May Book Reviews
By Prof. Rick Norton
It's hard to believe that May is here already. It seems that only yesterday we were still
trying to remember to put 2001 on our checks. But time moves and it really does seem as
if spring is coming to these environs, but not without Mother Nature taking one more
swipe at us in the form of an April snowstorm. If you're starting the escape from winter's
grip there are probably a hundred and one things that are demanding your immediate
attention. It is the purpose of this column to suggest that you heed none of these work-a-day responsibilities and spend your time getting ready for the next game, the next gamer's
convention, or simply the next batch of figures to be painted. C'mon. Indulge yourself -
you survived the winter - you've earned it!
Our first offering is hot off the presses and not for the average aficionado:
"Mars Learning: The Marine Corps' Development of Small Wars Doctrine, 1915 - 1940,"
by Keith B. Bickel, (Boulder: Westview Press, 2001), 274 pages. Cost: $29.00 U.S.,
The first question the astute reader will ask is "What is this book even doing on the list?"
Bravo! It is a fair challenge. The answer, I submit, is that the United States Marine
Corps, along with the French Foreign Legion and a few other military units, was still
fighting what were essentially colonial wars long after the First World War was finished.
Not only that, but the development of the Marine's Small Wars doctrine owed a
substantive debt to the writings of Colonel Callwell, the British author of "Small Wars"
fame. Thus this volume clearly shows the continuing influence of the Victorian combat
experience on military thought well into the 20th century.
The Marines were no strangers to Small Wars. They fought in the Philippines, in Cuba,
in the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua and for fifteen long years in Haiti. In the process
they developed a remarkable body of surprisingly sophisticated knowledge. Bickel sets
out to explain how that knowledge was attained, disseminated, and, eventually, turned
It is important to place the book in context. In the period "between the wars" the USMC
was plagued with low budgets, a lack of appreciation and - a struggle for survival. It was
essential to answer the question "Why the Marines?"
Two schools of answers emerged. One could be called the "advance base" school. These
intellectuals - and one of the Corps' most carefully hidden secrets is that the Marines have
always had some very smart people indeed - viewed amphibious assault and gaining U.S.
toeholds overseas as the main mission of the Corps. They were intellectually and
politically opposed by the "Small Wars" faction. These equally smart Marines reasoned
that the State Department would always need an Army - and the Marines were the logical
organization for the job.
Bickel lays out a brief history of the Corps' involvement in Latin America. These
chapters are well done, if not well-fleshed out, but there is plenty of inspiration for
scenarios. However, there are books that do a better job. This volume does little more
than wet a whistle.
Unfortunately Brickel is equally light when it comes to tracing the evolution of doctrine.
In large part this is not due to any failing on his part. Few things are more difficult than
trying to identify administrative history. So much is routinely lost and forgotten. Yet
what Bickel does come up with is compelling. He argues that the development of
doctrine owed more to individuals that to anything else and makes a strong case for his
The Marines "Small Wars" manual was published for the first time in 1940. It is
fascinating to speculate what impact this publication would have had if Pearl Harbor had
If you love the period, find a better history book. If you love the Marines fighting in hot
steamy tropics, get another history book. But if you love all things Marine, buy this
book. It tries to fill in a gap in our knowledge and gives you a different look at the inner
workings of that proud and peculiar tribe.
The next book stays in a nautical vein…
"America's Naval Heritage: A Catalog of Early Imprints From the Navy Department
Library," by Thomas Truxton Moebs, (Washington, D.C.: Naval Historical Center,
2000), 174 pages, Cost: Unknown, ISBN: 0-16-050565-8.
This book is a teaser. It gives a peek into the contents of treasures but only a peek. Still,
sometimes that can be better than nothing. Tom Truxton Moebs is a cataloger. He has
worked with the Naval Historical Center before and that is why they turned to him when
the decision was made to begin cataloging some of the oldest and most rare materials in
the collection - kept appropriately enough in a 19th-century vault. The catalog lists some
three hundred and forty items previously not presented to the public. There are also
illustrations, some for the Civil War, a few from the Boxer Rebellion and an absolutely
stunning one of the defenders of the British consulate during the bombardment of Samoa.
The collection begins in 1785 and ends in 1900. The range is eclectic. A sample follows.
Bainbridge's harsh treatment of his crew - even then American tars felt they had a right to
complain about such things. Teddy Roosevelt's landmark address on the need for a great
navy delivered at the Naval War College on 2 June 1897. A very intriguing "Firsthand
Account of Pirate Operations." And one of my favorites, "Drunken Conduct of Sailors in
the 1840s" written by a rather scandalized Navy chaplain named Charles Rockwell.
Some of the materials referred to are books; others are letters, reports, monographs and
Now that historians and, yes, even gamers, may be drooling for a look at the material, the
obvious question is how do we see the entire contents of the listed articles? The answer
is you have to contact the Navy Department Library. I would not hold my breath for
access, but perhaps re-prints will one day be forth coming.
