Book Review: You Never Forget Your First: A Biography of George Washington by Alexis Coe (four stars)

Book Review: You Never Forget Your First: A Biography of George Washington by Alexis Coe (four stars)

Washington was rich enough to pay his own way … but devoted enough to the cause to risk it all.

Better essential biography than larger, duller, more famous tomes. Coe eschews details for the larger picture. Her broad brush portrait is adequate for all purposes but the most academic.

Great love stories don’t often begin with dysentery, but had George Washington not contracted the disease during his final year of British service, he would never have met Martha Dandridge Custis.

That said, skip the Preface and Introduction: Coe patting her own back and indulging in the same banal gossip of which she accuses other biographers.

After defending Washington, the Thigh Men usually turn their sight on Martha, blaming her for the couple’s childlessness.

Most biographers agree George was probably the reason he had no children. For which generations of Americans should probably be grateful.

He was most likely a deist.

Not true. Even Cox infuses her volume with many GW quotes which refer to a caring, intervening God. (“I shall rely therefore, confidently, on that Providence which has heretofore preserved, & been bountiful to me.”) Thomas Jefferson was a deist; George Washington was a quiet, conventional Christian of the mainstream denomination.

“Washington did not really outfight the British,” the British spymaster Major George Beckwith said, “He simply outspied us.”

Cox holds the magnifying glass to both Washington’s successes and his failures, among the later his not emancipating his many slaves while he lived.

The figurehead of American liberty was never far from a representation of its (and his own) deep-seated hypocrisy.

Love the cover art. Frequent use of tables summarizes and oversimplify key details. Side bars break up the text in a modern, casual style.

Unbridled partisanship was his greatest fear, and his greatest failure was that he became increasingly partisan.

Book Review: The First Conspiracy by Brad Meltzer and Josh Mensch (Three Stars)


Book Review: The First Conspiracy: The Secret Plot to Kill George Washington by Brad Meltzer and Josh Mensch

(Three Stars)

“Could I have foreseen what I have and am like to experience, no consideration upon earth should have induced me to accept this command.” GW

Two hundred pages of information crammed into four hundred pages of exposition. Ends every chapter with a teaser to the next and opens every chapter with a recapitulation of the previous materials. Often reintroduces Continue reading

Book Review: Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution by Nathaniel Philbrick (Three Stars)


Book Review: Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution by Nathaniel Philbrick

(Three Stars)

“Dysfunction came to define the battle that was ultimately named–perhaps appropriately, given its befuddled beginnings–for the wrong hill.”

The tile misleads: an examination of the origins of the American Revolutionary War in New England. Philbrick examines the historical and philosophic roots of Boston’s role as well as the biography of just about every player. He continues the book for a year after the battle, through George Washington’s assumption of command and the British evacuation of Boston.

“Boston’s patriots were not trying to reinvent the world as they then knew it; they were attempting to get back to the way it had been when they were free from imperial restraint.”

Looking under each stone, Philbrick reveals some interesting trivia. For example, the men General Howe attacked on Breed’s Hill funded a Westminster Abbey memorial for his brother, slain in the French and Indian War defending New England.

“Warren saw himself and all New England in a mythic quest that united the here and now of the present generation with the travails of their glorious ancestors.”

Lots of opinion and speculation. Some well-founded, such as the large role Joseph Warren might have played had he survived. Other is gossip, such as whether Warren got a particular girl pregnant out of wedlock.  “In all likelihood … [Warren] got the young woman named Sally Edmonds Pregnant.”

“The success was too dearly bought.” General William Howe

Careful to credit where due, including the often decisive roles of African-Americans

“I wish [we] could sell them another hill at the same price.” Nathanael Greene

Book Review: Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson (Four Stars)


Book Review: Chains (Seeds of America #1) by Laurie Halse Anderson

3002300Four Stars

“She cannot chain my soul.”

Award-winning young reader account of the plight of slaves in colonial North America. Being in Rhode Island or New York was no protection in 1776. Isabel was probably more articulate in her feelings, but those emotions ring true. Honest look at the errors and hypocrisy of both sides.

“It mattered not. My bones were hollow and my brainpan empty.”

