Abandoned Coastal Defense of Alabama

Courier Book Reviewed by Greg M. Romaneck

On August 4, 1864, the night before launching his naval attack on the Confederate fortifications and fleet defending Mobile Bay, Admiral David G. Farragut took pen in hand and wrote to his wife, “My dearest wife: I write and leave this letter for you. I am going into Mobile in the morning, If God is my leader, as I hope he is, and in him I place my trust. If he thinks it is the proper place for me to die, I am ready to submit to his will in that as in all other things. My great mortification is that my vessels, the ironclads, were not ready to have gone in yesterday.

“The army landed last night, and are in full view of us this morning, and the Tecumseh has not yet arrived from Pensacola…God bless and preserve you, my darling, and my dear boy, if anything should happen to me … Your devoted and affectionate husband, who never for one moment forgot his love, duty, and fidelity to you, his devoted and best of wives.”

Within a relatively few hours of crafting this letter home, Admiral Farragut led his flotilla into Mobile Bay where, following the destruction of the ironclad USS Tecumseh at the hands of a Confederate mine, he uttered one of the great military admonitions in American history when he commanded his shaken men to, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!”

It is the story of Admiral Farragut’s successful defeat of the Confederate forces defending Mobile Bay and, in particular, two Rebel forts that temporarily stood in his way.

In “Abandoned Coastal Defenses of Alabama,” writer and photographer Thomas Kenning tells the story of Forts Morgan and Gaines, both of which were designed and constructed in the 1830s. These two forts were part of a “Third System” of coastal defense design which incorporated the most advanced military engineering of its age. However, by the time of the Civil War, many aspects of these Alabama coastal defense fortifications were already obsolete due to advancements in naval gunnery and ordnance. Originally built to protect an important portion of the Gulf Coast, Forts Morgan and Gaines proved to be relatively ineffective defensive positions by the time Admiral Farragut’s ships and ironclads arrived on the scene thirty years after the construction of these masonry forts was begun. In short order, Farragut’s heavily armed warships bombed Fort Gaines into submission and then, in turn, forced Fort Morgan to surrender after a heavy bombardment.

The greatest threat to Farragut’s fleet was a combination of the roughly 180 mines, or torpedoes as they were referred to at the time, and the presence of the Confederate ironclad CSS Tennessee. Despite the destruction of Farragut’s ironclad USS Tecumseh due to an exploding torpedo, Farragut was able to overwhelm the Tennessee by weight of numbers while avoiding the remaining functional torpedoes. With the Confederate ironclad disabled, and Forts Gaines and Morgan in hand, the Battle of Mobile Bay was won and the last significant portion of the Alabama coast was closed to blockade runners and other Confederate ships.

While the Battle of Mobile Bay is at the core of this illustrated book, the lion’s share of Kenning’s content deals with the two Confederate forts themselves, how they were constructed, their varied uses over the years, and how they have withstood the assaults launched against them by weather and the passage of time. Throughout this information filled book, Kenning peppers the pages with numerous color photographs of keynote features of Forts Morgan and Gaines.

These photos are, perhaps, the most interesting feature of the book in that they are a clear glimpse of how Forts Morgan and Gaines were originally intended to wreak havoc on any attacking force. Kenning does an excellent job of showing and explaining elements of the forts dealing with converging fields of fire, anti-personnel batteries designed to stymie a land-based attack, curtain walls and how they added additional protection to defenders, and the types of gun emplacements that existed in the defense system. These more technical elements of fortification design and function are made much clearer through the author’s color photos and aligned explanations of them. By book’s end, readers should be more familiar with the complex engineering and military design that went into the construction of these two forts. However, as Kenning notes early on in his book, the intelligence that went into Forts Morgan and Gaines’ design was eventually superseded by more advanced thinking that set the stage for their defeat. In the author’s words, “The same human ingenuity that erected these brick behemoths also devised their obsolescence.”

Forts Morgan and Gaines were eventually rehabbed and upgraded in order to continue service in costal defense through World War II. After World War II, these forts were turned over to the Alabama State Parks system, in which they continue to be an attraction. In the present day, the threat of enemy attack is no longer a risk for Forts Morgan and Gaines but those threats have been replaced by the destructive power of nature in the form of increasingly powerful storms, hurricanes, and rising sea levels caused by climate change. Hopefully, over time, human beings will be able to marshal their intelligence and establish solutions to these global threats and remove the very real possibility that not only Forts Morgan and Gaines, but also significant stretches of the Gulf Coast, will submerged beneath the waves of the Gulf of Mexico over time. In the meantime, Thomas Kenning’s book should provide any potential visitors to these two forts with a wealth of knowledge regarding their construction, history, and future challenges.

