Favorite Pre-Gilded Age American History Books

Below is a list of my favorite books that covered the history of the United States from the late British Colonial period to the end of the U.S. Civil War:

FAVORITE PRE-GILDED AGE AMERICAN HISTORY BOOKS

1. “The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism” (2014) by Edward E. Baptist – This book centers on how slavery and the cotton industry helped develop the rise of U.S. capitalism.

2. “1861: The Civil War Awakening” (2011) by Adam Goodheart – This book depicts the last months of the United States’ Antebellum period and the first months of the U.S. Civil War.

3. “1858: Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant and the War They Failed to See” (2008) by Bruce Chadwick – The book focuses on the historical events in the United States during the year, 1858.

4. “Thomas Jefferson & Sally Hemings: An American Controversy” (1997) by Annette Gordon-Reed – This book won the Pulitzer Prize for its in-depth exploration of President Thomas Jefferson and one of slaves, Sally Hemings.

5. “The Town That Started the Civil War” (1990) by Nat Brandt – This book is an in-depth study of Oberlin, Ohio during the 19th century and its role in one of the most famous slave rescues in U.S. history.

6. “Slavery and the Making of America” (2004) by James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton – This book is a detailed account of the history of slavery in the U.S. from the Colonial period to the end of the Civil War.

7. “The World Rushed In: The California Gold Rush Experience” (1981) by J.S. Holliday – This book is an in-depth study of the California Gold Rush between 1848 and 1855.

8. “The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War” (2018) by Andrew Delbanco – This book focuses on slavery and especially the abolition movement from the Revolutionary War to the Civil War.

9. “John Adams” (2001) by David McCullough – This book is a biography of President John Adams and won a Pulitzer Prize.

10. “Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad” (2015) by Eric Foner – This book is a detailed account on the history of the Underground Railroad and the abolition movement in New York City.

11. “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” (2005) by Doris Kearns Goodwin – This biography is about the life of President Abraham Lincoln and the more prominent members of his Cabinet before and during the Civil War. It won both the Lincoln Prize and the inaugural Book Prize for American History of the New-York Historical Society.

12. “A Southern Odyssey: Travelers in the Antebellum North” (1976) by John Hope Franklin – This book is an account of the experiences of Southern travelers in the Northern states during the years before the Civil War.

“LITTLE WOMEN” (2019) Review

“LITTLE WOMEN” (2019) Review

Ever since its release in movie theaters back in December 2019, many moviegoers have been in rapture over “LITTLE WOMEN”, filmmaker Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel. The movie did acquire several acclaims, including Oscar nominations for two of the film’s actresses, Best Adapted Screenplay and an actual Oscar for costume design. I never got the chance to see it in theaters. I finally managed to see it on the HULU streaming service.

Anyone familiar with Alcott’s novel knows that it conveyed the tale of four sisters from a Massachusetts family and their development from adolescence and childhood to adulthood during the 1860s. The first half of Alcott’s tale covered the March sisters’ experiences during the U.S. Civil War. In fact, Alcott had based the March family on herself and her three sisters. Unlike previous adaptations, Gerwig incorporated a nonlinear timeline for this version of “LITTLE WOMEN”.

There were aspects of “LITTLE WOMEN” I truly admired. I did enjoy most of the performances. Or some of them. I thought Saoirse Ronan gave an excellent performance as the movie’s leading character Josephine “Jo” March. I thought she did a pretty good job of recapturing Jo’s extroverted personality and artistic ambitions. I do wish that Gerwig had allowed Jo to convey some of the less pleasant sides to her personality. Do I believe she deserved her Oscar nomination? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Although I thought she gave an excellent performance, I do not know if I would have considered her for an acting nomination.

But I was more than impressed by Eliza Scanlen, who portrayed third sister Elizabeth “Beth” March. Although her story more or less played out in a series of vignettes that switched back and forth between the period in which she first caught the scarlet fever and her death a few years later; Scanlen did a superb job in recapturing the pathos and barely submerged emotions of Beth’s fate. It seemed a pity that she had failed to acquire any acting nominations. One last performance that really impressed me came from Meryl Streep. I have always regarded the temperamental Aunt March as a difficult role for any actress. And although I do not regard Streep’s interpretation of the aging matriarch as the best I have seen, I must admit that for me, she gave one of the best performances in the film. The movie also featured solid performances from the likes of Emma Watson, Laura Dern, Chris Cooper, Tracy Letts, James Norton, Louis Garrel, Bob Odenkirk and Florence Pugh, who also received an Oscar nomination for her performance as the youngest March sister, Amy. About the latter . . . I really admired her portrayal of the older Amy March. But I found her performance as the younger Amy rather exaggerated. And a part of me cannot help but wonder why she had received an Oscar nomination in the first place.

Jacqueline Durran won the film’s only Academy Award – namely for Best Costume Design. Did she deserve it? I honestly do not believe she did. I did enjoy some of her designs, especially for the older Amy March, as shown below:

I found the costumes worn by Pugh, Streep and many extras in the Paris sequences very attractive and an elegant expression of fashion from the late 1860s. Otherwise, I found Durran’s costumes for this film rather questionable. I realize both she and Gerwig were attempting to portray the March family as some kind of 19th century version of “hippies”. But even non-traditional types like the Marches would not wear their clothing in such a slap-dash manner with petticoat hems hanging below the skirts, along with bloomers showing, cuts and styles in clothing that almost seemed anachronistic, and wearing no corsets. The latter would be the equivalent of not wearing bras underneath one’s clothing in the 20th and 21st centuries. Someone had pointed out that many of today’s costume designers try to put a “modern twist” to their work in period dramas in order to appeal to modern moviegoers and television viewers. I really wish they would not. The attempt tends to come off as lazy costuming in my eyes. And this tactic usually draws a good deal of criticism from fans of period dramas. So . . . how on earth did Durran win an Oscar for her work in the first place?

I understand that “LITTLE WOMEN” was filmed in various locations around Massachusetts, including Boston and Cambridge. A part of me felt a sense of satisfaction by this news, considering the story’s setting of Concord, Massachusetts. I was surprised to learn that even the Paris sequences were filmed in Ipswich, Massachusetts. However, I must admit that I was not particularly blown away by Yorick Le Saux’s cinematography. Then again, I can say that for just about every adaptation of Alcott’s novel I have ever seen.

There were scenes from “LITTLE WOMEN” that I found memorable. Those include Jo March’s initial meeting with her publisher Mr. Dashwood; Amy March’s conflict with Theodore “Laurie” Laurence over his behavior in Paris; Jo’s rejection of Laurie’s marriage proposal, and especially the montage featuring Beth March’s bout with scarlet fever and its consequences. However . . . I had some problems with Gerwig’s screenplay.

As I have stated earlier, “LITTLE WOMEN” is not the first movie I have seen that utilized the non-linear plot technique. I have seen at least two adaptations of Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel, “Jane Eyre”. Two more famous examples of this plot device were the 1995 film, “12 MONKEYS” and two of Christopher Nolan’s movies – 2000’s “MEMENTO” and 2017’s “DUNKIRK”. How can I put this? I feel that Greta Gerwig’s use of non-linear writing had failed the film’s narrative. It simply did not work for me. Except for the brilliant montage featuring Beth’s fate, it seemed as if Gerwig’s writing had scattered all over the place without any real semblance of following Alcott’s plot. If I had not been already familiar with Alcott’s story, I would have found “LITTLE WOMEN” totally confusing.

I also feel that because of Gerwig’s use of the non-linear technique, she managed to inflict a little damage on Alcott’s plot. Despite the excellent scene featuring Laurie’s marriage proposal, I felt that Gerwig had robbed the development of his relationship with Jo. I also believe that Gerwig had diminished Jo’s relationship with Professor Bhaer. In the film, Bhaer had expressed harsh criticism of Jo’s earlier writing . . . without explaining his opinion. But he never added that Jo had the potential to write better stories than her usual melodrama crap. Why did Gerwig deleted this aspect of Professor Bhaer’s criticism? In order to make him look bad? To set up the idea of Jo ending the story as a single woman, because that was Alcott’s original intent? Did Gerwig consider the original version of this scene a detriment to feminist empowerment? I am also confused as to why Gerwig allowed the March family to push her into considering Professor Bhaer as a potential mate for Jo? This never happened in the novel. Jo had come to her decision to marry the professor on her own perogative. She did not have to be pushed into this decision. Come to think of it, exactly how did Jo’s fate end in the movie? I am confused. Did she marry Bhaer after rushing to the train station in order to stop him from leaving for California? Or did she remain single? Whatever.

And why on earth did she position Amy and Laurie’s first meeting after the former’s hand had been caned by her school teacher? Gerwig had transformed an incident that had taught Amy a lesson about self-respect and generated the Marches’ righteous anger against a schoolteacher’s abuse to one of comic relief and a cute rom.com meet for Amy and Laurie. What the hell? Someone had once complained that Gerwig may have assumed that everyone was familiar with Alcott’s story when she wrote this screenplay. And I agree with that person. Earlier I had questioned the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ decision to award the Best Costume Design statuette to Jacqueline Durran and nominate Florence Pugh for Best Supporting Actress. But I also have to question the organization’s decision to nominate Gerwig’s writing for Best Adapted Screenplay. I honestly believe she did not deserve it.

