AUGUST BOOK REPORT (8/13-Civilization Preserved, As It Should Be…By Cigar-Chomping Generals and Lady Novelists)

Men of Fire: Grant, Forrest, and the Campaign That Decided the Civil War, Jack Hurst (2007)

An admirably lucid account of an extremely significant but rather dry subject.

Hurst centers his telling of the Union campaigns to capture Forts Henry and Donelson in the winter of 1862–less than a year after Fort Sumter and the full weight of Confederate secession brought on the Civil War–around the personalities of Ulysses S. Grant and Nathan Bedford Forrest, with plenty of additional background on their various superiors and key subordinates thrown in for good measure.

Good decision, because in the Henry and Donelson campaigns, the personalities were far more influential than the military tactics.

In the end the military struggle for the heart of the Confederacy–then still in its crucial, defining infancy–came down to who wanted to fight and who didn’t.

On the Union side, those who wanted to fight were Grant and the able commander of the world’s first ironclad fleet, Andrew Foote, who, at Fort Henry, ended up carrying out history’s first successful assault on a fortification by sea (or, in this case, the Tennessee River). On the Confederate side, there was Forrest, who, fortunately for the future of the country (and perhaps the world), was then an obscure cavalry colonel.

That the book lacks a certain pace is entirely due, I think, to the discursive subject matter. As long as Hurst can stay with the men of action the story moves. When, of necessity, he takes some time off to study the less interesting men–the men dedicated to inaction, who were everywhere and central to the moment and therefore cannot be ignored–then even Hurst’s considerable narrative skills (which include a lot of apt, often stinging, psychological insights into the key players) can’t keep this key bit of history from flagging a bit.

The book is eminently worthwhile and valuable, though–not only to afficionados of its somewhat obscure subject or readers who just like to enjoy a beautifully turned sentence (of which Hurst provides many).

Hurst is far too honest to make the common mistake of ginning up false excitement out of military operations that were, for the most part, rather pedestrian, marked more by colossal Confederate incompetence than any brilliance on the Union side.

But his skill and patient attention to all the sordid, behind-the-scenes maneuvering pays off in the end. Without stating it in so many words, the author makes it eminently clear that, had Ulysses S. Grant been a Union cavalry colonel and Nathan Bedford Forrest in charge of Confederate forces–or even if the two men had been evenly matched as theater commanders–the outcomes of the battles that essentially doomed the Confederacy from the start might well have been reversed.

In an age when generals are routinely chosen for their real or (more usually) presumed mastery of corporate or political intrigue rather than combat skills, this finely wrought narrative is a worthy reminder that, should we ever find ourselves in a position where the notion of taking and holding ground is restored to its once vital significance, we had best choose our leaders wisely.

And to remember that favorable outcomes tend to hang by a thread in any case.

Grant’s reward for “exceeding” his authority and taking Henry and Donelson in record time was, after all, to be threatened with arrest by jealous superiors.

Proving once again that some things never change.

Airs Above the Ground (Mary Stewart, 1965)

Popular fiction, British Lady Novelist Division.

I hadn’t read anything by Stewart since I was a teenager when I inhaled a couple of her Camelot novels. I certainly would have read the rest had I been able to get my hands on them. Somehow I didn’t, but this popped up from someplace in the last few years (no idea where as I didn’t buy it) and I held onto it out of respect for those happy memories.

I have to say that the pace I remembered from those other novels (which were written later) and had reason to expect was the Stewart norm based on that memory plus numerous viewings of The Moon-Spinners (the Disney movie based on her source novel) was relentlessly absent from the first two-thirds of Airs Above the Ground. Stewart takes her sweet, ver-r-r-r-y deliberate time with a setup that involves a missing Royal Lipizzan stallion, a small Austrian circus and a female veterinarian becoming gradually aware that her husband is–heart be still!–a secret agent for Her Majesty’s Government.

She makes up for it in the end.

In days of yore, even British Lady Novelists carrying the weight of Civilation knew how to write action and Stewart wrote it as well as anyone going, civilized or not. The last seventy pages turn over rapidly to a comfortably satisfying conclusion, with a couple of memorably hair-raising sequences along the way….

All of which leads me to conclude something I would have had a hard time believing when I was half-way through this.

I just might get around to those other Camelot novels yet!


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