Aug 29, 2015

Possible Books for November 2015 -- Part II

Cathy writes: "Since we have read a few Spanish related books, would we be interested in another to fill out our understanding/" She identified the following possibilities. (I have deleted those with fewer than 4 stars on average, and those that exceed our page length preference.)

World Without End: Spain, Philip II, and the First Global Empire by Hugh Thomas. 4.5 stars (Goodreads). 496 pages (300 pages of text). Here is the New York Times review of the book.
Following Rivers of Gold and The Golden Empire and building on five centuries of scholarship, World Without End is the epic conclusion of an unprecedented three-volume history of the Spanish Empire from “one of the most productive and wide-ranging historians of modern times” (The New York Times Book Review).

The legacy of imperial Spain was shaped by many hands. But the dramatic human story of the extraordinary projection of Spanish might in the second half of the sixteenth century has never been fully told—until now. In World Without End, Hugh Thomas chronicles the lives, loves, conflicts, and conquests of the complex men and women who carved up the Americas for the glory of Spain.

Chief among them is the towering figure of King Philip II, the cultivated Spanish monarch whom a contemporary once called “the arbiter of the world.” Cheerful and pious, he inherited vast authority from his father, Emperor Charles V, but nevertheless felt himself unworthy to wield it. His forty-two-year reign changed the face of the globe forever. Alongside Philip we find the entitled descendants of New Spain’s original explorers—men who, like their king, came into possession of land they never conquered and wielded supremacy they never sought. Here too are the Roman Catholic religious leaders of the Americas, whose internecine struggles created possibilities that the emerging Jesuit order was well-positioned to fill.

With the sublime stories of arms and armadas, kings and conquistadors come tales of the ridiculous: the opulent parties of New Spain’s wealthy hedonists and the unexpected movement to encourage Philip II to conquer China. Finally, Hugh Thomas unearths the first indictments of imperial Spain’s labor rights abuses in the Americas—and the early attempts by its more enlightened rulers and planters to address them.

Written in the brisk, flowing narrative style that has come to define Hugh Thomas’s work, the final volume of this acclaimed trilogy stands alone as a history of an empire making the transition from conquest to inheritance—a history that Thomas reveals through the fascinating lives of the people who made it.

