Essay by Ed Quillen
Books – January 1999 – Colorado Central Magazine
Some Favored Reading from 1998
FOR SOME REASON, my pleasure reading in 1998 focused on the Civil War.
Actually, there may be specific reasons for this interest. One is that the editor I deal most with at the Denver Post, Bob Ewegen, is a Civil War and military history buff. In order to avoid talking about possibly painful subjects with him — i.e., the quality of my prose on a given Monday or Thursday morning when I call to see if the material arrived via modem — I can instead discourse with him about various Civil War generals.
We have agreed, for instance, that Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman is the official patron saint of the Colorado Association of Red-bearded Pundits (CARP — which consists of Bob and me).
Sherman had a red beard, was a competent and sometimes witty writer, and, to the future envy of editors everywhere, once issued orders that a reporter be shot.
Another topic of agreement is that, if we had been foot soldiers in that conflict, we would have preferred to serve under Confederate Gen. Joe Johnston, who usually deployed his tactical brilliance to avoid battle at all costs, especially when outnumbered and outgunned. “My kind of general,” Bob says, and I agree.
Some of this Civil War interest also results from a conversation with Martha, who at one exasperated point, said “Ed, remember that you’re not just a Coloradan or a Westerner, you’re also an American.”
To expand an interest in Colorado history to a broader scope sounded worthwhile — but where to start? Most historians say the defining incident in American history was the Civil War.
I had some years ago watched the PBS Civil War series, and had enjoyed the informed and literate comments by Shelby Foote. So I looked to see what he had written, and found The Civil War: A Narrative.
It’s easy reading — Foote can tell a story well — but not a casual project, since his history comes in three volumes, each exceeding 800 pages, and the trio costs about $75, even in paperback. But I haven’t regretted a moment of the many hours I’ve spent with Foote’s clear and vigorous prose.
My only complaints are physical — the books are a little too heavy for comfortable reading in bed, and the covers of the paperbound editions tend to curl.
Read Shelby Foote, and you’ll be able to hold your own whenever you’re around Civil War buffs. Further, Foote doesn’t consider the Civil War only a conflict in northern Virginia and environs — the western part of the struggle gets due attention, and he even ties the Colorado horror of Sand Creek to the goings-on back east.
THE OTHER CIVIL WAR book I’ve enjoyed this year is a one-volume work (a mere 904 pages), Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson. Of necessity, McPherson provides much less detail about individual battles and soldiers than does Foote. McPherson is a smooth and capable writer, though nowhere near Foote’s league as a master of anecdote.
But McPherson spends much more time exploring the evolving differences — economic, cultural, political — between North and South that led to the deadliest war in this nation’s history. And that is as much a part of the story as Grant’s Vicksburg campaign or Lee’s moves at Chancellorville.
Further, reading about old sectional differences provokes thoughts about modern sectional arrangements. Is the West really a region the way that the South was and is? Could anyone ever publish an Encyclopædia of Western Culture like the Encyclopædia of Southern Culture?
Is there anything distinctive about this part of the world, other than high elevation and low humidity? And if there is, does it lie in our politics — the West is now the most reliably Republican part of the country, even moreso than the South.
Are we on our way to taking the South’s place as the most backward and bigoted part of America, always pointing to some mythic heroic past that never was?
The ruminations aren’t always as pleasant as the reading, and that’s often unpleasant, too — there’s nothing quite as sad as the account of Union soldiers pinning tags with their names onto their uniforms on the night before the Battle of Cold Harbor, so that identification of their bodies would be easier after the assault they knew would kill most of them.
FAR FROM THE CIVIL WAR, another book I’ve enjoyed is Silver and Entrepreneurship in Seventh Century Potosí: The Life and Times of Antonio Lòpez de Quiroga, by Peter Bakewell.
Think of Leadville sitting at an even higher altitude (about 13,000 feet) and with even richer deposits of silver (rocks that would emit pure molten silver when merely roasted), and you’ve got a start on Potosí, the first mining boomtown in the Western Hemisphere.
I had long been curious about Spanish mining practices, and in the process of providing a biography of a mining baron who thrived even though he arrived well after the initial boom was over, Bakewell provides plenty of information about mining, drainage, haulage, labor, milling, transportation, finance — the whole panoply of forces that appeared in Potosí or Leadville shortly after rich ore was discovered.
Although it’s a textbook (or it was for my daughter, Columbine, in a class of Andean history at Western State College, and she commended the book to me), it’s fairly smooth reading. Also, Antonio Lòpez de Quiroga is an interesting fellow, never quite happy with his riches and eager to purchase a title — sort of like Horace Tabor’s continued donations to the Republican Party that bought him a 30-day seat in the U.S. Senate more than a century ago.
One piece of “assigned reading” that turned out to be a pure pleasure was Almost an Island: Travels in Baja California by Bruce Berger.
It was an assignment because I was on a panel with him at the Rocky Mountain Book Festival on Nov. 8, and I figured it was only fair to read his book.
He’s got a fine writing style and a keen eye for the changes that happen when the main road gets improved and tourism changes from the occasional adventurer into swarms of Winnebagos.
And I couldn’t help but admire the easy-going town of San Ignacio, Baja California, for being relatively unaltered by the arrival of pavement: “So relaxed is their oasis that jokes about them have swept the peninsula. It is said that the cows wear sneakers so they won’t waken their owners…. They cut the vocal cords of roosters that crow them awake. To frighten away their ghosts, Ignacianos set out hammers, hatchets, rakes — tools of work.”
First the Civil War, and now some Mexican lore and South American history — perhaps I’m broadening my horizons. But then again, I couldn’t help but think of nearby Leadville when I read about distant Potosí, nor could I stop wishing that Salida was more like San Ignacio.