Friday, December 25, 2009

New in 2009---Right Book, Wrong Title: The Bonfire

The Bonfire: The Seige and Burning of Atlanta, Marc Wortman, Public Affairs Press, 431 pp., illustrations, index, notes, bibliography, photo credits, $28.95.

How does a non-fiction book end up with the wrong title? A title that leads to disappointment. Bait and switch marketing department at the publisher? A literary agent? The author? CWL will give this book a more accurate, more provocative title. Rebel Phoenix: The Birth, Burning, and Rebirth of Atlanta during the Antebellum and Civil War Era Eras. That is an accurate and compelling labeling of Wortman's work.

Of he 361 pages of text, Atlanta begins to burn in the last 10% of the book. The first 20% concerns frontier Georgia with the very young William T. Sherman showing up at the future site of the city of Atlanta. Yes, Sherman was there, studying the topography of northern Georgia in 1844. A fine story well developed and handled by Wortman. The author finds and presents accounts of massacres survival stories of settlers by Native Americans in early north and central Georgia. These stories Wortman develops well and appreciative of the Georgians later stance on Cherokee removal.

In the next 20% Southern railroad history is developed and a northern Georgia crossroad is planned and labeled 'Terminus' maps. Wortman's chapters here are worthy of reading by anyone interested in American or Southern urban history, the notion of industrial modernization in a slave holding agricultural society.

The next 20% is Civil War history propelled forward by some remarkable Atlanta residents: slaveholders, slaves and freemen, and non-slave holding middle class members. The lives of James Montgomery Calhoun (a Unionist and slaveholder), Festus and Isabella Flipper (slaves whose son enters West Point Military Academy), George Washington Lee (commander of the Confederate Provost Guard) and Bob Yancey (African-American barber, currency speculator and friend to Union prisoners) and many others are well handled by Wortman who offers these individuals as illustrations of how men, women and families accommodate themselves to urban life during wartime.

In the last portion of the book, Sherman and his army reaches Atlanta. During the Confederate retreat from the city, Hood burns the railroad stock. During the Union advance out of the city, Sherman burns much more. Wortman does not excel a telling military history. He should have had a fact checker for the number of commanders Lincoln went through in the Army of the Potomac, the spelling of William Rosecrans' name, and the sequence of events at Chickamaugua and Chattanooga. For those who are looking for a superior military history and social/urban history of the capture of Atlanta and its two destructions, they should consider Bond's War Like A Thunderbolt. Wortman's style uses lots of adjectives and sometimes has lengthly sentences. On the other hand, Bond's is more reportorial and similar to Bruce Catton's Army of the Potomac trilogy.

CWL had trouble 'getting into 'Bonfire' mainly because a huge urban fire should have been around the corner. Upon realizing that Bonfire is urban and social history of a Civil War city, it became enjoyable.