Roundup: Nonfiction

The Siege of Washington: The Untold Story of the Twelve Days that Shook the Union by John Lockwood and Charles Lockwood. Oxford (352 pp.)  After the fall of Fort Sumter on April 14, 1860—the first military action of the Civil War–many felt certain Confederate forces would invade Washington, D.C., which was surrounded by slave states.  For 12 nerve-wracking days, the Union capital lay vulnerable, with only a few hundred soldiers and no fortifications.  In this brightly written account, two historians recreate a time when Washington residents  standing on high ground could see Confederate flags across the Potomac in Alexandria, VA.  Many fled; others remained and hoarded food; militia guarded government buildings. But the attack never came—the South lacked the needed arms and materiel—and Lincoln’s call for reinforcements brought an outpouring of  “brave and true men” from Northern states.








Genius of Place: The Life of Frederick Law Olmsted by Justin Martin.  Merloyd Lawrence/Da Capo Press (496 pp.)  We’ve had other biographies of journalist and public administrator Olmsted (1822-1903), perhaps best known as the father of American landscape architecture, but Genius of Place offers a nicely rounded portrait that has the feel of a labor of love.  Long intrigued by his subject, Martin was married in Olmsted’s Central Park and has lived in the Forest Hills Gardens, Queens, community planned by Frederick Law Olmsted Jr.  Olmsted emerges as an indefatigable figure: a reporter on the slave-holding South for the early New York Times, a contributor to E.L. Godkin’s weekly Nation,  and the designer of more than 30 city parks (he gave us the words “parkway” and “midway”) and the U.S. capitol grounds.  He was also a leading reformer.  This lively rendering of “a hard man” who created beauty should have wide appeal.








Moneymakers: The Wicked Lives and Surprising Adventures of Three Notorious Counterfeiters by Ben Tarnoff. Penguin (369 pp.)  Only in America.  Long before there were feds to crack down, counterfeiting thrived in the loosely bound colonies and states of America, writes Tarnoff, a young Harvard graduate. The colonies were the first Western governments to print easily forged paper currency; their financial affairs were a mess.  This entertaining debut focuses on three criminals who manned the printing presses ably: Owen Sullivan (1720-1756), an Irish immigrant with a knack for winning colonists’ trust in phony paper; David Lewis (1788-1820), a Robin Hood-like  counterfeiter in backcountry Pennsylvania; and former gold prospector Samuel Curtis Upham (1819-1885), who sold bogus Confederate currency from a storefront during the Civil War.  While telling their tales, the author shows how these get-rich-quick schemers “embodied the nation’s speculative spirit.”

-Joseph Barbato

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