Grover Cleveland by Henry Graff (Presidential Bio. Series)

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This biography on President Grover Cleveland in the American President series is typical for that series, but this volume is a little better than some others because of the author’s appreciation of the subject. Some I’ve read in this series have disdain for the president they write about and it colors the biography in a needlessly negative direction. Perhaps part of the this work is positive was the author’s determination to make Cleveland the progressive of a mostly Republican era. That is a stretch to be sure, but he was at least the only Democrat. In a few places, I thought the author really overworked that dubious connection. Still, I feel I know Cleveland from reading this book. It’s short length was perfect in my opinion for this lesser-known president.

Cleveland was a simple, fairly unassuming president. He was straight-laced, committed to work, had far more diligence than passion, and appears to be a generally likable person. To me, that almost seems to be a trend among a stretch of presidents in this time period. He was clearly a man of principle, though not necessarily one of vision. He was true to his word and possessed distinct integrity. He was a weak communicator, an average public speaker, and has no particular claim to fame other than the fact that he is the only president to serve two non-consecutive terms. Still, his demeanor and service matched the times in which he served. He had no scandal, unless you count marrying a much younger woman while president. What I read here, makes it sound harmless enough. I personally feel that Cleveland is a man that you would be comfortable to sit down and talk to.

In these reviews of the presidents, I’ve been taking the additional task of particularly noting the religious beliefs of the president. Cleveland was raised in a pastor’s home and carried that influence throughout his life. The author of this biography did not find it interesting enough to tell us Cleveland’s personal convictions about Christ, but I read between the lines and suspect Cleveland was a believer.

Again, Cleveland was in that stretch of presidents between Grant and Teddy Roosevelt that are mostly unknown to us, but he seemed the caliber of most of them and better than a few of them. Garfield had great potential and McKinley was possibly the best of the bunch, but Cleveland was a fine man who made a competent but perhaps average president.

Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard (Presidential Bio. Series)

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What a book! Since James Garfield is likely in everyone’s category of lesser known presidents, this book is an unexpected experience. It’s not a typical cradle-to-grave biography, but I felt I knew President Garfield better than some other presidents where I read a full biography. As you may recall, Garfield was shot by an assassin early in his presidency. He really didn’t have any time to take significant action as president, but he was such a fine, genuine man that you will ask the what-if questions. I suspect he would have been one of the better presidents between the legendary Lincoln and the famous Teddy Roosevelt had he had the opportunity to serve out his term.

This book with its subtitle “a tale of madness, medicine, and the murder of a president” focuses on the peculiar aspects of his death. Kudos to Millard for seeing the potential in this fascinating story. Though she has written only a few titles, she is one of the better writers of our day. She can tell a story! She is so good with words and sentences that even the more mundane moments of the story still read easily. To my mind, and why I could easily recommend this as the perfect biography of James A. Garfield, she gives such an exquisite portrait of the man that I could imagine what it would be like if he walked in the room and sat down and started talking. That is the quintessential skill needed to be a biographer.

I don’t know how she did it, but in 300 pages she also brought to life Garfield’s bizarre assassin, Charles Guiteau. The term used for him in his day was “monomaniac”, and yet whatever you might label him today, Millard creates a full-orbed postmortem of his unique pathology. She also exposed Garfield’s failed, egotistical physician, Dr. Bliss. Unfortunately, Dr Bliss denied the scientifically sound teachings of Joseph Lister and denied the idea of germs! And yes, Dr Bliss, ultimately killed President Garfield by incompetence. People of that day could not resist saying, “ignorance is Bliss”. The famous inventor, Alexander Graham Bell, also took a large part in the story. I don’t want to give any spoilers, but I assure you there is a captivating story here. The story doesn’t have the raw adventure of Millard’s The River of Doubt about Teddy Roosevelt’s trip in the Amazon, but don’t suppose for a moment this work is any less gripping.

