First, a question to American History professors – why are the textbooks not filled to the brim with recognition of the built in army of spies that mu First, a question to American History professors – why are the textbooks not filled to the brim with recognition of the built in army of spies that must have given the North a significant edge? Seriously – slaves make the BEST spies – ask any Ancient Rome historian.
Second, if current Army Intelligence isn’t using soldiers’ and agents’ guilt-by-association for members of various religions, countries of origin, ethnicities, etc, against them to spur them on to take on more dangerous missions, then someone is seriously asleep at the wheel.
So, fun fact of the day, the Confederate Secretary of War was named Benjamin Judah. How… [i]progressive[/i] of the South. By all accounts he was the quintessential American – he reinvented himself as it suited himself, shed past identities, declared himself able without a shred of credentials, and was constantly hustling to work himself up from nothing to everything, and damn the velvet rope at the club.
The northern section of the country’s Jewish population where more than a little ashamed to have Judah as a member of their religion. Jacob Rappaprt is one of the embarrassed. To prove to his superiors that he is a good American “despite” his religion (oh vey) he allows himself to be maneuver into becoming a spy.
First, he’s sent on a short mission (the “real interview”, as they say in some circles) and, ‘mission accomplished’ with only a [i]slightly[/i] horrific shower of blood and a TON of Passover imagery, he is then sent on his main mission: infiltrate a Southern spy network run by four sisters.
The clever sisters would have done well to go into the private sector and put out a shingle: ‘Spies – Inquire Within’. Seriously, they could have run a really good family owned spy operation in a later time period.
But, alas, this was a time period where the emphasis was always placed on the entirely wrong thing.
Jacob’s mission almost becomes a comedy at one point, then sharply takes a left turn into Shakespearean Tragedy (the kind where people die due to missed messages).
There’s a short interlude involving When Grant Expelled the Jews (one of these moments in the drama of history when you wish you could track down the main player and smack him upside the head) and then we get to the main meat of the dish:
Dun dun duuuuuuuun!
Secret history and known history are both mixed in perfectly with the fiction. A very good read.
Two complaints: the narrator butts in a few too many times with phrases like “many years later, Jacob would realize-” , which breaks the dramatic tension. She also swings back and forth between emphasizing the fact that Jacob is 19 at the start of the book, and as dumb as teenagers can get when they think they known everything, but also has him size up a situation with a little too much maturity to be believable – i.e. all the times he sees something like orphans playing in the street and makes a prediction about Reconstruction and the next 100 years of racial tension.
Still, all in all, a book that is both a very good Civil War story [i]and[/i] a nice change of pace from your typical Civil War story. ...more
Loved the characters, all of them, and loved the action but I wish historical fiction writers would realize in real life people do not stand around ac Loved the characters, all of them, and loved the action but I wish historical fiction writers would realize in real life people do not stand around accurately speculating about the next 100 years all the time!
We cover a LOT of ground here, from the 1820’s to the 1860’s, all of it in and around New Orleans, in its beautiful, dazzlingly, richly done up squalor. It was a fascinating tale, rounding out a lot of the stuff that got left out of Gone With the Wind, but I’m still positive I’d never want to live in New Orleans. ...more
This book covers three of the most important points of a history text: it is very well researched with sources cited, it is well written in a clear vo This book covers three of the most important points of a history text: it is very well researched with sources cited, it is well written in a clear voice, and it breaks down history to a relatable, human level.
It literally shows how the Civil War was one of brother-against-brother as we have the Sothern-leaning brother and the Northern-leaning brother, bitterly yelling at each other across the breakfast table.
I loved how very real the people of the time period were as described, and I really, really loved how well done the research was shown – there are no guesses – its all direct quotes, primary sources, or, frank, ‘this section of the historical record is blank’.
Also, my God, when the book gets to Lincoln’s assassination, we are taken though the night minute by minute, moment by moment ,making you want to scream out a warning as Booth readies the gun, giving you a sense of the fluidity of the moment rather than presenting something dry and dusty and carved in stone.
Chapter 1 covers the incident itself, and it was a riveting read to watch events unfold, but then the rest of the book falls apart as the author drone Chapter 1 covers the incident itself, and it was a riveting read to watch events unfold, but then the rest of the book falls apart as the author drones on and on about Reconstruction and just completely lost me....more
An excellent assembly of primary sources, both candid pictures of the army encampments and letters, diaries and interviews with the boys who went to An excellent assembly of primary sources, both candid pictures of the army encampments and letters, diaries and interviews with the boys who went to war. ...more
Note: this turned into not so much a review, but rather a recap with heavy commentary.
If there is an annual award for Most Awkward Seder (and there sh Note: this turned into not so much a review, but rather a recap with heavy commentary.