There were aspects of “LITTLE WOMEN” that I found admirable. I was certainly impressed by some of the film’s dramatic moments. And there were a handful of performances from the likes of Saoirse Ronan, Eliza Scanlen and Meryl Streep that truly impressed me. But I cannot deny that the other members of the cast gave either first-rate or solid performances. In the end, I did not like the movie.

I believe “LITTLE WOMEN” should have never been nominated for Best Picture. Greta Gerwig’s use of the nonlinear technique did not serve Louisa May Alcott’s plot very well. If I had not been familiar with the novel’s plot, I would have found this movie confusing. Aside from Ronan’s Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, I feel that the other nominations and Best Costume Design win were undeserved. And a part of me feels a sense of relief that Gerwig had never received a nomination for Best Director.

“TAP ROOTS” (1948) Review

“TAP ROOT” (1948) Review

I am sure that many are aware of Mississippi-born Confederate soldier-turned-Unionist Newton Knight and his formation of the “Free State of Jones”, which opposed Confederate forces during the U.S. Civil War. I first heard about Knight and his men while watching Ken Burns’ 1990 documentary, “THE CIVIL WAR”. But I had no idea that knowledge of this little corner of Civil War history went back even further.

Recently, Hollywood released a movie version about Knight and his followers in the 2016 historical drama, “FREE STATE OF JONES”. However . . . some seventy-four years earlier, a novel titled “Tap Roots”, which had been written by James H. Street, hit the bookstores. It told the story of a cotton planter, his family and a newspaper publisher; who had decided to remain neutral during the first year of the Civil War. Unfortunately, their decision to remain neutral led to disastrous consequences for the planter and his family, along with other local men who decided to follow them. Six years later in 1948, Universal Pictures made a movie adaptation of Street’s novel.

In a nutshell . . . “TAP ROOT” begins in the fall of 1860. Northern Mississippi plantation owner Big Sam Dabney and his son Hoab express concern over Abraham Lincoln’s election as the 16th president and the possibility of Southern states seceding from the Union. Both men begin to consider having Levington County in Lebanon Valley, location of the family’s cotton plantation, remain neutral if a civil war breaks out. Meanwhile, Hoab’s older daughter, Morna Dabney, becomes engaged with Army officer, Clay McIvor. Younger sister Aven is jealous, due to also being in love with Clay. As for Morna, local newspaper owner Keith Alexander becomes attracted to her.

Before 1860 ends, Big Sam dies, leaving Hoab in full control of the family’s neutral stance. And poor Morna has a riding accident, leaving her physically disabled and her engagement to Clay in jeopardy. Apparently, the latter is unable to maintain interest in a disabled woman and transforms his sexual interest to Morna’s younger sister, Aven. This gives Keith the opportunity to court Morna and help her recover from Clay’s rejection. However, Mississippi secedes from the Union, driving Hoab, Keith and the Dabney family’s Choctaw friend, Tishomingo, to organize Levington County’s neutral stance and secession from Mississippi.

There are aspects of “TAP ROOTS” that I found admirable. Alexander Golitzen’s production designs for a Northern Mississippi community between 1860 and 1861 struck me as pretty admirable, if not mind blowing. I could say the same about Yvonne Wood’s costume designs. However, there were some signs of 1940s fashion getting in the way, especially in the men’s costumes. The shoulders for Van Heflin’s jackets struck me as so wide that I found myself wondering if he had portrayed a time traveler from the 1940s. On the other hand, I found Winton C. Hooch and Lionel Lindon’s photography of the Southern California and North Carolina locations rather beautiful, thanks to its sharp color. And I thought director George Marshall did an admirable job with the film’s action scenes. I was especially impressed by the final conflict between Levington County’s “rebels” and the local Confederate forces. Between Marshall’s direction, Hooch and Lindon’s photography, and Milton Carruth’s editing, that final action sequence proved to be one of the film’s finer aspects.

If I must be honest, I did not have any problems with the performances featured in “TAP ROOTS”. Well . . . with most of the performances. Van Heflin gave an entertaining, yet commanding performance as the cynical newspaper editor Keith Alexander. Susan Hayward was equally commanding as Southern belle Moana Dabney, who endured her own trials while her own personal life fell apart. I did not care for the character of Clay McIvor, who struck me as something of a jerk; but I cannot deny that Whitfield Connor did a solid job in bringing his character to life. A very young Julie London really held her own as Moana’s younger sister, Aven Dabney, who managed to win Clay’s love from Moana, following the latter’s riding accident. Russell Simpson gave a entertaining performance as Moana’s colorful grandfather, Big Sam Dabney. Ruby Dandridge, mother of Dorothy Dandridge, gave a solid performance as the Dabneys’ housekeeper, Dabby. And I can say the same about Richard Long’s portrayal of Moana’s younger brother, Bruce Dabney; Arthur Shields as Reverend Kirkland; and Sondra Rogers as Shellie Dabney.

Despite the solid performances that permeated “TAP ROOTS”, two of them proved to be problematic for me. First, there was Ward Bond’s portrayal of Hoab Dabney, the Mississippi planter who not only inherit the family’s cotton plantation following his father’s death, but also the latter’s plans for a neutral Mississippi. I might as well say it. I found Bond’s performance to be an exercise in histrionics. I found this surprising since Bond has never struck me as a hammy acting. I wish that director George Marshall had found a way to rein in his acting – especially in one scene in which Hoab came into conflict with Moana over her past relationship with Clay McIvor. Alas, I thought Bond gave his hammiest performance in that one scene. The other problematic performance came from Boris Karloff, who portrayed the Dabney family’s Choctaw friend and retainer, Tishomingo. Mind you, Karloff gave a competent and subtle performance as one of the few sensible characters in this movie. And although many may have been put off by a British actor portraying a Native American, I was surprised to discover that Karloff had possessed both English and East Indian ancestry from both of his parents. I do not know if that gave the actor a pass, considering he still lacked any Native American ancestry. But if I really had a problem with Karloff’s performance is that he had portrayed Tishomingo as if the character was an Englishman. Even if Karloff had been portraying a white American, I still would have found his performance slightly problematic.

And what about the narrative for “TAP ROOTS”? Did I like it? Honestly? No. For me, the 1948 movie had failed to impress me. And this is a pity. I believe the problem stemmed from the movie’s original source, the 1942 novel. Author James H. Street had claimed he was inspired by the life of Newton Knight, when he wrote his novel. However, out of fear that Knight’s life was too controversial – namely his common-law marriage to former slave Rachel Knight – Street changed the nature of Knight’s story. The leading characters of “TAP ROOTS” were portrayed as members of Mississippi’s planter class. They opposed slavery – at least one or two characters had claimed this – but also owned slaves. But aside from the Dabneys’ “faithful” housekeeper Dabby, all other slaves were minor characters who barely spoke. If a movie is going to have its main characters claim to be anti-slavery, why ignore the topic for the rest of the film? Newton Knight’s grandfather was a major slave owner in northern Mississippi during the early 19th century. But Knight and his father had opposed slavery and became yeoman farmers who never owned slaves. Knight had been an Army deserter and managed to successfully opposed the Confederate authority in Jones County between 1863 and 1865. The Daubey family and Keith Alexander had no such success in “TAP ROOTS”. And I never understood this. Why did Street and later, the movie’s writers did not follow Knight’s Civil War experiences? What was the point of creating this story if they were not willing to closely follow Knight’s conflict with the Confederate authorities? Why not allow the Daubey family to be yeoman farmers who opposed slavery? Street and the filmmakers could have still kept out Newton Knight’s relationship with Rachel Knight.

Instead, I found myself watching a movie in which the main protagonists claimed they opposed slavery, yet practiced it and barely touched upon the subject for most of the film. The movie literally dragged its feet between Abraham Lincoln’s election in November 1860 and the outbreak of the Civil War in April 1861. And although I disliked Moana Dabney’s romance with the unworthy Clay McIvor, I found Keith Alexander’s “courtship” of her rather troubling. In Keith’s attempt to get Moana to forget about Clay, he resorted to bouts of manhandling her that seemed to border on sexual assault. For some reason, this reminded me of the Scarlett O’Hara/Rhett Butler relationship from “GONE WITH THE WIND”. And not in a good way. I also had a problem with the film’s portrayal of Lebanon Valley’s citizens. I noticed that the film seemed to portray them as mindless citizens who followed the Dabneys’ anti-Confederate stance without any real explanation. Like the Dabney slaves, Hoab’s followers lacked any real agency. Did author James Street, along with the filmmakers of this movie really lacked the courage to convey a story about how a Southern-born yeoman farmer and others from his class had successfully fought against the Confederacy? Or even exploring his anti-slavery stance? Back in the 1940s?

In the end, this is my real problem with “TAP ROOTS”. James Street and producer Walter Wanger took a historical event from the Civil War and used fiction – a novel and its Hollywood adaptation – to render it toothless. Its main historical figure Newton Knight had been transformed into a borderline hysterical and controlling cotton planter and member of the elite. The story failed to explore what led many of the planter’s combatants to follow him. The story barely touched upon the topic of anti-slavery, while including slaves as minor and background characters. And the movie dumped some tepid attempt at a “GONE WITH THE WIND” clone romance to keep movie goers interested. The movie had some virtues. But in the end, the movie vague adaptation of Newton Knight’s Civil War experiences simply fell flat. I hope and pray I am never inclined to watch this film again.