Imperial Spain: 1469-1716 by J. H. Elliott. 4.4 stars, 448 pages (386 pages of text). Here is a brief review of the book. Here is a video of an interview of Sir John Elliott on his life as a historian. Selected for December 2015!
Since its first publication, J. H. Elliott's classic chronicle has become established as the most comprehensive, balanced, and accessible account of the dramatic rise and fall of imperial Spain.  Now with a new preface by the author, this brilliant study unveils how a barren, impoverished, and isolated country became the greatest power on earth—and just as quickly fell into decline. 
At its greatest Spain was a master of Europe: its government was respected, its armies were feared, and its conquistadores carved out a vast empire. Yet this splendid power was rapidly to lose its impetus and creative dynamism. How did this happen in such a short space of time? Taking in rebellions, religious conflict and financial disaster, Elliott's masterly social and economic analysis studies the various factors that precipitated the end of an empire.
Conquistador: Hernan Cortes, King Montezuma, and the Last Stand of the Aztecs by Buddy Levy. 4.6 stars. 448 pages (330 pages exclusive of Appendices, etc.) Here is a TED talk by Buddy Levy.
In this astonishing work of scholarship that reads like an edge-of-your-seat adventure thriller, acclaimed historian Buddy Levy records the last days of the Aztec empire and the two men at the center of an epic clash of cultures perhaps unequaled to this day.  
It was a moment unique in human history, the face-to-face meeting between two men from civilizations a world apart. In 1519, Hernán Cortés arrived on the shores of Mexico, determined not only to expand the Spanish empire but to convert the natives to Catholicism and carry off a fortune in gold. That he saw nothing paradoxical in carrying out his intentions by virtually annihilating a proud and accomplished native people is one of the most remarkable and tragic aspects of this unforgettable story. In Tenochtitlán Cortés met his Aztec counterpart, Montezuma: king, divinity, commander of the most powerful military machine in the Americas and ruler of a city whose splendor equaled anything in Europe. Yet in less than two years, Cortés defeated the entire Aztec nation in one of the most astounding battles ever waged. The story of a lost kingdom, a relentless conqueror, and a doomed warrior, Conquistador is history at its most riveting.
Imprudent King: A New Life of Philip II by Geoffrey Parker. 4.0 stars, 456 pages (375 pages of text) Here is a review of the book. Here is an interview with Geoffrey Parker.
Philip II is not only the most famous king in Spanish history, but one of the most famous monarchs in English history: the man who married Mary Tudor and later launched the Spanish Armada against her sister Elizabeth I. This compelling biography of the most powerful European monarch of his day begins with his conception (1526) and ends with his ascent to Paradise (1603), two occurrences surprisingly well documented by contemporaries. Eminent historian Geoffrey Parker draws on four decades of research on Philip as well as a recent, extraordinary archival discovery--a trove of 3,000 documents in the vaults of the Hispanic Society of America in New York City, unread since crossing Philip's own desk more than four centuries ago. Many of them change significantly what we know about the king. The book examines Philip's long apprenticeship; his three principal interests (work, play, and religion); and the major political, military, and personal challenges he faced during his long reign. Parker offers fresh insights into the causes of Philip's leadership failures: was his empire simply too big to manage, or would a monarch with different talents and temperament have fared better?
The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939 by Antony Beevor. 4.0 stars. 560 pages. Here is a review of the book.
A fresh and acclaimed account of the Spanish Civil War by the bestselling author of Stalingrad and The Fall Of Berlin 1945  
To mark the 70th anniversary of the Spanish Civil War's outbreak, Antony Beevor has written a completely updated and revised account of one of the most bitter and hard-fought wars of the twentieth century. With new material gleaned from the Russian archives and numerous other sources, this brisk and accessible book (Spain's #1 bestseller for twelve weeks), provides a balanced and penetrating perspective, explaining the tensions that led to this terrible overture to World War II and affording new insights into the war-its causes, course, and consequences.
The Last Days of the Incas by Kim MacQuarrie. 4.7 stars, 522 pages (462 pages of text)  Here is a CSPAN book talk by author MacQuarrie on this book.
The epic story of the fall of the Inca Empire to Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro in the aftermath of a bloody civil war, and the recent discovery of the lost guerrilla capital of the Incas, Vilcabamba, by three American explorers. 
In 1532, the fifty-four-year-old Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro led a force of 167 men, including his four brothers, to the shores of Peru. Unbeknownst to the Spaniards, the Inca rulers of Peru had just fought a bloody civil war in which the emperor Atahualpa had defeated his brother Huascar. Pizarro and his men soon clashed with Atahualpa and a huge force of Inca warriors at the Battle of Cajamarca. Despite being outnumbered by more than two hundred to one, the Spaniards prevailed—due largely to their horses, their steel armor and swords, and their tactic of surprise. They captured and imprisoned Atahualpa. Although the Inca emperor paid an enormous ransom in gold, the Spaniards executed him anyway. The following year, the Spaniards seized the Inca capital of Cuzco, completing their conquest of the largest native empire the New World has ever known. Peru was now a Spanish colony, and the conquistadors were wealthy beyond their wildest dreams. 
But the Incas did not submit willingly. A young Inca emperor, the brother of Atahualpa, soon led a massive rebellion against the Spaniards, inflicting heavy casualties and nearly wiping out the conquerors. Eventually, however, Pizarro and his men forced the emperor to abandon the Andes and flee to the Amazon. There, he established a hidden capital, called Vilcabamba—only recently rediscovered by a trio of colorful American explorers. Although the Incas fought a deadly, thirty-six-year-long guerrilla war, the Spanish ultimately captured the last Inca emperor and vanquished the native resistance.
Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America 1492-1830 by John H. Elliott. 4.8 stars, 608 pages (411 pages of text). Here is a review of the book. See above for a video of an interview with Sir John Elliott.
This epic history compares the empires built by Spain and Britain in the Americas, from Columbus’s arrival in the New World to the end of Spanish colonial rule in the early nineteenth century. J. H. Elliott, one of the most distinguished and versatile historians working today, offers us history on a grand scale, contrasting the worlds built by Britain and by Spain on the ruins of the civilizations they encountered and destroyed in North and South America.
Elliott identifies and explains both the similarities and differences in the two empires’ processes of colonization, the character of their colonial societies, their distinctive styles of imperial government, and the independence movements mounted against them. Based on wide reading in the history of the two great Atlantic civilizations, the book sets the Spanish and British colonial empires in the context of their own times and offers us insights into aspects of this dual history that still influence the Americas.
The order given above in that from Cathy. I find the books by Elliott, Thomas and Parker the most interesting. JAD

A Book About Montgomery County

Montgomery County: Centuries of Change by Jane Sween. 4.35 stars (average between Amazon and Goodreads), 254 pages. Jane Sween was the Montgomery County Historical Society librarian for 30 years. Its library is named after her.
An in-depth and impressive account of Montgomery County, Maryland's illustrious history, from its 1776 birth as a leader in the battle for freedom, to its emergence as a technological and economic force in the shadow of the nation's capitol.
239 years ago, Thomas Sprigg Wootton introduced a bill in the Maryland General Assembly on September 6, 1776, to divide Frederick into three counties---Frederick, Montgomery, and Washington. This book was not selected for Book Club discussion, but it was thought that many members would want copies for their home libraries. It was thought that a second edition is now available via the Montgomery County Historical Society. Several members asked Eli to have the Kensington Row Bookshop procure copies that they might purchase.

