BY JINGO - Colonial History & Wargames Page

Book Reports and Reviews


The "Nefariously Naughty" Professor Rick Norton

When Andrew offered me the chance to contribute book reports to "By Jingo," I was as surprised as I was delighted. Having accepted, it only seems fair to offer a few words about how these books came to be reviewed and what readers can expect in the future.

Basically, I read what comes across my desk or what strikes my interest. I also peruse a variety of academic catalogs and when something interesting pops up, drive local librarians mad with request for inter-library loans if my own library doesn't have the work in question.

For this column I intend to primarily focus on books of the Victorian period (now there's a surprise) covering roughly from 1846 to 1902. However, don't be surprised if you see books relating to earlier or later periods.

While some of the books may be new releases, others are old favorites, or have been around for a time and I am just finding them or getting to them. I'll be happy to take requests, but can't guarantee I can find the book in question. Any publishers wishing to send me free copies of books to look at are welcome to do so.

These reviews include comments specifically aimed at gamers. After all, this is "By Jingo!" When a book provides interesting material for scenarios, uniform details, and so on, I'll try to point that out. Thus, why I would not normally recommend an Osprey "Men At Arms" book as a history text, I might suggest that gamers would be well off buying a particular edition immediately.

It should also be clear that these reviews are my opinion nothing more. While it's true I do a lot of reading in the area and offer a class on the period (in my guise as teacher), my likes and dislikes are no more valid than yours are. For those with a legal bent it should also be clear that these views are solely my own and do not represent the views of any organization. Institution, business, etc. that I might be involved with. On those occasions where I might recommend acquiring a book, I offer no suggestions as to any company or individual merchant. (I simply wish you the best of luck in finding the best possible deal.) As a rule I recommend visiting your library and giving any book a trial run before committing to purchase.

It may be that readers may be inspired to send in their own reviews. I hope they will. I'm sure Andrew can find room for them if they meet with his approval.

I hope, but cannot promise, to provide at least four reviews a month. And so, without further ado ---

1. "The South African War 1899 1902," by Bill Nasson, (London: Arnold, 1999)

You'd never guess it from the lurid cover, but Bill Nasson is a professor of history at the University of Capetown in South Africa. Bill also happens to be a pretty decent writer. U.S. readers may find his work takes a little getting used to as South African English has its own pacing and rhythm.

Nasson takes a broad look at the second Boer war and is more concerned with social history than solely military raconteurship. Rest assured the battles are not neglected the book is simply more encompassing than that. Where I think the author excels is in analyzing how the actions of military and political leaders on both sides led to a brutal and protracted war. In this Nasson is commendably even handed to the point where those with a particular bias may find him too much so.

There are some generic maps of battles provided, but they are of little use to the gamer. Nor is there any description of uniform details, orders of battles and so on. Finally, and what may be my strongest criticism, is that the book makes extensive use of Packenham's superb "The Boer War." Accordingly my advice would be to buy Packenham's book and check out Nasson's. Beware if you decide to add Nasson's book to your collection, the price is likely to be high.

2. "Death of a Legend: The Myth and Mystery Surrounding the Death of Davy Crockett," by Tom Groneman, 2nd Edition. (Plano, TX: Republic of Texas Press, 1999)

How did Davy Crockett die? The inability to positively answer this short and simple question beyond a shadow of a doubt has led to one of the more intense arguments that sometimes pop up among historians. Bill Groneman is one of the current pillars of this debate and has been since 1994 when the first edition of this book was published.

As a child of the fifties and a native-born, if not bred, Texan, I (and pretty much everyone I knew) accepted the usual version of the "13 days of glory." Crockett and the rest of Alamo's defenders went down with defiance and courage before the overwhelming power of Santa Anna's army. Case closed. The only item left to debate was who made the better Crockett Fess Parker or John Wayne? (Parker got my vote.)

Then came the 70s 80s and the "re-discovery" of the "De La Pena Diary," an alleged Mexican account of the battle telling a very different tale. In this version Crockett and a few other defenders surrendered and by order of Santa Anna were executed. The legitimacy of the diary is open to some question, but many scholars accept its authenticity. The current owners are evidently not willing to submit the diary to the available, but expensive testing that could potentially lay this issue to rest.

We are therefore left with a vast gulf between two opposite accounts of Crockett's death. Among the more harsher of the "Crockett as quitter" school is Jeff Long, author of "A Duel of Eagles." About the nicest thing he calls Davy is "an Anglo mercenary." Groneman doesn't buy this. And he presents a much better written explanation of why he doesn't than he did in the first edition.

