Saturday, May 28, 2011

Inventing George Washington by Edward G. Lengel

If there’s one constant in American politics today, it’s that the meaning and intent of the Founding Fathers is as relevant today as it was over two hundred years ago. Possibly no group of human beings has ever been so analyzed as the powerful Pantheon of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, Hamilton, and company, save perhaps Abraham Lincoln. No matter how many books are written about these men, it seems we can never truly agree on what they are. Into that fray comes Inventing George Washington, a book that attempts not to define Washington for what he was—but for what he was not.

It’s a novel approach, one that was initially taken by people called “debunkers” (working on the same theory as World War One de-licers), but is handled here in a far more subtle manner than the firebrands of the 1920s whose goal was seemingly to crash every historical figure off their pedestal—particularly the Father of our Country. In Lengal’s hands, the story of Washington after his death is not so much an attempt to make him less of a person but to show that despite being the most recognizable of all presidents, he is also the one that, pretty much from the day of his death in 1799, America knows the least about.

Starting from the early days, Lengel shows that Washington the man was outdone by Washington the myth almost from the get-go. Due to careless handling of his papers and even calculated destruction, it was difficult for any biographer to get a complete picture of the man. What to do? Start making things up. The more honorable the story (The cherry tree, anyone?), the better. Because this became such a cottage industry, everyone from religious zealots to those with political axes to grind would alter the history of Washington to fit their needs, a practice that goes on to this day. Lengel calmly walks through this minefield, pointing out the flaws as he goes.

Was Washington a prude? Not according to the records of the day. Was he a womanizer? That’s wrong, too, says Lengel, showing that extremes are generally wrong in any history of the first president. The same holds for multiple stories of his prayers/baptisms/conversions at Valley Forge, all of which have no historical basis in fact but are often repeated from grade school to grad school. Washington was neither a fervent Christian nor a Deist, showing both sides of this debate to be dead in the water. Similarly, he did love Martha, contrary to conventional wisdom, and was not above flirting, no matter how hard the Victorian prudes tried to paint him as above cares of the flesh.

Some stories included here are already pretty healthily debunked, such as the idea he had a slave love child or the Betsy Ross legend, but others really shocked me. The Quaker Spy story is just that—a story. I admit I was crushed. There’s also more evidence to support a lukewarm Christianity than I’ve seen in the past, though Lengel’s words will not soothe those who feel strongly about the faith of the Founders.

Perhaps the most interesting thing Lengel brings up is that Washington has been exploited for years upon years, and in many cases people prefer the myth to the legend. Everyone from PT Barnum to modern-day psychics have leaned on the power of Washington to make a quick buck, going back to before the days when Washington was even on the diminutive dollar bill. Want proof people prefer story to truth? A completely nonsensical psychic autobiography of Washington outsells many legitimate biographies. Americans know what they like—and it’s not true history.

Working roughly chronologically, Lengel discusses Washington the myth and does his debunking in a mildly sarcastic way, whether it’s to nibble at the edges of popular expectations or to mildly chastise those who are so desperate for a connection to Washington that they believe every Washington slept here story or take family tales for fact. He’s understanding of the need for connection, saving his venom only for the most poisonous or preposterous lies.

As a book, Inventing George Washington is less of a history and more of an un-history, or rather, it’s a history of the kind of inventions Americans are capable of, showing that our penchant for self-deception when it comes to American superiority started from the early days of the Republic and carry on in the words of 2012 presidential candidates. Washington as fact may not be very sexy, but Washington as myth has all the sizzle of a modern day scandal. For a man like Washington, who was very self-conscious, this would be very painful. Luckily for all of us, the one thing we know for sure is that he’s not alive to see it. Those willing to peek under the covers of popular history will definitely find a lot to enjoy in this work. You might even un-learn something!

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Battle of Wilson's Creek by Edwin C. Bearss

This book is part of my 7-year Civil War Challenge, where I read books relating to the part of the Civil War that is 150 years old. 2011 is 1861.

In the early days of the Civil War, generals and troops were mostly raw and unused to their commands or how to properly fight a battle with a large number of troops. Even in a smaller circumstance like the Battle of Wilson's Creek, mistakes were plentiful and based mostly on one part misunderstanding and one part incompetence, with just a hint of inexperience thrown in.

The Battle of Wilson's Creek is the story of an engagement that must have seemed large at the time, but dealt with "armies" that had only about as many men as a typical division would hold at the war's apex in 1863-1864. It's the story of trying to hold Missouri, a border state, in Union hands, when there were quite a few in the state who wished it to go with its slave-holding brethren in the Confederacy. There are hopes and dreams and visions of the war to come, from grand ideas that don't work to ill-equipped soldiers to civilians caught in the middle. Told right, this small battle would be quite the engaging prequel to the bigger battles to come, starting with Shiloh.

Unfortunately, in the hands of Bearss, it's a rather dry read. There's not a lot of human interest included, Bearss opts to keep his own opinions out of the narrative, and troop movements dominate the text. Even the battle descriptions are rather pedestrian and don't seem to capture the horrors of war before anyone really knew what that would come to mean. As a result, I had a very hard time getting a feel for this battle. It felt too clinical in Bearss' narrative.

Generally speaking, this battle was an attempt by the Union commander Lyon to try and do some of the things Stonewall Jackson would later be famous for. Unfortunately, he had neither the subordinates to carry out the job or the ability to make it work. Wilson's Creek is an attempt to surprise a stronger foe, and for a brief time, it works. But as the day wore on and mistakes are made, the almost double Confederate force not only gains a military victory, it has a win in morale as well. After Wilson's Creek, the South takes control of southern Missouri for a time, and the only thing the Union has to show for this debacle are dead and wounded troops.

Who's to blame for all this? Arguably John C. Fremont, the arrogant former presidential candidate who would soon be shipped well away from the war. He leaves Lyon out to dry in the face of an important strategic goal and a superior force. Lincoln also has a hand in the defeat, by obsessing over troop strength in the Virginia corridor and not thinking about winning the war everywhere, an idea that doesn't seem to hit home for another two years.

I know very little about Western Civil War battles, so I enjoyed getting to learn something about a small but key early engagement. That's the point of this challenge, after all. However, given how dense this book felt despite its smaller size, I can't really recommend it to others. I'm hoping there are more interesting books out there that cover western battles, or else this challenge is occasionally going to feel like a forced march.