“THE HORSE SOLDIERS” (1959) Review

“THE HORSE SOLDIERS” (1959) Review

Many of the Westerns produced and/or directed by John Ford were usually set during the post-Civil War era. Yet, the topic of the 1861-1865 conflict managed to worm its way or have some kind of influence upon either those films’ narratives or its characters. However, I can only recall two films directed by Ford that were actually set during the war. And one of them is the 1959 film, “THE HORSE SOLDIERS”.

Not only is “THE HORSE SOLDIERS” one of Ford’s rare Civil War productions, it is also one of his few films that is based on a historical event or figure. The 1959 movie is a loose adaptation of Harold Sinclair’s 1956 novel. And both Ford’s movie and Sinclair’s novel is a fictionalized account of then Colonel Benjamin Grierson‘s Raid through Mississippi and Northern Louisiana in 1863. The movie began with the fictional version of Grierson, Colonel John Marlowe, receiving orders from Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman to lead his brigade behind Confederate lines from La Grange, Tennessee to destroy a major railroad and supply depot at Newton Station, Mississippi. Marlowe’s mission is to destroy the Confederate supply line and divert enemy’s army from Grant’s new plan to capture Vicksburg, Mississippi. A cynical army doctor named Major Henry Kendall is been assigned to accompany the brigade. The brigade stops at a Mississippi plantation named Greenbriar for a brief respite. Greenbriar’s mistress, Miss Hannah Hunter,and her slave housekeeper Lukey manages to eavesdrop on a staff meeting, while Marlowe discusses his battle strategy. To protect the mission’s secrecy, Marlowe forces the two women to accompany the brigade.

Since the film is a fictionalized account of this historic event, all of the characters are fictional creations – with the exception of Union generals Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman. Instead of portraying Grierson, leading man John Wayne portrayed a cavalry brigade commander named John Marlowe. Like Grierson, Marlowe was a civilian before the war. Whereas Grierson was a former music teacher and band leader, the Marlowe character’s former occupation turned out to be a railroad construction engineer. Grierson had been married during the Civil War. Marlowe was a widower. More importantly, Wayne was roughly in his early 50s when he shot the film. Grierson was three months shy of his 37th birthday during the actual raid. And since this movie is a fictionalized account of the raid, there were other differences between its narrative and the actual historical event.

Most film critics tend express enjoyment of “THE HORSE SOLDIERS”, but at the same time, dismiss it as one of Ford’s lesser works. How do I feel about this? I honestly do not know. Some of of Ford’s most highly acclaimed films are not particularly favorites of mine. However, I do consider “THE HORSE SOLDIERS” to be one of my favorite Ford movies. My attitude could be attributed to being a Civil War history buff. But there have been plenty of Civil War movie and television productions that I simply do not like.

Mind you, “THE HORSE SOLDIERS” had its problems. I found some of the performances either slightly over-the-top . . . to the point of some characters coming off as one-note caricatures. A good example would be the two Confederate deserters that Marlowe’s brigade had encountered. I find it ironic that although African-American characters like the maid Lukey were not portrayed with any real depth, they did not strike me as one-dimensional as the Confederate deserters or the military school commandant/reverend that Marlowe and his men had also encountered. Even some of the men under Marlowe’s command nearly struck me as one-dimensional – like Deacon Clump; Major Richard Gray, who served as leader of the brigade’s scouts; and a handful of other enlisted characters. Even the film’s leading female character, Hannah Hunter, initially came off as a caricature of Scarlett O’Hara. Fortunately, her character managed to develop throughout most of the film.

There were two aspects of the plot that left me scratching my head. I understand that Marlowe had forced Hannah Hunter and her maid Lukey to accompany his forces during the raid, because they had overheard his military plans. A part of me wondered why on earth did he stop at Miss Hunter’s plantation and prematurely exposed his brigade’s presence in Confederate-held Northern Mississippi in the first place? Following the brigade’s encounter with two Confederate deserters and an elderly judge who wanted to capture them, Marlowe allowed the judge (who came from Newton Station) to take the deserters captive and return to the Mississippi town. First of all, Union authorities tend to offer amnesty and restoration of U.S. citizenship to Confederate deserters – at least by 1863. And why would Marlowe be stupid enough to allow that judge – whether he had his prisoners or not – to return to Newton Station and warn its citizens of the incoming Union forces? Throughout most of the film, Marlowe managed to project an air of professionalism, despite his lack of pre-war experience or training as an Army officer. Yet, he made these two stupid decisions regarding the brigade’s stop at Greenbriar and the two Confederate deserters. And the screenplay never acknowledge this stupidity.

Not only did Benjamin Grierson and his brigade destroyed Confederate rail tracks, trains, bridges, storehouses and warehouses, the brigade also freed slaves. And yet . . . I do not recall any slaves being emancipated by Marlowe’s forces in the film. Why Ford and the film’s two screenwriters – John Lee Mahin and Martin Rackin had failed to include this in the movie, I do not know. Racism perhaps? Yet, “THE HORSE SOLDIERS” did not ignore the topic, thanks to Lukey’s presence and Major Kendall’s snide comments about the South’s dependence on slavery. The film was willing to make the occasional vague reference to slavery. Yet . . . it ignored Grierson’s anti-slavery actions during the raid. And the African-Americans encountered by the fictional Marlowe’s brigade in the movie remained enslaved. Ever since I first saw Ford’s 1956 movie, “THE SEARCHERS”, some of his films have always struck me as being politically confusing – as if he could never make up his mind whether some of the messages and themes were conservative or liberal. For me, “THE HORSE SOLDIERS” is another example of his political confusion.

Although I had my problems with “THE HORSE SOLDIERS”, I still managed to enjoy it very much. It helped that the movie benefited from a famous historical event like “Grierson’s Raid” in the first place. This allowed screenwriters John Lee Mahin and Martin Rackin to include exciting action sequences like the brigade’s occasional encounters with pursuing Confederate forces, the actual Newton Station attack, the brigade’s tension-filled effort to evade Confederate forces, while traveling through a Louisiana swamp; and an amusing battle encounter with students from a local military school. I was especially impressed with the Newton Station attack and the film’s last battle sequence that featured the brigade’s efforts to overcome a Confederate-held bridge in order to evade pursuing enemy forces and ride on to Union-held Baton Rouge. I thought Ford, along with film editor Jack Murray did an exceptional job with these two major action sequences. Not only did these two sequences managed to emphasize the heat, the blood and tragedy of war. Actually, there was two other sequences that did an excellent job of emphasizing the tragic nature of war – Major Kendall and a local doctor’s efforts to save the wounded soldiers following the Newton Station battle and Lukey’s death.

When it comes to costume designs in a John Ford movie, one can always count on them being rather mediocre – especially in one of his period films. The only Ford period film I can recall that featured eye-catching costumes was his 1936 movie, “MARY OF SCOTLAND”“THE HORSE SOLDIERS” featured one major female character and a scattering of minor ones. Yet, the women’s costumes in this film looked as if it came straight out of Hollywood warehouse. In fact, I checked the movie’s IMDB listing. Frank Beeston Jr. and Ann Peck supervised the film’s costumes. But they did not serve as costume designers. There was no costume designer for the film. Auuughhh! . . . frustrating! Come to think of it, there was no production designer for the film. I find this odd, considering a good deal of the movie was set at the Greenbriar plantation and another major setting was Newton Station. However, I should not be surprised. Aside from the natural beauties of Mississippi and Louisiana, I found nothing exceptional about the film’s production designs.

However, there were two aspects of “THE HORSE SOLDIERS” I truly enjoyed. One of them proved to be William H. Clothier’s photography of Mississippi and Louisiana for the film. Frankly, I found his images to be quite breathtaking – beautiful, sharp and original – as shown in the images below:

If there is one thing I can say about most John Ford films – you can always count upon a first-rate score to support its narratives. “THE HORSE SOLDIERS” marked the only time composer David Buttolph worked on a Ford production. But in my personal opinion, I thought he did an excellent job in providing the film’s score. He also wrote a first-rate title song for the film titled “I Left My Love”, which I felt perfectly captured the ambiance of the U.S. Calvary during the Civil War.

Earlier, I had faulted some of the performances featured in “THE HORSE SOLDIERS”, complaining that they had struck me as over-the-top and one-dimensional. Thankfully, I cannot say the same about all of the performances. There were some performances that I found either entertaining, very impressive or both. Granted, I found the performances of both Denver Pyle and Strother Martin, who portrayed the two Confederate deserters, rather broad and clichéd. Yet, I cannot deny they gave very entertaining performances. It is not surprising that the pair eventually became successful character actors. Another performance that caught my attention came from Willis Bouchey, who portrayed one of Marlowe’s regimental commanders Colonel Phil Secord. Bouchey’s Colonel Secord was an ambitious officer who hoped to use his military success for political office and second-guessed a good deal of Marlowe’s decisions. Granted, Bouchey’s performance did not strike me as clichéd as Pyle and Martin’s. But there were moments that it came dangerously close. And I must admit that he also gave a colorful performance. Another colorful performance came from Bing Russell, who portrayed the aggressive trooper Dunker. He must have been a very good actor, because the character came dangerously close to being one of those clichéd characters usually found in Western movies about the U.S. Army. But Russell managed to keep it tight and did an excellent job in conveying Dunker’s tragic fate.