Back to Garfield, I think he had the potential to have been an echo of Lincoln. He was born into incredible hardship and poverty as his dad died when he was a young man. His remarkable mother held the family together, invested in young Garfield’s life, and imbibed her Christianity and its ethics into the fabric of his life. The adult Garfield was a man who loved his wife and children, was one who lived above politics in a way few politicians have ever succeeded in doing, was a man who practiced forgiveness, and was one who possessed a personal faith in God. Along the way, he was a Civil War hero and a well-read, educated man despite his background. The story of him being upset by his nomination at the Republican convention for president is the perfect example of the man he was. He was there to nominate another guy and he was truly upset that he would hurt him to the extent that he took no joy at all in his unexpected, dramatic nomination! How many politicians do you know like that? In character and genuineness, Garfield was one of our best presidents. It is truly sad that our country missed the opportunity that lie in a man of his caliber in the White House. It seemed that Americans of that day realized what they had and what they lost. They knew that later generations would probably forget him as has happened, but they also knew that he was one of the better men to have held the office.

Rutherford B. Hayes by Trefousse (Presidential Bio. Series)

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Rutherford B. Hayes is not a widely remembered president. Perhaps he is too soon after Lincoln and Grant. In my quest to read at least one biography on each president, this short volume by Hans Trefousse proved to be the ideal biography for me to read on Hayes. Trefousse seemed to have at least a genuine respect for Hayes even if he wasn’t exactly overly impressed with him. In that sense, it is superior to several volumes I’ve seen in the American Presidents series because some of the authors appear almost hostile to their subjects. In fact, the only oddity of this volume is that it was written shortly after George W. Bush defeated Al Gore in 2000 and all the drama that surrounded that election, particularly in Florida. The author seemed obsessed with the fact that Hayes had also lost the popular vote yet still won the electoral college vote and it happened with some degree of disputed results. Still, the book reads really well and is truly interesting. I’d label it the perfect length for the subject.

Hayes had an interesting background including serving successfully in the Civil War. He seemed to be a man of genuine character. Though many of us highly respect President Ulysses S. Grant, it’s true that there were scandals that happened on his watch even if he were not implicated in any of them. Hayes made a point of cleaning up a lot of that corruption. He also took on the Senate and their patronage system. It was a gallant going against the grain for sure. Though there were not any major crises during his term, Hayes did seem to have a successful presidency.

A few things about his character jump out. He seemed to fight corruption because he genuinely hated it. He adored his wife and family. Unlike several other volumes in this series, this book doesn’t dodge religious background either. Hayes clearly professed to be a Christian and showed good Christian values on several occasions. Though he wasn’t a member of a church, he was highly involved with a Methodist Church that his wife was a part of. He was vice president of a Bible Society and he was even a teetotaler!

I’ve read that there are some other longer biographies out there that are more complete on his life, but if you are satisfied with an overview of the lesser-known presidents, this volume will be perfect for you.

Other Presidential biographies here.

Impeached by David Stewart (Presidential Bio. Series)

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Though this is not a cradle to grave biography of President Andrew Johnson, I’m glad that I chose this volume as my biography of Johnson. Though President Johnson’s home is the closest to where I grew up of any president, he is really not a likable person from what I have read. He consistently came down on the wrong side of history in my opinion, and even if he happened to be on your side, he seemed to be a man so full of pride that it colored everything that he did.

Still, this book by David O. Stewart is outstanding. It is incredibly well written and even riveting at points. As a matter of pure coincidence, I finished reading this book the same day that the Senate failed to convict President Trump after his impeachment. There were some similarities between the two situations. To be transparent, I believe that President Trump was a victim in his impeachment and has generally been on the right side of what I feel would be best for the country. On the other hand, President Trump says many things that rub some people the wrong way. How offended you are by such statements often directly correlates to how much you agree with him. President Johnson, in my opinion, did not really commit any high crimes or misdemeanors either. He was, however, dismantling Lincoln’s accomplishments as much as he could just as Trump has been successfully dismantling many of Obama’s objectives. I’m glad that both impeachments failed to remove a president. The biggest difference, however, is that President Johnson was politically neutered after his trial while it appears that President Trump still has his same standing with both strong supporters and dedicated enemies. The irony of happening to be reading about Johnson’s impeachment while Trump’s impeachment was in process is quite strong as well as enlightening.

