Saturday, April 30, 2011

Women soldiers in the Civil War

They Fought Like Demons, DeAnne Blanton and Lauren Cook

The subtitle of this book is "Women Soldiers in the Civil War."  I'm sure a lot of people would automatically say, "There were no women soldiers in the Civil War."  Women's traditional roles in the conflict have been well-documented. Nurses, yes, and aid workers, and even spies.  Everyone knows Clara Barton, and Belle Boyd, and maybe even Louisa May Alcott.  But not warriors.  Part of the story that Blanton and Cook have to tell is how the women soldiers have been erased from the history of the Civil War.  The troops fighting in the Union and Confederate armies knew about the women soldiers - and not as urban myths, that a woman "somewhere" was serving.  They wrote their families about their encounters with these women, living and dead (some discovered only among the corpses after a battle).  Stories about these women made it into the newspapers, both during the war and afterwards.  There are official records of women in both armies, including pension records.  At least one woman Union veteran became a member in good standing in the GAR veterans' organization after the war, as a woman.  It was only as the Civil War veterans died off that the memory of these women soldiers was lost.  In the 20th century, the historical evidence was dismissed or interpreted to show these women as deranged or prostitutes, or the stories as romantic fiction.

DeAnne Blanton is a senior military archivist with the National Archives. She and Lauren Cook spent ten years in painstaking, detailed research for this book.  They identified 250 women soldiers in both armies, but their research suggests there may have been many more who never revealed themselves or were discovered as women, who simply served until death or discharge.  The evidence they present is clear, compelling, and incontrovertible.

The book is organized thematically, with chapters on why women served (for the same reasons men did, but also for the freedom that men had); how they disguised themselves and how they experienced life in the ranks; the experiences of wounds and capture; how they fared on discovery; how they were perceived both by fellow soldiers and by the general public; and their post-war experiences.  The authors and the reader are left with a lot of unanswered questions, in part because the women's experiences are poorly documented compared with those of male soldiers.  Many of the women simply disappear from the record, especially in the post-war years.

The larger story is compelling, and the details are endlessly fascinating.  Women could easily pass a medical entrance exam that was primarily some questions and a quick visual once-over.   Women who were discovered and booted from the army often traveled to a different city or town and re-enlisted, which was easy in the days before national identity documents.  At least two women soldiers were discovered only when they gave birth in camp - one had fought in battles into her third trimester, one went into labor while on picket duty.  Women soldiers were most often discovered when wounded in an area that required disrobing; a head, hand or calf wound was usually safe.  Capture as a prisoner of war almost always meant discovery.  One woman soldier went with her husband as a prisoner to Andersonville, and she remained after his death, never revealing herself as a woman, though that would have brought release.  She died a prisoner, and her grave is the only one marked with a headstone.

Anyone interested in the Civil War, or 19th century American history, or women's history, needs to read this book.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

A young man in New York

The Diary of George Templeton Strong. A Young Man in New York, 1835-1849 (Vol. 1).  Allan Nevins and Milton Halsey Thomas, eds.

Every book on the American Civil War that isn't strictly military history seems to cite the third volume of George Templeton Strong's diary, which covers the years 1860-1865.  Some of the military histories do as well.  Even if Strong hadn't played a key role in the Sanitary Commission, meeting with President Lincoln, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and Union military leaders, his diary would still give us a day to day record of life in New York City during the war - a city with strong Democratic, pro-south tendencies, where riots broke out in 1863 over the draft.

I read the Civil War diary a couple of years ago, and I finally got around to getting the first through interlibrary loan earlier this month.  Each volume apparently has the same introduction, with an overview of Strong's life and career as a lawyer.  The introduction also explains how the diary was discovered, edited, and published in 1952.  I believe if it were to be re-edited and re-published today, it would be a very different diary.  The editors state right off the bat that "Many interesting personal entries, dealing with the diarist's family circle, have been left out; but these would make another kind of story."  Well, yes, and it would be a more complete story of George Templeton Strong the human being, as well as a better social history.  I've noticed this before in diaries edited by men, like William Plomer's edition of the diaries of Rev. Francis Kilvert.  The editors also provide biographical notes only on the male characters; not even footnotes identify many of the women.