Tennis champion Althea Gibson had been cast as Hannah Hunter’s personal slave, Lukey. Surprisingly, despite the role and the fact that Ms. Gibson was an experienced actress, one would think Lukey dripped with the slave/mammy cliché. I was surprised to discover that after reading Mahin and Rackin’s screenplay, she refused to portray Lukey unless they get rid of the obvious clichés and “slave dialect”. And even more surprising, Ford had capitulated to her demands, despite his past refusal to do so with other performers. Needless to say, Gibson did her best to prevent Lukey from becoming a racial stereotype and gave a pretty competent performance. She had one of the best lines in the movie. Judson Pratt gave a curious, yet very interesting performance as the brigade’s Sergeant Major Kirby. The character was a competent Army veteran, whose only major flaw proved to be his alcoholism. I cannot deny that the film’s use of Kirby’s drinking habit as comic relief was hard to watch. In fact, I found it a little distasteful. Kirby became one of those stock characters from an old Hollywood Western – the alcoholic Irish-American soldier. But Pratt did a good job in conveying Kirby’s competence. The movie also featured solid performances from the likes of Ken Curtis, O.Z. Whitehead, Carleton Young, Hank Worden, William Leslie, Hoot Gibson, Anna Lee, Basil Ruysdael, Ron Hagerthy and Russell Simpson.

It is a good thing the Hannah Hunter character proved to be a complex and character, because there were times when Mahin and Rackin’s screenplay came dangerously close to portraying her as a Southern belle cliché. However, the writing pair allowed the Miss Hunter to develop. Their efforts were helped by a first-class performance by Constance Towers. Mind you, the actress’ Southern accent did not strike me as convincing, especially in her early scenes. Thankfully, she rose above the “damn Yankees” cliché and gave an interesting portrait forced to rise above her privileged background and survive the turmoils of war. If I had my choice of the most sympathetic character in this film, it would be Major Henry ‘Hank’ Kendall, the brigade’s medical officer. William Holden gave an excellent performance as the observant, compassionate and uber-competent doctor, forced to endure Colonel Marlowe’s hostility and bitter comments about the medical profession. For myself, I believe the Kendall character had one flaw. He came off as a very ideal character – a Gary Stu, if I must be honest. If it was not for Holden’s wry and cynical performance, I would have regarded him as the least interesting character in this film. “THE HORSE SOLDIERS” would mark the first time that John Wayne portrayed a historical figure (or an adaptation of said figure) that was much younger than he was during the film’s setting. Even though John Marlowe could have been portrayed by a younger actor, casting Wayne in the role did not harm the film. Wayne had the good luck to portray one of the film’s most interesting characters. Superficially, Marlowe was the type many filmgoers would regard as typical in Wayne’s filmography – manly, competent and tough. But Marlowe also proved to be a complicated man haunted by the ghost of his wife, who had been killed by an incompetent doctor. Wayne not only skillfully conveyed Marlowe’s petty and ugly bullying of Major Kendall, but also gave a first-rate soliloquy that revealed the drunken officer’s tragic memories of his wife’s death at the hands of an incompetent surgeon.

I realize that “THE HORSE SOLDIERS” has its flaws. It is not regarded as one of John Ford’s best films. I am also aware that the movie had failed to make a profit. This was attributed to John Wayne and William Holden’s high salaries. But as I had stated earlier, it is still one of my favorite Ford movies. Being a Civil War history buff did not influence my opinion. I have seen a good number of Civil War movies that I either disliked or regarded as mediocre or absolute crap. I simply cannot regard “THE HORSE SOLDIERS” as absolute crap. And this is due to John Lee Mahin and Martin Rackin’s screenplay, John Ford’s excellent direction and some excellent and interesting performances by a cast led by Wayne and Holden.

Favorite Pre-Gilded Age American History Books

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Below is a list of my favorite books that covered the history of the United States from the late British Colonial period to the end of the U.S. Civil War:

FAVORITE PRE-GILDED AGE AMERICAN HISTORY BOOKS

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1. “The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism” (2014) by Edward E. Baptist – This book centers on how slavery and the cotton industry helped develop the rise of U.S. capitalism.

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2. “1861: The Civil War Awakening” (2011) by Adam Goodheart – This book depicts the last months of the United States’ Antebellum period and the first months of the U.S. Civil War.

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3. “1858: Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant and the War They Failed to See” (2008) by Bruce Chadwick – The book focuses on the historical events in the United States during the year, 1858.

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4. “Thomas Jefferson & Sally Hemings: An American Controversy” (1997) by Annette Gordon-Reed – This book won the Pulitzer Prize for its in-depth exploration of President Thomas Jefferson and one of slaves, Sally Hemings.

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5. “The Town That Started the Civil War” (1990) by Nat Brandt – This book is an in-depth study of Oberlin, Ohio during the 19th century and its role in one of the most famous slave rescues in U.S. history.

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6. “Slavery and the Making of America” (2004) by James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton – This book is a detailed account of the history of slavery in the U.S. from the Colonial period to the end of the Civil War.

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7. “The World Rushed In: The California Gold Rush Experience” (1981) by J.S. Holliday – This book is an in-depth study of the California Gold Rush between 1848 and 1855.

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8. “The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War” (2018) by Andrew Delbanco – This book focuses on slavery and especially the abolition movement from the Revolutionary War to the Civil War.

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9. “John Adams” (2001) by David McCullough – This book is a biography of President John Adams and won a Pulitzer Prize.

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10. “Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad” (2015) by Eric Foner – This book is a detailed account on the history of the Underground Railroad and the abolition movement in New York City.

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11. “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” (2005) by Doris Kearns Goodwin – This biography is about the life of President Abraham Lincoln and the more prominent members of his Cabinet before and during the Civil War. It won both the Lincoln Prize and the inaugural Book Prize for American History of the New-York Historical Society.

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12. “A Southern Odyssey: Travelers in the Antebellum North” (1976) by John Hope Franklin – This book is an account of the experiences of Southern travelers in the Northern states during the years before the Civil War.

“HARRIET” (2019) Review

“HARRIET” (2019) Review

Many people are familiar with Harriet Tubman, the former slave-turned-Underground Railroad conductor-turned-Civil War operative-turned-political activist. She has appeared as a supporting character in a handful of television productions and the leading character in two other television productions. However, a full-length feature film has finally been made about the famous historical figure. That film is called “HARRIET”.

As I had earlier stated, there have been two television productions about the famous Underground Railroad conductor. One of them was an episode from the 1963-1964 historical anthology series “THE GREAT ADVENTURE” called (1.06) “Go Down, Moses”. It starred Ruby Dee. The other television production was the 1978 miniseries “A WOMAN CALLED MOSES”, which starred Cicely Tyson. Following the latter, the Harriet Tubman figure appeared in a few television productions about slavery and the Underground Railroad until the release of this new film.

“HARRIET” basically covered Tubman’s life during a nine-year period between 1849 and 1850, along with a sequence set in 1858. The movie began in 1849 Maryland with Harriet (or Araminta “Minty” Ross Tubman, as she was known then), along with her husband John Tubman and father Ben Ross (both who were free) approached Harriet’s owner Edward Bodress with a promise made by the latter’s ancestor that her mother Harriet “Rit” Ross would be freed by the age of 45, along with their children (including Harriet). Bodress refused to acknowledge the promise. He also forbade Harriet from seeing her husband John. Brodess’s adult son Gideon caught Minty praying for God to take Mr. Brodess. The latter died shortly afterward. Alarmed by this, Gideon decided to sell Minty as punishment. Suffering from spells that began after she had been struck in the head as a child, Minty had a vision of her being free and decided to run away. She convinced John to remain behind, in case he got caught and punished for escaping with her. Minty eventually reached Philadelphia and freedom. She managed to acquire a job, thanks to the assistance of Underground Railroad abolitionist/writer William Still and a fashionable free black woman named Marie Buchanon. After a few months in Philadelphia, Minty (who renamed herself as Harriet Tubman) returned to Maryland to retrieve John and discovered that he had remarried, believing she was dead. Instead, Harriet decided to escort some family members north to freedom and began her career as a conductor for the Underground Railroad.

I have been aware of Harriet Tubman ever since I was a child of nine years old. My mother had purchased a copy of Marcy Heidish’s 1976 novel called “A Woman Called Moses”, the basis for the 1978 miniseries. But “HARRIET” marked the first time that Tubman was featured as the a character in a motion picture, let alone the leading character. So naturally, I had to see it. I had some problems with the movie. One, I could easily see that it was not historical accurate. This is not a real problem for me. After seeing two television productions that erroneously featured Harriet Tubman operating in the Ohio River Valley, the historical inaccuracies in this film struck me as a piece of cake.

