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American History Lessons

From independence through the Civil War

Aug. 21, 2014
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Independence: The Tangled Roots of the American Revolution (Hill and Wang), by Thomas P. Slaughter

In his account of the American Revolution, historian Thomas Slaughter begins with the assumption that “independence” and “separation” were two different things. The American colonists considered themselves largely “independent” of Great Britain since Jamestown, yet the idea of “separating” from the Mother Country gained force only gradually. Slaughter writes persuasively of the early American penchant toward local autonomy and town hall meetings without ignoring such other proclivities as exterminating and swindling Indians; hatred of Quakers, Roman Catholics and other religious minorities; and the overall sense that their often narrow-minded agenda was the Lord’s work.


West of the Revolution: An Uncommon History of 1776 (W.W. Norton), by Claudio Saunt

Ambitious pioneers were already staking claims to the land west of the original 13 colonies, and their greed was one cause for the American Revolution, but that’s only the beginning of the story told by historian Claudio Saunt in West of the Revolution. Saunt explores events elsewhere in North America in the epochal year of 1776, including the brutality of Russian fur traders toward Alaskan natives, Indian attacks against new Spanish outposts in San Diego and San Francisco, the environmental toll on the Canadian wilderness charged by the fashion for beaver hats, the war fought by the Lakota against other Indians as they migrated to the Black Hills and, most surprisingly, delegations of Creek Indians to Havana seeking a Spanish alliance against the English-speaking invaders of their lands.


Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire (HarperCollins), by Peter Stark

John Jacob Astor became America’s richest man through fur trading. With an astute sense for the international market, Astor foresaw the importance of the Pacific Rim and wanted a piece of it. In Astoria, outdoors writer Peter Stark revisits the fur baron’s bid to establish a republic (and trading monopoly) on the Pacific coast in the early 19th century—at a time when Britain, Russia and Spain vied for control of the region. In one of the many private-government partnerships that built the U.S., Thomas Jefferson supported the scheme, which failed miserably from a variety of problems unforeseen and unprepared for. Stark writes descriptively of the dark wilderness that was the Pacific Northwest.


Bloody Spring: Forty Days that Sealed the Confederacy’s Fate (Da Capo), by Joseph Wheelan

Despite losing territory to the Union, the Confederacy was still winning battles in the spring of 1864 and the Civil War hung in the balance. Joseph Wheelan looks closely at the offensive launched in Virginia by Ulysses S. Grant, Abraham Lincoln’s favorite commander, against his opponent, Robert E. Lee. While superficially Grant’s rumpled everyman and the aristocratic Lee couldn’t have differed more, Wheelan investigates their shared penchant for aggressive warfare. Both preferred offense over defense. Bloody Spring is a reminder that the Civil War was a close call: If Grant’s bid had failed, Lincoln might have lost the 1864 election and the North might have gone to the peace table.


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