Monthly Archives: June 2014

Review: Western College for Women

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Western College for Women

Jacqueline Johnson’s book Western College for Women was a quick read. Before I start singing its praises, which I will get to, I want to disclose the facts that could bias my opinion. First, I live in Oxford Ohio the home of Western College and have a history degree from Miami University where Ms Johnson worked as the Rare Books Librarian. She is now the Western College archivist which I am sure helped her with this book. Second, she has worked with my wife on projects for the university. Now those are not my reasons for reading the book. I love local history, the past is most alive when you stand where it happened. I am interested in the history of education. In fact I have Narka Nelson’s 1954 book “The Western College for Women, 1853-1953”, which Johnson mentions, on my bookshelf but for some reason I have not yet read it. One reason could be that it stops short of what I considered the most interesting aspect of Western College’s story. Training the volunteers for Freedom Summer, another of my interests.

Western College for Women first held classes in 1853. It is hard to see even western Ohio as “the West” today but remember that ten years later the Civil War “Army of the West” consisted of soldiers from Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. Today Oxford is in the country, then it was in the wilderness, a college town carved out of beech groves in 1809. Johnson shows us the college as it develops and expands over the decades. I mean she literally shows us. The book has well over two hundred photographs coupled with informative captions all collected and written by Johnson. At first it surprised me that there was not more text. Johnson shows us the primary document, the photograph of the person, place, event, as it happened. This is good history.

Sometimes the picture is more persuasive than mere words. On page 34 we have a photo from 1891 of the Volunteer Band of the International Movement for Foreign Missionaries and the caption mentions “Lucy Dunlap from Thailand”. Without the photo we could assume that Lucy Dunlap was an expatriate’s daughter sent home to study. Thanks to the photo we see that regardless of the Western name we have real intercultural exchange happening here. I was in high school when Title 9 went into effect and I suffered under the impression that women’s athletics dated from then. This book showed me just how wrong I was. Another unexpected bit of history involves the stonework that is perhaps the most distinctive part of the Western campus, the stone work. Eleven bridges, an outdoor theater and the fireplace in the Western Lodge were all done by the same man’s company, African American stonemason Cephas A. Burns. As impressive as Burns stonework is even 100 years later I did not expect that a woman’s college in south west Ohio would hire an African-American contractor. Good history points out the unexpected. I found many unexpected facts in this short book.

Johnson organized the book by the terms of college presidents. The pictures show us the people and major events, as well as the changing reality of college life. Students rode around campus in horse drawn carriages, they rode bicycles to the next town six miles away, they protested for visiting privileges for their male friends. Johnson has put together an excellent selection of photographs and did the research to necessary to write informative captions. The fact that Lucy Dunlap founded the Satriwithaya School in Bangkok or that when the board of trustees approved Freedom Summer organizers use of the campus they specified it was for one time only were not found written on the back of the photograph or on the negatives envelope. Johnson had to research these facts and find a way to included them. A lot of thought and research in this book that is so well done that it looks simple. If you look closely you will even find a photo of 1962 Western graduate Donna Shalala, President Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Health and Human Services. If I were to look harder I might find Ameerah Haq, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for the Department of Field Support and a Western graduate. Maybe not. Western had to many important alumni to show them all in such a short book.

After reading Johnson’s book I am motivated to read Narka Nelson’s more detailed book but now I know that there is an updated edition that covers ten more years of Western College’s history. Now I think I need to hunt it down. This book should interest anyone who wants an introduction to the history of higher education in the United States, in particular women’s education. I am confidant that anyone who reads it will have at least one “I didn’t know that” moment. I did not learn if participating in Freedom Summer was what brought about the schools closing ten years later. That is something that won’t appear in a photograph. Only close examination of the financial records would show the truth about that.


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Review: The 36th Infantry United States Colored Troops in the Civil War

The 36th Infantry in the Civil War

The 36th Infantry United States Colored Troops in the Civil War

James Bryant’s history of “The 36th Infantry United States Colored Troops in the Civil War” is an ambitious look at one of the Union’s first military units comprised mainly of self liberated slaves. As with most military history there is more attention paid to the officers, the white officers, than to the enlisted men. Better educated men are more apt to leave written evidence of their lives and the majority of Bryant’s subjects had been kept intentionally illiterate during their time as property. In spite of this complication Bryant made good use of the sources available and produced a clearer portrait of the unit than I would have thought possible.

I was a little concerned about the depth of Bryant’s understanding of the history of the era when I read his explanation of General Butler’s transition from a pro-South Democrat to a Union general volunteering to lead a “colored” unit. Mississippi did not cede between the first and third Democratic Party Conventions of 1860 as Bryant states. (pg. 26) This was the only error I found in the book, however I don’t know if that is due to Bryant’s good research or my lack of knowledge. However, that is outside the focus of this book, only the fact that Butler did change is relevant to the story of the 36th USCT.

What this book does best is demonstrate that the psychiatric concept of “self fulfilling prophesy” is wrong. The vast majority of the people around these men expected them to be timid to the point of cowardice, subservient, thieves, and rapists. Their military record proves them to be just the opposite. They did, under orders, seize tools, supplies, weapons and human property from the Unions enemies. They were often accused of crimes against white women, accused being the important word according to the written testimony of the (white) officers who served with them. Fourteen members of the unit earned Congressional Medals of Honor at the Battle of New Market, something which should dispel any preconceived notions of cowardice or timidity.