And now we'll drop back down the time stream, but stay at sea…
"Confederate Commando and Fleet Surgeon: Dr. Daniel Burr Conrad," compiled and
edited by John W. Lynn, (Shippensburg, PA: Burd Street Press, 2001) Price unknown,
Alas, for the Civil War buff and gamer. Lynn's book teases and tantalizes, but ultimately
fails to deliver, as its somewhat anachronistic title would indicate. Too bad, this one
could have been wonderful.
Dr. Conrad is one of those people who are in the right place at the right time and find
themselves bumping, without much thought or planning, up against some of the most
interesting people and events of their time. Burr joined the U.S. Navy as an Assistant
Surgeon in 1854 and spent the next seven years doing service from the Mediterranean to
Japan. As the storm clouds of civil war drew close his family was involved early on
when his father was requested by John Brown to serve as his defense attorney following
the raid of Harpers Ferry. Burr senior said no.
In 1861 Daniel Burr sailed into Boston, discovered the nation was tearing itself apart,
refused to take a loyalty oath and was arrested. He more or less escaped, (there was a fair
amount of help from Union officers still in uniform) and returned to Virginia where he
enlisted as a Surgeon in the state's Navy and was quickly transferred to the CSN when
state navies were, er, confederalized. Since there was a shortage of billets in CSN ships
Burr found himself assigned to one of the new Confederacy's Brigades - one that was
commanded by a stern fellow known at the time as Old Jack. Old Jack never slept, kept
to himself and had been a Professor at VMI. Following the first battle of Manassas
(winners get to pick the names) Old Jack was known as Stonewall.
From Bull Run Burr went to New Orleans and the battles that resulted in the fall of the
Crescent City. He was back in Virginia at Drury's Bluff in time to repulse the Monitor,
His medical skills must have been considered adequate for Jackson's Chief Surgeon tried
to get him back, but the Navy said no. Meanwhile Burr pulled a tour on a blockade-runner, and corresponded with his sisters who were sassing Yankees in captured
Winchester. He eventually wound up as part of a Confederate raiding party that
successfully boarded and destroyed the Union blockader Underwriter. After that he
reported to the ironclad Tennessee in time for the battle of Mobile Bay. Not exactly a
quiet war for the good doctor.
So there is no shortage of potential material here. The problem is a shortage of actual
material. Burr had a diary, but the typical entry is "Had a fight and rain." After the war,
the man began to write, but his accounts are stilted and, truth be told, historically
suspicious apparently owing as much to mystique and myth as observation.
So, give it a sigh and a wave as you pass it by. Or, better yet, copy the pages relating to
the Underwriter for a potentially ripping skirmish scenario.
Tired of the sea? Me too. Let's head for the Wild West.
"The Return of Little Big Man," by Thomas Berger, (Boston: Little, Brown and
Company, 1999), 432 pages, $25.00 (Hardback), ISBN: 0-316-009844-2
The title says it all. Thomas Berger resurrects his most famous character, Jack Crabb,
aka "Little Big Man," raised by the Cheyenne and eyewitness to some of the more
memorable episodes in the Old West. This book takes up where "Little Big Man" left off
- after the death of George Armstrong Custer and several troops of the 7th Cavalry at the
Little Big Horn.
In a manner not too dissimilar from Fraser's Flashman and Carr's alienist, Berger moves
his hero through the West, tangentially intruding into the lives of notables just deep
enough to make a plausible eye-witness to "real" history. (Rather like a fictional Doctor
Burr.) Thus the reader is treated to the death of Wild Bill Hickok, the Gunfight at the OK
Corral, the marvel that was Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, the death of Sitting Bull and
the Columbian Exposition (World's Fair) of 1893. In addition to the characters
mentioned, Annie Oakley, Libbie Custer, Queen Victoria, Jane Addams, The Prince of
Wales, and Bat Masterson are also encountered.
As far as I can tell there is nothing wrong with the history that Berger presents and when
there is room for interpretation, such as in laying out the actual events of the OK Corral
gunfight, he presents plausible alternatives. When Berger takes the time and effort to
paint a detailed portrait of a western personality - such as Buffalo Bill - the result is
But the book is far from the jewel that its predecessor was. For one thing the central
theme, the collision of Native American culture with its European counterpart, is far less
compelling. Nor is Jack as interesting as he was in the first volume. In many ways, he is
a boring little man, and the sub-plot of his search for a suitable female companion
becomes dull going. Another lack is the lack of annotated material that would give the
reader more information on some of the interesting historical bits and pieces laced
through the book.
There is also next to nothing in the book for the gamer. You can find accounts of the OK
Corral without hardly lifting a finger and the death of Sitting Bull is as easily researched.
There are also better generic histories of the west. Thus, in the end you will have to
decide if you will be entertained by this work. I was, but not enough to buy a copy for a
friend, which was not the case for the first "Little Big Man."
And that's it for this month. Comments or suggestions are always welcome. In the
meantime - good luck and good gaming.