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profile-icon Kendall McCurley

I’ve always loved learning about history. In undergrad, I majored in History with a concentration in African American studies and I continue to devour books pertaining to the American South. I recently ran across a book by Gary Gallagher called The Confederate War. Now, I won’t lie and say that I wasn’t weary about the title and what this book could be about, but I was pleasantly surprised by how well researched and compelling the book actually was. So here are my thoughts.

Historians of the Civil War continue to search for the answer of why and how the Confederates lost the war to the Union. Many believe that it was due to internal weakness such as a lack of will, never developing a sense of nationalism, and a flawed military strategy. However, according to Gary Gallagher in The Confederate War, the historians came to this conclusion by working backwards from the surrender at Appomattox in the Spring of 1865. It was through this lens of defeat that historians have tried to answer the question. Gallagher instead argues that “Confederates believed they had been beaten on the battlefield rather than undone by internal divisions” (Gallagher, 12). He proves his argument by showing the popular and continued will of the Confederates and the southern home front that culminated in a strong sense of nationhood and nationalism. He further explained the importance of Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia and its triumphs for the Confederates in terms of nationalism and a strong military strategy. Gallagher concludes by arguing that in spite of all of these strengths, the Confederates lost because “northern armies had demonstrated their ability to crush organized southern military resistance” (Gallagher, 157). I believe that Gallagher’s work has added to our understanding of the Confederate side of the Civil War and his use of compelling evidence shows the strong Confederate spirit that did not break, or wane, throughout the war and even well after its conclusion.

Gallagher used a plethora of primary sources including letters, diaries, and newspapers to prove and cement his argument about the continual will and strong nationalism amongst Confederates. Letters between Confederate soldiers and their loved ones, showed the will to continue fighting against the Union not only at the beginning of the war but even up until the surrender at Appomattox. Gallagher states, “strong feelings of national identity helped spawn the impressive will Confederates exhibited during their war for independence” (Gallagher, 63). He rebuffs the idea stated by previous scholars that “political dissension, class strife pitting the yeomanry against planters, doubts about the morality of slavery, fears that God favored the North, the absence of a shared sense of purpose, and other factors explain why the Confederate experiment in rebellion failed” (Gallagher, 17).

One of the most important aspects of Gallagher’s argument is the importance of Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia on Confederate confidence and their continual fighting spirit. While most historians do not acknowledge Lee’s influence on Confederates, or do not agree with the level of his importance, Gallagher argues “Robert E. Lee and his soldiers functioned as the principal focus of Confederate nationalism for much of the war, and young slaveholding officers who had matured during the 1850s stood out as perhaps the most highly nationalistic component of the Army of Northern Virginia” (Gallagher, 63). Gallagher also argues that Lee’s military strategy, despite the tremendous loss of life and manpower for the south, was also a cause for southern morale and nationalism. He argues, “battles such as Chancellorsville promulgated a faith in Lee and his soldiers that sustained civilian morale during later difficult times, helping Confederates cope with the blockade, a devalued currency, and Union victories outside Virginia because they retained hope for independence and an end to their travails” (Gallagher, 139).

Gary Gallagher’s The Confederate War instilled a compelling argument against previous scholars conclusions that the Confederates lost the war because of internal divisions and instead argued that decisive defeats in battle and not internal strife was the cause of an overall Union victory. Gallagher succeeded in proving that Confederate will remained strong throughout the war and a strong sense of nationhood and nationalism prevailed. This was proven through a series of letters, diary entries, and newspaper articles that showed the strength of will from both the soldiers and the civilians. Through his examination of Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia, Gallagher continued to show the morale boasting military strategy that continued to foster ideals of nationalism amongst young Confederates. All of this evidence demonstrates that internal strife could not be the answer to why and how they lost the war. In doing so, Gallagher dismantles previous scholars beliefs of the Confederate’s cause of defeat and defends his belief that the war was lost due lack of Confederate manpower and to decisive Union victories.

If you are interested in more books about the Civil War, check out the library’s Civil War Collection, housed at our Palatka Library!