Possible Books for November 2015 -- History of American Indians

We have been reading about American Indian history, but have not read such a book recently. I asked Peter, a member who has written several books on American Indian history to suggest some possibilities for the club. Here they are:

The Lance and the Shield: The Life and Times of Sitting Bull by Robert M. Utley. 4.7 stars, 413 pages (314 pages of text). The book is no longer in print, but copies are widely available. Here is a review of the book. Here is Peter's comment: Utley was the dean of Western historians (he died recently, and I think this is his best Indian title).  I found it a very judicious and even-handed "life and times" work.
"His narrative is griping....Mr. Utley transforms Sitting Bull, the abstract, romanticized icon and symbol, into a flesh-and-blood person with a down-to-earth story....THE LANCE AND THE SHIELD clears the screen of the exaggerations and fantasies long directed at the name of Sitting Bull." THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW 
Reviled by the United States government as a troublemaker and a coward, revered by his people as a great warrior chief, Sitting Bull has long been one of the most fascinating and misunderstood figures in American history. Now, distinguished historian Robert M. Utley has forged a compelling new portrait of Sitting Bull, viewing the man from the Lakota perspective for the very first time to render the most unbiased and historically accurate biography of Sitting Buil to date. 
I Fought with Geronimo by Jason Betzinez. 4.7 stars, 214 pages. The book is no longer in print, but copies are widely available. Here is the Wikipedia entry for the book. Here is Peter's comment: This little gem is one of the most entertaining--and reliable--Indian memoirs. I used it quite a lot in my manuscript. Historians in general have a high regard for it.
The cousin and lifelong associate of Geronimo, Jason Betzinez relives his years on the warpath with the Apache chief. He participates in Geronimo's eventual surrender to the U.S. Army, goes to Florida as a prisoner of war, attends the Carlisle Indian school in Pennsylvania, and in 1900 joins his people at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, where they had been moved by the government six years earlier. Trained as a blacksmith, he describes daily life on the reservation until the resettlement of many Apaches in Arizona. 
For Betzinez, there was a happy ending. When this memoir was first published in 1959, he was nearly a century old, settled on a farm in Oklahoma with his devoted wife and esteemed by his community.
Black Elk Speaks by by John G. Neihardt. 4.6 stars, 424 pages. 298 pages of text. Here is a video made on an anniversary of the original publication of the book. Here is Peter's comment:  Hands down the most important and evocative Indian memoir--rightly considered an American classic-history, spirituality, ethnicity, etc. Very reliable as a work of history. This book was selected for October 2015 discussion.
Black Elk Speaks, the story of the Oglala Lakota visionary and healer Nicholas Black Elk (1863–1950) and his people during momentous twilight years of the nineteenth century, offers readers much more than a precious glimpse of a vanished time. Black Elk’s searing visions of the unity of humanity and Earth, conveyed by John G. Neihardt, have made this book a classic that crosses multiple genres. Whether appreciated as the poignant tale of a Lakota life, as a history of a Native nation, or as an enduring spiritual testament, Black Elk Speaks is unforgettable. 
Black Elk met the distinguished poet, writer, and critic John G. Neihardt in 1930 on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota and asked Neihardt to share his story with the world. Neihardt understood and conveyed Black Elk’s experiences in this powerful and inspirational message for all humankind. 
This complete edition features a new introduction by historian Philip J. Deloria and annotations of Black Elk’s story by renowned Lakota scholar Raymond J. DeMallie. Three essays by John G. Neihardt provide background on this landmark work along with pieces by Vine Deloria Jr., Raymond J. DeMallie, Alexis Petri, and Lori Utecht. Maps, original illustrations by Standing Bear, and a set of appendixes rounds out the edition.
Of the three, Peter most highly recommends Black Elk Speaks.

Here are the books on American Indians we have read to date:
Here are some books we read that had tangential relationships to the Indians:

Aug 16, 2015

Lone Star Rising -- The Revolutionary Birth of the Texas Republic

On Wednesday, August 12, on a night marked by the display of the Perseid Meteor Showers, 15 of us met at the Kensington Row Bookshop.

We discussed Lone Star Rising: The Revolutionary Birth of the Texas Republic by William C. Davis.


The book describes how the insurgency developed on the coastal plane of what is now Texas in the early 19th century, and the battles that ensued from the Alamo to San Jacinto. The book reminds us that Spain, which had colonized Latin America, had been greatly weakened by the Napoleonic wars; the revolutions that created the United States of America and Haiti had spread a revolutionary fervor through the Americas. New Spain, the Spanish colony that included all the territory controlled by Spain from Panama north in Central and North America, was in revolt from 1811. The portion of New Spain that was Mexico -- which won its independence in 1821 and established a Constitution in 1824 -- was decimated by its revolutionary war, weakened by the independence of the Central American states to to its south, and traumatized by rapid changes in government and insurgencies in a number of its states.