Strong began his diary in October of 1835, when he was a fifteen-year old sophomore at Columbia College.  I found the first years a bit dull, a record of classes and college pranks in which GTS generally didn't join.  Then, suddenly, as with Trollope's' North America, GTS found his voice.  I think he would have been great company - with a strong sense of humor, an acridly entertaining turn of phrase, a love of books, a deep faith.  Counterbalancing that, he was completely unsympathetic to African Americans, free or slave, with a frequent and contemptuous use of the "N" word.  He also had nativist tendencies, especially towards Irish immigrants, though the excesses of the "Know Nothings" turned him away from nativist politics.  His attitude toward women was typically paternalistic.  An outline of his ideal woman's characteristics includes "talent for obedience, and submission to conjugal authority," and his wife Ellen is frequently referred to as "Little Ellie," at least in the first two years after their 1847 marriage.  On the other hand, he nursed her personally through the still-born birth of their first child and her collapse from puerperal fever, which must be credited to him as righteousness.

I can't help but like him, and I'm anxiously awaiting the next volume, which covers the critical years of 1850-1859.  I look forward to watching this turbulent decade unfold through his eyes.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Living at Chatsworth

The House, The Duchess of Devonshire

I found this book at Half Price Books, just after I'd read The Sisters, the collection of Mitford letters edited by Charlotte Mosely.  I couldn't believe it when I saw this sitting on a shelf.

I'd also come across references to Chatsworth and the Devonshires in odd places, like a New Yorker article on a blight threatening the world's bananas, from which I learned that the ubiquitous yellow bananas we buy every day are the Cavendish variety, found in the Chatsworth greenhouses after a previous blight wiped out the then-common variety.  And then there was Bill Bryson's At Home, which introduced me to Joseph Paxton and the Bachelor Duke.

Subtitled "Living at Chatsworth," this book starts with "The History of the House" that is a history both of the family that built Chatsworth and the buildings themselves.  I wasn't familiar with the history of the Cavendish family, though I knew Bess of Shrewsbury and the Bachelor Duke.  I am glad that I'd already read Deborah Devonshire's Wait for Me!, which gave me some background and context for the later part of the story.

The second part is a tour through the house, both the rooms open to the public and the private rooms, as well as the grounds.  This section includes lengthy extracts from the 6th Duke's Handbook of Chatsworth, written in 1844 as a letter to his sister Harriet, with added comments from Deborah Devonshire.  I found this section harder to follow, because the pictures don't always show what the Duke was describing, in part because of changes since 1844; and because the maps show only the public rooms.  But all in all I found the book entertaining and informative, and also inspiring, especially in the struggle to restore Chatsworth after years of neglect, and in the face of crippling death duties.  Here again I was glad of the background from the family letters and Wait for Me!  I also kept thinking of Trollope's Duke of Omnium and Gatherum Castle. Angela Thirkell in her continuation of the Barsetshire stories wrote a fictional account of the struggles to save the grand houses like Chatsworth in her later novels.

I've been fortunate enough to tour Hatfield and Blenheim, but I have never traveled much in the north of England.  If I ever get back to England, Chatsworth will definitely be in my travel plans - in the footsteps after all of Elizabeth Bennet and the Gardiners!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Englishman in America

North America, Anthony Trollope

Every chain bookstore seems to have the same two Trollope novels, The Warden and Barchester Towers, with an occasional copy of The Way We Live Now for variety.  I've been very lucky lately in the used bookstores, which is where I found North America a few months ago.

I first learned that Trollope had written a travel book about America from his autobiography.  And not just about America, but about a visit in 1861, in the first year of the Civil War.  It immediately went on my reading list, via a request through interlibrary loan (the local libraries aren't much better stocked with Trollope than the chain bookstores).  After such a build-up, I found the book a tough read.  It was packed with facts, detailed descriptions of ships, hotels, trains, meals, scenery, buildings.  It was overwhelming, and it wasn't that interesting.  I gave up somewhere in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.

Several months later, as I said, I came across a Penguin edition of North America.  It's a small paperback, only 218 pages, and I didn't stop to think about the difference in size from the hefty library book.  I probably thought vaguely that it was just smaller type and different formatting.  In actuality, as I learned from the introduction, this is a condensed version, cut by two-thirds.  In explaining his cuts, the editor commented that "there were long dull areas and technical discourses of little interest now, and numerous repetitions," and I can testify to that.