Back to President Johnson. It’s hard to believe that Lincoln could have had a worse vice president to take his place than Andrew Johnson. Had Lincoln finished his term, I don’t think there’s any chance that Johnson could have been elected outright. Johnson is from East Tennessee which stayed true to the Union even though the other two-thirds of the state were a majority that led to Tennessee’s secession from the Union. It is, then, bizarre to me that Johnson was so aligned with the South in many ways during his term. As it turns out, in my opinion, he did the South no favors. He contributed to the ugly history of Reconstruction. Had Lincoln lived with his big heart the South would have had a profoundly better Reconstruction than she ended up having with Johnson.

Another thing that Stewart’s book brings out is the never-changing bickering that is American politics. Politics has always been cutthroat in our country. Maybe that is because we have so much going for ourselves that it is well worth fighting for.

I always try to notice where each president falls religiously as I read through these biographies. Johnson seemed to quote the Bible when it was convenient but he did not strike me from what I read here as a man of faith. There’s always a chance that authors dodge this subject, but there were several irreligious comments recorded by him. I’ve never come across information from other sources that make him stand out as one with strong Christian beliefs.

It turns out that this book is not as well known as it deserves to be. It reads like the better presidential biographies for sure.

To read about other presidential biographies, click here.

Team of Rivals by Kearns (Presidential Bio. Series)

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This book easily qualifies as one of the most popular presidential biographies in print. To my mind, it doesn’t rank up there with the Chernow or McCullough, but I can see why it ranks highly. Doris Kearns Goodwin has now written two of these biographies that apparently tackle more than one person (The Bully Pulpit is the other). Though she also writes of William Seward, Salmon Chase, Edward Bates, and Edwin Stanton, this is an Abraham Lincoln biography. Since Lincoln has had more written about him than probably any president we have, her angle about his genius showing up in his magnanimously collecting his rivals into his cabinet because he could see their talents is a fresh and well-conceived approach. Lincoln comes out as one of the giants of American history in this book, but that has more to do with who he was than any excessive building up on the author’s part. As for the rivals, they were a mixture of ego and talent.
Then the book is of substantial length, I think she gave sufficient coverage to most aspects of Lincoln’s life. I felt she was fair describing the turbulent Mary Todd Lincoln as well. The Lincolns had plenty of pain and tragedy in their lives while Mary additionally had to endure Lincoln’s untimely death. As you read, you will see Lincoln’s brilliance every step of the way as well as his never-failing graciousness while realizing that his fame rose and fell according to that day’s war reports. Fair or not, Lincoln would not have one of the most impressive monuments on the Mall in Washington D.C. had the war not ended favorably days before his death. On the other hand, Reconstruction would have gone so much smoother had he lived. One thing you might not realize is that the South mourned his death because they too had figured out his heart lacked the guile of the other victors. His extraordinary character keeps his ambitious rivals in line more than once when they were chomping to leave the corral for their own selfish gains too. He was an amazing man.
Kearns highlights Lincoln’s anti-religious statements from his younger days. He didn’t even believe in an afterlife in those days. What Kearns missed is the clear evidence that Lincoln turned to the Lord at least in his presidential days. Fortunately, she gives us many of his statements, even if she doubts he meant them or thought him superstitious, that show a deepening faith. I’m convinced whether Kearns is or not.
Kearns is a good writer. The book is a winner even if The Bully Pulpit is better (the book, not the subjects). Abraham Lincoln, though, strikes me as throwing a softball to biographers. It would take enormous effort to make him dull.

Bonus Review: Though I have read several books on Lincoln in my younger days, one stands out: Great Captain by Honroe Morrow. I think it might be historical fiction but I had read a regular biography just before it and it followed the story right down the line. What a thrilling page-turner. I can’t believe I’d recommend this book when I’m trying to cover major biographies, but you would love for this to be your one exception I believe too.

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James Buchanan by Jean Baker

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I’ve noticed for years that James Buchanan has made many lists for being the worst president that the United States has ever had. After reading this biography by Jean H. Baker in the American President Series, I can finally understand why. I enjoy this series especially for some of these lesser-known, and forgive me for saying, less substantial presidents. This book comes in at under 150 pages and it’s exactly what I would want for Buchanan. Though I had a few duds in this series earlier, this is the second in a row that I found very well done. Baker is a good writer. She finally concludes that he is not only a bad president but a traitor, but she fairly handles his life before she springs her conclusions on you at the end. By the time she gets you there, you may agree with her.