Spain had difficulties attracting settlers from Mexico to the northern territories of New Spain. What was to become Texas was particularly problematic because the warlike Comanches, Kiowas and Apaches discouraged Mexican settlers; yet such settlement was desired as the region had been subject to filibusters who sought to create their own countries. With the Louisiana Purchase, the United States also was a threat on the Texas border.  In 1820 Spain opened Texas to non-Spanish immigration, and in 1821 newly independent Mexico continued the policy.  The Texas State Historical Association reports:
Anglo-Americans were attracted to Hispanic Texas because of inexpensive land. Undeveloped land in the United States land offices cost $1.25 an acre for a minimum of 80 acres ($100) payable in specie at the time of purchase. In Texas each head of a family, male or female, could claim a headright of 4,605 acres (one league-4,428 acres of grazing land and one labor-177 acres of irrigable farm land) at a cost about four cents an acre ($184) payable in six years, a sum later reduced by state authorities.
Immigrants receiving such land grants were to accept the Catholic religion and swear fealty to the Mexican state; slavery was outlawed by the 1824 Mexican Constitution.

The coastal plane of east Texas is suited to growing cotton, and in the early 19th century American cotton plantations with slave labor, using the cotton gin were beginning to produce cotton very efficiently. The industrial revolution had radically changed the process of production of cotton cloth, making it much faster and cheaper to produce cloth from cotton fiber. Thus, there was an almost inexhaustible market for the fiber, and the American plantation system could produce good cotton fiber inexpensively. Southerners bringing their slaves sought the land grants, were willing to feign the Catholic religion, to feign allegiance to the government in power, and to ignore the pretend that their slaves were merely contracted for life -- there was money to be made in Texas.

Republic of Texas
Showing How Small It Was Compared to the State of Texas
Source: Wikipedia
Territory in the upper right hand
portion of the map is part of the USA
It should be noted that the area discussed in this book (shown in yellow on the map) is much smaller than the modern state of Texas.

It is estimated that in 1836 there were some 30,000 Texicans (Anglo immigrants from the United States} in the region that would become the Republic of Texas; Tejanos (original Mexican residents) were leaving the region, and only some 3,000 remained.

The Club's Discussion Begins

One of the members began the discussion describing the book and his very negative view of its contents. He read from rather extensive notes. His criticism ranged from the books disagreement with other books on the subject, to the use of notes by author Davis, but appeared to be primarily due to what he perceived to be an unduly favorable treatment of the Texicans by Davis. Our member saw the Texicans as racist, slave owners who had moved to the region to take it from Mexico and make it part of the slave holding south of the United States (getting rich in the process).

Another member pointed out that racism was rife in Mexico as well: the Spanish looked down on the Criollos (of pure Spanish blood, but born in the Americas), the Criollos looked down on Africans, Indians, Mestizos (of mixed Spanish and Indian blood), Mulatos (of mixed Spanish and African blood), not to mention those combining European, Indian and African ancestors, and Anglos.

Stephen Austin (source)
Davis was seen by others as presenting a more nuanced view. Moses Austin received a land grant from the Spanish government in 1820 and began planning to create a Texican colony, but died before his plans could be implemented. His son, Stephen Austin, continued the project, renewed the grant from the new Mexican government, and brought 300 families and their slaves to found a colony near the Brazos river starting in 1821. These early colonists are described by Davis as more conservative than later immigrants. Indeed, immigrants arriving in the mid 1830s may well have come with the intent of participating in an insurgency that would separate Texas from Mexico, and have been willing to fight to achieve that end (and make their fortunes). Davis takes some pains to describe the policy disagreements that characterized the Texicans during the insurgency.

Sam Houston (source)
Another member mentioned that the small community of Texicans had little experience governing, with few exceptions such as Sam Houston (who had been a Congressman and Governor of Tennessee before moving to Texas) and Davy Crockett (a latecomer who had been a U.S. Congressman and who was killed at the Alamo). He felt it not surprising that when the settlers sought to start a Texican government they were not very good at it. Davis tells a great deal about the failures of that government.

We diverted into a side discussion of American filibusters, most notably among whom was William Walker who sought to create a personal state in California before invading Nicaragua and declaring himself its president.

The Indians

A member expressed surprise at how little the book focused on the Indians, who after all were probably the reason that the Americans had bee invited to settle the region and offered such advantageous land grants. The Cherokee are mentioned, but not the Comanches, nor the Apaches. The Comanches, were a warlike planes Indian tribe, mounted and well armed, that raided Texas territory throughout much of the 18th century, and we thought that the Texas Rangers were created later in part to fight them. (The club had previously read The Comanche Empire by Pekka Hamalainen.) The Apaches were found to the west of the territory under discussion in this book and into Mexico, but were perfectly capable of raiding into east Texas. The book does mention a tribe of Indians, the Tlaxcalans, that lived in east Texas in the early 19th century, but fails to mention that they were introduced to the region by the Spanish. The tribe originated much further south, and were introduced as Spanish allies that might help deal with the local Indians.