One example would be the scene during her own escape in which her new owner, Gideon Bodress, and a slave patrol cornered her on a bridge. Instead of surrendering, she evaded them by jumping into the river. Needless to say, no such thing happened, since her owner (Anthony Thompson), or any slave patrol were able to capture her during her journey to Philadelphia. But . . . I was able to tolerate this scene. Somewhat. I was also a bit confused about her relationship with John Tubman in this film. Director-writer Kasi Lemmons and co-writer Gregory Allen Howard portrayed Harriet or Minty’s marriage as loving and trouble free. This has not been the case in another Hollywood production I could think of. Unfortunately, no one really knows whether the Tubmans had experienced any marital strife before her flight from Maryland. So . . . I tolerated this portrayal. However, the movie indicated that Minty had suggested John not run with her so that he would not be caught aiding a runaway. This is false. According to history, John did not want her to run in the first place. They also made it clear that John had remarried because he had assumed Minty/Harriet was dead. I do not know whether this is true or not. But it seemed as if Lemmons and Howard seemed hell bent upon portraying John in a positive light as much as possible.

But there were changes in the narrative that left me scratching my head. “HARRIET” featured Minty making her escape from Maryland in the middle of the day . . . which I found odd. The movie had her working in a garden when someone warned her that Bodress had plans to sell her to the Deep South in order to alleviate family debts. No sooner had she received the warning, one of the plantation’s foremen appeared to grab her. Minty ran and . . . hid. She hid around the plantation for hours before she contacted her family and left. What made this even more odd is that Bodress did not learn of her escape from the foreman until hours later. Which I found very odd. Historically, most slave escapes began in the middle of the night, not in the middle of the day. Why did Minty wait so long to contact her family before her escape? And why did the plantation foreman wait so long to inform Bodress? Also, she made most of her journey by night and hid during the daytime. Which would have made that daytime encounter on the bridge with Bodress somewhat implausible. I can only assume Lemmons and Howard had added it for dramatic reasons.

In the movie, Minty/Harriet did not wait very long to return to Maryland and contact her family and John. After escorting several members of her family north, she returned to Maryland and helped others escape on several occasions before the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Now this is ridiculous. One, Tubman returned to Maryland to help some relatives escape at least three to four months after the law’s passage. I find it very hard to believe that she had made so many trips to Maryland between her own escape in September 1849 and when the fugitive law was passed in September 1850. Another troubling aspect of the movie was the sequence featuring the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law. The movie featured a scene with former slaves – including Harriet – leaving en masse from the Philadelphia docks, while God knows how many slave catchers suddenly appeared to capture these fugitives. What the hell? I had felt as if I was watching a war movie with refugees escaping from an invaded city. Yes, many fugitive slaves were forced to flee the Northern states for Canada following the law’s passage. But not like THAT. Not like a scene from “CASABLANCA” or “THE WINDS OF WAR”.

I have two more complaints. Why did Lemmons and Howard added that . . . relationship between Harriet and Bodress? Why? It was bad enough that Gideon Bodress never existed. But Tubman had never recounted having to deal with the unwanted sexual interest or assault from any white man. And I got the impression that Lemmons wanted to include some watered down version of the Patsey-Edwin Epps relationship from the Oscar winning film, “12 YEARS A SLAVE” – but without the overt violence and sex. It was obvious that Bodress had never laid a violent hand on Harriet in the film, aside from the slap on the face after he had overheard her wish for his father’s death. But I find it implausible that Gideon Bodress had never attempted to sexually assault her. Even when his father was alive. Another sequence featured Northern black and white members discussing the Fugitive Slave Act passage and whether it would be safe to continue the Underground Railroad. What I disliked about this sequence is that most of them seemed to have this attitude without the organization’s conductors appearing on Southern plantations to lead them, many slaves would not be willing to escape or would not succeed in escaping. And this was far from the truth. One could argue that this scene was a perfect example of patronization from Northern abolitionists. But Harriet did not point out that slaves were capable of escaping on their own. Instead, she simply argued for the continuation of the Underground Railroad. Which simply made her equally patronizing to me.

One would think that I disliked “HARRIET”. That person would be wrong. I actually enjoyed it very much. Despite some of the narrative choices, lightweight characterizations and historical inaccuracies; “HARRIET” was both an entertaining and interesting film. One, it is nice to see Hollywood produce a feature film about the former abolitionist. “HARRIET” is a thoughtful drama about a period in United States history about which very few Americans want to discuss, let alone contemplate. Like other Hollywood productions, the movie mainly featured Tubman’s early career as an Underground Railroad conductor. I had assumed that it would also focus on her Civil War experiences, due to some publicity stills released before the film hit the theaters. But the movie only included a coda, featuring Tubman’s participation in a raid during the war. “HARRIET” was, without a doubt, about her role with the Underground Railroady.

Due to the film’s focus on Harriet’s career as an Underground Railroad conductor, it did not focus that strongly on her family life . . . with the exceptions of her attempts to lead them to freedom. Many critics have complained about this. But I can understand why Lemmons only focused on one aspect of Harriet’s life. This was a feature-length film that ran nearly two hours, not a television miniseries. Frankly, I thought it was smart of her to focus one one aspect of Harriet’s life, considering the format she had used. And she focused on one of the former slave/abolitionist’s most famous period in her life – namely that as an Underground Railroad conductor. Only through this story arc was the movie able to somewhat focus on her connection to her family. In fact, one the most interesting arcs in this narrative proved to be a sequence that featured Tubman’s attempts to rescue her sister Rachel and the latter’s children.

This focus on Harriet’s career with the Underground Railroad allowed Lemmons and Howard to reveal Harriet as action heroine she truly was. The writers’ narrative arc also featured some well staged action sequences. Among my favorite sequences are Harriet’s initial escape from Maryland and her successful rescue of Rachel’s children in the film’s second half. Both struck me as well-shot sequences that featured a great deal of more tension and drama than action. And I thought the focus on these two aspects may have allowed the sequences to be more effective without the obvious action. I also enjoyed the movie’s final action sequence in which Harriet attempted to rescue and lead her parents to freedom in the late 1850s. Not only was this sequence filled with the usual solid action for this trope, it featured a tense-filled final confrontation between Harriet and Bodress.

I certainly did not have a problem with the film’s production values. I thought Warren Alan Young did an exceptional job in re-creating antebellum America, especially in scenes that featured the Bodress plantation, Baltimore (at least I think it is), Canada and especially Philadelphia. I believe Young was ably supported by John Troll’s sharp and colorful cinematography, Wyatt Smith’s film editing, Kevin Hardison and Christina Eunji Kim’s art direction, and Marthe Pineau’s set decorations. I also have to commend Paul Tazewell for his costume designs. I thought Tazewell did an excellent job of conveying the movie’s setting and characters through his costumes, as shown in the images below:

I have a confession to make. Aside from a handful, I was not exactly blown away by the performances featured in “HARRIET”. I am not claiming that most of the performances were terrible or even mediocre. I simply found them solid . . . or serviceable. There were a few that I found slightly above being serviceable – like Janelle Monáe, Leslie Odom Jr., Zackary Momoh, Tim Guinee, Henry Hunter Hall, Joseph Lee Anderson, Jennifer Nettles and Omar J. Dorsey. But like I had said, there were a few that struck me as memorable. One of them Clarke Peters, who gave a subtle, yet warm portrayal of Harriet/Minty’s father, Ben Ross. I was also impressed by Vanessa Bell Calloway, who gave an exceptional performance as the abolitionist’s emotional and slightly edgy mother, Harriet Ritt Ross. Joe Alwyn did an excellent job of portraying Gideon Bodress as a slightly complex character without transforming the character into a one-note, moustache-twirling villain. And I really enjoyed Vondie Curtis-Hall’s subtle, yet colorful portrayal of Reverend Green, the local free black minister, who also happened to be a member of the Underground Railroad.

But the performance that really counted in “HARRIET” came from leading lady Cynthia Erivo. It is almost a miracle that Erivo managed to give such an exceptional performance as Harriet Tubman. I say this, because Lemmons and Howard had failed to fully portray Tubman as a complex human being with not only virtues, but also a few flaws. Their Tubman almost struck me as a borderline Mary Sue, due to their determination to basically portray her as an action heroine. But they did provide some intimate moments between Tubman, her family and friends. And this gave Erivo the opportunity to skillfully convey the warm, yet strong-willed individual underneath the heroic facade. This was especially apparent in scenes that featured Tubman’s desperation to put as much distance between her and the Bodress plantation as possible; her determination to return to Maryland to rescue her family; and her discovery that her husband had married another woman. Thanks to her superb performance, Erivo managed to earn both Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations for Best Actress. And if I must be brutally honest, she deserved them.

Overall, I enjoyed “HARRIET”. I have always been interested in Harriet Tubman as a historical figure and was happy to see a motion picture about her. It was not the best or most compelling biopic I have ever seen. Nor was it the best biopic about Tubman I have ever seen. But I cannot deny that thanks to Kari Lemmons and Gregory Allen Howard’s interesting screenplay, Lemmons’ solid direction and a first-rate cast led by Cynthia Erivo, “HARRIET” is a movie that I will be more than happy to watch on many occasions in the future.

