History, they say, is written by the victors. The function of the modern historian, I would argue, is to present a more balanced view of history, workHistory, they say, is written by the victors. The function of the modern historian, I would argue, is to present a more balanced view of history, working with all the evidence available to him/her at the time.
An supreme example of this approach is McPherson's one volume history of the American Civil war. Wide-ranging, easy to read and well balanced, he tells the tale of those violent, tragic fours years in prose that springs off the page. This is no dry history book.
McPherson sets the scene for the events of the Civil War by focussing on the political and social structures and events of the preceding decade. This is a vital part of the story as it shows the growing tensions in American society between those who see slavery as an abomination and those who see it as God's will and the best way to treat the "black man".
The old political order is indeed dead by the election of 1860 as the Whig party self destructs and the Republican Party rises to fill the void and provide America with one of its greatest Presidents - Abraham Lincoln. What McPherson shows though, is that Lincoln was considered the dark horse amongst the potential candidates and at first was not considered the right man to lead a country into war. What amazed me is that, given the current state of the Democrat and Republican parties, it was the Democrats who were the standard bearers for inequality and slavery. How times change.
But war changes not only men, but countries also. And that was the case with the Civil War. Throughout the book, told in narrative fashion, McPherson switches between battlefield successes and disasters and political developments that shaped the story of the War. He paints detailed pictures of the major players such as Jefferson Davis, Lincoln, Grant, Lee, McClellan, Sherman, Stonewall Jackson and more. Men who were shaped by war and who either rose to the challenge or were buckled by it. Throughout he keeps a balanced view, showing the motivations of both sides and the outcomes of the actions the generals took.
This is a difficult, complicated tale, full of loyalties to old values and sweeping change as society reshaped itself in the aftermath of the struggle. But McPherson is equal to the task and this is one of the best history books I have ever read. What becomes clear is that both sides thought they were fighting for what was "right". The difference is that one vision was clinging to an antiquated past, while the other became a vision for a new kind of nation. Before the war the term "United States" meant just that, a collection of individual states. After the war it came to mean the nation as a whole.
The Civil War shaped modern America. The seeds of its industrial and military dominance over the following century were sown in the blood and mud of the Southern heartlands. If you want to know how it happened, read this book....more
Hibbert's The French Revolution is an account of the events aimed clearly at the general reader. Easy to read and concise, this book focuses on the evHibbert's The French Revolution is an account of the events aimed clearly at the general reader. Easy to read and concise, this book focuses on the events and personalities that forced through revolutionary change, although maybe at the expense of a fuller exploration of the ideologies behind those changes.
Backed up by quotes from contemporary accounts, the Revolution unfolds over 300 odd pages in all it's bloody glory. Hibbert does not shy from the bare facts of the number of people, both aristocrat and peasant, who were guillotined in the name of Liberty. The Revolutionaries were in uncharted waters as soon as they killed the king and the vying for position amongst the various faction became ever more bloody and bitter post 1789.
All the big names are here, Danton, Marat, Robespierre and of course Bonaparte. All the major events are covered in detail, both their build up and outcome. The lurches from Left to Right and back again. The Terror, the final submission to dictatorship as Bonaparte stamps his authority on the remnants of the Revolutionary Councils. It's all here.
There are weightier tomes that delve deeper into the ideologies behind the Revolution, but if you want a straightforward, easy to read account of those momentous years, you can do no worse than this book....more
While well written and easy to read, Rex's history of the Norman Conquest is at times a bit dry, especially when he recites the names of endless NormaWhile well written and easy to read, Rex's history of the Norman Conquest is at times a bit dry, especially when he recites the names of endless Norman barons and the lands they appropriated. He can be a bit repetitive, but the book is well researched and I certainly learned a few things I didn't know before.
Rex chronicles the run up to the invasion and the ten year period afterwards when William ruthlessly Normanised Britain. The old ways were swept away and William's supporters were rewarded with Earldoms. The populace was subdued with a combination of Military occupation, heavy taxation and ravaging of the land, which left it barren and uninhabitable for years. Suffice to say that William lived up to his name of The Bastard.
Rex paints William as a usurper with no legitimate claim to the throne of England, a war criminal who used force to gain and hold on to his kingdom. He also tells of the English resistance which fought in vain to throw off the Norman Yoke. There were several revolts during those first ten years but in each case they came to nothing, William either buying off the participants or putting them down with superior military might.
There are useful appendices on the English Succession, The Bayeux Tapestry and an English folk hero called Hereward who led a resistance on the Isle of Ely.
So, a decent history book, well researched and written, but perhaps not as engaging as it could be....more