The Comancheria

A member commented that Junipero Serra had been scheduled to serve in a mission in Texas that had been destroyed by Indians. After the military unit dispatched to retake the mission was defeated by Indians, Serra was instead sent to lead the missionary effort in California (which the Mexican government feared it would also lose to foreign powers. (We recently discussed a book about Serra.)

A member noted that the Spanish had better luck in colonizing New Mexico, creating a trail from El Paso (in Texas) to Santa Fe (in New Mexico). In contrast to the Texan Indians, the Pueblo Indians in New Mexico were farmers, with a corn and bean based farm culture and diet. This similarity with the Indians that the Spanish had encountered in highland Mexico might have enabled them to colonize the region more successfully. (The club read The Pueblo Revolt: The Secret Rebellion that Drove the Spaniards Out of the Southwest by David Roberts in 2009.)

We diverted into a wider discussion of American Indians, perhaps in part because a new member of the club has published a set of histories of the Indian wars in the United States. We noted that Indian populations had been decimated by the introduction of diseases from Europe and Africa, diseases for which the American Indians had no resistance. As a result of disease, the planes Indians had much smaller populations than one might have imagined in the 19th century.

The Texican Military

The small Texican community appears to have had little military ability, and few members had built or led military units. However, many had aspirations to be military leaders. It was noted that the racial prejudice against Mexicans led many Texicans to believe that a small Texican force could defeat a much larger Mexican force. As the insurgency began, the Texicans did enjoy success, capturing key towns and their Mexican military garrisons. The Mexican soldiers were released on condition that they return to Mexico, but they were commandeered by Mexican General Santa Anna and returned with his force.

The More Serious Conflict

General Santa Anna, then the ruler of Mexico, decided to personally lead an army to put down the Texican insurrection. With a cadre of professional soldiers from the Mexican Army as his core force, he began the long march north to Texas, recruiting as he and his troops marched; we assumed that those recruits could not have received much training along the way, nor would they be very good troops. Not only were Santa Anna and his men marching through Mexican states experiencing insurgencies along the way, but Mexico was still very poor and suffering from the after effects of its long revolutionary war and subsequent instability. He divided his force in Texas. His troops may well have been in bad shape by the time that they arrived in San Antonio.

The Alamo and Goliad

The Alamo was defended by a couple of hundred men. These included some of the longer term, Anglo residents of the region as well as new recruits, many from the United States. Santa Anna  arrived with perhaps 1,500 men, including regulars from the Mexican Army. He had declared "no quarter" -- that all of those offering military resistance were to be killed. His troops flew the red flag indicating No Quarter. They laid siege to the Alamo.

The Alamo (as it is thought to have been before of the battle)
The discussion of the battle was led by several members who had read not only author Davis' treatment but other works; several had visited the site. A member had brought a book which included a diagram of the Alamo as it existed at the time of the battle. The large enclosed area shown above on longer exists, and today's tourists are left with what is basically the church on the extreme right of the picture above.

What happened on the final day of the battle seemed unclear to the group. Only one Texican escaped with his life, and his report of the battle was provided only years later, and then changed in the retelling. Various reports have been found from Mexican participants, including the formal post engagement report made to the government after the campaign. However, the Mexicans saw the battle only from their vantage points. After the battle the Mexican soldiers tried to identify the Texican dead, but we thought that the dead would have been difficult to recognize even by friends -- their bodies were wounded and powder blackened.

On March 6th, Santa Anna's elite unit attacked the a corner of the Alamo, and broke through. We noted that under the normal rules of warfare, at that point the defenders would have surrendered, but under the No Quarter rule established by the Mexicans the defenders had either to fight to the death or escape. Some of the defenders entered rooms in the Alamo and did indeed fight there to the death. An estimated 40 sought to escape, rushing out of the side of the fort away from the attack. There they were met by Mexican mounted lancers, riding down on them from out of the sunrise (and thus hard to see). The escapees too were massacred.

Linda Cristal, who played Flaca in The Alamo
(flaca means thin in Spanish)
If your understanding of the battle was formed by the John Wayne movie, you can now try to forget everything you thought you knew.

The Mexican troops continued on to the small town of Goliad, where the greatly outnumbered garrison surrendered. While some of his officers protested, Santa Anna enforced his No Quarter orders, and the Texican garrison was massacred after their surrender.

While the Alamo and Goliad were clearly victories for Santa Anna's forces, they were expensive victories. Mexican casualties were heavy, especially among the elite troops from the regular army that had been used to lead the assault on the Alamo.