Anderson skillfully wove historic facts–battles, destruction of the king’s statue, the fire, Hessians–into plausible descriptions of the life and observations of a young enslaved girl. The whole has a readable, authentic feel.

“Both sides say one thing and do the other.”

Minor chronological errors, but closer to fact than many popular Revolutionary War dramas.

“I was chained between nations.”

The Seeds of America series continues with Forged, previously reviewed.

Book Review: Memoir of Benjamin Tallmadge (Four Stars)

Book Review: Memoir of Benjamin Tallmadge by Benjamin Tallmadge

Four Stars

“I soon left the paternal abode and entered the tented field.”

As a student of history I love primary sources. What letters and journals of participants suffer in bias they make up in immediacy. Colonel Benjamin Tallmadge was a Revolutionary War hero, known to viewers of AMC’s TURN: Washington’s Spies as Washington’s spymaster. (They got that much right.)

His brother along with thousands of other captured Americans “… perished in prison by severe usage, sickness, etc.”

He was also a participant in most major and many minor military actions in and around New York City throughout the war. Though these memoirs were written forty years after the fact, they provide a literate (Tallmadge graduated from Yale in 1773) record of American leadership and battlefield fortunes.

“At this time a very dense fog began to rise … I recollect this particular providential occurrence perfectly well.”

Twice Tallmadge recounts Continue reading

Book Review: The Campaign of 1776 around New York and Brooklyn by Henry Phelps Johnson (Four Stars)

Book Review: The Campaign of 1776 around New York and Brooklyn Including a new and circumstantial account of the battle of Long island and the loss of New York, with a review of events to the close of the year by Henry Phelps Johnson

Four Stars

“We may learn by defeat the power of becoming invincible.” Abigail Adams

Published in 1878, this is what a book of history should be, not the partisan politics, revisionist nonsense and political correctness that passes for “history” today. (Read almost any modern biography of a historic character if you doubt me.) The thesis is: the campaign in and around New York City in 1776 set the tone for the rest of the American War of Independence, even foreshadows eventual American victory.

“I … wish we could leave them alone to govern or misgovern themselves as they think proper. David Hume, 1775

Heavy dependence and exposition based on primary sources (diaries, letters, orders)—sources which are quoted, noted or indexed at length. Detailed discussion of the How and What, not just the Why as modern diatribes tend. When there are controversies—such as who was responsible for the debacle at Fort Washington—this book teaches the controversy, identifying the sides of the argument and outlining all positions.

“Whoever commands the sea commands the city.” Charles Lee

For the student of history, the sources are identified in detail. Since this narrative focused on one year’s military campaign, it delves into details of the units, commanders, motivations, limitations and even order of battle. Not a comic book depiction of war. Decidedly prejudiced toward the American (“our”) side, but even-handed in discussing the strengths, weakness, successes and failures of both sides.

“Necessity knows no law.” F. Rhinelander

This volume exemplifies the good side of Google-scanned library books. If it were not for their effort, rare and out-of-print books like this would not be accessible to serious students and scholars. On the other hand, Google’s pirating of the works of living authors is reprehensible and should be outlawed. This book also demonstrates the limitations of Optical Character Scanning without subsequent thorough proof reading. Many characters were transliterated, requiring the reader to stop and puzzle out the meaning.

“If it was a disaster, it was not a disgrace.” George Washington (of the Battle of Long Island)

“The Hessians” by Edward J. Lowell (Four Stars)

The Hessians(Fours stars out of five)

The serious student of history, like the serious historian, values primary sources. The eye witness reports of people directly involved in an event have an immediacy which the sands of time and the fog of memory only dull. Second only to primary sources are serious scholarly works drawing together primary sources which, due to language or inaccessibility or volume, are beyond the reach of the casual scholar.

Such a work is The Hessians: and the Other German Auxilliaries of Great Britain in the Revolutionary War. Writing a hundred years after the American War of Independence Edward J. Lowell gathered many European inputs—treaties, letters, journals and memoirs—to present the perspective of those often unwilling participants whom we collectively call “Hessians.”
Unlike modern writers who casually edit history Continue reading