 

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“NORTH AND SOUTH” (1982) Book Review

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“NORTH AND SOUTH” (1982) Book Review

During the first twenty years or so following his graduation from college, John Jakes spent that period writing many short stories and novels that featured science fiction, fantasy, westerns and the occasional historical fiction. Then he achieved literary success in the 1970s with the publication of The Kent Family Chronicles, a series of eight novels about a family between 1770 and 1890. Three years after the publication of that series’ last novel, Jakes embarked upon another literary series called the North and South Trilogy.

The North and South Trilogy was a literary series that depicted the lives of two wealthy families – the Hazards of Pennsylvania and the Mains of South Carolina – during the years before, during and immediately after the U.S. Civil War. The first novel, 1982’s “NORTH AND SOUTH”, began with the establishment of the two families when their founders immigrated to the New World in the late 17th century. The novel jumped a century-and-a-half later when George Hazard, son of a wealthy Pennsylvania iron industrialist; and Orry Main, the son of a South Carolina rice planter, Orry Main; met as cadets at the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1842. The pair immediately become fast friends as they endure the brutal hazing of an older sadistic cadet from Ohio named Elkhannah Bent, and action during the Mexican-American War. The friendship between the two young men eventually form a connection between their respective families as they become acquainted with each other during family trips to the Newport summer resorts and Mont Royal, the Mains’ rice plantation in the South Carolina low country. The two families consist of:

The Hazards
*George Hazard – one of the main protagonists, who is like his father, an iron industrialist
*Constance Flynn Hazard – George’s Irish-born wife and an abolitionist
*Stanley Hazard – George’s older brother, an incompetent businessman who left the iron trade to become involved in politics
*Isobel Truscott Hazard – Stanley’s shrewish and social-climbing wife
*Virgilia Hazard – George’s only sister and die-hard abolitionist
*Billy Hazard – George’s younger brother
*Maude Hazard – the Hazard family’s matriarch
*William Hazard – the Hazard family’s patriarch and iron industrialist

The Mains
*Orry Main – one of the protagonists, who becomes a rice planter like his father
*Cooper Main – Orry’s older brother and owner of a shipping company who harbors moderate abolitionist views
*Ashton Main – Orry’s younger sister and die-hard secessionist
*Charles Main – Orry’s young cousin, who is saved from a future as a wastrel by Orry
*Judith Stafford Main – Cooper’s wife, who also happens to be a more hardcore abolitionist than her husband
*James Huntoon – Ashton’s future husband, who is also a secessionist and attorney
*Clarissa Brett Main – the Main family’s matriarch
*Tillet Main – the Main family’s patriarch and rice planter

Two other major characters featured in “NORTH AND SOUTH”:

*Elkhannah Bent – The Ohio-born sadist who becomes an enemy of George and Orry during their years at West Point; and both Charles’ enemy and Army commander on the Texas frontier
*Grady – James Huntoon’s slave, who later escaped and became Virgilia Hazard’s common-law husband

Both the Hazards and the Mains find love, marriage or both throughout the novel. George meets and marries Constance Flynn, the daughter of an Irish immigrant attorney. Orry falls in love at first sight with Madeline Fabray, the daughter of a New Orleans sugar factor. Unfortunately for Orry . . . and Madeline, they meet and fall in love as she is preparing to marry the Mains’ neighbor, the brutal and venal Justin LaMotte. George’s younger brother, William (Billy) Hazard II falls in love . . . first with Orry’s sister Ashton Main and later, with the youngest Main sibling, Brett. And George’s older sister Virgilia, an ardent abolitionist, meets and fall in love with Grady, who turned out to be the slave of James Huntoon, Ashton’s future husband.

More importantly, “NORTH AND SOUTH” depicted those last nineteen years of American history before the outbreak of the Civil War. Through the eyes of George, Orry and their families; John Jakes conveyed readers through life at the Military Academy at West Point – first through George and Orry’s eyes during the 1840s and later, through Billy and Charles’ eyes during the 1850s. Although John Jakes portrayed George and Orry’s West Point experiences with more detail, the author’s portrayal of the Military Academy during the following decade proved to be more interesting, as he conveyed how Billy Hazard and Charles Main struggled to maintain their own friendship amidst the growing sectional conflict that threatened to overwhelm the Academy and the nation.

What I found even more interesting is that the novel began during the 1840s – a decade in which the abolitionist movement began to become increasingly popular in many parts of North. Another significant event had also occurred during this decade – namely the Mexican-American War. Because of the war, George met his future wife, Constance Flynn, during a stop at Corpus Cristi, Texas; on the way to the battlefields in Mexico. The war also featured a backdrop for George and Orry’s last dangerous encounter with Elkhannah Bent in the novel – during the Battle of Churabusco. The most important aspect of the Mexican-American War is that it left the United States with more Western territory to settle – including California. Although both the North and the South had been in conflict over the slavery issue for several decades, the addition of the new Western lands, along with the rise of the Republican Party in the following decade, heightened the conflict between the two regions. In fact, the conflict over whether or not slavery would be practiced in the new Western territories helped lead to the creation of the Republican Party and eventually, the election of Abraham Lincoln as the country’s 16th president.

For some reason, many of today’s readers seem very critical of long and thick novels. They are even more critical of a historical novel filled with a great deal of melodrama. As I have stated in my review of Jakes’ 1984 novel, “LOVE AND WAR”, I simply do not understand this criticism. “NORTH AND SOUTH” is a novel . . . a work of fiction. It is not a history book. Fans either complained over the presence of melodrama in Jakes’ story or they complained over the abundance of historical facts that served as the novel’s backstory. Like I said . . . I do not understand this mentality. Even if many literary critics have been unwilling to admit this, a great deal of melodrama have been featured in the novels of literary giants. And novelists like John Jakes have proven that one can create a first-rate novel with a solid balance of both melodrama and history.

Since “NORTH AND SOUTH” told the story of two families during the last two decades leading up to the outbreak of the Civil War, it only seemed natural that the topic of slavery would dominate its narrative. I can recall a YOUTUBE vlogger complaining that Jakes seemed a bit too “in the middle of the road” about slavery. This only seemed natural, considering the story’s two main characters came from different parts of the country. Following their stints in the Army, George took over the management of his family’s Pennsylvania steel manufacturing company and Orry took control of his family’s rice plantation in South Carolina that included slaves. It was only natural that the novel’s narrative would be about two men and their families trying to main their close friendship during the conflict over slavery.

Being slave owners, it only seemed natural that the Mains would see nothing wrong with slavery. Only three members of the family felt differently. Orry’s older brother Cooper viewed slavery as a moral wrong and refused to own slaves himself when he assumed control of a shipping line acquired from a man who had borrowed money from his father. However, Cooper seemed more concerned with how emancipation would impact his family and state’s economic situation than with the freedom of enslaved African-Americans. This would explain why he supported gradual emancipation. Charles Main, Orry and Cooper’s younger cousin, also felt that slavery was wrong. But he was too young to understand that slavery could end and merely tolerated the institution . . . until he became a cadet at West Point. And Cooper’s wife, Judith Stafford, a former teacher who had been schooled in New England, believed in the absolute abolition of slavery and civil rights for non-whites. Yet, she rarely expressed her views to others than her husband. Despite being Northerners, the Hazard family did not begin the saga as abolitionists – with three exceptions. George never gave slavery a thought until his first visit to the Mains’ plantation, Mont Royal, following his and Orry’s graduation from West Point in 1846. This visit led him to become an abolitionist, his politics remained moderate like Cooper Main’s. Neither older brother Stanley, younger brother Billy, sister-in-law Isobel Truscott or his mother Maude seemed interested in abolitionism. This was not surprising since the Hazards struck me as a moderately conservative family. Only George’s wife Constance and his sister Virgilia were fervent abolitionists. Virgilia’s abolitionism was viewed as “fanatical” due to her unwillingness to hide her hatred of slavery and slave owners beneath a veneer of politeness.

I noticed that in the novel’s second half, political moderates like George, Orry and Cooper seemed willing to blame political hardliners like Virgilia and rigid pro-slavery like Ashton Main and her husband, James Huntoon for the eventual outbreak of the Civil War. I could understand their aversion toward the country being driven toward war. And I realized they believed that compromise (namely the sacrifice of any future freedom for the slaves) could have prevented the outbreak of war. But unlike that YOUTUBE vlogger, I realized that Jakes was simply conveying the mindset of characters like George and Orry to his readers. If he truly believed George, Orry and Cooper’s moderate mindset regarding politics and slavery, why bother creating characters like Judith Main or Constance Hazard?

Another complaint that YOUTUBE blogger had brought up was Jakes’ lack of any slave characters. I believe her complaint was at best, minimal. Unlike the two novels that “NORTH AND SOUTH”, 1984’s “LOVE AND WAR” and 1987’s “HEAVEN AND HELL”, I must admit that the 1982 novel featured very little in-depth characterizations of either slaves or Northern blacks. There were occasional black characters that received brief viewpoints. But “NORTH AND SOUTH” only portrayed one non-white character with any real depth – namely Grady, James Huntoon’s slave, who eventually became a fugitive and later, Virgilia Hazard’s lover and common-law husband. For a novel in which the topic of slavery dominated the narrative, I found this rather odd and lacking.