The massacres of these Texican troops led to both panic in the Texican population and great anger against the Mexican forces.

The Battle of San Jacinto

After the Alamo and Goliad, there was a disorganized flight of Texican settlers fearing the Mexican army columns. Santa Anna, confident of the superiority of his troops, moved to confront the remaining Texican force. That force, led by Sam Houston, retreated and retreated, avoiding battle with the Mexicans.

Finally the two forces met at San Jacinto, not far from what is now the city of Houston, and perhaps more to the point, not far from what was then the boundary of the Louisiana territory of the United States. Confident of victory, apparently the Mexican army relaxed at siesta time in the late afternoon, and the Texicans attacked. In any case, the Texicans won a decisive victory and captured General Santa Anna. He. as a captive, agreed to peace terms and Texan independence as the price of his freedom. While the government in Mexico later repudiated the terms agreed to by Santa Anna as a hostage, the independence stuck.

General Santa Anna
The group did digress to discuss Antonio López de Santa Anna, a truly unique historical character. His public career spanned 40 years. He was several times a general in the Mexican Army. He served as president of Mexico for eleven non-consecutive terms over a period of 22 years. Santa Anna was exiled to the United States after the loss in the Texas rebellion, but later was allowed to return to Mexico. In 1838, fighting against the French, who had invaded Mexico, Santa Anna lost a leg as a result of his wounds. He had a cork artificial leg made and continued his adventurous life. That leg was in his luggage during a retreat in the Mexican American War and captured by the Americans; today it resides in the Illinois State Military Museum.

Why Are These Events Important Now?

A member asked why this revolution was important. After all, it was in what was then a very out of the way place, far from the capitols of Mexico and the United States. The region had only a few tens of thousands of people, and the "battles" appeared more like skirmishes when compared with other engagements in U.S. and Mexican history. We thought:
  • It is important largely because, after the annexation of Texas, the United States went to war with Mexico, justifying that war on the basis of a boundary dispute that went back to the creation of the Texas Republic. The Mexican American War of course led to a huge increase in U.S. territory. (The club read A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War and the Conquest of the American Continent by Robert W. Merry in 2011.)
  • It is important also because the events portrayed now live in Texas and American myth, shaping what peoples believe about themselves.
  • The story of the revolution that created the Texas Republic was chosen for this book club because it is part of the Hispanic heritage of America; Since the club has focused heavily on the Anglo heritage of the United States in its past readings, it was thought important to broaden our understanding of the Spanish and Mexican roots of South Western U.S. culture.
Who is William (Jack) Davis?

Since one of our members is a friend of author William Davis, we asked for his opinion of the historian. He mentioned that Davis is unusual as a senior academic historian in that he does not have a PhD. With a masters degree, he started his career as a magazine editor, but the magazine eventually went out of business. Davis retired a couple of hears ago from long held positions as professor of history at Virginia Tech and Director of Programs at that school's Virginia Center for Civil War Studies. Considered one of the best Civil War historians in the country, he has published or edited more than 50 books.

Another member, who originally recommended Lone Star Rising to the club, also knew Davis. He too had a positive impression of the man, noting especially his generosity in helping other authors and historians.

A Discussion on the First Atomic Bombs

The first Uranium based atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima in August, 1945; Nagasaki was destroyed by a Plutonium bomb three days later. Thus. it was not surprising that we devoted a portion of our discussion this August, marking the 50th anniversary of those sad events. A member noted that he had been surprised by information that he had recently learned:
  • The Los Alamos physicists had a pool on the yield of the Plutonium bomb that was experimental bomb, and all but one underestimated that yield; Edward Teller, the only expert to overestimate the yield, missed by a significant amount. (There had been no test of the Uranium bomb.) Thus understanding of the bombs' destructive impact was at best weak before their use, even by their designers.
  • The physicists had not understood the danger of radiation sickness that resulted from exposure to the radioactive fallout from the two bombs dropped on Japan. Perhaps 300,000 Japanese died as a result of radiation sickness, significantly exceeding the numbers killed by the original blasts. (A second member mentioned that it was the Bikini test blasts that showed the scientific community the true danger of the fallout radiation.)
  • The Japanese had correctly perceived the likely location of an invasion of the home islands, had millions of troops and 10,000 planes ready to meet an invading force, and had created a militia involving mandatory service for all Japanese adults in a large region.
  • The Japanese government apparently was quite worried about insurrection if the country was subject to blockade, bombing and invasion, even before it became convinced that the United States could drop a series of atom bombs on Japanese cities.
A member mentioned that in the 1950s, as a young man, he had seen an atom bomb explosion. He had been camping in the high desert east of Los Angeles when he and a friend witnessed what he described as a false dawn -- the dark pre-dawn sky had brightened in the east for some minutes, and then the dark had returned. The real dawn came a while later. The two later realized that there had been an above ground atom bomb test in Nevada, timed at the Nevada dawn, and they must have seen its illumination of the night sky. He remained impressed by the power of a bomb that could be seen a couple of hundred miles away. Another member mentioned that the original bombs dropped on Japan had similarly been seen from a great distance, and that must have added to the terror that the inspired.