Cover ArtThe Confederate War by Gary W. Gallagher
ISBN: 9780674160569
Publication Date: 1999-03-15
If one is to believe contemporary historians, the South never had a chance. Many allege that the Confederacy lost the Civil War because of internal division or civilian disaffection; others point to flawed military strategy or ambivalence over slavery. But, argues distinguished historian Gary Gallagher, we should not ask why the Confederacy collapsed so soon but rather how it lasted so long. In The Confederate War he reexamines the Confederate experience through the actions and words of the people who lived it to show how the home front responded to the war, endured great hardships, and assembled armies that fought with tremendous spirit and determination. Gallagher's portrait highlights a powerful sense of Confederate patriotism and unity in the face of a determined adversary. Drawing on letters, diaries, and newspapers of the day, he shows that Southerners held not only an unflagging belief in their way of life, which sustained them to the bitter end, but also a widespread expectation of victory and a strong popular will closely attuned to military events. In fact, the army's "offensive-defensive" strategy came remarkably close to triumph, claims Gallagher--in contrast to the many historians who believe that a more purely defensive strategy or a guerrilla resistance could have won the war for the South. To understand why the South lost, Gallagher says we need look no further than the war itself: after a long struggle that brought enormous loss of life and property, Southerners finally realized that they had been beaten on the battlefield. Gallagher's interpretation of the Confederates and their cause boldly challenges current historical thinking and invites readers to reconsider their own conceptions of the American Civil War.
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profile-icon Brenda Hoffman


Mexican Gothic (2020) is a novel that I cannot recommend. But don’t take my word for it. Google the title and you’ll find dozens of positive reviews comparing Moreno-Garcia’s mystery to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847) Jane Eyre 1943 film version and Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (1938) Rebecca 1940 film version. Heavy hitters in their own right, I recognized the connections in Gothic, but making those connections set me up for what Vincent Vega, from Pulp Fiction, might call “a bold statement.” The hype didn’t live up to the reality.

At the center of this trio of novels are naïve young women: Jane Eyre, the second Mrs. de Winter from Rebecca, and Gothic’s Noemi Taboada. An enigmatic love interest, a house with secrets, and croney female characters who trouble the heroines are obvious connections, too. But what Bronte and du Maurier do well, Moreno-Garcia falls short. To wit, Bronte layers her gothic story with enough background that the reader understands Jane’s motivations. That Jane falls in love with an older man whose insane wife lives in the attic is disconcerting, but the heart wants what the heart wants, right? And Bronte offers Rochester, Jane’s married man, an out: disinherited by his father, he marries Betha Mason for her money. Poor guy. Marry Bertha or work for a living. He chose the former, and then stuck his insane, beautiful, wealthy, Jamaican wife in the attic of Thornfield Hall. Gothic’s Virgil Doyle marries once-fun-loving Catalina, Noemi’s cousin, who fears that her new home, High Place, is trying to kill her. Sneaking a letter addressed to Noemi’s dad, the reader learns of Catalina’s possible insanity as the walls whisper sweet nothings, no, sorry, nothing sweet about these nothings. Here is what deranged Catalina claims, “The walls speak to me. They tell me secrets. Don’t listen to them, press your hands against your ears, Noemi. There are ghosts.” She’s half right. What speaks to her is the Gloom, which is a combination of a fungus (I explain the fungus in three more sentences. Be patient, dear reader.) which grows beneath the house and her father-in-law’s first wife, Agnes. Yes, it’s a spoiler. You’ll be glad I explained “the gloom” if you read the book. Revealing the conflict between Virgil and Catalina will ruin the reveal of the novel, and I’m going to do it anyway. Akin to “The Last of Us,” the television series on HBOMax based on the video game, the (dead) characters in Gothic are interconnected via a deadly fungus that alters the minds of the inhabitants of, wait for it: High Place. Get it? Mushrooms? High Place? Oh boy. And Noemi as the beautiful feminist character who flirts with young men in Mexico City, dresses like a fashion model, and agrees to rescue her cousin if her dad will allow her to major in anthropology is a letdown. Her dad doesn’t understand why a 1950s young lady desires an education when her job is to secure a husband. At least Noemi has a name! Rebecca’s naïve heroine is known only as the second Mrs. de Winter. This waif of a woman is overshadowed by the book’s title character, Rebecca, who is dead. (Sidebar: Do check out the Alfred Hitchcock Rebecca 1940 film versionClassic suspenseful Hitch.) So, there’s the thread, or fungus, that connects the novels: naïve young women eclipsed by dead or hidden women.

