Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Lair: "PILLARS OF POWER: Steps Toward Secession"

[Pillars of Power: Steps Toward Secession by Jim Lair (Tate Publishing, 2009). Softcover, 2 maps, illustrations, appendices, notes, bibliography. Pages main/total:389/514. ISBN:978-1-60696-381-4 $29.99]

Pillars of Power, the first of a planned four volume social, political, and military history of Civil War Arkansas, takes readers from the secession crisis through 1861. If everyone goes according to the author's plan, the second book will cover events between Pea Ridge and Prairie Grove, the third Fort Hindman (Arkansas Post) to Pine Bluff, and the final volume the 1864 Camden Expedition through Reconstruction.

The narrative flow and structure of Pillars of Power is a bit problematic, with a disjointed presentation, both thematic and temporal, that could have benefited immensely from aggressive editing. The first 140 pages, a ponderous journey through well trodden discussions of slavery and the theory & legality of secession [the author making clear his own opinion that secession was a legitimate, if not advisable, political option], wanders too much afield before finally settling down to covering Arkansas's situation.

Fortunately, the book greatly improves from there. The debates within Arkansas's democratic institutions over secession, and how it was shaped both by internal social and class divisions (and by external events), is well managed by Lair. Evenhanded and informative, his chapter discussing the character and extent of southern unionism and dissent in the state (to include the organization and suppression of the Arkansas Peace Society groups) is especially good. Another chapter outlines the important role of the Arkansas Military Board in selecting leaders and in organizing and arming recruits. The final chapter, dealing with Arkansas's women, exhibits a solid grasp of recent scholarship. These central narrative chapters sandwich others that are essentially source material compilations relating to the previous chapter's subject matter. While the collected documents might prove useful to readers, the appendices might have been a better place for the material. Too many typos are present, as well.

The bibliography indicates a sound effort at assembling a range of primary and secondary materials. Manuscripts (most located in Arkansas institutions), newspapers, government records, books, and articles were consulted. The appendices are populated by numerous documents (e.g. ex-slave narratives, correspondence, and the state's secession ordinance) and tables. The latter include slaveholder data, lists of secession delegates and Peace Society members, and military unit and leadership (Confederate and Union) information. The volume suffers from the lack of an index, though perhaps the final book in the series will include one.

Although I have significant problems with Pillars of Power, there is half of a good book in there, the quality of which leads me to cautiously look forward to the next entry. With only summaries of actions occurring outside Arkansas during 1861 in Volume I, it remains unclear how much military detail the author intends for his series. Hopefully, with the general background material out of the way, Lair will be able to better direct his efforts toward a more cohesive narrative of perhaps the most fascinating year (1862) of the Civil War in Arkansas.


  1. I wonder why so many history books these days have vague titles like this. How many people interested in Civil War Arkansas will never notice this book because the words "Arkansas" or "Civil War" aren't in the title? Not a smart move by the author and publisher.

  2. I agree. You get two chances (title and subtitle) and many authors and publishers take advantage of neither opportunity. On the other end of the spectrum, there are the Victorian-era titles that tell you everything, like movie trailers. The middle ground would seem to be best.


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