If there is an annual award for Most Awkward Seder (and there should be, considering how tense family holidays can get) then the 1865 award most definitely went to the Josephson family of Virginia.
Elka Weber writes about a peculiar moment in time that illustrates 1.) the diversity of this nation, 2.) the unifying aspects of common ground, and 3.) the extremes of cognitive dissonance.
Based on a true story, the book begins with the narrator, ten year old Jacob, sitting on the porch and glumly eating a piece of matzoh as his mother, sister, and the family housekeeper prepare the meal. (And the fact he doesn’t lift a finger to help in the kitchen is an entirely different subject.)
So he morosely nibbles at the unleavened bread and reflects that he will never have the chance to ride off into battle and win glorious victory. Because when you’re ten, everything that takes place outside your own sphere sounds like a grand adventure, and of course you will be the hero of the war and come home loaded with medals and prizes and only the most heroic looking of non-fatal battle wounds. And this is why there will always be war – because there will always be starry eyed young kids signing up for them. Domage.
So, the “war of northern aggression” is over, General Lee has just surrendered, and the “occupiers”, i.e. Yankee soldiers, are patrolling everywhere. (Side note: 1946 was not the first time someone shouted “Yankee go home”.) Meanwhile, life goes on, and the Josephson family prepares for Passover.
In easy and short and natural-to-the-story prose, Weber has the narrator describe the preparation process for Passover, the importance of the unleavened bread, the purpose of the Haggadah, and the underlining tension of celebrating the holiday while wondering what losing the war will mean for the South in real and practical terms.
Its beautifully done – all of the history of the holiday, the customs that have evolved over the centuries, the personal traditions, the realness of his grandfather cradling a large leather bound book filled with pages written with reverence and splashed with long-ago wine stains, with everyone in the family and in town buzzing about current events – all told from the view point of a child. It’s very much any holiday recalled by any child taking place during a critical moment in history.
And all done in about two paragraphs and two illustrations. Wunderbar.
Anyway, as Jacob reflects on all this, sitting on the porch, munching on some matzoh, and who should appear?
“A real live Yankee, just walking up the street. The war might be over, but we were still plenty angry. I thought maybe I should take the barrel of rainwater at the side of the house and soak him.”
As Jacob considers this, the Yankee causally comes up the porch and wishes him a good Passover and asks for some matzoh.
Jacob, stunned, scrambles to his feet and runs into the house to shout to his mother that there is a Yankee Jew outside! I laughed, but I have to admit that I was just as stunned when I picked up this book that there were Southern Jews. Having assumptions challenged can be shocking, yes.
Jacob’s mother handles all this quite well, remembering the ancient rules of guest right (nowadays sadly almost forgotten by all three faiths that sprang from Abraham), and politely invites him to dinner.
Nettie the housemaid (legal status before the war unknown but very possible she didn’t earn wages) almost busts a gut at the fact she is serving dinner to a Yankee who is helping a southern white family celebrate the end of a period of a slavery. She, at least, appreciates the irony of it all.
The soldier, Corporal Levy, is introduced to Jacob’s father and grandfather and the three men gamely try to find something to talk about that doesn’t have to do with the war.
“And silence reigned in Heaven for thirty minutes” - Revelations 8:1
They eventually find a neutral topic in immigration history, Levy telling how his people came to Philadelphia in the 1790’s (and that particular wave of Jewish immigration certainly deserves its own book) while Jacob’s grandfather explains he came from Bavaria but the rest of his family was born here.
Which brought home for me the fact that while the grandfather would have had the stereotypical Ashkenazi -Yiddish-German accent, the rest of his family would have had Virginian accents. Its mind warping to get my head around the idea of the Kadeish being recited with a southern drawl.
So, the family and guest sit down to dinner and everything goes fine until the Four Questions portion of the evening and they start the time honored tradition of debating What-Does-Passover-Mean. The father goes on a rant, clearly an old and much practiced one, practically banging his shoe on the table, that the story of Exodus is about rebelling against an evil government. Their poor dinner guest, sweat forming at his brow, is all ‘yeah, and the slavery…’
The next illustration in the book shows Jacob’s sister Minna slowly munching on a piece of matzoh, eyes wide and glancing sideways as the text describes the silence at the dinner table now that the “s” word has been brought up. It’s the classic comedic situation of a group of people not talking while one person very slowly continues to do some task, eyes locked on the rest of motionless people. Done right, its comedy gold. And I was certainly in a fit of giggles here, although the irrationality of the father was making me roll my eyes.