James Buchanan had a successful life before reaching the White House. He excelled in his law career and was quite successful as a member first of the House of Representatives and later the Senate. He had some striking similarities to his predecessor, Franklin Pierce, too. They were both extremely loyal to the Democratic Party. They both came from the North: Pierce from New Hampshire and Buchanan from Pennsylvania. Finally, in an almost bizarre similarity, they were both enamored with the South. Baker speculates that Buchanan became enamored with the genteel ways of the Southerners he worked with in Congress. Considering the backgrounds of both Pierce and Buchanan, I’m bewildered at both of their unexpected loyalty to the South because they had no obvious connection. As it turns out, however, though their loyalty was similar, Buchanan made far worse blunders over the South. Had Buchanan been a Southerner, his life would have made, perhaps, perfect sense, but he was not.

As you will see in this biography, his error in Kansas was particularly egregious and hastened the Civil War. Southerners probably revered him for a while over his handling of the Fort Sumter situation, but as President of the United States, it was inexplicable. Again, had he resigned and joined the Confederacy it might’ve made sense, but to stay for the Union and make these leadership decisions brutally slays all logic. To make it worse for him, after he had made a complete ruin of the situation from the North’s point of view, the ineffective countermeasures that he finally put in place lost him the confidence of the South. He ended his career with the confidence of no one! He spent his remaining years trying to prove that his decisions were pro-Union, and even argued at times his decisions were similar to Lincoln’s, but no one believed them. Nor should they. Perhaps he meant well, but he had no foresight nor enough leadership skills for such a critical hour of history.

As is often the case, this book does not give us much to go on to determine Buchanan’s religious views. The author did, however, treat the whispers that our only bachelor president was homosexual with restraint. She fairly admitted there was never any actual evidence of that charge. Not that it proves anything, but there were a few quotes from his life that used Christian language. It was interesting to note that he did join the Presbyterian Church after he left the White House. Apparently, the Presbyterian Church’s position on abolition in the north had held him back in earlier years. After Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, the discussion of abolition was less critical.

This biography is ideal though Buchanan as president was anything but ideal. He did come across as something of a prideful person as he surrounded himself with people who would just let him talk and agree with him. That probably contributed to his overall failures as well. The only good thing that I can say for him is that at least he did seem like a more likable person than John Tyler. I guess you’d call that scraping the bottom of the barrel to find the compliment! If you are on a journey to read a biography of every president, Baker is the right choice for you here because you wouldn’t want to be too bogged down on Buchanan.

Franklin Pierce by Michael Holt (Presidential Bio. Series)

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I must confess that I knew almost nothing about Franklin Pierce before I read this biography written by Michael F. Holt in The American Presidents Series. This book was pitched perfectly. Its length and depth were ideal for this less significant president. As you may be aware, he is in a stretch of Presidents who often fight over being our worst one. This book told me all the broad details of his life that I needed to know and surprisingly succeeded in its few pages to dig into what made Pierce tick. Some volumes in this series are a complete dud, but I’m happy to have found this volume to be my choice for a biography of Pres. Pierce. To my mind, his presidency could fairly be called a failure while Pierce himself would’ve been far more interesting to meet than, say, John Tyler or James Buchanan. Though he was far too caught up into politics to have ever been a visionary, he does come across as sincere.

Franklin Pierce did succeed in his home state of New Hampshire in various offices. He rose through the ranks at an incredible rate and became the political power of his state. He had a near obsession with the Democratic Party that the author well exposes. The more I read about presidents in this era the more I’ve come to believe that they had little chance to succeed. We often think of the country dividing along sectional lines between the North and the South, but there was an equal division between Democrats and a succession of Whigs/Know-Nothings/Republicans. If you survey the election results from these years, you will see that they did not divide along the Mason-Dixon line. Much like our day, some states leaned more toward one party or the other with an occasional flipping. New Hampshire was the most democratic state in the Northeast and Pierce did everything he could to keep it that way. It was, however, true that some of Franklin Pierce’s decisions help solidify our country finally dividing between the North and the South.