I must also admit I do have some issues with Jakes’ portrayals of his villains. Although I believe he did an excellent of delving into psyches, many of them were in danger of being portrayed as one-note personalities. And his worst villains seemed to be wrapped in a great deal of sexual perversion, violence or both. This especially seemed to be the case for characters like Elkhanah Bent, Ashton Main Huntoon, Justin LaMotte and the latter’s nephew Forbes LaMotte. Bent is portrayed as a man with a sexual preference for anyone who happened to attract his attention – whether that person is a man, woman or child. Ashton is portrayed as a promiscuous female since the age of 14 . . . or younger. In fact, one sequence featured a visit made to West Point by her, Orry and their younger sister Brett in which Ashton ended up having sex with a handful of Northern-born cadets. Frankly, I thought Jakes had went too far in this sequence and he seemed to portray Ashton’s highly sexual nature as something ugly and perverse. He also did the same for Virgilia Hazard, whose emotions regarding abolition and black men in general seemed to ring with excessive sexuality. On the other end of the scale; Jakes portrayed other villainous characters like George’s sister-in-law, Isobel, as sexually frigid; and Orry’s brother-in-law James Huntoon as sexually inadequate.

By the way, why did he portray Virgilia Hazard as a borderline villain? Many fans of his saga viewed her as a villain due to a general dislike of Southerners. Yet, the novel made it clear that Virgilia also harbored a strong dislike to those Northerners who opposed slavery, regardless if they were fellow citizens of Lehigh Station or members of her own family. I have to be honest. I still find it difficult to view Virgilia as a villain. As a character, she was on the right side of history – not only in her support of abolition and civil rights for non-white, but also in her embrace of interracial relationships. I found it difficult to condemn her for her beliefs.

One could condemn Virgilia for her willingness to embrace violence to end slavery. But honestly, this willingness only exposed the other characters’ hypocrisy. In other words, many Americans like the other Hazards and the Mains continued to celebrate the country’s use of violence to win independence from Great Britain during the late 18th century. Yet, they condemned Virgilia and other abolitionists like her for supporting the use of violence to end slavery. Even to this day, there are historians who continue to express this wish or desire that slavery had never ended via a four-year war, yet see nothing wrong in celebrating the violence of the American Revolution. I do not know if Jakes had intended this, but in another sequence in the novel, Virgilia had confronted Orry and Brett Main during the pair’s visit to Lehigh Station in 1859. During a quarrel between her and Orry, Virgilia pointed out that it was only natural for those who participated in evil would deny it. And she was right. No matter how decent most members of the Main family were, they participated in evil – namely slavery – for their benefit. And they saw nothing wrong with this. Northern businessmen like George also profited from their business connections to the South. In the novel, George had agreed to help finance Cooper Main’s new vessel that would ship slave-produced cotton to Europe. No matter how “fanatical”, violent or confrontational people like Virgilia were . . . they were right about the country’s ties to slavery.

Although I love the novel overall, there were segments that I really enjoyed. Among them were George’s first visit to Mont Royal, Constance’s early clashes with sister-in-law Isobel, the Hazard and Main families’ first summer vacation at Newport, the Hazards’ 1851 visit to Mont Royal, the Mains’ visit to West Point, Ashton and Forbes’ attempt to murder Billy following his wedding to Brett, and the whole Harper’s Ferry segment beginning with Orry and Brett’s visit to Lehigh Station and ending with their experiences during the Harper’s Ferry raid. But if I had to choose the segments that I truly enjoyed, they were – the train crash that the Hazard family experienced on their way to Newport; Charles’ conflict with Elkhanah Bent in Texas during the late 1850s; and especially Billy’s experiences during the crisis at both Fort Moultrie and Fort Sumter.

I will admit that “NORTH AND SOUTH” has its flaws – especially the one-dimensional portrayals of its villains and a minimum of African-American characters in a story dominated by the topic of slavery. But after so many years, I still love the novel. I think it is one of the best literary depictions of life in the United States during the last two decades before the Civil War. And to that YOUTUBE vlogger who believed that Jakes’ view on slavery may seemed a bit too conservative and suspect, I should point out that he ended the novel with a partial quote from Virginia-born Founding Father George Mason, who condemned the entire country for its participation in slavery . . . and expressed a prophecy that it will pay the consequences for that participation. Which it did.

“NORTH AND SOUTH” Trilogy Locations

Below are images of locations used in the television adaptation of John Jakes’ “NORTH AND SOUTH” Trilogy. The three miniseries aired between 1985 and 1994:

 

 

“NORTH AND SOUTH” TRILOGY LOCATIONS

Boone Hall Plantation; Mount Pleasant, South Carolina – This plantation had served as the exterior shots for the Main family’s South Carolina plantation, Mont Royal in “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOKS I & II”:

 

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Stanton Hall; Natchez, Mississippi – This mansion was used for the interior shots of the Main family’s South Carolina plantation house, Mont Royal in “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOKS I & II” :

 

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Calhoun Mansion; Charleston, South Carolina – This manor house served as the Hazard family’s Lehigh Station, Pennsylvania mansion, Belvedere in “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOKS I & II”:

 

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Greenwood Plantation; St. Francisville, Louisiana – This plantation had served as the South Carolina plantation, Resolute; which was owned by the Mains’ neighbor, Justin LaMotte in “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOKS I & II”:

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Jefferson College; Washington, Mississippi – The rooms at this former all-male college had served as the barracks at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York in “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK I”:

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Sunset Station; San Antonio, Texas – This historic train station had served as the rail terminal station in St. Louis, Missouri in “HEAVEN AND HELL – NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK III”:

 

“CLASS OF ’61” (1993) Review

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“CLASS OF ’61” (1993) Review

Twenty-six years, ABC Television aired the pilot episode for an American war drama about the U.S. Civil War. Written by Jonas McCord, “CLASS OF ’61” told the story about three West Point graduates from the class of 1861, who found themselves on opposites sides following the outbreak of war.

I have a few corrections to make. “CLASS OF ’61” told the story about one West Point graduate, an Irish immigrant named Devlin O’Neil of Baltimore, and one cadet who had dropped out of the Academy following the outbreak of war, Shelby Peyton of Virginia. And the third man turned out to be a young George Armstrong Custer, who did graduate with the Class of ’61, but only served as a supporting character in this production. Actually, the third major character in “CLASS OF ’61” is a young man named Lucius, who happened to be a slave owned by Shelby’s father, a doctor and plantation owner. The movie followed Devlin, Shelby, Lucius and yes, even young Custer from that last day of peace before the bombardment of Fort Sumter to the waning moment of the Battle of Bull Run (or Manassas).

After Shelby dropped out of West Point, following the Fort Sumter bombardment and surrender, Shelby Peyton visits Devlin O’Neil’s home in Baltimore and discovers that the latter’s father has withdrawn his permission for Shelby to marry Devlin’s sister, Shannon, due to Shelby’s decision to follow his state into the Confederacy. Shelby also discovers that Devlin and Shannon’s younger brother, Terry, has joined a local street mob that happened to be pro-Confederate. After participating in the Pratt Street Riot on April 19, 1861; Terry ends up temporarily imprisoned at Fort McHenry before heading south to join the Confederate Army. Following his graduation from West Point, Devlin experiences difficulty in receiving an Army assignment, due to Terry’s actions. Devlin meets a Virginia belle from nearby Alexandria named Lily Magraw at a soirée hosted by long-time Washington socialite named Rose O’Neal Greenhow. Unbeknownst to Devil, both Lily and Mrs. Greenhow are Confederate spies. Shelby’s friendship with his father’s slave Lucius is tested due to the latter’s brief attempt to escape slavery with his pregnant wife, Lavinia. After killing one (or two) of the slave catchers who had spotted him, Lucius is forced to leave the Shelby plantation without his wife and head north via the Underground Railroad.

One would immediately notice that “CLASS OF ’61” has no main narrative other than a handful of major characters experiencing the first three months of the U.S. Civil War. That is because this 93-minute movie was supposed to serve as a pilot for a new series . . . which never materialized. But this loose narrative structure featuring a handful of plot lines did not deter me from enjoying the production. When I first saw “CLASS OF ’61”, I was in the throes of an obsession for the U.S. Civil War. An obsession that has not abated with time, I might add. There is a possibility that due to this obsession, I may have viewed “CLASS OF ’61” through rose-colored glasses when I first saw it. Do not get me wrong. I still managed to enjoy it. But due to the “sands of time”, I have finally noticed the flaws.

“CLASS OF ’61” has a great deal of virtues. Its biggest virtue seemed to be the cast. The television pilot featured many young players who would eventually become well known or major stars. Dan Futterman, an excellent character actor in his own right and a two-time Academy Award nominated screenwriter, gave a complex performance as Shelby Peyton. Clive Owen, who became a bigger star, gave an emotional performance as Devlin O’Neil, the Irish immigrant torn between his friendship with Peyton and his family’s patriotism toward their new country. Andre Braugher was already somewhat known for his performance in the 1989 movie, “GLORY”, when he shot this pilot. He eventually became a major television star and has received numerous nominations and won two Emmys for his work. Frankly, I thought he gave the best performance in the production as the embittered Virginia slave whose initial attempt to escape slavery would lead to him being apart from his wife and mother for several years.