Another member noted that after the war in Europe was won, American troops began to be moved to Asia and that those troops were convinced that they would be part of a force invading Japan. (It seems likely that such an invasion, were it to have occurred, would have been preceded by a naval blockade and bombardment, as well as by strategic bombing from many land airbases within striking distance, that would have both destroyed communications, especially railroads, and firebombed cities. There would have been famine in Japan and massive loss of life. The American forces involved in an invasion would also have been expected to suffer heavy losses, though less than those suffered by the Japanese military and civilian populations.)

This discussion could have continued, but the store was closing. We ended with a vote suggesting that many of the members still supported the use of atomic bombs in 1945.

Final Comments

The discussion was quite lively, with new members contributing fully to the sharing of information. As suggested above, there was some difference of opinion as to the merits of the book, with one member having gone out on a limb to recommend the book to the club members, and another very negative about its quality. Of course, everyone present knew about the Alamo, but some of use knew only the myths and popular culture view, while others were students of the events described in William Davis' book. It was noted that the book had a heavy load of names that were hard to track for the reader not expert in Texas revolutionary history.

One of our members posted several times on this book on his blog:

Aug 8, 2015

Allen provided this review of Foner's latest book on the Reconstruction as requested at the last meeting

A Short History of Reconstruction
by Eric Foner
(Abridged from Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution)

I give this book my highest recommendation for consideration by the History Book Club.  I have not read the full version of Foner’s book, but have a copy and will read it at some point.  Not only is this a riveting account of one of our country’s most shameful periods, but it is highly relevant – even essential – to understanding the racial conflicts that are again arising in the United States today.  The roots of our current racial attitudes lie in the causes and outcome of the Civil War.  Many of those factors are still in play today, most significantly a lingering racism.  While the country has clearly made considerable progress in race relations in the past half century, including the election of a black president, racism is still a powerful force, which has been made obvious by racially-motivated animosity toward that same black president.

Reconstruction was a direct outgrowth of the Civil War-era emancipation movement and a drive to achieve full equality and citizenship for free blacks after slavery ended.  The effort had three phases:

1.  Presidential Reconstruction under President Andrew Johnson, which emphasized local rule in the former Confederacy, leniency toward former Confederates, and a reluctance to grant blacks full equality, which could lead to majority status for them and, thus, power over whites where blacks were a majority in the deep South.  Republican Reconstruction governments were largely made up of northern unionists (called “carpetbaggers”) and loyal southerners who had opposed the Confederacy, many of whom served in the Union Army (called “scalawags”), and free blacks, who were allowed to vote, hold public office, and serve on juries.  But, little enforcement of equal rights was undertaken and southern states were able to undo progressive Reconstruction measures and return blacks to a state that was called “slavery in all but name.”  Repressive measures included forced labor contracts, vagrancy laws that imprisoned anyone refusing to work, punishment for alleged violations of contracts, sharecropping that cheated black tenant farmers and, most crucially, inability of blacks to own land.  Preventing blacks from voting in areas where they were a large majority resulted in minority white governments, dominated by the old planters, that continued to subject blacks to unequal status.

2.  Radical Reconstruction replaced Presidential Reconstruction, which was overturned by the Radical Republican majority in Congress, which also unsuccessfully tried to impeach Johnson.  The new policy retained full civil and legal rights for blacks and placed progressive or radical Republicans in office in the southern states.  Blacks again held office, voted, and served on juries, but there was no real land reform that would have broken up plantations and permitted sales of smaller plots to black farmers, nor any federal funding to assist free blacks in purchasing land. Aside from racial motivations, some charged that this constituted confiscation of private property and was unacceptable.  Because the former plantations were never broken up, and no real land reform adopted, blacks were denied a crucial avenue to economic progress and equality.  The author identifies this as, perhaps, the most important issue in Reconstruction and a key reason why it ultimately failed.

Although free blacks were granted civil and legal equality under both forms of Reconstruction, there was reluctance among whites, even radicals, to grant social equality to them.  Whites, especially in the South, but also some free blacks did not believe it was wise or prudent to push full integration.  Blacks placed a higher priority on their economic advancement, particularly land ownership, and emphasized the need for education, regardless of whether it took place in integrated or segregated schools.  They were happy to see more black teachers and other professionals working in the South, even if it was under segregated conditions.  What was not foreseen was the eventual deterioration of such an arrangement into separate and distinctly unequal facilities, including schools, as well as the denigration of separate public accommodations, including transportation facilities, hotels, restaurants, theaters, an even drinking fountains.