What is inexplicable about Pierce was his dedication to the South. To be honest, since he was from the north, it makes no sense to me at all. You might find a few clues in him forging some strong friendships with Southerners and that his interest in the success of the Democratic Party was far more important to him that how the issue of slavery turned out. Historians will always label Pierce as being on the wrong side of that issue. I don’t think he was proslavery, but he was going to protect his friends and acquaintances that stood with him in earlier political battles. Another mistake that he made was not accepting the new direction of the North even in how they viewed Lincoln who followed him. He openly criticized Lincoln at times and also tried to support Jefferson Davis during his trial for treason after the Civil War. Again, it seemed to be nothing other than he would be true to his old friends. That kind of thinking will probably keep your friendships strong, but it may destroy your historical standing.

As with several other presidents, it’s hard to pin down where Pierce was regarding Christianity. The author paints Pierce as the poster child of an 1800s party animal in his youth. While that may have been true, he married a very religious woman. She was no social bug either. Still, he seemed to adore her. He curtailed his drinking and stuck by her through several health crises. There are not a lot of other facts to go on, but the author relates casually that one time Pierce detested working on the Sabbath while he was president. When his wife died shortly after his presidency ended, he started drinking some again. The author insinuates that he married his second wife for money, but they appear to have had a good relationship too though he spent more time alone during those years. He still had his demons and alcoholism finally destroyed his health and ended his life. Though the author never said, I can’t help but wonder if the obvious failings of his presidency though he genuinely meant to do what he thought best led him to discouragement. All in all, he was probably a far better person that he was a president.

 

For others in this series, look here.

Millard Fillmore by Robert Rayback (Presidential Bio. Series)

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Millard Fillmore is usually relegated to a dusty list of our forgotten presidents. Admittedly, most are hard-pressed to name any of our presidents between Jackson and Lincoln (well, maybe Polk has a few fans). To make it worse, Fillmore has been summarily dismissed as the ultimate underachiever. After reading this biography by Robert Rayback, I’m wondering if historians have been a little too unkind to Fillmore. While it’s true that Rayback greatly admired Fillmore and perhaps cast events in the best light possible, I did feel that many of the facts were on Rayback’s side.

While I have no illusions that Fillmore was one of our presidential greats, he does appear to be a likable person, especially when compared to one of his irascible predecessors, John Tyler. He held principles on several occasions where personalities involved caused him to want to go another direction. He was an effective legislator before he became president and was perhaps more suited to that role. He was more adept at compromise and order than he was at either possessing or casting vision. Any record of the short-lived Whig party cannot deny his importance to its history. Somehow, he came through successfully the rough-and-tumble backroom battles of his party without being as cutthroat as many of his colleagues.

Most negative modern analysis of Fillmore stems from his part in the Compromise of 1850. That is somewhat unfair on two fronts: a desire to solve the slavery question without war was obviously appealing at the time and the reading of the convictions of our day onto the past without regard for the context of those times. Since war came a decade later anyway and destroyed slavery in the process, it knocks the luster off what many across the spectrum thought worthwhile at the time. Did, however, the nation progress in that decade to be more able to accept the demise of slavery? Since we can be sure of completely different leadership on both the Union and Confederate sides in this prior decade, are we confident that we would’ve had the same result had it burst out in 1850? Maybe I put more stock in the providence of God than most readers, but it appears to me that the vastly different events of 1850 and 1861 were ultimately for the best.

In reading these presidential biographies, I’ve made a point to check out the religious background of these men. I’m aware that the outlook of the biographer can add an unfortunate layer to what I find. Rayback explains how Fillmore joined the Unitarian church prior to becoming president. He further explains that although Fillmore did not appear to attend church much before this move to the Unitarian church, he became quite faithful afterward. It does appear to me that the author has made a mistake in describing Unitarians more as they are today than they were in Fillmore’s time. Some other American characters widely known for their Christianity were, in fact, Unitarians in those days. Mrs. Fillmore was the daughter of a Baptist pastor and was raised in the Baptist Church. The author is probably correct in explaining that Fillmore did not join the Methodist Church, which was quite zealous in those days, even though he had family members in it. The Unitarian church probably matched his more genteel ways, but it seems altogether possible that Fillmore was a Christian. We may never know for sure.