But the book does work on another level that is timely. The fungus that infects the characters reminds me of COVID-19. The novel was published in 2020, and although Moreno-Garcia hasn’t claimed any allegorical connections to the pandemic, I see them. High Place’s rural setting is the quarantined house where readers hunkered down in 2020. The characters don’t interact with townspeople; they distrust those outside of their bubble, and they are infected by a scary and deadly virus when they go outside their bubble for toilet paper, scratch that, hand sanitizer, scratch that, canned soup. Okay: candy, chips, and alcohol.

But Moreno-Garcia could’ve told the story of a forward-thinking heroine. Noemi Taboada, a university student who wants to study anthropology, which is the “study of human societies and culture and their development,” and the “study of human biological and physiological characteristics and their evolution,” might’ve begun her university studies at High Place, a unique quarantined, gothic house to analyze and investigate the evolution of her cousin’s bonkers family. Now that’s a novel (pun intended) idea! Instead, she falls in love with a fungus brother, Francis, and vows to cure him after they burn High Place to the ground. I seem to recall a couple of gothic novels where the heroine sets fire to scary, gothicy mansions. Guess what happens at the end of Jane Eyre? Thornfield Hall burns; insane wife dies. Guess what happens at the end of Rebecca? Manderley burns; the memory of the cruel wife dies.

Not interested in reading the novel? In August 2020 Milojo Productions and ABC Signature announced that they had optioned a limited series adaptation of Mexican Gothic to be released on HULU. Kelly Ripa and Mark Consuelos are producing, and Ripa feels like “we [she and Consuelos] hit the literary jackpot.” And she loves the author’s writing: “Sublime horror for your summer reading. So good i [sic] bought the hard copy and the download to read in the dark.” I suspect her hubby didn’t join her in the dark.

But, dear reader, pick up Mexican Gothic if you like derivative gothic stories. This blog is one reader’s humble opinion, not a “bold statement.”

Cover ArtMexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
ISBN: 9780525620808
Publication Date: 2021-06-15
NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER * "It's Lovecraft meets the Brontës in Latin America, and after a slow-burn start Mexican Gothic gets seriously weird."--The Guardian   IN DEVELOPMENT AS A HULU ORIGINAL LIMITED SERIES PRODUCED BY KELLY RIPA AND MARK CONSUELOS * WINNER OF THE LOCUS AWARD * NOMINATED FOR THE BRAM STOKER AWARD ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR: The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, NPR, The Washington Post, Tordotcom, Marie Claire, Vox, Mashable, Men's Health, Library Journal, Book Riot, LibraryReads   An isolated mansion. A chillingly charismatic aristocrat. And a brave socialite drawn to expose their treacherous secrets. . . . From the author of Gods of Jade and Shadow comes "a terrifying twist on classic gothic horror" (Kirkus Reviews) set in glamorous 1950s Mexico. After receiving a frantic letter from her newly-wed cousin begging for someone to save her from a mysterious doom, Noemí Taboada heads to High Place, a distant house in the Mexican countryside. She's not sure what she will find--her cousin's husband, a handsome Englishman, is a stranger, and Noemí knows little about the region.      Noemí is also an unlikely rescuer: She's a glamorous debutante, and her chic gowns and perfect red lipstick are more suited for cocktail parties than amateur sleuthing. But she's also tough and smart, with an indomitable will, and she is not afraid: Not of her cousin's new husband, who is both menacing and alluring; not of his father, the ancient patriarch who seems to be fascinated by Noemí; and not even of the house itself, which begins to invade Noemi's dreams with visions of blood and doom.   Her only ally in this inhospitable abode is the family's youngest son. Shy and gentle, he seems to want to help Noemí, but might also be hiding dark knowledge of his family's past. For there are many secrets behind the walls of High Place. The family's once colossal wealth and faded mining empire kept them from prying eyes, but as Noemí digs deeper she unearths stories of violence and madness.    And Noemí, mesmerized by the terrifying yet seductive world of High Place, may soon find it impossible to ever leave this enigmatic house behind. "It's as if a supernatural power compels us to turn the pages of the gripping Mexican Gothic."--The Washington Post "Mexican Gothic is the perfect summer horror read, and marks Moreno-Garcia with her hypnotic and engaging prose as one of the genre's most exciting talents."--Nerdist "A period thriller as rich in suspense as it is in lush '50s atmosphere."--Entertainment Weekly
Cover ArtJane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë; Beth Newman (Editor)
ISBN: 0312127952
Publication Date: 1996-02-01
Cover ArtRebecca by Daphne du Maurier
ISBN: 0385043805
Publication Date: 1948-03-08
A true classic of suspense in a beautiful new package for a whole new generation of readers.
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profile-icon Michael Ramey

