that, of course, but what I’m aiming for is an analysis of the series of events of which the Battle of King’s Mountain was the climax.  I’ll also be discussing the battle’s nasty aftermath, and I’ll have at least one chapter (probably two) on the way Americans have remembered it, which was the subject of my MA thesis.  Tradition and legend have played such an important role in interpretations of the battle that I don’t think I could exclude an examination of memory from this project even if I wanted to.

So this will be an attempt to make sense of what brought Ferguson’s Tories and the Whigs into action on a wooded ridge that October day, what happened when they met, and the impact this confrontation had on the war and the way Americans have interpreted it.

And now that you guys are in on it, I guess I’m committed to keep plugging away until the thing’s done.  Gulp.

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Some King’s Mountain book news

Sharyn McCrumb is taking on my favorite historical subject for her next novel.  Looks pretty cool!

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Win yourself a Civil War book

Time for another book giveaway, courtesy of the fine folks at Viking.  Up for grabs this round is a copy of Harold Holzer’s The Civil War in 50 Objects, which I blogged about a few days ago.  (No, you’re not getting my review copy.  I’m keeping that sucker.)

Just pick any number between 1 and 1,863 and e-mail it to me at mlynch5396@hotmail.com using “Civil War Book Giveaway” as the subject line.  Deadline for entries is Saturday, June 8 at 10:00 P.M.  U.S. residents only, and if you get your mail at a PO box you’ll need to supply an alternate shipping address in the event that you win.

Good luck, folks.  This is a pretty neat book, and I think you’ll enjoy it.

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In book news…

Rick Atkinson, the Pulitzer Prize-winner best known for his work on WWII, is writing a trilogy on the American Revolution.

The Siege of Vicksburg is the subject of Jeff Shaara’s newest novel.

Finally, a new book on Dunmore’s War is hitting the shelves in July.  I’ve really been looking forward to this one; the publication date apparently got pushed back, so I’m glad it’s coming to the stores soon.

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Harold Holzer brings the war out of the vaults

The Civil War in 50 Objects by Harold Holzer is one of the more engaging books I’ve received lately.  It’s neither a catalogue nor a popular history of the war but an interesting fusion of the two.

The book features items from the New-York Historical Society’s collections, arranged chronologically and illustrated in color.  The images are great, but this isn’t a picture book with the text limited to captions.  Instead, Holzer uses the objects as jumping-off points to explore various aspects of the Civil War era.  A wheel used to select names for the draft is the springboard for an examination of conscription, an 1864 campaign flag prompts a discussion of Johnson’s selection as a candidate for the vice presidency, and so on.  The chapters are short, but still substantial enough to give readers a nice little overview of the subject.

The objects run the gamut from a set of slave shackles to a portrait of U.S. Grant, from a John Brown pike to a manuscript copy of the Thirteenth Amendment.  Lincoln, emancipation, and the home front get particular attention, but the selection is broad enough to appeal to anybody who’s interested in the war.

This book gives you the same joy of exploration and discovery that you’d get from a museum exhibit.  You can read straight through it for an overview of some important aspects of the war, or jump around to whatever artifacts strike your fancy.  If you’re a museum junkie, it’ll be a welcome addition to your library.

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Some assembly required

In case you were wondering what might have befallen us if the Confederacy had gotten its hands on the Super-Soldier Serum, here it is.  I’m guessing the next installment will have Horace Hunley as Tony Stark and Belle Boyd as Black Widow.

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Memorial Day weekend at Marble Springs

If you don’t have plans for Memorial Day weekend, then head over to John Sevier’s place.  May 25-26 is the annual Statehood Days Living History Weekend at Marble Springs State Historic Site in Knoxville.  They’re hosting militia drills, eighteenth-century demonstrations, a display of guns from the War of 1812, and a presentation on veterans of the Battle of King’s Mountain by yours truly.  (I think my talk is scheduled for 11:30 on Saturday.)

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PBS features story of Loreta Velazquez, a reinvented Rebel

If even half of her controversial autobiography is true, then Loreta Janeta Velázquez led one of the most fascinating lives of the nineteenth century.  She’s the subject of Rebel, a new documentary airing Friday, May 24 to open this season of Voces on PBS.

Loreta Janeta Velazquez, in and out of disguise

According to her 1876 book The Woman in Battle, Loreta was born in Cuba in 1842 to  a prominent Spanish official.  Sent to New Orleans as a young girl, she displayed a rebellious personality from a young age, dressing in boys’ clothes and eloping with an army officer at the age of fourteen.  Deciding to see something of combat, she was one of hundreds of women who disguised themselves as men and fought in the Civil War.  Calling herself Harry T. Buford, she experienced some of the war’s most famous battles, including 1st Bull Run, Fort Donelson, and Shiloh.  After her exploits as a soldier, she took up spying, enjoying a remarkable career as a double agent.

That, at least, is the story she told in her memoir.  How much of it is true has been a subject of debate ever since its publication.  Jubal Early, who met her in Virginia after the book’s publication, denounced her as a fraud.  Some historians have likewise found her claims hard to swallow, although researchers have found enough documentation to verify a few parts of her story.

Rebel doesn’t spend much time separating fact from fiction.  Instead, it focuses on the outline of her story as she told it herself, using it to examine the role of Hispanics in Civil War America, gender in the nineteenth century, and contested historical memories.  The concern here isn’t really whether her account is true, but why its accuracy was a matter of such concern to her contemporaries.  The program suggests that her autobiography offered a challenge to the society in which she lived, not only because she stretched the truth but also because of who she was—a Hispanic woman involved in the business of war and espionage who was determined to go public with her exploits.  It’s a fascinating story, and I enjoyed watching it.

