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We all know at least some of the story of Fort Sumter, of how on April 12, 1861, Confederate batteries around Charleston harbor opened fire on the small Union garrison holding the fort, and how it surrendered two days later, inaugurating the Civil War. What few realize is that this episode represents just a tiny fraction of one percent of the fort’s wartime story, and probably the most benign at that. Reclaiming Fort Sumter, and with it control of Charleston harbor, became a primary Union objective for the rest of the war.
The subtitle of Derek Smith’s outstanding new book Sumter After the First Shots is a bit misleading, perhaps, in that Fort Sumter’s story during the war has been told in some substance before, notably in E. Milby Burton’s 1970 The Siege of Charleston. However, nowhere has the often gripping experience of the fort and its Confederate garrison been presented in greater detail, or with more drama.
It is a story of what happened both outside the fortress’s walls and within. The Yankees in 1863 sent their most imposing and powerful new weapons against the fort’s walls, mighty ironclad warships that were decisively rebuffed by Sumter’s cannon. One Union general even proposed sending a “forlorn hope” party of soldiers to sail up to the fort in the face of its guns, bore a hole in its outer wall in which to plant a massive explosive charge, and then risk killing themselves by setting it off. There were no volunteers. Those who remember the compelling film “Glory” may recall that it depicted a crucial event in the struggle for the fort.
Meanwhile inside Sumter some of its officers turned on each other, one killing his commandant in a duel, while on another occasion an accidental fire spread rapidly through the masonry interior, turning the fort into a massive brick bake oven that did not cool enough to be habitable for days. In 1863 onward Union batteries on islands at the outer reaches of the harbor steadily pounded the fort’s parapets into a shapeless mound of rubble, but still the defenders stayed at their posts, turning the debris into actual enhancements to their defenses. Ultimately, the resolute fort and its defenders never fell to an attacker, but only surrendered when Charleston itself fell to William T. Sherman’s army, rendering the fort itself irrelevant.
Derek Smith presents this compelling story with verve, basing it solidly on good research. For anyone who has visited Fort Sumter, his narrative will have resonance and meaning, while for those who have never been there, Sumter After the First Shots will likely awaken a desire to see this place whose role in the beginning, course, and end of the Civil War well merits the term unique.
Robert Goodwin's new book recounts the history of the Spain that ruled the biggest and richest empire in the world. He begins his epic story in 1519 with the conquest of Mexico and ends it unusually in 1682 with the death of the painter Esteban Murrillo, the last surviving protagonist of Spain's golden age. Goodwin, a Fellow of University College, London, tells this history through the lives of twelve emblematic figures, including the great Hapsburg monarchs, Charles V and his son Phillip II, the Inca chronicler Garcilaso de la Vega, and Spain's leading general, the Duke of Alba; but also religious figures like the mystic Saint Teresa and the Jesuit founder Ignatius of Loyola, as well as artistic geniuses like Diego de Velasquez and literary lions like novelist Miguel de Cervantes and poet Luis de Gongora. It is a strategy that engages the reader and helps make this lengthy but well-written book a good read. Spain has a rich and complex history and Goodwin divides his book into two parts to tell it. "Gold" the first part, is divided iton two in turn; the first half under the reign of Charles, and the second half under that of Philip. It begins with the conquest of Mexico and Peru and the enormous riches these conquests brought Spain and its Hapsburg rulers, who spent much of it on fruitless efforts to suppress the Protestant Reformation and construct a "universal monarchy" It ends with the disaster of the Spanish Armada and Philip's vain attempt to claim the crown of England just as he had successfully claimed the crown of Portugal a few years before with the help of Alba and his army. The second part of Goodwin's book,"Glitter" provides an engaging cultural history of Spain's golden age. Paradoxically, Spain's 17th century cultural golden age takes place within a context of political and economic decline. Philip III and Philip IV were weak monarchs who preferred to reign, not rule, leaving the affairs of state to corrupt and manipulative favorites. Goodwin sees this as an era in which the Spanish aristocracy followed its monarchs into "fabulous decadence" as cultural consumers of great painting, poetry, theater and pageantry. Art and display replaced valor and virtue. Chapters celebrate Cervantes and his Don Quixote, (perhaps the greatest novel ever written), the Baroque poetry of Gongora, the brilliant canvases of Velasquez, the theatrical portrayals of Don Juan and the spectacular displays of Holy Week in Seville. Throughout both parts of this well-crafted book, the author weaves together political and cultural history, showing the influence of one on the other. The result is a richly textured account of Spain during its century and a half of political and cultural greatness.