A U G U S T 1 9 9 8
The Battle of Glorieta
by Don E. Alberts.
248 pages, $29.95.
According to Mr. Alberts, the battle of Glorieta Pass, which in 1862 rolled for several days along a cranky, narrow loop of the Santa Fe Trail, was more significant than most historians acknowledge. He makes a convincing, and very well written, argument to support that opinion. The Confederate campaign originated, in Texas, with a former U.S. Army officer named Henry Hopkins Sibley who persuaded Jefferson Davis to commission him a brigadier general and authorize him to raise a force of mounted volunteers to "pursue the invasion and occupation of New Mexico Territory." Davis may not have known that Sibley meant to take Colorado, swing west to Los Angeles, and secure the whole Southwest for the Confederacy. The plan was to live off the country and resupply themselves by capturing Federal forts. The essential target was Fort Union, the Federal supply center for the whole region and a major control point on the route west. Fort Union, well aware of the Confederate advance, appealed for reinforcements and got the First Colorado Volunteers. They were a rowdy lot, commanded by Colonel John P. Slough, a well-known Denver lawyer, with the assistance of Samuel Tappan, a member of a prominent abolitionist family, and John Chivington, the "Fighting Parson," a Methodist clergyman who deserved his sobriquet. The commander at Fort Union, Colonel Gabriel Paul, was outraged to discover that Slough had finagled superior rank and was determined to use it. Slough commandeered, in Paul's view, far too many of the fort's regular troops and headed south toward Santa Fe to break up the Confederates before they reached the fort. The Confederates, by that time short of supplies, had left what they had in a base camp and were hustling north. The parties met with mutual surprise. It was an intricate battle, excitingly described by Mr. Alberts, who includes lively details, good maps, and much quotation. As usual in Civil War histories, the quotations are vivid, and prove that the people of that time, some of whom never got beyond grade school, had an enviable control of language and true power of expression. Did they get it from McGuffey Readers? Sermons? Political orators? Whatever the source, they had it, and their letters and diaries give the battle the quality of personal life. As a fight, Glorieta has to be considered a draw. The parties simply withdrew. But the Federals withdrew only to Fort Union, while the Rebels, so bereft of everything that the Yankees gave them medical supplies for their wounded and tools to bury their dead, withdrew all the long way to Texas and never came north again. Mr. Alberts has reason to call Glorieta the "Gettysburg of the West."
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by Gary Kinder.
Atlantic Monthly Press,
507 pages, $27.50.
The Central America, a side-wheel steamer with three masts, was bound from Panama to New York in September of 1857, carrying more than $1.5 million in California gold plus an indeterminate amount in the luggage of the 500 passengers. She left Havana on Tuesday and encountered a vicious hurricane. Saturday night, "her boats gone, her foremast cut down, her sails in tatters, her furniture and dishes broken, her staterooms deep in seawater, her engines long silent," she went down in approximately 8,000 feet of water, 200 miles off the Atlantic coast. And all that gold went with her. The wreck caused as much excitement as the loss of the Titanic. Every scrap of information that could be extracted from the few survivors was recorded somewhere, enabling Mr. Kinder to reconstruct the disaster, and many of the people involved, with hair-raising precision. The people were interesting. One really cares about the literary captain, the honeymooners, the young poet -- even the canary. Mr. Kinder makes the shipwreck so enthralling that it seems any later events are doomed to anticlimax. Not so. The text proceeds to Tommy Thompson, born in 1952, a highly original and inventive engineer, who determined to locate, and salvage, the Central America for the future good of deepwater exploration and development. He was affronted by the term "treasure hunter." The gold was bait to attract backers for an expensive and uncertain venture. He found the backers, and the necessary specialists (some as eccentric as he), along with rivals, chicanery, legal complications, and weather that sent a heavy piece of equipment slamming around the deck like a loose cannon. Mr. Thompson was a good planner, but some things cannot be foreseen. On its first run the expedition was beset by a drunken cook who served only fried chicken and the drunken captain of a shrimper called the Joe Christmas. If a fiction writer of anything but fantasy combined that cook and the Christmas, he would be accused of imaginative excess. Even readers familiar with Mr. Thompson's salvage operation are likely to find new information in Mr. Kinder's text, and for those with no previous acquaintance, it is a truly great tale, cleverly organized and expertly written.
by James Lawrence Powell.
W. H. Freeman,
250 pages, $22.95.
Mr. Powell is a geologist and the president and director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History. He reports on the semi-accidental discovery by the distinguished physicist Luis Alvarez and his son, Walter, of the evidence indicating that the extinction of the dinosaurs was caused by the impact on Earth of an asteroid the size of Mount Everest. Naturally the Alvarez theory has produced opposition and countertheories and a spate of crater-hunting. Mr. Powell describes the whole debate in a text that deals well with the inevitable technicalities and will be found very readable by anyone interested in the history of Earth and the problems that beset scientists seeking to understand it.
by Dr. James Mahoney.
233 pages, $21.95.
When Dr. Mahoney began as a veterinarian, it was his ambition to become the best horse doctor in Ireland. He wound up as the director of a laboratory for experimental medicine and a consultant for far-flung medical work with animals. His memoir begins with Molly, a runt puppy afflicted with most of the ills known to dog. The doctor and his wife salvaged her with considerable, slightly wild, difficulty, and she became a fine pet. This story leads to reflections on the use of animals for research, which Dr. Mahoney regrets but would not abandon if he could. It is to be hoped that this charming, kindly, gentle book will not inspire any animal-rights fanatics to blow up research centers. That is not at all what the author has in mind.
by G. W. Hawkes.
MacMurray & Beck,
250 pages, $20.00.
The narrator of Mr. Hawkes's novel is a Korean War veteran who, with a crippled Army buddy, has spent years surveying a stretch of western desert for a mysterious foundation. Their solitude is disrupted by a young woman undertaking a peculiar film project and by a gang of fossil hunters. The hostilities and misunderstandings that ensue lure the reader along with hints of some profound, or at least provocative, impending revelation. The implied promise is never kept.
by Lisa Michaels.
307 pages, $23.00.
Ms. Michaels's parents were collegiate idealists and would-be reformers when they married, in the early 1960s. As the author sees it, her mother proposed to improve society bit by bit and one-on-one, while her father was for bringing it down in one grand smash. He joined the Weathermen and served a hitch in jail, and the marriage smashed. Everybody eventually settled on the West Coast, where Ms. Michaels spent her youth bouncing between her mother's quiet enterprises in the north and her father's indefatigable pamphleteering in the south. She felt at home in neither place, not through any distrust of her parents but as a part-time member of both their groups. That uncertainty, and the wariness that accompanied it, are well and often touchingly conveyed in this disarmingly amiable reminiscence.
Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; August 1998; Brief Reviews; Volume 282, No. 2; pages 108 - 110.