Sep 11

Washington: A life: by Ron Chernow ★★★★

I’ve been amiss at writing book reviews. Of the four books here, I found all to be delightful and informative reads, gaining insight into the thoughts and minds of historical characters from the late 18th century and civil war. I will continue several more books on the era of the founding fathers, before plunging whole hog into civil war history. The book “Sherman” has wet my appetite for the era of the civil war. But first, we review “Washington”.

Ron Chernow clearly has done his homework, going through vast volumes of papers and references to the man George Washington. Much of the book details his years during the Revolutionary War, and as president. Chernow is excellent at painting both the strengths and flaws in the character of Washington. Washington made many mistakes throughout his life, especially in the conduct of the Revolutionary War, and without the help of France, we would have probably still been a part of the U.K. I don’t picture him as a brilliant general, even though the soldiers he had to work with were painted as less than stellar. Congress (and the individual states) were also quite remiss at helping Washington fight the war that they commissioned him to accomplish. Washington’s strength was that of being able to inspire people, and to play the political games that brought people together and agree on vexing matters. 

Much of the mythology of Washington was debunked in this book. He did not throw a coin across the Potomac, or chop down a cherry tree. He did not kneel to pray at Valley Forge. His “god” was the nebulous force of “Providence”. Washington was a strong federalist, in that he wished for power to preside mostly in the central government, rather than the states. Oddly, it’s a battle that continues to this date. Chernow describes in detail but glosses over some extreme double-mindedness of Washington, such as his insistence on holding slaves, and not even allowing his most cherished slave to go free after years of dedicated service to his master.

In this book, we truly see not only greatness of the man George Washington, but also his horrid faults. Such a person would not have survived the twenty-first century. Thank God he lived in the eighteenth century. It is a book worth reading should one be interested in the founding fathers, and Chernow writes well, being able to hold your attention throughout the book.

Amazing Grace, by Eric Metaxas ★★★★

Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the heroic campaign to end slavery, details the life of Wilberforce, one of the leading persons in the British government to remove slavery from the United Kingdom. Metaxas details the life from birth to death of Wilberforce, showing the rise and actions of a truly great man, who was willing to put his life and effort into abolishing the slave trade in British Empire. This was accomplished in stages, with first the abolishment of the slave trade, and then much later, just before his death, the abolishment of the practice of slavery within the United Kingdom. Wilberforce’s accomplishments were actually far more than just addressing the issue of slavery during his time in the parliament, where he made much effort to bring help to the poor and downcast.

Metaxas paints Wilberforce as being born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He grew up in a privileged family, and thus really never had to work. He dawdled his way through college, never really excelling, but he was able to enter the house of Commons through his speaking talent. Through a deepening of his Christian faith and encounters with John Newton, the pastor and author of “Amazing Grace”, but previously a slave trader, Wilberforce’s focus was directed toward the abolishment of the slave trade throughout the United Kingdom. Wilberforce was in Parliament at the time of the American Revolutionary War, though this did not seem to garner much interest to William. Like politics in the USA, there was much wrangling and fighting in Parliament before a decision could be made, and Metaxas is excellent at detailing that process.

So, what are we to think of Wilberforce? In a way, I would hold him in disdain as an elitist. In another way, he was able to take a moral stance against all odds, fight for that stance, and win, making him a hero of the cause. Wilberforce was motivated by a Christian conscience, something that also drove our Civil War for the abolishment of slavery, yet many might ask if the abolishment of slavery could have happened without a Christian mindset? I think not, but that is a topic for lengthy discussion over a good bottle of Cognac and a Cuban cigar. This book is much worth a read, generates stimulating discussion, and Metaxas is a superb author who writes in an addicting style. I encourage all to read this tome. 

1776; by David McCullough ★★★

This book begins in late 1775 and ends with the New Year of 1776. It repeats much material from Chernow’s text on Washington, though not focusing on Washington. The focus is mostly the first year of the Revolutionary War, and the activities in the North. The war in the south and at sea are really not mentioned. The campaigns in Massachusetts, the war to defend New York city, and the ending with Washington’s victory at Trenton are details. The end of 1776 left great wonderment whether Washington would ever be successful at overcoming the far more disciplined and vastly more numbered British army, supported by a large army of paid Hessian mercenaries. 

Washington faced multiple challenges from a very highly undisciplined army, as well as a congress always slow at supporting the war effort. The individual states were quite unwilling to send their militia to the support of the war effort, making recruitment a near impossible task for Washington. Much of the book is quite dark, as it should be for the first year of the war, where defeat far outnumbered victory, and those victories were most providential with the rag-tag army that Washington was fielding. 

The book would have been more successful, had McCullough carried on through the end of the war. I would have liked to see a more comprehensive review of what was occurring in congress, in the states, and other areas of the war, such as in the south. I would not put this book on the must-read list.