The television movie also featured solid performances from the like of Josh Lucas (as George C. Custer) Dana Ivey, Penny Johnson, Sue-Ann Leeds (as Rose O’Neal Greenhow), Barry Cullison, Peter Murnik, Timothy Scott, Stephen Root, Christien Anholt and Andrew Stahl. However, I believe there were better supporting performances. One came from Sophie Ward, who gave a poignant performance as Devlin’s sister Shannon. Beverly Todd was excellent as Lucius’ pragmatic mother. Another came from future star Laura Linney, who portrayed the charming and charismatic Lily Magraw. Mark Pelligrino gave a very interesting performance as a fellow cadet from South Carolina named Skinner, especially in a scene in which the character provided off-putting instructions on how to breed healthy slaves to the discomfort of the Peytons. Robert Newman gave an intelligent performance as one of the main characters’ West Point instructors who become a Union artillery officer, Captain Wykoff. Len Cariou was effective as Shelby’s warm and intelligent father, Dr. Leland Peyton. Lorraine Toussaint shone brilliantly in her brief role as a slave woman named Sarah, who was accompanying her mistress on a southbound train also conveying Shelby had encountered on a southbound train from New York City. Niall O’Brien gave a very complex performance as Devlin and Shannon’s emotionally patriotic father, James O’Neil.

The production values for “CLASS OF ’61” struck me as solid, but not particularly top-notch. Although the movie’s setting stretched from West Point, New York to the Peyton plantation outside of Richmond, Virginia; it was easy for me to see that the television movie was set in South Carolina and Georgia . . . in the Deep South. I have noticed that many of these productions with an Antebellum or Civil War setting are shot in the Deep South states, even the narratives are set in the Upper South. Has the Upper South been developed too extensively to serve as locations for such movies? I found Michael T. Boyd’s costumes for the women characters very attractive and nearly accurate. However, I thought the men’s costumes looked as if they had came straight from a costume warehouse in Hollywood.

Recently, I had come across an old review of “CLASS OF ’61”. The New York Times reviewer seemed to dismiss the production as a nostalgic television movie with a failed plot. He seemed unaware that the movie was basically a pilot for a potential television series. When I first saw the movie, I knew that this was basically a pilot. Which is why I was not that surprised that it ended with the Battle of Bull Run without any of the plot lines being resolved. As for “CLASS OF ’61” being nostalgic . . . I am not sure about that criticism. Jonas McCord’s narrative seemed to be a mixture of a straight forward look at how Americans behaved and spoke during this tumultuous period in 19th century American history and a slightly critical look at their society. And I found its portrayal of the Bull Run battle rather interesting and detailed. However, the television movie featured a good deal more criticism of Northern racism and the Abraham Lincoln Administration. Shelby’s encounter with an abolitionist, a Maryland woman and her enslaved maid led to the latter’s soliloquy about the racism she had encountered in New York City. And another scene featured Devlin revealing his family troubles to Lily Magraw and Rose Greenhow – namely brother Terry’s incarceration inside Baltimore’s Fort McHenry and how this led to his failure to being assigned to an Army regiment.

I must admit that I found it odd that McCord seemed to focus so much on the flaws of Northern society and the Lincoln’s Administration . . . and not on the flaws of Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ own administration. After all, the state of Virginia had lost its northwestern counties during the three-month period between Fort Sumter and Bull Run, due to its citizens breaking away from the state. Considering that Shelby’s family lived in Virginia, I found it rather odd that western Virginia’s break from the state was never mentioned. On the other hand, the series did focus a great deal on slavery. Although the Peyton family were portrayed as kind slave owners who almost treated their slaves as family, the movie still managed to portray their role in slavery as something to condemn – especially through Lucius’ bitterness over being a slave, the patronizing manner of Dr. Peyton’s kindness and Shelby’s inability to understand Lucius’ desire for freedom or lack of faith in the latter’s ability to survive as a free man. I have noticed in many other productions about slavery during the Antebellum period or the Civil War, slave owners are either portrayed as kind or cruel . . . with no ambiguity in between. I must applaud McCord for his more ambiguous portrayal of Shelby and his family in regard to the slavery topic.

Were there aspects of “CLASS OF ’61” that troubled me? Well . . . yes. There were a few things. When Devlin was first introduced to Rose Greenhow at her soirée, the latter revealed that she knew a great deal about him – including where his family lived and his ranking among the West Point Class of ’61. I am sorry, but I found this hard to swallow. Was this McCord’s idea of conveying Mrs. Greenhow’s greatness as a spy? Why on earth would she have bothered to collect so much information on a recent West Point graduate who had ranked in the middle of his class? Seriously? Also in the movie, Mr. O’Neil had accused a visiting Shelby of joining a volunteer regiment called the Palmetto Guards. Earlier in the production, a cadet named Upton had accused the South Carolinian Skinner of doing the same right after the news of Sumter was announced. So I checked the Internet and discovered that “Palmetto Guards” was one of the nicknames for the 2nd South Carolina Infantry. I could understand Skinner being considered for this regiment. But why on earth would Mr. O’Neil accuse Shelby, a Virginian, of joining it? Unsurprisingly, “CLASS OF ’61” had failed to be picked up as a series. But imagine my surprise to discover that McCord had added a brief epilogue to reveal the characters’ fates. He must have been very bitter over the pilot’s fate, because he had committed some kind of “Scorch Earth” policy on the characters. Only three or four of them had survived the war . . . and one of them was George Armstrong Custer. Worse, two of his characters died in a way that was historically impossible.

Ironically, my biggest problem with “CLASS OF ’61” proved to be Shelby and Lucius’ friendship. Now I realize that human beings are ambiguous creatures. And I am also aware that some complex friendships or relationships may have formed between slaves and the owners – especially relationships that began in childhood like Shelby and Lucius. But there were aspects of the pair’s friendship that struck me as unrealistic. I found it unrealistic that Lucius would honestly express his bitterness over being a slave to Shelby, of all people. I also found it unrealistic that Lucius would tell Shelby about his lethal encounter with those slave catchers. The movie never portrayed Shelby as someone with pro-abolitionist leanings. And although he was friendly and familiar with his father’s slaves, he also shared Dr. Peyton’s patronizing attitude. It just seemed unnatural that Shelby would react with nothing more than mere surprise after Lucius had confessed to killing two slave catchers. I do not care how friendly he was with Lucius or any of the other Peyton slaves. He still harbored a good deal of his society’s casual racism and I could not see him allowing Lucius to leave the plantation after that confession.

Even after twenty-six years, I still managed to enjoy “CLASS OF ’61” Despite its flaws, the television movie managed to be an interesting and enjoying look into American society during the first three months of the U.S. Civil War. I thought Jonas McCord provided an interesting, yet inconclusive plot that showcased a first-rate cast starring Dan Futterman and Clive Owen. It is a pity that this pilot never became a series.

 

Top Favorite U.S. CIVIL WAR Novels

Below is a current list of my top favorite novels set during the U.S. Civil War: 

TOP FAVORITE U.S. CIVIL WAR NOVELS

1. “Love and War” (1984) by John Jakes – This is the second of a trilogy about two wealthy American families – the Hazards of Pennsylvania and the Mains of South Carolina – during the mid-19th century. This superb novel is about the two families’ experiences during the U.S. Civil War.

2. “The Beguiled” (1966) by Thomas Cullinan – A wounded Union soldier ends up in the care of the occupants of an all girls’ school in Virginia, during the Civil War; and ends up having an emotional impact on both students and teachers.

3. “The Killer Angels” (1974) by Michael Shaara – This historical novel about the Gettysburg Campaign during the summer of 1863 won the Pulitzer Prize For Fiction in 1975.

4. “The Titans” (1976) by John Jakes – This fifth novel in Jakes’ “Kent Family Chronicles” told the story of various members of the Kent family and their experiences during the first few months of the U.S. Civil War.

5. “Lincoln: A Novel” (1984) by Gore Vidal – Part of Vidal’s “Narratives of Empire” series, this novel told the story of President Abraham Lincoln’s presidency via the eyes of various historical figures.

6. “Freedom” (1987) by William Safire – This novel focused on the first two years of the U.S. Civil War via the eyes of historical figures as they grapple with the dilemmas of political morality raised by secession and war.

7. “Cold Mountain” (1997) by Charles Frazier – The author won the U.S. National Book Award for Fiction for this tale about a Confederate Army deserter during the last year of the Civil War who walks for months to return to the love of his life in North Carolina.

8. “Unto This Hour” (1984) by Tom Wicker – This novel recounted five long during the Second Battle of Bull Run campaign via several characters.

9. “The Last Full Measure” (2000) by Jeff Shaara – The author wrote this sequel to his father’s novel, “The Killer Angels”, about the last two years of the Civil War.

10. “Grant’s War” (1992) by Ted Jones – This novel proved to be an interesting take on the “mock documentary” in which an early 20th historian interviews several Civil War veterans on how General Ulysses Grant conducted the war.