The Redemption of Jessie James – Book Two of the Memoirs of H.H. Lomax: My Review

the redemption of jessie james book coverThere are few characters in the Old West as colorful as H.H. (Henry Harrison) Lomax. He claims in his memoirs to have been involved in most of the momentous events that occurred during westward expansion and settlement, interacting with the likes of Billy the Kid (see my review of Book One, The Demise of Billy the Kid, dated June 7, 2018) and now the infamous bank robber, Jessie James!

Author Preston Lewis uses his typical wit and humor to reintroduce us to H.H. Lomax as a young boy living in Arkansas with his family during the Civil War. Henry is twelve when the war begins, and sixteen when fate causes him to leave home and seek out Jessie and Frank James in Missouri.

Nearly two-thirds of the book is devoted to these five formative years and Henry’s memories as a boy. There are descriptions of the difficulties that were faced by families just trying to survive, boyhood pranks that have consequences far beyond that of just having fun at someone else’s expense, adolescent love, awakening desires, the loss of siblings and friends to the war, and the viciousness of unscrupulous individuals willing to use sex or any other means, including murder, to get their way.

What they want from Henry and his family is a hidden cache of gold from a Confederate payroll. Rumors of its existence result in constant harassment and threats by a former neighbor turned guerrilla leader, his promiscuous daughter, a Yankee deserter, and Jessie James!

The Redemption referenced in the book’s title hearkens back to Jessie’s hatred of all Yankees and Yankee sympathizers. When the war ends in 1865 the Drake Constitution grants amnesty to irregular units that fought for the Union while holding similar Confederate units and individuals accountable for their actions. Instead of uniting Missourians it further inflamed the biases, loyalties, convictions and prejudices that already existed and it will turn the James brothers into outlaws.

Henry Lomax gets inadvertently involved in the James’ first bank robbery… they threaten to kill him if he doesn’t help or if he ever turns them into the authorities.  He does, however, eventually escape and for the next sixteen years aimlessly wanders the American West in search of fame and fortune. Down on his luck and needing to finally return to his home in Arkansas, he once again runs into none other than Jessie James.

Fearing the worst, Henry is surprised when Jessie (now living under the name Thomas Howard) invites him to meet his wife and children and even buys him new clothes and gives him money to help him get back to Arkansas. Jessie admits to having looked for Lomax after his escape planning on killing him before he could identify Frank or himself, but when no authorities show up he figures Henry has kept his word to remain mum, and this is his way of thanking him. Of course, Jessie hasn’t totally changed his ways and is planning another heist with Charlie and Bob Ford. Fortuitously, Henry declines the invitation to join them. Jessie James will be shot in the back in his own home by Bob Ford for the $10,000 bounty on his head.

Henry’s Arkansas reunion is bittersweet. He visits with those family members still living in his old hometown, discovers that he is revered for killing the bushwhacker who tormented the countryside so many years ago, and apologizes to his childhood sweetheart for leaving her behind. All is forgiven and he is asked to stay. But there are adventures yet to live and stories yet to tell.

Preston Lewis has crafted another chapter in the H.H. Lomax saga that combines homespun humor with vivid historical detail. As to further adventures and recollections of the same, there’s a gunfight in Henry’s future at the O.K. Corral!

 

Rebel: My Review

rebel book coverBook One of the Nathaniel Starbuck Chronicles takes the reader to Manassas, Virginia. The year is 1861 and the first major battle of the Civil War is about to take place. The ferocity and carnage at Bull Run will shatter any illusions of a quick victory by either Union or Confederate forces and usher in the protracted four-year struggle that will literally tear the country apart.

Few authors can so vividly bring to life what that first battle between two untested armies must have been like. The horrors of actual combat had not yet registered with the men who would face each other that day. Both sides had drilled and played at warfare, but few had any concept of what it would be like when the artillery shells and minnie balls began to tear their ranks apart. Some fled in terror. Some found the courage to stand their ground even in the face of certain death. Most wept and invoked God or called on their mothers for consolation. Countless numbers cried out in pain or had their lives snuffed out suddenly. One moment they were alive, the next they lay dead or were blown to bits missing arms and legs, no longer even distinguishable as a human being. Bernard Cornwell puts the reader inside this chaos and makes you see, smell, and feel what war entails.

Of course, to be truly effective, his vivid account of battle would not have the desired  impact upon readers unless they identified with the people involved. Cornwell gives us flesh and blood characters, some historical, some fictional, that we care about. In particular, it is the story of Nate Starbuck, an impetuous young man who enlists to fight on behalf of the Confederate cause even though he comes from Boston, Massachusetts. Nate has been raised by an abolitionist father and educated to become a minister himself, but he rebels against his structured and scripted life. He falls in love with a young woman who jilts him for another man, finds himself at the mercy of a Yankee-hating mob, is rescued by a wealthy Southern aristocrat, and in gratitude volunteers to serve in the “Faulconer legion” against his own kind. Nate struggles with his decision to take up arms against the Stars & Stripes, is conflicted morally by the temptations of the flesh and his abandonment of the pulpit, the disgrace his actions have brought upon his family, and his allegiance to a vain power-hungry rescuer with visions of glory.