Back in May 2022 I wrote about my interest in giving Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series a try. Set during the Napoleonic Wars, the series explores the friendship between Captain Jack Aubrey and Doctor Stephen Maturin amidst the backdrop of eighteenth-and-nineteenth century British navy life. After finishing the third book in the series, I think it is worth looking back at how I feel about the series up to this point.

One thing that immediately sticks out is how O’Brian presents eighteenth-and-nineteenth century British naval life with historical authenticity. He captures the slang and dialect of the eighteenth-and-nineteenth century British officer and sailor by using primary source material such as letters and other correspondence from the period. Not only that, but O’Brian also has his characters interact with historical figures and participate in actual naval engagements from the Napoleonic Wars such as the First and Second Battles of Algeciras in 1801 and the Battle of Cape Santa Maria in 1804.

The main characters are also well written and are the selling point of the series. Captain Jack Aubrey is strictly by-the-book about British naval customs, but he has the understanding temperament and natural leadership qualities required for a captain. Stephen Maturin, the ship’s doctor and surgeon, is curious about the world around him from the natural sciences to music. His additional experience as an undercover intelligence officer for the British Admiralty provides an interesting contrast to Aubrey’s overt presence.

With all that said, I do have some criticisms about the first three books in the series. It is a series that demands a lot from the reader. Specifically, clarity is at times sacrificed for historical authenticity. O’Brian is not shy about using eighteenth-and-nineteenth century naval terms and jargon to describe what is happening with the ship such as sail rigging, maneuvers, and other highly technical sailing terms. Occasionally, Maturin fills in as the reader’s surrogate when Captain Aubrey or the crew need to explain specific sailing terms or elements of the plot, but it does not happen consistently enough to alleviate the issue. The sailing jargon interrupted the flow of the story enough to where I would put the books away for days at a time.

Another problem is how O’Brian stylizes and structures the narrative. There are several instances where events will happen “offscreen,” and the characters will reflect on these events after the fact which can be confusing at times. Temporal chronology is also inconsistent: the story will sometimes go day-by-day and then several weeks, if not months, will go by in the next sentence. Of course, this technique can help when repetitive actions are happening over a significant amount of time (like sailing around continents), but it can make the story’s pacing disorienting.

Even with these criticisms, the series has been a fun read so far. I plan to start the fourth book soon. I have no idea whether I will read the entire twenty-one-book series, but I do not regret my time with the first three books.

Cover ArtMaster and Commander by Patrick O'Brian
ISBN: 9780393307054
Publication Date: 1990-08-17
This, the first in the splendid series of Jack Aubrey novels, establishes the friendship between Captain Aubrey, R.N., and Stephen Maturin, ship's surgeon and intelligence agent, against a thrilling backdrop of the Napoleonic wars. Details of a life aboard a man-of-war in Nelson's navy are faultlessly rendered: the conversational idiom of the officers in the ward room and the men on the lower deck, the food, the floggings, the mysteries of the wind and the rigging, and the roar of broadsides as the great ships close in battle.
Cover ArtPost Captain by Patrick O'Brian
ISBN: 9780393307061
Publication Date: 1990-08-17
"We've beat them before and we'll beat them again." In 1803 Napoleon smashes the Peace of Amiens, and Captain Jack Aubrey, R. N., taking refuge in France from his creditors, is interned. He escapes from France, from debtors' prison, and from a possible mutiny, and pursues his quarry straight into the mouth of a French-held harbor.
Cover ArtH. M. S. Surprise by Patrick O'Brian
ISBN: 9780393307610
Publication Date: 1991-05-17
Third in the series of Aubrey-Maturin adventures, this book is set among the strange sights and smells of the Indian subcontinent, and in the distant waters ploughed by the ships of the East India Company. Aubrey is on the defensive, pitting wits and seamanship against an enemy enjoying overwhelming local superiority. But somewhere in the Indian Ocean lies the prize that could make him rich beyond his wildest dreams: the ships sent by Napoleon to attack the China Fleet.
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