George Rogers Clark: this is one sad story

George Rogers Clark: I Glory in War by William R. Nester

3 words: detailed, accessible, revealing

OK, guys. Things are about to get super geeky here.

Today we’re talking George Rogers Clark.

Here’s my reintroduction to the dude… The Dear Man and I were touring Cave Hill Cemetery a couple of years ago, so we could visit the grave of Col. Sanders.

So the guy at the gate gave us a map that showed the locations of all of the famous people’s graves. And George Rogers Clark was on the map. We discussed the fact that we pretty much didn’t know who that was, other than: 1700s? Military leader, maybe?

So: learning.

Here’s the quick synopsis of his life…

First, The Good:

  • Revolutionary War hero, but in the West
  • Led a military unit that captured forts in current-day Illinois and Indiana
  • Founder of Louisville

Next, The Bad (aka The Sad):

  • He had a serious drinking problem
  • He peaked in his 20s
  • He fell into poverty

And finally… The Ugly:

  • Late in life, he betrayed his country by making deals with France and with Spain
  • He was an angry, bitter, resentful man in his later years

 

So there we have quite the story arc. The early rise, and the long downward spiral thereafter.

Which makes this book not the most jolly of stories.

 

Locust Grove

Nevertheless, the reading experience was a really good one, because the writing is fluid, the narrative is dynamic, and the subject matter is pretty darn fascinating. We got ourselves a seriously flawed hero here, guys.

I finished reading the book during our recent canoe trip to the Lexington area, which involved a stop in Louisville. Because we are some serious history geeks (when we’re not being fast food geeks [I was serious when I said we were visiting Col. Sanders’s grave]), we visited Locust Grove, the final home of George Rogers Clark. The house actually belonged to his sister and brother-in-law, but Clark lived there for the last several years of his life, when he was an invalid.

 

The office at Locust Grove

 

Give this book a whirl if you like… the American Revolution, narrative nonfiction about forgotten episodes of major historical events, true stories of the downward spiral, flawed historical figures

 

So, my fellow readers… what semi-obscure historical figure have you found fascinating?

War? Pretty much hell

Co. Aytch by Sam R. Watkins

3 words: unflinching, immediate, direct

I seriously love a conversational first-person narrator. So when we were visiting Kennesaw Mountain battlefield and I saw Sam Watkins quoted all over the museum and then saw his book blurbed as one of the most compelling memoirs of the Civil War… I was there.

I nearly bought a copy right there in the gift shop.

But then I thought: audiobook.

And, in retrospect, that might’ve been a mistake. The thing is this: Watkins is a Southerner. And the narrator of the audiobook? Pure Yankee. It created kind of a strange disconnect.

But that’s my only quibble with this book.

Watkins wrote one doozy of a narrative.

Although he wrote this memoir a couple of decades after the war, his story feels fresh and honest and unflinching.

And there are moments that’ll rip your heart out. Moments like when he describes the horrible death of a fellow soldier in vivid detail, then states simply, “I loved him. He was my friend.”

And then he picks up the narrative as the army marches on.

There were moments I halted what I was doing, to just pause and feel all the feels.

Watkins doesn’t sugarcoat a thing. He lets us know how horrible that war was. He unsparingly describes the fury and the horror at the Dead Angle at Kennesaw.

(When we saw that place during our visit, I stood and gaped. It was hard to believe that soldiers mounted an attack on that ground. Sobering stuff, my friends.)

And call me weird, but I find it strangely comforting when someone speaks the full truth about something horrible. So I found Watkins’s memoir both moving and  refreshing.

 Anyone else like the full honest truth in their books?

 

Hamilton read-along

Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell
3 words: enthusiastic, light, informative
Like 60% of the free world, I’ve been sucked into the Hamilton vortex, and each day a different song from the soundtrack accompanies me in my brain. (Here’s the one that makes me laugh every time I listen to it.)

But let’s listen to a Lafayette song, because we’re focusing on that guy here today.
(photo credit: By Daderot – Daderot, CC0, https://commons.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21104068)

He’s a big old important secondary character in the Hamilton story, but in Vowell’s book, he’s at center stage.

And… Dude.
The dude was only 19 years old when he sailed over here from France to take on the British at Washington’s side.
And this is how we know the story’s true, because it’s too unbelievable to be fiction.
Sarah Vowell is a confirmed history nerd, and she’s one of my favorite writers of popular history.  
The woman is enthusiastic, and I’m all about that.
And she’s also hilarious.
Besides filling in the Lafayette story with a great deal of her own panache, Vowell gives us the most perfect vignettes of his allies and foes.
Take this:
“A patchwork of amateur militias made up of barely trained farmers, lawyers, shopkeepers, and artisans who, thanks to a hometown book nerd’s folkloric stunt, drove some of earth’s most experienced professional warriors out of a long-suffering city.
So, the moral of that story, other than never underestimate an independent bookseller, was that the Continental Army and its commander in chief had a soft spot for Chief Artillery Officer Henry Knox.” (pp. 84-86)
That line about independent booksellers full-on delighted me.
The whole book carries on this way, with fascinating anecdotes that bring historical figures to life, and it’s the most fun way (short of a musical) to catch up on the history we either didn’t learn or completely forgot. 