I found even this condensed version a bit slow going at first, until I caught Trollope's unique authorial voice.  He wanted, he said, to write of people, not things, but he still spent a lot of time describing scenery.  Niagara Falls he declared the greatest sight in the world.  He did, though, write a lot about the people of the United States, and also of Canada.  Like Isabella Bird, he crossed back and forth between the States and Canada, and I was reminded of her The Englishwoman in America.  I don't know if Trollope read it.  One major point of difference between the two is that Bird constantly noted the presence, and the baleful influence, of Irish immigrants and their Romish priests in the US.  Trollope noted both Irish and German immigrants, but only in passing.  He praised the Germans for their industry, and he had warm words for the Irish.  From what I can tell Trollope's early life in Ireland, working for the Post Office, left him with an affection for the Irish and for Ireland.

Like Bird, Trollope clearly saw slavery as the cause of conflict and of secession.  But he seemed to think that a division of the US was only to be expected, because of the deep cultural and economic differences between the two sections, and because the US was growing too big to succeed.  He saw abolitionism only as a political tool or weapon, and he called the northern states on their racism and unequal treatment of free persons of color.  But at the same time he believed that the slaves were not fit for freedom, and that slavery was a benign paternal care of dependent peoples.  He seems to have encountered slavery only in the upper south and in the border states, which undoubtedly gave him a rosy picture of the conditions of slave life.  He could write with sincerity that the slaves are well-treated and get everything they want or need in material goods; and that in Kentucky, it was considered improper to split slave families by sale.  Had he met Frederick Douglass or Sojurner Truth, had he traveled to the deep South, he might have gotten a fuller picture.

Trollope spent some time in Washington, D.C., a town he despised for its filth and incomplete state (he predicted that the Washington Monument would never be completed).  He chose not to try and get an appointment with Abraham Lincoln, and he apparently didn't want to risk the daily crush of people in the White House reception rooms.  I would love to have heard his assessment of Lincoln; to think that he had the opportunity and did not take it!

One of Trollope's main complaints about America is overheated rooms.  He repeated it again and again, with variations, including an assertion that overheated air bakes the beauty out of American women.  He also had strong words about spoiled American children: "They eat and drink just as they please [especially pickles!]; they are never punished; they are never banished, snubbed, and kept in the background as children are kept with us; and yet they are wretched and uncomfortable...[frequently] in agonies of discontent and dyspepsia."

Some day I may request the complete version of North America, but in the meantime I'm glad to have this version on my shelves.

Monday, April 18, 2011

False colours

False Colours, Georgette Heyer

Another re-read with the Heyer listserv (along with a smidge of guilt over re-reading rather than reducing the TBR pile).  False Colours has been a favorite of mine for many years.  Reading it in the chronological order of composition, though, did give me a new view of it.  I had never thought of this as a "late" book, but it was published in 1963, and there would be only six more to come.

It seems to me that in her early works, such as A Convenient Marriage, Heyer sometimes let the excitement of her research overwhelm the story.  There is such a wealth of information in these books that a chapter can suddenly feel almost like a data dump, that Heyer was determined to fit what she had discovered or learned into the story, even if she had to shoe-horn it in.  With False Colours, I had the same feeling about Regency slang.  The dialogue is packed with it, and every character speaks in the idiom, even the elderly Lady Stavely.  At first I found that distracting, almost requiring a translation, and I kept wondering if a well-born lady would really say that.

Once I was caught up in the story, though, the slang bothered me less.  This book has two very appealing central characters in Kit and Cressy, and a wealth of other people who may be somewhat stock characters in Heyer's work, but who still bring the story to vivid life.  Chief among these are Kit's charmingly wifty mama, and Cressy's formidable grandmother, but I'd give pride of place to Sir Bonamy Ripple - who would take it anyway.  And there is also Kit's twin Evelyn, whose absence marks the book almost as much as Conway's does in Venetia.

This wouldn't be my desert-island Heyer, but it is always a fun read and I'm glad to have it on my shelves.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The experience of command

The Mauritius Command, Patrick O'Brian

There was some discussion of Patrick O'Brian recently on Marzipan, one of the Dorothy Dunnett listservs - comments both from devoted POB readers and some who had tried the series but found the books unreadable.  I was also reminded of POB reading Tony Horwitz's book Blue Latitudes, especially its first chapter on sailing in a replica Royal Navy ship.  It has been several years since I've read through the entire series, but last year I re-read the first three books.  In the past, when I read O'Brian, I usually read straight through the series, often starting or ending with the newest book.  I don't feel that same compulsion, now, perhaps because I know the characters and the arc of the story - or because in general I'm re-reading less.

