" /> I write: November 2010
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November 20, 2010

Behind Enemy Lines

Civil War Spies, Raiders and Guerrillas
Wilmer L. Jones, PhD. - ISBN - 9780878331918

This is an interesting, "fun read," highlighting several well known Civil War combatants beside a larger group of lesser lights: people prominent locally or regionally perhaps, but people outside the purview of the average reader. Further, it deals with activities not widely reported. As such there is remarkable information which, while not trivial, is certainly beyond the awareness of most of us, and likely more than a few Civil War buffs.

It was curious to find chapters about the Southern cavalry greats Mosby and Stuart, and lesser knowns including Ashby and Gilmor, with nary a mention of Sheridan or any northern horsemen. Perhaps those Yankees never made it to the south? Or "behind enemy lines?"

Reminiscent of the New York Times in recent decades, Jones comments that "Had Confederate commanders placed spies on the staffs of their adversaries, they probably would not have had any better information than that supplied by the Northern press." (In fairness, the press at the time was not malicious. Rather, it just distributed news fit to print; comprehensively, albeit imprudently.) As well, he informs that early in that era spying was considered ungentlemanly and beneath the dignity of honest combatants, though that position changed later in the war. The first to implement "all out war" were the Confederates, having determined it would require this compromising step to have any chance of winning.

His discussions of the irregulars and the guerrillas emphasize that these combatants were incredibly vicious--well beyond the pale at times--and strenuously criticized by both Confederate and Union commanders. Indeed, many were derided and decommissioned, though they seldom quit fighting and couldn't really be disciplined.

Along the way there are discussions of support by the citizenry, many of whom suffered as a result of their support, though many were driven to it by the activities of the adversaries: burning and looting, even rape and murder of non-combatants, including women and children. Several chapters are devoted to the recantation of the activities of the most famous of these brigands.

Discussions of the Pinkertons--already prominent as a result of their railroad activities--are also of interest. They became quite famous as a result of their war contributions; even more so after the war with the blossoming of the Quantrill, James and Younger "gangs" of robbers. These, too, along with a few additional miscreants are discussed in interesting if abbreviated detail.

The book is well written and rather unusual. While it's not about seminal details, neither does it dabble in the arcane.

Posted by Curmudgeon at 4:06 PM

November 7, 2010

How the States Got Their Shapes

Mark Stein - 9780061431395

I originally shelved this book--carelessly it appears--because Mark Steyn wrote it . . . well . . . not really. Mark Stein wrote it! Reviews claimed it to be "splendid," "witty," etc. It is, sort of, but not so much as it would have been had it been done by Mark Steyn--still better: Bill Bryson.

Mark Stein is a "playwright and screen writer." I do hope he's better at that than he is at nonfiction. The work is rather sophomoric. Still, it is not uninteresting.

Having been an amateur geographer since early childhood, I found it remarkable in its bringing to the table factoids of which I've never been aware. The landscape is littered with jots and tittles heretofore overlooked by most all of us. Not the Oklahoma panhandle, the more miniscule Connecticut western extension or the vast extension of southern Alaska (none of which, according to Wikipedia, are "jots" or "tittles" in any event.) For example:

• The northern border of Delaware is a hemispheric line, not straight
• The border between Alabama and Mississippi angles a few degrees about half-way up (to make more equal the area of both states.)
• While Illinois is largely defined by river courses, the straight line separating it from Indiana is contrived to avoid isolated "river islands" on the wrong side of the border (when crossing a major river presented potential troubles with governance.)
• Michigan's upper peninsula was subtracted from what might have been Wisconsin because Michigan was deprived of Toledo when Ohio was politically bigger'n Michigan and Toledo was a valued port city. Wisconsin was deprived because it was littler'n Michigan when it came to a fight over the UP.

All manner of territorial disputes were settled in similarly arcane situations. Of course, many were not so esoteric when the decisions were made; a time when it mattered greatly on which side of the river or mountain range you were.

• Texas had to give up a lot of territory in its northern extremity in order to be admitted as a "slave" state. It would have been in the south's interest to divide Texas into 4 or 5 smaller states to balance the more numerous "free states," but Texas had been its own nation before it applied for statehood and would not make that concession. One huge state. No argument! Similarly so with California, though the rationale was different
• Several of the west-central states gave up valuable territories when gold was discovered within what had been their province. Not so smart-cha-say. Well, they gladly did so to get rid of the administrative headaches of the lawlessness of the inhabitants of those territories. The gold wasn't worth it, but California kept its gold, which explains the straight line which are its eastern border.
• The northern border separating us from Canada west of the great lakes was a concession to Britain before any of the area was officially incorporated; this to conserve the water front and harbor areas of south-western Canada for England's fur trade, making it clear to both French and Spanish that the area was British. Only later did it, and the border, become "American."

And so it goes; which is what makes it all rather interesting, though it makes a better "bathroom read." Leave it laying around and pick it up to read a chapter or two when you're killing time. Other than the introduction and some generalities, the book is divided into very brief chapters, state by state. If you have any interest in this sort of mysterious information it is a worthwhile read.

Posted by Curmudgeon at 3:00 PM