OK. All you Hamilton freaks… I know you’re out there. What’re you reading to go along with the soundtrack?


Huge buzz, decent book

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of
the Lusitania
by
Erik Larson
3 words:
immediate, tragic, anecdotal
I’ve
lived my entire life as a Lusitania ignoramus.
If
you’d’ve asked me what I could tell you about it, I’d’ve said “British ship
sunk by the Germans during World War I. Americans on board, so the U.S. entered
the war.”
Yeah,
sort of right. Partial credit. Actually, it took 2 more years for the U.S. to
declare war. (Who knew?!)
So this
is an Erik Larson book, which often means we’re gonna have dual narratives.
This one’s no exception. Except: Wait—there’s more!
Here
we’re on board the Lusitania; on
board the U-boat that sunk the ship; hanging out in the code-breaking room in
England; and eavesdropping on President Wilson, who’s wooing his second wife. And
there are some side trips to shipping offices, too.
But the
main storyline is, as expected, onboard the Lusitania,
which (didn’t know this, either) had an unusually large number of children and
babies aboard during its last voyage. (Sad, guys. This stuff is sad.)
Larson
did some fine research, so we get to hear the story from several of the
survivors. He paints a detailed picture of life on the ship.
Now,
maybe this is just me, but one thing I expected from this book—since it’s
tragedy and it’s true, and I love that stuff—didn’t actually happen. I thought
I’d become slightly obsessed with the topic, Googling and YouTubing and looking
up other books about the Lusitania
But I find that this book is enough. And I’m not sure whether that’s because I’m not
the ideal audience [pretty sure I am] or because Larson’s narrative didn’t completely
pull me in to the story. Unlike every time I’ve read Walter Lord’s A Night to Remember, the classic
account of the sinking of the Titanic,
Dead Wake didn’t make me feel like I
was there. I’m beginning to think there’s something about Larson’s style that just doesn’t
jibe with me. 
This is
a fine book in many ways, and I liked it rather much. But I really wanted to
love it.

Battle of the books

Cain at Gettysburg by Ralph Peters

3 words: classic, honest, human

So
much for my Top 10 list.
This
book has shoved The Killer Angels right
off the pile. I thought it couldn’t be done.
The
Dear Man’s dear dad gave me a copy of this book when he learned that I was a
Gettysburg fanatic.
When I
saw the Booklist blurb on the cover
that said, “Surpasses Michael Shaara’s classic The Killer Angels,” I was like, yeah, right.
Then I
read it.
And
the gritty realism of this novel makes the Civil War seem nearer than anything
I’ve ever read or seen. It made me want to revisit Gettysburg with new eyes.
The
thing I loved about The Killer Angels is
the way it portrayed the soldiers and generals as actual human beings. The
writing isn’t half bad, either. But its focus is on the people, not the
landmarks or the ammunition or the strategy.
The
same is true with this book, only more so. The people are more flawed and
realistic. Peters puts blood in their veins, and he puts blood on the
battlefield.
(photo by Alexander Gardner; courtesy of the Library of Congress)
During
the battle scenes (oh, the battle scenes! I could read them only in sort
spurts—they were overwhelming to experience otherwise) I felt like I could see
and hear and smell and feel what was happening. There were moments when I
moaned out loud at something a soldier experienced. 

I was reading with my mouth
open in wonder.

There
are short paragraphs that build suspense to an almost unbearable level,
accomplishing this effect with a severe economy of words.
“The
Confederate barrage slackened, then stopped abruptly. Freshly arrived Union
batteries sent their shells into the smoke, but the Rebel gunners resisted the
urge to reply.
Meade
understood. They were coming. Then he heard a distant Rebel yell.” (p. 257)
Peters
hits all the bases here: North and South, rank-and-file and generals, the noble
and the cowardly, the old guard and recent immigrants, the righteous and the
profane, the wise and the foolhardy, the young and the old.
Peters
is a retired Army lieutenant colonel, so he knows military matters. But the guy
also can write with the best of them. For years now he’s been writing the Abel
Jones Civil War mystery series under the pseudonym Owen Parry, but this novel
feels like it’s the book he was born to write.
And
the best thing is this: When I was sad to turn the last page of the epilogue, I
found these words in the Author’s Note: “The
Killer Angels
will remain the most beloved Gettysburg novel. Michael
Shaara’s skillful writing, mythic portraits, and romantic view of the battle
make it incomparable.” (p. 425) He goes on to describe how Shaara’s book was
perfectly matched to the mid-1970s, when it was necessary to restore regard for
the military.
But,
he goes on, “It demeans the heroes of Gettysburg to depict them as flawless
saints. Not one was cut from marble in the womb. Imperfect men fought an
imperfect battle and so preserved ‘a more perfect union’ or all. Heroes are men
who overcome themselves.” (p. 426)
The
grace with which he credits The Killer Angels
and also explains his own novel’s approach makes me happy that Peters took
up his pen when he put down his sword. He’s given us a new masterpiece, and
he’s done so while upholding the dignity of its predecessor. 
This is the real
deal here, guys.