Thursday, December 24, 2009

An Artist in Treason: The Extraordinary Double Life of General James Wilkinson

Andro Linklater has written a fabulous book. It is incredibly detailed. It took me more than a month to read because I could only digest it in small chunks. Thirty or forty pages a day were all that I could take in before having to put it down. Yet, at no time did I feel that I was slogging through it, pushing myself to just finish the darn book. It was truly a joy to read.


It’s a big “but”. My problem with this book is the misleading marketing. The book is heavily marketed as the story of a colossal traitor who somehow fooled everyone including the military and four presidents. What an exciting story! I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it.

But that’s not this story. This is the story of a Southern gentleman who was raised to be very courtly, very conscious of his place in society, to run a plantation and live a very wealthy life. However, his meager inheritance was not enough to support his lifestyle. He was fortunate that the American Revolution occurred right after his graduation from medical school. He had a knack for the military life. But once the war was over, he was forced to engage in business, something at which he was an enormous failure.

The rest of his life was a story of continuous debt. He was always having fallings out with business partners after borrowing monies that he couldn’t repay. His off and on military career couldn’t support his lifestyle that grew more and more lavish.

He agreed to spy for Spain as just another source of income. As Mr. Linklater makes abundantly clear, General Wilkinson never intended to destroy America. When his back was finally against the wall during the Burr Conspiracy and he had to make a decision, America or Spain, he chose America. Most importantly, everyone knew that he was taking money from the Spanish. Everyone. Including the military and the four presidents for whom he worked.

The men who founded this country were not fools. They would never have knowingly employed anyone who was seeking the destruction of America. They knew that Wilkinson was brilliant militarily but couldn’t handle his personal finances well. So they continued to employ his services which were acutely needed by the young country and overlooked the thinly veiled payoffs from Spain.

Once I got over the hype surrounding this story, I genuinely enjoyed this book. General James Wilkinson was an important figure in American history. He seemed to go everywhere and to know everyone. He was also quite a character, even a scoundrel in some cases. He gleefully smeared the reputation of anyone he viewed as a threat, he regularly betrayed his superiors and friends but at the same time was a loving and attentive husband.

Mr. Linklater has done an excellent job of bringing to life a colorful figure from our past who played an important role in the founding of our country.

Review copy courtesy of Walker Books

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Ghosts of Central Jersey: Historic Haunts of the Somerset Hills

What better way to spend a wintry day than listening to ghost stories in an old house. I had the pleasure of attending a talk by Gordon Thomas Ward this past January that was held in the Van Wickle House, a 18th century Dutch farmhouse. He is an excellent speaker, holding us spellbound with accounts of his investigations into hauntings in central New Jersey. Afterwards, he held a book signing. Being a collector of autographed books as well as wanting to know more about his investigations, I purchased his book.

I finally took the time to sit down and read his book this past week. It covers the same material as his lecture but goes into more detail about the historical background of each location he investigated. Too much more detail for my taste. Chapter 6 about the Prallsville Mills was a classic case of overkill. Reading it is like reading the begats in the Bible as he meticulously traces every owner of the property through three centuries. Twelve pages into the chapter, the last paragraph on the page starts out “This second period of operation at the Prallsville Mills property came to an abrupt end with the destruction of the stone gristmill by fire on the afternoon of August 21,1874.” Twelve pages, and we’re only up to 1874? How much longer until we get to the ghosts?

Perhaps he is writing for skeptics, trying to establish himself as a serious scholar in a legitimate field of study. He doesn’t have to convince me. I’m a believer. I used to live in a haunted house. The first few months after we moved in, we were awakened every night by the sounds of someone stomping down the stairs from the attic to the second floor, across the hall and then down the stairs to the first floor. That phenomenon subsided and the rest of our ten year residence was more playful. The ghost loved to hide things. Which was merely an annoyance unless I needed something urgently, like my car keys. After a few minutes of looking, I would ask the ghost to return them, wait a few more minutes and then look around the house again. They would always turn up in an odd place such as the top of the microwave or on a shelf in the bookcase, places I would never leave my car keys (metal and microwaves, yikes!).

Mr. Ward doesn’t just look for evidence supporting evidence of paranormal activity, he also actively debunks local legends such as the story of the phantom carriage. There is a vintage photo of the very same scene. So he questions if the legend was inspired by the photo.

Another debunking was not so much a debunking as an historical correction. Having been raised in upstate New York on Washington Irving’s Leatherstocking Tales, I was disappointed to learn that the legend of the Headless Horseman originated in the Great Swamp in New Jersey and not in the Hudson Valley.

If you enjoy a good ghost story and are curious how they are investigated, I recommend you attend one of Mr. Ward’s talks. If you prefer more in depth coverage of the historical background involved in paranormal phenomena, then definitely buy his book.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

On Hallowed Ground: The Story of Arlington National Cemetery

I first became aware of Arlington National Cemetery after President Kennedy was assassinated. Like so much of the country during those dark days, I watched the funeral on television. Growing up during the sixties, Arlington was ever-present, as many of the young soldiers who died in Viet Nam were buried there. Yet it wasn’t until a few years ago that I became aware that the site had originally been the plantation belonging to Robert E. Lee, the general who led the Confederate forces during the Civil War.

I’ve visited Washington, DC several times. On my most recent trip, I was able to visit Arlington. Several surprises were waiting for me. Lee’s house is still standing. For some reason, I thought that it had been destroyed during the Civil War. There are areas with grave monuments that I would have expected to see in a civilian cemetery rather than the more austere uniform markers found in the rest of Arlington. Most puzzling was the placement of some of the memorials. Especially the mass grave in what looked to me to formerly be a garden.

The answers to all of these mysteries are found in Robert Poole’s excellent book on the history of Arlington. I hesitate to use the word “history” which conjures up the idea of a dry tome filled with names and dates and battles. Mr. Poole’s book contains all of those but he tells his story in a more reader friendly manner.

Just because this is a history written for a popular audience doesn’t mean that it has been dumbed down at all. The author covers each major era in the history of Arlington, seemingly without omitting a single significant detail. He tells how the cemetery came into being, how the traditions we see today are the result of years of development some of them still evolving, and how and why burials were placed in the cemetery.

The story of Arlington National cemetery is as much the story of the military and government officials of their times as it is about our country. I’m sure that many readers will be surprised, as I was, to learn that Arlington was not always the revered place that it is today. After reading Mr. Poole’s first-rate account, it’s easy to understand how a need for burial space and one man’s near obsession with appropriating the property of a traitor became a national symbol and coveted place to spend eternity.

I’m looking forward to visiting Arlington again, this time with a better understanding of it and with this book tucked under my arm.