3.  The end of Reconstruction.  Although the collapse of Reconstruction resulted from several factors, the strongest force opposing it was racism, both North and South.  The Republican party never came close to enjoying a majority of white support in the South, even in the upcountry areas, such as eastern Tennessee, where many whites had remained loyal to the union and served in the Union army.  In the deep south, where free blacks were a majority, whites fought to roll back civil rights laws that effectively put blacks in control of state and local governments.  Even among northern Republicans, there was reluctance to accept blacks as equals.  Eventually, internal factionalism among Republicans, as well as Democrats and even among black elites, led to new political alignments and coalitions that saw a decline in concern for the freed blacks, who relied heavily on federal intervention to enforce civil rights laws.  Within a decade of Reconstruction’s enthusiastic and optimistic beginning, its goals were largely abandoned.

Economic depression after the Civil War played a role in preventing the government from achieving its initial Reconstruction goals.  Ideally, many Republicans and even former Confederates wanted to reform the South into a more industrial region, reduce the size of plantations and redistribute land in smaller plots to free blacks and poor whites.  White yeoman farmers living in the upcountry, where plantations were not practical, owned few, if any, slaves, did not support the Confederacy, and long resented the planters, who were an elite ruling class prior to the Civil War.  Large plantation owners were a small minority of southern whites, yet they controlled government and used it to the detriment of poorer whites.  Taxes on small farmers were typically higher than those paid by large plantation owners, for example. However, economic depression following the war brought sharply lower prices for cotton and a severe lack of credit.  Reconstruction governments ran high deficits in trying to generate programs for the poor and free blacks and, eventually, corruption hindered the program as well.

Redistribution of land was crucial to free blacks who felt they were entitled to plantation land due to centuries of having worked it in slavery, for no reward, while enriching their white masters and all who profited from the products that resulted from their crops.  Cotton, for example, didn't only make planters rich, but also manufacturers of textiles.  Blacks were applying the Lockean principle that a person who mixed his labor with the soil achieved ownership of it.   Denying blacks land ownership deprived them of one of the most important means of achieving economic equality.

The Republican Party, which had championed Reconstruction and black equality, became increasingly tied to big industry, which sought to limit the rights of workers (black and white) to organize, strike, or demand an equal role with capital.  Gradually, industry, especially the railroads, controlled government policy through massive corruption influence peddling.  Federal troops who were stationed in the South to enforce Reconstruction civil rights laws where removed and used instead to break strikes in the north.  A new, harsh class system emerged that restricted worker rights and ended efforts to advance blacks.  In the South, a lack of federal involvement or commitment led to new state governments that instituted laws that restricted or eliminated black voting rights, labor bargaining power, access to public accommodations, and returned them to a labor system not far removed from slavery.  Although these “Redeemer” governments all but eliminated public spending on education or much of anything else, it did expand the prison system and instituted repressive laws that placed thousands of blacks and poor whites in prison for the most minor violations.  The old vagrancy laws incarcerated anyone refusing work, even if it was offered at low wages or on a corrupt sharecropping basis that routinely cheated the sharecropper.  The high prison population provided a free work force for industries when prisoners were forced to work for them without pay.

During Reconstruction, whites resorted to violence, through the Ku Klux Klan and later more openly, to intimidate blacks and Republican Reconstruction officials.  Many were murdered and black neighborhoods were burned down in retaliation for blacks attempting to vote or campaign.  Republican officials were assassinated, beaten, and driven from the South.  Although federal forces put a stop to much of this for a time, within a few years the government reduced or eliminated enforcement and withdrew from the South, leaving the way clear for white supremacists to take power, curtail or eliminate black voting and other rights, and effectively end Reconstruction.  Republicans abandoned Reconstruction partly because they feared losing the South to the Democrats and thought that they could minimize the damage by accommodating white southern racial attitudes.

The failure of Reconstruction ushered in a century of Jim Crow laws, disenfranchisement and second-class citizenship for blacks.  Nonetheless, the author does point to some progress for blacks during the period, particularly the strengthening of the black social community, churches and schools.  Memories of the brief period when they were treated equally also inspired free blacks to hope that things could again improve for them, although it would take another century of that to happen.

The book touches on women’s issues during the period, pointing out the efforts of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony to include women as part of the new liberalization and egalitarian movement.  Their efforts were frustrated as little attention was paid to their demands or to the contributions and achievements of women in the United States.

The author sees genuine weaknesses in Reconstruction, but clearly believes that, despite many factors playing a role in the policy and its failure, the overriding element that doomed Reconstruction was racism, both North and South.  White supremacy in the South took violent, brutal form, but it existed more benignly in the North as well.  By the mid 1870s, many Americans harbored openly racist views and few regarded blacks as equals or capable of ever becoming equal.  Many spoke openly about an inherent inferiority in the black race that doomed them to a permanent place of inferiority.