Not that I remember all the details, of course, especially in the later books that I have re-read less often.  But even with The Mauritius Command, I found I remembered only the broad outlines.  This book, about an expedition commanded by Jack Aubrey to take two islands east of Madagascar from the French, seems more a stand-alone, unlike the later books where expeditions stretch across three or even more books, as do character arcs and the more domestic stories.

This book gives Jack his first experience of command over a squadron, as a commodore.  As he naturally finds, this is very different from command over his single ship, and I found myself thinking back to the last book I read, U.S. Grant's memoirs, which are also about command and responsibility in war.  O'Brian gives us several different pictures of authority in the different captains and army officers in Jack's command.  Like Grant, Jack Aubrey can be pretty scathing on the failures of high command.

When I first discovered the series, Stephen Maturin was my favorite character, but I have come to appreciate Jack Aubrey's courage, skill, humor, and essential kind-heartedness.  This book also includes old friends like Barret Bonden (the true hero of the series), Tom Pullings, and Sophy Aubrey.

Patrick O'Brian would definitely be on my "desert-island" list of books - but choosing just one, well that would bring me by the lee shore.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Poignant memories and anniversaries

Personal Memoirs, Ulysses S. Grant

Two very important anniversaries fall this week here in the United States: the 150th anniversary of the opening of the Civil War, and the 146th anniversary of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.  There have been a flurry of news stories and articles marking the first, including several making clear the link between slavery and the war, which always sets off the Lost Cause/Gone With the Wind as history crowd. 

I wasn't really thinking of the anniversaries when I sat down with U.S. Grant's Memoirs.  I've had it on the TBR pile for quite a while.  I'd recently read Bruce Catton's Grant Moves South, as well as Charles Bracelin Flood's Grant and Sherman, the Friendship That Won the Civil War.  Last year I read Julia Dent Grant's memoirs (published only in 1975) and moved her husband's up the pile.  I'd also seen some recent references to the excellence of Grant's book (particularly in contrast to the unexcellence of George W. Bush's 2010 memoir, which cites Grant as an inspiration).

I found the Memoirs fascinating reading, if slow-going in parts.  Grant starts with his family history, briefly covering his childhood and his education at West Point (which he hoped would close while he was enrolled, sparing him from an army career). He covers the Mexican War in more detail than I expected, and I learned a lot about that war that I never knew or had forgotten - and living in Texas, I should know that history.

The bulk of the book is naturally focused on the Civil War, and it ends with the grand reviews in Washington in May of 1865.  This isn't a full autobiography; there is nothing on his presidency or life after the White House, though Julia Grant's book does cover those years in some detail.  I've had a biography of Grant on the TBR pile for more years than I am willing to admit, and I may be inspired to pick that up soon, to get the broader picture.

Grant wrote 20 years after the war ended, and with a clear knowledge that his death was imminent (he died of throat cancer just days after it was completed).  I would expect that gave him a sense of freedom in expressing his opinions of both events and people, where in the past, from what I've read of his war career, he was generally reserved and close-mouthed.  In any case, he clearly states that the Civil War came because of slavery, and he has an interesting argument that no state formed after 1789 had the right to secede.  He is especially scathing about Texas, for which he fought and so many died in 1845-1846 to bring into the union. As a resident of Texas, with a current governor who has advocated secession (because it worked so well last time), I cheered when I read those words.  Grant is also scathing about northern traitors; Buchanan's passive role in 1860 and early 1861; and about the shortcomings of generals like Halleck, McClernand, and Rosecrans, and Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War.  He also clearly shows his admiration and respect for General Zachary Taylor in the Mexican War; Abraham Lincoln, William Sherman,  Phil Sheridan, and David Porter in the Civil War.  In addition to the horror of Lincoln's murder, he sees clearly the defects of Andrew Johnson and the disaster that his administration brought, especially in Reconstruction.

Grant's Civil War battles, major and minor, are of course covered in detail, from Fort Henry to Appomattox.  The editor of this edition, renowned Civil War historian James McPherson, suggests in his introduction that the reader might want to have an atlas handy.  I wish I'd followed that advice.  It was hard enough to keep the different divisions/corps/brigades straight, let alone envisioning the country around Vicksburg, or the different roads through the Wilderness. That is where the book dragged a bit for me.

This was the perfect start to my own celebration of the Civil War's sesquicentennial.  In honor of the anniversary, I am going to clear all the Civil War books off the TBR pile - after all, I've got five years to do it!