William Tecumseh Sherman: In the Service of my Country, by James Lee McDonough ★★★★★

This was a most delightful read of one of the greatest generals ever produced by America, and certainly a person that competes on the world stage as one of the greatest of the greatest mastermind in war. Sherman grew up in Ohio, being raised by adoptive parents. He went to West Point, much to the chagrin of his adoptive parents, did ok at West Point, and served in the military for a length of time, mostly in the south, but mostly attending high society parties. Eventually, he left the military, seeking fortunes in the banking industry in California. When California banking went south, Sherman moved back to the south to become one of the first military academies in the south, being released when the civil war broke out, and his strong disagreement with the south that matters should have been worked out civilly. 

Without detailing the events of Sherman’s life, and especially his war years, I would like to summarize some interesting aspects of his life. First, though he was probably one of the most brilliant generals of the war, the newspapers frequently characterized him as insane, a looney, and crazy. Any time there would be a struggle with the enemy, the charges would be resurrected. Kind of sounds like the press today… they never seem to get it right. Secondly, Sherman was correct in seeing war as a total war; civilians often are a contributor to the war, as was especially true with the civil war on both sides. Yet, it was Sherman that first spoke the phrase “War is all hell”. He had a very realistic approach to war, while having a very sympathetic feeling toward the enemy. We quickly criticize Sherman and his march to the sea, and yet overlook the supremely evil Confederate general that frequently confronted Sherman, Nathan Bedford Forrest. Sherman’s innovation in developing supply off the land far from his natural supply lines seemed only natural and right, and certainly was effective of breaking the will of the enemy for war. Though long dead, Sherman continues to receive unfair criticism. Like the other truly great generals such as Patton, end results tend to speak louder than the curbside audience that could never start up to the heat of the moment of these generals while leading the army to ultimate victory. 

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5 Responses to “Four Historical Book Reviews”

  1. Bruder Dennis says:

    It is a commonly believed error that the War between the States, or the Second American Revolution, as it was most commonly referred to in the Confederate states, was fought over the slavery issue, yet if you read the Lincoln-Douglas debates of the presidential campaign, Lincoln was not opposed to slavery. This is very clear.
    The war was fought over the same issue that wars have always been fought over in modern times: the control of money by the banksters such as the Rothschilds in London. Their support of the Southern textile industry was countered by onerous tax laws in the North, which had a sufficient industrial base to dominate over the South. Hence the war broke out as a trade war gone hot.
    History might repeat itself over the trade war between China and the USA, the way things are going … For a book on how civilizations collapse, get The Five Stages of Collapse by Dmitry Orlov (

    • Dennis, the book by Ellis refers to the years 1783-1789 as the second American revolution, in that the constitution went contrary to what most people thought that they were getting by the Revolt against Britain, only to discover their freedoms to be less and taxes higher. Yet, I’m uncertain as to the greater evil, the Brits or the new ruling American elite. Most authors present the founding of the USA as a good (great?) thing, yet the American “experiment” is yet to run its course, and I suspect that the ultimate outcome may NOT be nice.
      Regarding the Civil War, I don’t buy the lost cause arguments. Ultimately, the war WAS about slavery, tax problems notwithstanding. I’ve read all sides of the argument, but the discussions always end in a final common denominator, that of slavery.

  2. W. Sterling Schermerhorn says:

    Ken, I like following your blog, for some reason I missed this historical element to it. I am follwing the books Boone, Adams, etc. but I have some catcyh-up to do. As a descendant of a southern family raised 1.5 miles east of Richmond, Va in 1860-80 I can give you uniquie insight into the set of problems inherent in this discussion. Had I known you were enmeshed in this element of history we could have had interesting side discussion during our recent PTCA side work. To put it bluntly, my ancestors moved from the Hudson/Mohawk Valley by 1810 yet they were adhereent followers when resideing in Richmond, Va in what everyone knew at the time, northermers were closet keeping slave holders and even a New Jersey Judge by the name of Jacob Van WickleWinklr had a alave pipeline from middle new jersey to louisiana in the early 1800’s when my 2nd great grandfather was employed in his stoneware venture, later to form the ichmond, VA line of my family. It was a very involved early American History, and if your readers are persuaded by those that do not know their own personal history they are deluded by the adventures of those that wish to implore them to think otherwise. To add: I am jealous of your trekking adventures as a total knee replacement, dominant right side is in my nearer future on last consult.

  3. W. Sterling Schermerhorn says:

    To add: I am a distant relative of Lee’s descendants, I am not probably going to ever read anyting by Sherman or Sheridan!

  4. Bruder Dennis says:

    For a different view (than that slavery was the cause of the war), review history prof. Jeffrey Rogers Hummel’ s book, Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men: A History of the American Civil War, Open Court, 1996. Black slavery was a factor, but (p. 15) ” The issue that brought forth this defiance [of S Carolina] was not slavery but the tariff…. Southerners had generally come to oppose the steady rise in protectionist duties after the War of 1812; they correctly recognized that any restraints on free trade economically exploited an exporting region such as the South.”
    Then there is Calhoun and the compact theory of the Constitution …

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