I often turn to Bernard Cornwell when I look to read good historical fiction, and Rebel fulfills that need. My reservation, however, when picking up one of his novels is that few are stand alone books. Rebel is the first in another series that includes The Saxon Tales, The Richard Sharpe Series, and The Grail Quest Series. All are compelling and from time to time I return to each. It’s just that there are so many books on my “to read” list.

It’s a nice problem to have!

Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen: My Review

Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen Book CoverDaughter of a Daughter of a Queen by Sarah Bird is a remarkable story written by a gifted author. For anyone unfamiliar with the historical figure Cathy Williams, she was a former slave who hid her gender to enlist and serve as Private William Cathay in the 9th Cavalry (the famed Buffalo Soldiers) in the aftermath of the Civil War.

Little is known of her life so it took someone with a great imagination to fill in the gaps. She begins by establishing Cathy Williams’ pride in her African heritage. It will be her strength in all that she endures as a slave, as a contraband who follows the Union Army and serves as a cook for General Philip Sheridan until the war’s end, and as the only woman to have ever fought the Apache on the Texas frontier in an all male unit.

Were the character not plucked from the annals of history, the notion that a woman could hide her femininity over a two-year enlistment period from her fellow soldiers would be incredulous. We know that she in fact did, but pause to consider the lack of privacy she faced living in a barracks with nothing but men or while on patrol in an unforgiving terrain, all the while having to prove herself equal to her counterparts.  How did she do it?

It is a testament to Sarah Bird’s imagination that she is able to provide plausible explanations and even weave a credible love story into the mix. I absolutely loved her description of this period in history. The dialogue is spot on and her characters are flesh and blood people who actually lived or who seamlessly interact with those that did. This is historical fiction at its best.

Sarah Bird establishes Cathy Williams as a heroine that few will have known anything about before reading her novel, but who will resonate and remain with them long after the last sentence in the book has been read.

 

The Smoke at Dawn: My Review

The Smoke at Dawn Book Cover“The Smoke at Dawn” is the third novel by Jeff Shaara focusing on the campaigns fought in the Western Theater of operations during America’s Civil War. It picks up in the summer of 1863. The fall of Vicksburg, the Gibraltar of the South, has given the Union Army complete control of the Mississippi River, setting the stage for the Army of the Cumberland under the leadership of William Rosecrans to capture the crucial railroad hub in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Temporarily victorious, Rosecrans over extends the Federal forces under his command and suffers a disastrous defeat at Chickamauga Creek. He is relieved by President Lincoln and replaced by Ulysses Simpson Grant who must now come to the relief of Rosecrans’ forces besieged at Chattanooga by Confederate General Braxton Bragg.

Much of Shaara’s book focuses on the battles at Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge, and the commanders and common soldiers who fought there. In addition to generals Grant and Sherman, George Thomas emerges as the primary force behind the eventual Union victory. Self-effacing, deliberate in his preparations and actions, he will be criticized by his more famous contemporaries for his attention to detail that, while successful, doesn’t allow for a rapid advance against the enemy.

The dynamics of strategies, tactics, and leadership are also central to understanding the Confederate defeat at Chattanooga. Braxton Bragg sees no failing in himself, yet his subordinate commanders have little respect for their leader and even less loyalty. They petition Jefferson Davis for his removal. Bragg, of course, sees everything through the lens of a conspiracy against him and places blame for every failure on someone else, notably General James Longstreet who he believes is responsible for the criticisms against him. He will order Longstreet to Knoxville, removing a thorn in his side but significantly weakening his own army.

In contrast to the disastrous lack of leadership by Bragg, Patrick Cleburne will be recognized for his extraordinary defense against Sherman’s troops. He will be blindsided by Bragg’s capitulation and by his orders to abandon the ground that his soldiers have so tenaciously defended. Instructed to cover the Confederates’ withdrawal, his men will act as the army’s rear guard tasked with holding off any pursuit by the victorious Yankees.

“The Smoke at Dawn” was meant to be the cornerstone of a three part series by Jeff Shaara. But like the war, another chapter was yet to be written in Atlanta, Georgia. That story is told in his companion book, “The Fateful Lightening.”

I’ve previously expressed my admiration for Jeff Shaara’s work; he is my favorite Civil War author. If this four-star review reflects a somewhat less glowing critique, it is probably because I’ve tried to accomplish a re-reading of this tetralogy in too short a time frame. Just as the war would extend over four bloody years, Shaara released each of his four books a year apart. That spacing allows the reader a fuller understanding of the momentous historical events that transpired as well as a better appreciation of the detailed research that went into each installment.

A Chain of Thunder: My Review

A Chain of Thunder Book CoverJeff Shaara continues his Civil War narrative with the second book in a series focused on the pivotal battles and campaigns fought on the Western Front. Book One, “A Blaze of Glory,” chronicled the Battle of Shiloh, a confrontation that resulted in the combined loss of over 23,000 lives.

