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Book Reviews

Spring 2012 Books

May 2024
7min read
1812: The Navy's War
By George C. Daughan
1812: The Navy’s War recounts the familiar tales of how American captains—men such as Stephen Decatur and Isaac Hull—bloodied the nose of Great Britain’s powerful navy. The exploits of the USS Constitution rank among the most famous: it dismasted and captured the HMS Guerriere in one skirmish and later defeated the HMS Java in an intense three-hour battle off Brazil, thus earning it the legendary sobriquet “Old Ironsides.” Although small and frequently outgunned, the U.S. Navy ranged from the interior waters of the Great Lakes to the Atlantic, Caribbean, and Pacific, inflicting much damage on British shipping in all three theaters of war.
George C. Daughan’s book is more comprehensive than the title might suggest. The author of If by Sea: The Forging of the American Navy—From the Revolution to the War of 1812 deftly situates the naval story within the broader contours of the war, exploring diplomacy, the dustup over impressment, the Napoleonic wars, and the ill-fated Canadian campaigns. Much of the book’s originality lies in its conclusion. Historians have long recognized the overmatched Navy’s exploits against the British colossus—a David-versus-Goliath contest—but they have tended to denigrate its strategic importance. Daughan argues that the naval captains’ bravery helped bring about a decisive change in European attitudes toward the United States.
“The Liverpool ministry’s cynical perpetuation of the war to expand British territory and dismember a rival had unintentionally amplified America’s maritime power,” the author asserts. “Instead of curbing a competitor, the British had markedly increased her strength.” London, as a result, not only accepted America’s independence but understood that a rising United States could prove to be a valuable ally. (Basic Books, 528 pages, $32.50)
Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President
By Candice Millard
Villains galore populate the pages of Candice Millard’s Destiny of the Republic: Charles Guiteau, the deranged office seeker who stalked President James Garfield and shot him on July 2, 1881; D. Willard Bliss, the doctor who mishandled the treatment of the wounded president; and American medicine itself, which was so slow to embrace pathbreaking research into the causes of infection.
Then there was the victim, one of the most underrated and interesting politicians in U.S. history. Born in 1831 and orphaned at the age of two, Garfield grew up in poverty on an Ohio farm. Endowed with a first-rate intellect and a powerful work ethic, he managed to graduate from college, rise to the rank of general in the Civil War, and parlay his military service into a successful postwar career in Congress. In 1880 a deadlocked Republican convention turned to him as a compromise choice. But all this promise was cut short only months after he had entered the White House, when Guiteau shot him twice as he walked into Washington’s Union Station. The president survived, but his ordeal had only begun.
Millard’s most impressive accomplishment may be her ability to recapture an era. Destiny of the Republic transports the reader to 1880s Washington, vividly portraying the mundane (the White House was rat-infested and deteriorating) and the profound (the medical profession was backward). Alongside the villains were heroes such as Alexander Graham Bell, who invented a metal detector in a frantic effort to locate the bullet lodged near Garfield’s spine. (Bell’s effort failed when no one realized that the president’s mattress contained metal springs, a relatively new concept.) Joseph Lister, a British surgeon, struggled valiantly but unsuccessfully to persuade American physicians about the role of germs in causing infection. As Garfield’s doctors sought in vain to locate the bullet, they probed and prodded his insides with unsterilized fingers and instruments. Slowly and painfully, the president declined. On September 19, 1881, he died of “profound septic poisoning” and of hemorrhaging in his abdominal cavity. (Doubleday, 352 pages, $28.95)
The Battle of Midway
By Craig L. Symonds
Rarely has the tide of war turned in such a brief moment. Within eight minutes on June 4, 1942, American dive bombers crippled three Japanese aircraft carriers at the Battle of Midway. Historians have long praised this victory as a “miracle” that effectively ensured that the United States—not Imperial Japan—would triumph in the Pacific theater. Craig L. Symonds begs to differ. The smashing American naval victory involved more than luck. The outcome rested on the actions of participants on both sides, especially by Japanese Adm. Yamamoto Isoroku, who so badly wanted to finish the job started at Pearl Harbor, and by his U.S. counterpart, the coolly calculating Adm. Chester Nimitz.
The Battle of Midway takes an in-depth look at the cultures of both navies and how they contributed to the battle’s outcome. Pivotal in Symonds’s story is the role of American code breakers, especially the efforts of Joseph J. Rochefort, who worked for OP-20-G, the Navy’s Code and Signals Section. He had been recruited in 1924 because his commander admired his ability to do crossword puzzles. By 1942, as head of the Combat Intelligence Unit, he was an experienced code breaker and an expert on both Japan’s culture and its military. It was Rochefort who was primarily responsible for decoding Japanese communications and deducing Yamamoto’s intentions, including the crucial intelligence that the enemy would attack with four carriers. Armed with this information, Nimitz avoided a Japanese trap. The resulting clash took place at Midway, a lonely atoll in the middle of the Pacific, which served as a critical outpost for a U.S. Navy operating a thousand miles from Pearl Harbor.
After setting the scene, Symonds delivers a blow-by-blow account of the battle, beginning with a chapter on “Nagumo’s Dilemma” in the early morning, proceeding to the “Tipping Point” in late morning, and concluding with “The Japanese Counterstrike” in the afternoon. When the smoke from the burning ships had cleared, Nimitz’s forces were masters of the Pacific. (Oxford University Press, 464 pages, $27.95)
Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War
By Tony Horwitz
Anyone despairing over the bile in our public discourse today might find cold comfort in recognizing that it has been worse, especially during the 1850s, when the core issue was slavery—whether to allow it in new states or end it everywhere—and take-no-prisoner extremists dictated both sides of the argument. Midnight Rising examines the most famous abolitionist of them all—John Brown, a magnetic personality if humdrum orator, who was obsessed with the idea of doing God’s work (as he saw it): to arm America’s slaves so that they would rise up and free themselves. Thus his famous raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, a factory and warehouse in northwest Virginia containing 100,000 guns, which he and a band of 21 followers captured without firing a shot—and then lost a day later with the forfeit of several lives and without freeing a single slave, let alone inspiring a wider revolt.
Not the biography of a mad martyr, this is a warts-and-all portrait of America at a landmark moment, the gripping story of an incendiary event that one man ignited—and in so doing, blew the nation off its axis. Never has Brown’s story been told more convincingly and thrillingly. Nor have screaming rhetoric and extremist polarity ever had such dire consequences. (Henry Holt, 365 pages, $29)
The Nation’s Hangar: Aircraft Treasures of the Smithsonian from the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center
By F. Robert Van Der Linden
Photography by Dane A. Penland and others
As the National Air and Space Museum’s director boasts in his foreword, the Smithsonian was interested in aeronautical matters even before aviation was invented, having begun collecting Chinese kites in 1876. This descriptive catalogue celebrates the latest addition to Smithsonian’s family of museums, the huge NASM annex known as the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, located 30 miles from the National Mall at Dulles International Airport. The book is instructive, straightforward, laudatory, and colorful in its photographs.
Notably, the chapter on “Restoration and Conservation” purposefully describes the criteria for acquiring, stabilizing, and preserving artifacts. Proper stewardship does not, for example, make all old objects look spanking new. Much of value of museum-quality holdings lies in their antiquity, including the scars of their experience. At best, a museum’s proper goal in handling some objects is simply to stabilize them in perpetuity, while a proper activity is not simply to collect as many examples of this-and-that as it can find. NASM consequently has defined clear criteria—historical, technological, and practical standards—to govern its acquisitions. While here is the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the first atomic bomb in anger, and there the Concorde, the fastest commercial airliner ever, museums are not properly halls merely of “oh, wow!” They must also be educational, historiographic, and conservative in the word’s original sense.
Discussions of “The Early Years of Flight” and the “The Golden Age of Flight” provide overviews of those eras, with heavy emphasis on the airplanes and other flying machines on display at the Udvar-Hazy Center. Three chapters are devoted to military aircraft and the exploits of U.S. aviators in wartime. (Smithsonian Books, 256 pages, $29.95)
American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America
By Colin Woodard
When politicians champion the concept of America as a union of united states, writes historian Colin Woodward, “they overlook a glaring historical fact. Americans have been deeply divided since the days of Jamestown and Plymouth.” North America, he suggests, would be more harmoniously divided into 11 “nations,” each one “a group of people who share—or believe they share—a common culture, ethnic origin, language, historical experience, artifacts and symbols.”
On the map his plan makes congressional gerrymanders look tidy. “The Midlands,” for example, stretch from an Atlantic toehold in New Jersey through the south central Midwest to a snippet of Colorado, then snake north around Minnesota and backtrack over the Great Lakes through Canada as far as “New France.” “Yankeedom” encompasses New England (minus bits of Connecticut and New York), then stretches across northern Pennsylvania into Ohio to embrace Michigan and Wisconsin: “From the outset it was a culture that put great emphasis on education, local political control and the pursuit of the ‘greater good’ of the community. . . . Yankees have the greatest faith in the potential of government to improve people’s lives . . . through social engineering, relatively extensive citizen involvement . . . and the assimilation of foreigners.”
“New Netherland,” a tiny legacy of the original Dutch colony, was “from the start a global commercial trading society: multi-ethnic, multi-religious, speculative, materialistic, mercantile and free trading, having a profound tolerance of diversity and an unflinching commitment to the freedom of inquiry.” Ergo the boroughs of New York City and adjacent tracts of Connecticut, upper New Jersey, and all of Long Island have “replaced Amsterdam as the leading world center of Western commerce, finance and publishing.”
In short, Woodard’s lively thesis presents a multidisciplinary amalgam combining elements of geography, history, economics, linguistics, and cultural evolution. It convincingly explains some of the logjams in our national agenda as resulting from differences between the peoples of his defined “nations”—logjams that appear to reflect regional and political realities that can’t be otherwise rationalized and likely won’t ever be resolved. By defining America as eleven virtual nations bound by historical accident, legal precedents, and habit, he “explains much about who we North Americans are, where we’ve come from, and where we might be going.” (Viking, 371 pages, $30)

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