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Movie protagonists and the past as a foreign country

I’ve taken as one of my creeds novelist L.P. Hartley’s oft-quoted statement: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”  As I’ve said before, I love it when historical films manage to convey this “otherness” of the past.  The tricky part is that audiences are supposed to identify with a movie’s protagonists, and it seems like underscoring the differences between historical characters and moderns would only make that more difficult.  So how do you depict the “otherness” of a historical film’s protagonists without undermining an audience’s sympathy for them, especially when that otherness consists of attitudes and practices that are morally repugnant here in the twenty-first century?

The easiest approach is to cheat and eliminate the otherness altogether.  If your hero is a prominent landowner in eighteenth-century South Carolina, you’re going to have to deal with the fact that men of his stature, place, and time tended to be slaveholders.  The makers of The Patriot sliced through this Gordian knot by making Benjamin Martin a remarkably forward-thinking guy.

It’s a simple solution, but it also leaves a lot to be desired.  Whereas the movie shows the British dragoons tearing free blacks away from their homes, the reality was in many cases the reverse, with many slaves escaping their Patriot masters to make a bid for freedom behind British lines.  Ironically, Benjamin Martin’s fictional military exploits are similar to those of a real South Carolina officer named Thomas Sumter, who paid his recruits with slaves confiscated from Tories.

The makers of 300, by contrast, didn’t try to gloss over the unsavory aspects of their historical protagonists.  The Spartans leave weak infants to die of exposure, they savagely discipline their own children to turn them into hardened soldiers, they cherish the idea of death on the battlefield, and they slaughter their wounded enemies and desecrate their bodies.  And the audience is expected to accept the characters for what they are—even to celebrate them for it.

The movie not only gives us the Spartans in all their ruthlessness, but makes us empathize with them.  You probably wouldn’t want to live among them, and you certainly wouldn’t want to be a wounded Persian falling into their hands, but it’s fun to root for them for a couple of hours.  This solution seems more historically honest than the approach taken in The Patriot, and it works pretty well when you’re telling a story in which there are obvious good guys and bad guys.

Of course, 300 tells the story entirely from the Spartans’ perspective.  Can filmmakers tell the story of some historic event holistically—that is, from a variety of perspectives—while conveying the past’s “otherness” and still make audiences empathize with all the characters involved?  Can they do on film what David Hackett Fischer did in his book Paul Revere’s Ride, approaching “both Paul Revere and Thomas Gage with sympathy and genuine respect” even though the main characters act in opposition to each other?  I think one movie that handles this really well is John Lee Hancock’s 2004 film The Alamo.

As this scene demonstrates, the movie presents the Alamo’s defenders as heroic.  Indeed, for some critics, they come across as too heroic.  A number of reviewers accused the filmmakers of whitewashing the story.  What struck me about the movie when I saw it, however, was its remarkable frankness about the protagonists’ shortcomings.  Early scenes establish that David Crockett, Jim Bowie, and William Travis have all experienced some sort of disappointment or disgrace, and Texas represents a second chance for them.  A short but sympathetic side plot involves a very young solider marching in Santa Anna’s army.  Most notable, though, is how upfront the film is about the relationship between its heroes and their slaves—fittingly so, since the peculiar institution was one of the points of debate between the Texians and the Mexican government.

In one scene, Travis assigns two slaves named Sam and Joe the task of digging a well within the fort’s walls.  “Ain’t bad enough we got to fetch ‘em the water,” Sam complains, “now we got to find it for ‘em too.”  Later, Sam tells Joe that when the Mexicans storm the mission, he should worry about saving his own life and let his master to fend for himself.  (Travis did indeed own a young slave named Joe, who was wounded when the Alamo fell and escaped to freedom one year after San Jacinto.)    These scenes establish that the enslaved members of the garrison have their own interests at stake, interests at odds with those of the protagonists with whom we’re supposed to identify.  Contrast this with earlier depictions of black characters in Alamo movies, which tend to employ the familiar “faithful slave” narrative.

At the same time, though, the film’s revisionism doesn’t extend to demonizing the Alamo’s white defenders.  We sympathize with Sam and Joe’s predicament even as we admire the courageous last stand of the men holding them captive.  As prejudiced slaveholders of another time, Bowie and Travis seem foreign to us, but we also become invested in their confrontation with their own impending death.

As I said, the movie’s approach didn’t go over well with everybody.  The essay linked above, for example, notes that “the realistic portrayals of Joe and Sam may be to the credit of the filmmakers, but ultimately the film does little to question the ideological values inscribed onto the Alamo battle, which have gone largely unchallenged for the last 175 years, even if it does alter aspects of the story prevalent in its cinematic representations.”  In other words, the 2004 version is more frank about its main characters’ slaveholding, but it somehow manages to leave their bravery and heroism intact.  The movie leaves these contradictions unresolved.  It’s messy, complicated, and ambiguous, as history often turns out to be.  It didn’t work for many critics and historians, but from a purely historical standpoint, I was impressed.  Your mileage may vary.

Anyway, The Patriot and 300 grossed $113 million and $456 million respectively, but The Alamo flopped.  Maybe audiences prefer their historical heroes to be as straightforward as possible.

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Returning the souvenirs from Barry and Jason’s excellent adventure

The items Barry Landau and Jason Savedoff swiped from some two dozen archival repositories are gradually making their way back home.

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