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Back to Lafferton, again

The Risk of Darkness, Susan Hill

I am still working my way through the Simon Serrailler series.  As with Louise Penny's marvelous books, I'm finding that I don't want to rush to the next one, but to take some time before returning again to Lafferton.

This third book has several different story lines that weave together across the book.  While grounded in Lafferton, much of the action moves away as the hunt continues for the killer of the child David Angus, whose disappearance was left unsolved at the end of The Pure in Heart.  Another child has disappeared, in Yorkshire this time, and Simon spends his time back and forth working the cases. We also get the continuing stories of his family, particularly Cat, whose husband is restless and burning out in the demands of the medical system.

The identity of the killer is revealed fairly early, after a heart-pounding seaside rescue.  There is a twist to that identity that caught me completely off-guard and sent me back to the start of the book to re-read in light of the revelation.  Much of the book is concerned with building the case to answer, and with the killer's mother and step-father, struggling to accept what they have learned.

Among the new characters introduced is Jane, a young woman priest at the Cathedral.  She gets caught up in another story threading through the book, that of Cat's patients Max and his dying wife Lizzie.  Max's delusional grief leads him to violence, which draws Simon in.  At the same time, in yet another thread, Jane's mother in London is viciously attacked.  Simon feels an immediate connection to Jane, and I was disappointed that at the end of the book she seems to have disappeared as completely as Freya (though not as finally).  Simon also loses a co-worker to a promotion, and Cat's family (temporarily) to Australia, and there is another death in his family as well.  He doesn't have many personal connections, or much success at making new ones.

Two more books in the series, and hopefully more to come.

Friday, April 1, 2011

In the wake of Captain Cook

Blue Latitudes, Tony Horwitz

This one has been on the TBR pile for quite a while.  As near as I can remember, I bought it after reading an excerpt of the first chapter, "One Week Before the Mast," which is about Horwitz's experiences working as a sailor on a replica of Captain James Cook's ship Endeavour.  I was probably in full Patrick O'Brian mode at that point.  Though the chapter title is "one week," and though the book's cover clearly states its subtitle, "Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before," yet somehow I was surprised to find that this is not a book-length travelogue set aboard a "tall ship" replica, a modern Two Years Before the Mast. Any disappointment I felt was brief. I was actually hooked by the end of the introduction, which includes a comparison of Captian Cook and Captain Kirk, the Endeavour and the Enterprise, red-jacketed marines and red-shirted disposable crewmen.

Like Horwitz, and "Like most Americans I grew up knowing almost nothing of Captain Cook..."  I think I knew that he discovered the Sandwich Islands. Horwitz remedies that, placing Cook's amazing record of exploration and discovery beside his own modern travels re-creating Cook's journeys.  I feel like I also know a lot more about the Pacific Ocean, Australia and New Zealand, Polynesia, even Alaska and the Aleutian Islands, than I did before reading this book.

Cook's early life is a great story in and of itself, how a farm boy from Yorkshire found his way to the sea and into shipping, then into the Royal Navy, then to command, to become one of the world's great explorers.  And as Horwitz reminds the reader more than once, an explorer in a wooden ship, with only clock, compass and sextant to guide him where few Europeans had gone before.  One of Cook's greatest strengths was in charting, and some of his charts remained in use until only a few years ago.  Also, Horwitz shows, an explorer with an unusual toleration, even respect, for the native peoples he encountered - though both respect and toleration had clear limits.  Cook is not viewed favorably by the modern descendants of many of these peoples, but Horwitz argues that Cook is actually taking the blame for what followed his first contacts, as other explorers, then settlers and missionaries followed.

The sections recounting Horwitz's travels in the Pacific can be a bit bleak, showing the negative effects of those contacts reverberating down to today.  The sections on Polynesia are also frank about the pervasive sexuality of the culture, including some names that I'd be put to the blush to repeat.

Several years ago I read and enjoyed Horwitz's A Voyage Long and Strange, about the explorers who reached America long before the Pilgrims but who have never gotten the same recognition.  That was also a fascinating read.  In Blue Latitudes, Horwitz mentions three books that are currently in my TBR pile: Longitude, by Dava Sobel; Passage to Juneau, by Jonathan Raban; and In a Sunburned Country, by Bill Bryson.  Maybe that will inspire me to move them from the TBR to the "currently reading" pile.