Since this biography was written 60 years ago, I dreaded a dry writing style. Since presidential biographies have attracted some of the best writers of our day in the last few decades, it’s easy to become spoiled. To be sure, Rayback is no McCullough or Chernow, but I thought his pages flowed easily and were pleasant to read. Even though the book was well written and Fillmore was likely a better president that he’s often given credit for, I’m still of the opinion that 250 pages would have likely been enough for his life. Since I’ve heard that the volume in The American Presidents series is a complete disaster, I’m glad I read Rayback’s take on Fillmore.

For more in this series, look here.

Zachary Taylor by Eisenhower (Presidential Bio. Series)

John S. D. Eisenhower, son of President Eisenhower, writes this concise biography on President Zachary Taylor for The American Presidents Series. That series is at its best on the lesser known president’s because it enables you to quickly read a biography and move on to the next president. Our presidents are mostly a mediocre lot from Van Buren to Buchanan besides, perhaps, Polk. On the other hand, if you give equal weight to these presidents pre-presidential careers, Taylor is one of the most interesting. He was the leading general of the Mexican War. It doesn’t hurt that we without question won that war and added vast territory to our nation. To me, Taylor is far more important in our nation’s history as a general than as a president.

Taylor is shown as a soldier’s soldier. This book well relays his exciting moments (plus a few that weren’t so exciting). At times, his strategy wasn’t above questioning either. He caught a few breaks and called a few good ones too. What could never be questioned was his courage. His traits matched his soldier life–loyal, diligent, and willing to face hardships. The author was a soldier as well and was in his wheelhouse in describing this overarching aspect of Taylor’s life.

The author tells us little of Taylor’s religious point of view other than once saying he wasn’t very religious, though he relayed that viewpoint while telling us that he called for a day of prayer! It could be that the fact that all Taylor’s papers were destroyed in the Civil War while in his son’s possession have obscured our fully knowing Taylor’s religious outlook.

I’m so glad I chose this volume as my read on Taylor. Perfectly paced for my needs and genuinely interesting, this book served up Taylor with nice balance, appropriate depth, and fleshed out in an economy of pages. Worth looking this one up!

For more in this series, look here.

Valley Forge by Bob Drury & Tom Clavin

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Valley Forge. Now that’s a subject worthy of its own book. If nothing else, there’s George Washington. Washington attracts great writers you know. Ron Chernow was compelled to give us a life of Washington while David McCullough gave us 1776, so it’s no surprise to me that the bestselling author team of Bob Drury and Tom Clavin were pulled to Valley Forge. Valley Forge made for one of the greatest chapters of Washington’s celebrated life and contributed immensely to his mystique. Drury and Clavin give it the treatment it deserves in this fine book.

The authors struck the right balance in setting up the famous winter in Valley Forge, telling its story, and describing what followed along with its significance. Part 1 tells us of a series of failures that led into the dismal winter. Wait till you read of Brandywine. That this book ends in great victory makes the whole story something of a microcosm of Washington’s amazing life. He had more losses than most any famous general, yet he always preserved to ultimate victory. Defeat never crushed him, the odds never defied him, and he is the poster child of fearlessness in battle. He could rally men that seemed beyond it. All in all, he makes for thrilling reading as this book turns out to be.

It would be unfair, though, to call this only a biography of an episode of Washington’s life. There are all kinds of heroes and villains to be found. For example, you will despise Charles Lee by book’s end. There’s plenty more across the field among the Redcoats too.

The famous winter is great drama as well. The suffering was real—so real that the victories in the following spring seemed unreal. My only complaint with this book is that the authors were perhaps more skeptical of some of the Christian elements than seemed necessary. I know legends always have a potential of growing, but the evidence of Washington’s genuine Christianity is greater than what’s found here.

If you love either Washington or the Revolutionary War, or for that matter any well-written slice of history, you will thoroughly enjoy this book.

I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.