As you plan your reading for 2016, consider these eight recently published or forthcoming titles. Watch for more recommendations and book reviews in the coming weeks.
Mary Beard, classicist and author of the blog A Don’s Life, offers SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome (Liveright, 608 pp., $35), a perceptive tour of the birth of Rome, the political entity, from the shadows of obscurity and its circuitous evolution into the Roman Republic. Step by step, she interrogates the traditional academic assumptions of its leaders, origin myths, and governing structures and analyzes them, often through the prisms of recent archaeological and historical discoveries, and presents a fresh and comprehensive history of Rome before its imperial era.
Richard Alston’s Rome’s Revolution: Death of the Republic and Birth of the Empire (Oxford University Press, 408 pp., $29.95) examines the chaotic and blood-soaked transition of the Roman Republic to Roman Empire. Another civil war erupted in 44 BC following the senatorial assassination of Julius Caesar, and in the end three men were left standing — Octavian, Mark Antony, and Lepidus. They agreed to share power and administer separate parts of the Roman world. Octavian governed Rome and the west. Antony took the eastern territories (basing himself in Alexandria, where he met Cleopatra), and Lepidus took the rest of Africa west of Egypt. Ultimately, however, Roman rule could not be shared, and Octavian eventually eliminated his partners, terminated the 500-year-old republic, and assumed supreme power as emperor of a new Roman Empire. Alston’s story effortlessly swings back and forth between experiences of Romans on the street and Romans in the halls (and bedrooms) of power as they all experienced, whether they realized it or not, one of the most significant political revolutions in human history.
Simon Cameron, Abraham Lincoln’s first secretary of war, is remembered for little more than his departure under the shadow of corruption, incompetence, or intransigence. Paul Kahan’s Amiable Scoundrel: Simon Cameron, Lincoln’s Scandalous Secretary of War (University of Nebraska Press, 408 pp. $36.95) confronts the fog of historical negativity swirling around Cameron and argues that not only was Cameron a product of his time, his time was partly a product of him. Before joining Lincoln’s Cabinet — an intelligent political move on Lincoln’s part — Cameron was a political powerhouse in Pennsylvania, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, present at the birth of the Republican Party, a key voice in formulating Northern military strategy, and an early supporter for inclusion of black Americans in the ranks of the Union forces. He witnessed, was a part of, or a target of the most important political and military debates before and during the early months of the Civil War. Kahan’s portrait of Cameron and his times reminds us to not overlook Cameron’s crucial influence and historical importance and to remember the larger political forces Lincoln needed to succeed.
As powerful men influenced historical events, even more powerful women influenced the men. Candice Shy Hooper focuses on four of these women in Lincoln’s Generals’ Wives: Four Women Who Influenced the Civil War — for Better and for Worse (Kent State University Press, 440 pp., $39.95). Jessie Fremont (wife of John C. Fremont), Nelly McClellan (wife of George B. McClellan), Ellen Sherman (wife of William T. Sherman), and Julia Grant (wife of Ulysses S. Grant) watched their husbands rise up the ranks of Union command, worried for their safety as they fought the biggest and bloodiest battles in the history of the Western Hemisphere, traveled around the war-torn country, and offered their opinions and guidance as politics and war coalesced into the same battlefield over supreme power. Hooper deftly (and amusingly) explores how the wives’ personalities and outlooks resembled those of their spouses. They viewed Lincoln either with contempt or respect. They encouraged their husbands to either undermine or support him, ultimately intensifying either their husbands’ intransigence, and thereby dooming them to removal from command, or challenging them to do better, thereby securing their husbands’ places in the pantheon of U.S. military history.
Kelly D. Mezurek’s For Their Own Cause: The 27th United States Colored Troops (Kent State University Press, 344 pp., $37.95) promises to go beyond the traditional unit history to illustrate why black Americans volunteered to fight in the Union Army, how they endured racism and unfair treatment and assignments, and what they expected from the democratic republic they had bled for and died to save. The free Ohio men that comprised the 27th USCT fought in North Carolina and Virginia, serving from April 1864 to September 1865, months after the Confederacy collapsed. They returned to Ohio determined to build better and stronger communities for their children, linked to the promises of the the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. Their story further brightens the scholarly illumination of black veterans’ excruciating struggle to secure equal rights for all Americans and ultimately realize the promise of American democracy.
Richard M. Reid’s African Canadians in Union Blue: Volunteering for the Cause in the Civil War (Kent State University Press, 308 pp., $28.95) offers an exciting and fresh perspective on black Union soldiers who joined their American counterparts in the fight for freedom in North America. The transnational perspective sparks new considerations of the nature of black Northern societies that stretched far beyond international borders and cultures. It also contributes to the larger conversation about why men and women fought on either side in the Civil War. Reid’s Canadian soldiers join the array of other foreign soldiers — including Latinos from Mexico, Cuba, and the Caribbean — who fought their own larger world war for freedom and democracy.
WORLD WAR II
The process of intellectual preparation for the wars of the future is a complicated landscape for any historian to analyze and illustrate. But John M. Lillard’s Playing War: Wargaming and U.S. Navy Preparations for World War II (University of Nebraska Press, 224 pp., $39.95) offers the ideal vantage point for both scholars, students, and enthusiasts of military history. While other studies might underestimate the Naval War College’s interwar contribution to the U.S. Navy’s eventual strategies and tactics, Lillard argues that the College’s multi-level war games, experiments with new technologies, and perceptive simulations of the future wars all lay at the heart of U.S. victory in 1945.
Astronauts inspire us like none others. Their scientific, technological, and intellectual achievements are unrivaled, their bravery in the face of certain death is unforgettable, and their patriotism is unassailable. They are the first to admit that what they achieved was the result of their participation in efforts that involved thousands of men and women around the world. They are also the first to remind their admirers that not everyone survived the journeys into history. Colin Burgess, Kate Doolan and Bert Vis collected the stories of sixteen Americans and Russians who died during their nations’ efforts to reach the moon in a new edition of Fallen Astronauts: Heroes Who Died Reaching for the Moon (University of Nebraska Press, 448 pp., $36.95). Some died in training accidents, others on the launch pad, and one died in an automobile accident. Fallen Astronauts promises to deepen the reverence for those who lost their lives, for those who dared to move forward, and for those who made it to the summit, never forgetting those they lost. Heroism transcended nationality, ideology, or culture.
Book gems of 2016
An occasional series
Jan. 3: Antiquity, Civil War, World War II, and space
June 22: Presidents and the political world
June 29: Texas and Texas history
July 6: Latin America
July 13: Slavery and the Civil War era
July 20: World War I and II, science, culture, and literature