Both sides will claim victory. However, as Book Two begins, Federal forces have been replenished while Confederate manpower continues to steadily diminish. After months of combat the Union Army under Major General Ulysses S. Grant has gained the upper hand forcing Confederate forces under Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton to retreat. The next pivotal engagement will take place at Vicksburg, Mississippi, the “Gibraltar of the Confederacy.”

As he always does, Shaara recreates the strategies and tactics of both armies. He lets the reader inside the minds of leaders whose names we all know. But, unlike most authors, he actually gets inside the psyches and egos of these generals, letting us understand the hopes, fears, personal animosities, friendships, and political pressures that determined their decisions and the eventual outcome of the war.

These insights are fascinating studies in leadership. However, it is his descriptions of common soldiers and their contributions that truly anchor our understanding of what it was like during the war. Their suffering is gut wrenching, as is their devotion to duty. Many had no inkling of the horrors they would face or what their reactions would be. Some rose to heroics, others fled the field. All fought not out of any great hatred of their adversary, but for the love and respect of the men around them.

One such individual is Private Fritz “Dutchie” Bauer of Wisconsin. Bauer knows the disgrace of courage lost. At Shiloh he loses his to the unending waves of Confederate soldiers that almost succeed in breaking him and the entire Union Army. Somehow, however, he and his fellow comrades in blue regroup to turn the tide, their baptism of fire turning them into veterans. Bauer transforms from a scared raw recruit into a soldier. He comes to believe in fate, that nowhere is safe on a battlefield, that good men die simply because their time has come. If God has decided your destiny, there is no reason to succumb to fear. The fear is constant, but controllable. At Vicksburg he again survives two failed assaults against the city’s fortifications before the decision comes to lay siege and starve the Confederates into submission. Bauer becomes a sharpshooter, patiently picking off any defenders unfortunate or foolish enough to expose themselves from behind the barriers.

The brutality of war is not limited to soldiers. Civilians are also tragically caught up in any conflict. Credit Shaara with his depiction of the citizens of Vicksburg forced to leave their genteel lifestyles, abandoning their mansions to huddle inside caves, trapped by the constant bombardment of Federal artillery, witnesses to the slaughter, and participants in the hunger that will in the end bring Vicksburg to its knees.

To tell their story he focuses on nineteen year old Lucy Spence. She endures starvation but volunteers as a nurse. While many only gripe about their circumstances, she tries to comfort men whose bodies have been ripped apart by cannon and musket balls. Initially scorned because she has no experience as a nurse and must also bear the malicious comments of her neighbors who believe that a decent Southern woman has no place among soldiers, she eventually wins both admiration and respect.

“A Chain of Thunder” is Shaara at his best! He makes us experience the siege by voicing all aspects of the battle and the experience of all participants. And, he also recreates another pivotal moment in history. The fall of Vicksburg will reverberate throughout the South, dealing a monumental blow to the Confederacy by cutting off the Mississippi River as a vital artery for transport of troops and supplies.

Witness to History

A Blaze of Glory Book CoverA recent broadcast on CBS Sunday Morning, entitled “Witness Trees,” caused me to once again reflect on this nation’s Civil War and the tremendous cost in human lives that became the price to preserve our Union.

There are, of course, no living veterans or immediate descendants of that conflict. However, there are trees, some over two hundred years old, that existed at the time and managed to survive the monumental clashes between Confederate and Federal forces. At Gettysburg alone over seven million musket and cannon balls were fired over a three day period. One image from the broadcast was a tree trunk embedded with munitions. It vividly brought to mind the horrors faced by the men who fought on both sides. If a tree could be so riddled and scarred by these shells, you can only imagine the carnage that was dealt to the human body.

Because of the show I returned to my favorite Civil War author, Jeff Shaara, and began re-reading his trilogy on the Western Theater campaigns. It begins with his recreation of one of the war’s bloodiest engagements that took place at Shiloh Church in southwestern Tennessee. There were over 23,000 combined casualties.

Shaara’s meticulous research recreates the battle “with a stunning you-are-there immediacy.” You get inside the minds of key commanders on both sides, their strategies, and their crucial decisions (often flawed) that result in both victory and defeat, but more importantly, unprecedented loss of American lives.

It is those lives, the thoughts and voices of the ordinary soldiers, that are the strength of Jeff Shaara’s prose. It is his ability to find the humanity in war that elevates his work and makes us rethink what it is to be so dedicated to a cause that you are willing to give “the last full measure of devotion” towards its achievement.

Modern society has distanced itself from the motivations that turned father against son, brother against brother. It doesn’t endeavor to view life through their eyes. It judges the past by today’s standards. Today veneration of anyone who wore the grey uniform stirs national controversy. However, as a soldier, I cannot help but admire the bravery of all combatants regardless of their allegiance.

Both sides claimed victory at Shiloh, but while Union forces will continue to grow to almost one hundred thousand troops, Southern forces dwindle to one-fifth that number. Though the war will continue, it has been said that “after Shiloh, the South never smiled again.”