The grandfather steps in and diffuses the situation by saying disagreements are traditional and that they should move along or they’ll never get to eat. He then points out the part about the solders drowning in the Red Sea, reminding everyone, guest and family, that you are supposed to consider what it feels like to be a member of the other side. Go zayde! Score one for Team Tolerance.
The meal rolls on, a deliciously described mix of Yiddish and Southern foods – beef with sweet potatoes, stewed apples with pecan pralines, etc. Jacob finds the matzoh hidden by Corporal Levy and dwells on what he’ll ask for ransom, knowing he can get something a lot better than the usual toys this section of the holiday usually brings. He asks for the soldier’s sword, but his mother, echoing mothers throughout space and time, says firmly: ‘no weapons in the house,’ so he gets the soldier’s hat, always a good prize.
The next morning the family sends the soldier back to his unit laden down with fresh food and then all take a moment to look at each other and comment, ‘well, that was unexpected.’
A year of tough times goes by, and the next Passover rolls around, bringing with it a letter from the former corporal, along with gifts of matzoh, wine and a silver goblet engraved with a quote about liberty. Levy sends his thanks, and also lets Jacob know that when his commanding officer asked about the missing hat, he claims it was taken as a prize by a “brave rebel.”
And the family prepares for Passover, ready to leave the war behind.
Next we have two post scripts from the author.
The first is about the real Corporal Levy and some facts I found surprising about Jews in the Civil War. Weber states that 1/3 of all Jewish adult males then in America, North and South, fought in the Civil War. Wow. It comes to about 10,000 soldiers total – small by today’s standards – but when looked at in context, its an impressive number. Levy came from a large family, returning to Philadelphia after the war to raise a family of his own, telling them often the story of the time he celebrated a Southern Seder, and the saber that he did not give to Jacob is owned today by his great-great granddaughter, who let the author take a picture of it for the book. Weber also mentions that after the war many Jews in the North made a point to raise and ship supplies specifically for holidays such as Passover and sent them to their relatives-by-religion in the impoverished South. A truly thoughtful gesture of reconciliation.
The second postscript is about the holiday of Passover itself. Weber goes into a little more detail about how the holiday is celebrated, and the importance of finding things to unify rather than divide people, but the jewel of the section is a photo of a 19th century American Haggadah. The book is open to somewhere in the middle, English text and Hebrew script side by side, and, spread across the prayers, is a discoloration, dark brown on light brown, showing where someone let a large splash of wine drop from his or her cup onto the page and then hastily tried to wipe it off, smearing it into the page, leaving behind a mark that shows future generations that the past is not a dry, dusty thing, but something vibrate and exciting.
A quick word now about cognitive dissonance. The Jewish faith makes a huge deal about Passover and how Slavery Was Bad. How would a family in the South talk about the importance of Exodus with a straight face while supporting a cause that wanted to keep slavery going? In the antebellum South, how could a family sit down to a Passover supper, reciting the prayers that celebrated the end of slavery, while being served by slaves? A quick amount of Googling shows that there were in fact slave owning Jews in pre-Civil War America, so obviously this did happen, but… did anyone at the table think, “well this is weird” ?
The ability of the human mind to hold two opposing views such as this is astounding. I’m pretty sure there’s a file room somewhere out there in the galaxy with records of all sapient species. I’m also sure that our file has: “Insane: Don’t Approach” stamped on it in big red letters. ...more
Goodheart hits everything note perfect for what I look for in a good book: did his research, shows all his work, gets the facts right, writes really, Goodheart hits everything note perfect for what I look for in a good book: did his research, shows all his work, gets the facts right, writes really, really well, and tells a damn good story, bringing the time period to ringing, vibrant, bloody, tragic, victorious, diastorous LIFE.
If I ever meet Adam Goodheart I swear I'm going to kiss him.
One of the book’s conclusions is that whipping was not used as much as previously thought, stating that there were only “an average of 0.7 whippings p One of the book’s conclusions is that whipping was not used as much as previously thought, stating that there were only “an average of 0.7 whippings per hand per year.”
Mr. Fogel and Mr. Engermen seemed to have completely missed the point that it is physically impossible to be whipped 0.7 of a time. ...more
An amazing biography. Think you know the story of the Lincoln's assassination? Think again. The astounding back story of everyone involved, the way evAn amazing biography. Think you know the story of the Lincoln's assassination? Think again. The astounding back story of everyone involved, the way everyone is twisted together with a surprising amount of connections, the way some things made the murder seem inevitable, and other parts show how events hung by a thread - the whole story reads like fiction, and yet its all true.
My only critique is the author doesn't show her work - the facts are all there, obviously painstakingly researched, but where they came from is not well shown.
If you have any interested in the Civil War or Abraham Lincoln, I recommend this book! ...more