It's a better book because Groneman is less strident. He doesn't make a case for Davy dying a hero; he makes a case that there is not enough evidence to know how he died. He presents a good story of the siege and there are some nice illustrations. There is also a well-done map/drawing of the mission. Groneman also lays out the case for suspecting the authenticity of the De La Pena diary. The argument is impressive and many will find it convincing.

If you are an Alamo buff, you should read this book. If you don't know a lot about the battle, you should also read this book. It's a quick read and, in the right circles, a sure-fire way to start a conversation.

3."To Hell with Honor: Custer and the Little Bighorn," by Larry Sklenar (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2000.)

Just as no one knows exactly how Davy Crockett met his fate, no one knows exactly what happened at the Little Big Horn. But Larry Sklenar thinks he has a pretty good idea. He also thinks that Custer has caught a bad rap. This alone would serve as a recommendation for reading his book, given that mainstream wisdom would paint Custer as a glory-seeking risk-taking prima donna who made a terrible tactical blunder and paid the accompanying price. To his credit, Sklenar has done a lot of research and the scenario he presents is possible, perhaps even plausible, although some parts are more plausible than others are. Sklenar places the blame for the Custer disaster on Major Reno's cowardice and Captain Benteen's nettled sense of bruised pride, which led him to dawdle when he was, needed most.

Sklenar brings passion to this argument. You can tell that he feels deeply about this issue. As a result he is sometimes intemperate in his choice of verbiage. He wants to make you see the battle as he does. And therein lies a problem.

When advancing such an argument as Sklenar does where theory is offered as conclusive great care must be taken in building the case. Supporting evidence must be checked and re-checked and the reader must feel that this has been done. Alternate theories must be presented in as strong as terms as possible and dealt with fairly and openly. Sklenar is not an analyst as much as he is advocate. His book would be more powerful were he not. His case would have been stronger. Also, many, small-scale and detailed maps would be very helpful. There are some maps, but not enough, and I for one would have liked to see a more integrated use of graphics such as charts of the archaeological finds that have been made in the area.

But I still would recommend reading this book from the library. It's worth the time because Sklenar does the have the courage to be adamant and his view of the battle is a minority one. For readers new to Little Big Horn, Custer and the 7th Cavalry I suggest that you also read "Custer's Luck," by Edgar Stewart, (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1955) for a counter-view. There is also a good dual biography of Custer and Crazy Horse that you might wish to read as well.

4. "Last Stand!: Famous Battles Against the Odds," by Bryan Perrett. (London: Arms and Armour, 1991.)

At first glance Victorian aficionados should find this work irresistible. There is something compelling about the notion of a small band of desperate men refusing to surrender, fighting against terrible odds with the thought that being wiped out is not the same thing as being beaten. Perhaps more than any other genre of gamers colonialists will fight to command the Legion at Camerone, the Texans at the Alamo, or the 24th Regiment of Foot at Isandhlwana. Unfortunately, despite a beautiful Keith Rocco cover of the Battle of Rorke's Drift, the book falls short. It's unfortunate because Perrett could have really done some interesting work with the theme.

Perrett's introduction does raise some fascinating questions about "last stands." As he points out, such an act is a rarity and no Army trains it soldiers to do this. (Although one might argue that the Foreign Legion tries to.) Alas, he never answers the questions that he raises, but contents himself with simply presenting several tales of battle. These include accounts of the Old Guard at Waterloo, the Alamo, Camerone, Little Big Horn, Isandhlwana, Rorke's Drift, Nery, Flesquiers, Bois des Buttes, Wake Atoll, Outpost "Snipe," Sidi Nsir, Betio & Tarawa, "The Admin Box," Burma, Arnhem, and the Imjin.

Readers familiar with military history will already be registering some concerns. Why are some of these battles considered "Last Stands?" What are the criteria of selection? Why the predominately western orientation? Were some of these battles last stands at all? Still, even if they were not "last stands", these were desperate battles. Interested readers can always perform their own cross-chapter analyses, so all is not lost. For those of us interested in colonial battles, five of the fights are in our time period - stretching just a bit for the Alamo - and gamers could easily convert the others to a colonial setting.

But problems still persist. I do not pretend to be an expert in all of these battles but I know a bit about some of them. And Perrett's accounts of these fights contain some usually minor inaccuracies. This is annoying and leads me to wonder about the accounts of the battles I knew nothing about. As a result, I'd avoid buying the book, unless you're interested in designing some "last stand" scenarios. Then, a trip to the library might be worthwhile.

Until next month . Good Reading and Good Gaming!

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