Friday, June 16, 2017

Review of Jordan - "HIDDEN HISTORY OF CIVIL WAR SAVANNAH"

[Hidden History of Civil War Savannah by Michael L. Jordan (Arcadia Pub & The History Pr, 2017). Softcover, photos, notes, select bibliography, index. 160 pp. ISBN:978-1-62619-643-8. $21.99]

By its own description, The History Press's Hidden History series "treats history lovers to a closer look at some of the lesser known events and stories all too often overshadowed by the bigger headlines..." and invites them to "(s)tart exploring the nooks and crannies of America’s rich history, one city, town, and neighborhood at a time." One of the newest volumes from the series is Michael Jordan's Hidden History of Civil War Savannah.

Jordan begins with the famous Savannah oration (later known as the "Cornerstone Speech") by Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens. Like other have done (and it's the primary reason why the speech is remembered today), the author zeroes in on those sections comprising Stephens's emphatic defense of slavery and the institution's centrality to the social order of the breakaway republic.

The chapter most biographical in nature examines the life and death of Savannah attorney and Confederate colonel Francis S. Bartow. An ardent secessionist who repeatedly clashed with Georgia's Governor Brown over taking state volunteers beyond its borders, Bartow was killed leading a brigade at First Manassas. Jordan also discusses Bartow's status as one of the Confederacy's earliest 'martyrs' and makes note of the monuments erected in his honor. Another individual-themed chapter spotlights Robert E. Lee's professional association with Savannah, first as a U.S. Army engineer officer constructing fortifications and later as a Confederate department commander for several months (though, for the latter, the author might have related to readers a richer appreciation of the regional defense strategy devised by Lee that served the Confederacy so well from 1862 onward).

One of the finest chapters relates the service history of the ironclad CSS Atlanta, from its origins to its grounding and surrender during the 1863 Battle of Wassaw Sound. The battle action is described in fine detail, and the chapter also perceptively highlights some of the challenges and controversies of Confederate harbor defense plans.

Savannah was threatened by sea throughout the conflict, but the ravages of war were most directly visited upon the city when Savannah was selected as the terminus of William T. Sherman's famous "March to the Sea" in 1864.  One chapter recounts the strain that the mass influx of Union POWs into Savannah ahead of the Union advance placed on local resources, and another follows the successful evacuation of Savannah's military defenders when Sherman's army finally approached the city gates. Jordan also looks at the cooperation between city officials and Union occupiers, which occurred at a rapidity and scale that many Confederate newspapers angrily deemed unseemly and unpatriotic. The little known history of a fire that destroyed a large part of the town in January 1865 is also discussed, with no conclusions drawn regarding responsibility (though one might think the event's timing—it occurred shortly before the commencement of the Union march north through the Carolinas—more than a little suggestive of the pattern of incendiary behavior practiced by elements of Sherman's army). The book's final chapter is also one of the better ones in the collection. Citing all the usual problems and disputes over design, funding, and placement, it recounts the long journey to completion of Savannah's impressive granite memorial to its Confederate dead.

Like the Hidden History series as a whole, the book is targeted more toward the general reading audience of local history enthusiasts, but it is far from history-lite. The research appears more than solid [though occasional gaffes appear, like repeating the persistent old myth of Lee turning down "supreme command of all Union ground forces at the beginning of the war" (pg. 42)], the text is sourced, and the author writes historical narrative very well. The volume is also abundantly illustrated, with its collection of photographs particularly noteworthy. Each chapter can be likened to an article one might find in the pages of the better popular history magazines. Given the general dearth of studies devoted to the coastal South Atlantic front, it would be interesting to see what the author might come up with in terms of researching and writing a long form historical manuscript.

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