Bryant manages to explore several subjects that have been underexamined in US Civil War history, the contrast in the treatment of “Colored Troops” recruited from free Northerners and those recruited from contrabands, slaves who crossed into Union territory in acts of self liberation, the tension between white Union troops and their “colored” comrades, and the willingness of white officers to sacrifice the lives of the USCT in order to allow them to “prove themselves” in battle. Anyone interested in the details of US Civil War history will enjoy this book.


* Originally reviewed for LibraryThing Early Reviewers January of 2013

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Review: Cronkites War his World War II letters home

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Cronkite’s War: his World War II letters home

CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite was a childhood hero of mine. My family cried with him and rejoiced with him as he covered assassinations* and space missions*. Even the president to the United States recognized the power of the “most trusted man in America”. LBJ said that “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the country” after Cronkite spoke about his visit to Vietnam in the only commentary he ever did on CBS*. When I found myself in San Diego without a book to read on the return flight I found “Cronkite’s War: his World War II letters home” in the gift shop of the USS Midway Museum. It seemed like the right choice.

I was not interested in learning anything new about WWII, I spent most of the 1980s reading about it. I wanted to learn about the most trusted man in America. This book, Walter’s personal letters to his wife of two years, Betsy, are a window into the man. He was ambitious, almost a dandy about his clothing, and a loyal friend. The many deaths of the young men he reported on troubled him. He was lonely for his family and the most trustworthy husband in the war. He drinks and uses profanity but never to excess and, confesses to his wife that he used “Walter’s word” on occasion. Thanks to the background material inserted between the letters by the book’s editors we learn what “Walter’s word” is as well as who the people he writes about are.

At times the letters were almost to personal to read. I felt like I was peeking into someones bedroom window and eavesdropping on family matters. Over all I would say that the book is Walter’s love letters home to his wife. We see London at war, war torn Europe, and a close encounter when Walter sets out for Antwerp on the day that the Battle of the Bulge breaks out. Still, overall, it is a book of love letter written by a lonely young man very much in love with the wife that fate has separated him from.

I doubt I would have picked this book up if I had my entire library to pick from but I am glad I did. Mr. Cronkite was a kind and decent man and I am glad I know more about him.




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Review: Fierce Patriot the tangled lives of William Tecumseh Sherman

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Fierce patriot : the tangled lives of William Tecumseh Sherman

I don’t read many biographies but after reading Robert L. Connell’s “Fierce Patriot: the tangled lives of William Tecumseh Sherman” I think that maybe I should. I will confess that I have always been interested in William Tecumseh Sherman, my grandfather, Sherman Lee Crawford, was the product of a “mixed” marriage, formers Union and formers confederate. Until I was in my thirties I only knew him as William. Now I am wondering if my grandfather knew of the parallels between his life and the life of General William Tecumseh Sherman.

Tecumseh Sherman, his birth name, grew up in Lancaster Ohio. His father, Charles, was a well respected but financially unsuccessful lawyer who died when Tecumseh was nine. This left his wife with eleven children and no means of support. A friend of the family, the successful lawyer and politician Thomas Ewing, offered to take “the smartest child” in. They picked Tecumseh and Ewing gave him the name “William”. William Tecumseh Sherman got along well with the Ewing family. A strong bond developed between William and Ewing’s daughter Ellen. The bond was so strong that Thomas decided it best to sent William off the West Point at age sixteen. Fourteen years later Captain William Tecumseh Sherman and Ellen Ewing married in Washington City. By that time Thomas Ewing was such a prominent politician that even President Taylor attended the ceremony.

Sherman’s grades and demerits at West Point rescued him from the Engineers Corps and put him on the road to a real military career. He saw limited combat in the Seminole Wars but none in the Mexican War. In his eyes his military career was a failure. After leaving the military he continued to see himself as a failure. Connell made sure to point out that those around him saw things otherwise. Sherman’s friends and cohorts saw that he had bad breaks but he always landed on his feet and he always managed to do it with honor.

With the outbreak of the Civil War Sherman wanted back in the military. As Connell put it “team Ewing/Sherman went into action to make it happen”. At first using this modern expression to describe historical events bothered me. Connell’s description of Sherman as a “willing wingman” was also like fingernails on a blackboard to me. These concepts did not exist in the 1860s, it is anachronistic I told myself. After some thought I realized that Connell was not using modern values to interpret these historical actions. He was using words a modern audience would understand to describe what happened. The Ewing / Sherman family, which had developed powerful connections in state and national politics, did, time after time, come together to protect and advance their own members interests. William Tecumseh Sherman would not have understood the term “wingman” but he definitely was one. He was never more able to act independently than when he was under Grant’s command. It sounds implausible but read the book, I think Sherman’s reaction to Grant’s orders after his march to the sea bet demonstrates this idea. Connell divided the book into three sections, Sherman’s military career from West Point to his retirement, his Civil War army from the soldiers perspective, and his family life. It seemed odd that his childhood should be one of the last things we learned about but the arrangement worked well.

If my grandfather did adopt the name William because of General Sherman I now understand what it was about the general that inspired him to do it. Family loyalty. William Tecumseh Sherman was loyal to all his families. Connell has produced a well researched, well written work on one of the nations most interesting wingmen and shed light on one of the most powerful extended families in American history. I have to recommend this book to anyone interested in 19th century American history

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