Title: Abandoned Coastal Defense of Alabama

Author: Thomas Kenning

Publisher: Arcadia Publishing

Pages: 96

Price: $23.99

Soft Cover

“To Care for Him Who Shall Have Borne the Battle”

Bullets & Bandages: The Aid Stations and Field Hospitals at

Gettysburg

By James Gindlesperger

Courier Review by Katy Berman

On July 1, 1865, John Burns left his home in Gettysburg to follow the sounds of battle. He fought amongst the Union Army’s First Corps, claiming afterwards to have killed three Confederates. Wounded and weary, Burns gradually made his way home, which, to his surprise, had become a hospital for wounded Confederate soldiers.

Four months later, President Abraham Lincoln arrived at the Gettysburg Train Station; in his pocket were a “few, appropriate remarks” intended for the inauguration of a National Cemetery on the following day. As the President disembarked, he was reminded of the heavy cost of war by a large number of coffins stacked around the railroad platform, awaiting reinternment.

In 1955, Mamie Eisenhower made plans for a flower garden on their newly purchased Gettysburg farm. After the digging commenced, Mamie learned that the plot contained the remains of a Civil War soldier. Nearly a century earlier, the property’s house and barn had served as aid stations during the battle. Mamie relocated her garden, and the soldier was allowed to rest in peace.

These are only a handful of stories from James Gindlesperger’s wonderful volume, Bullets & Bandages: The Aid Stations and Field Hospitals at Gettysburg. There are many, many more. The author’s purpose was to document the more than two hundred temporary or permanent structures that offered succor to the wounded, and Gindlesperger does that admirably. For each structure, there is an astonishing tale of desperate medical intervention and civilian involvement that holds fast the reader’s attention.

Gindlesperger begins by describing the state of medical care at the time of battle. Much credit is given to Major Jonathon Letterman, Medical Director of the United States Army, for his innovations in treating battlefield casualties. Letterman devised a three-tier system which has served as a model ever since. Field stations were placed next to the battlefield: there, wounds were dressed, and whiskey or morphine administered. Soldiers with superficial wounds returned to battle; the more seriously wounded were transported by ambulances to field hospitals further away. Amputations and other surgeries were performed at those locations. Patients requiring long-term care were sent, usually by rail, to established hospitals.

Gettysburg’s public and private buildings were commandeered for second-tier hospitals. Barn doors were removed and used as operating tables, as were dining room tables. Boards placed across church pews and laid with straw served as beds. Bed and table linens, clothing, and anything else that would serve the purpose were taken for bandages.

Civilians volunteered or were impressed as nurses. Others worked continuously to feed the wounded. Agnes Barr and her sisters dodged bullets as they walked from their home to a nearby church in order to feed the doctors and nurses. A woman known only as Cassie, baked bread each day for six weeks until the family’s supply of flour was depleted. Their wheat crop had been trampled by armies on the march. Damage Claims filed with the Federal Government tell a story of residents’ heavy losses: grain crops, farm animals, wagons, horse gear, cord wood, fence rails, carpets, linens, and mattresses were among the most common. Compensation was uneven. Andrew Weikert filed a claim for $1,997.67 and received three hundred dollars less. John Q. Allewelt claimed damages of $560.37 and was awarded the full amount. Francis Bream filed three claims for damages to his mill and tavern and received received nothing.

Sixteen maps of Gettysburg and its environs chart the hospitals and aid stations; each ensuing chapter is linked to a particular map. Glossy photographs tempt the reader to plan an early tour. Many of the buildings have been preserved, some with bloodstains on the floor, initials carved into planks, or shells protruding from exterior walls. Occasionally, nature has been permitted to take its course, and only foundation stones or grassy hollows remain. There are a few disappointments: a shopping center and parking lot, for example, occupy the ground where the four hundred tents of Camp Letterman once stood. Nevertheless, Gettysburg is a remarkably well-preserved town.

Although its subject is grim, Bullets & Bandages is a beautiful book, one that will enhance anyone’s visit to Gettysburg. Readers will gain a vivid picture of the battle through dozens of personal accounts, and an appreciation for the long aftermath that stretched for years.

Title: Bullets & Bandages: The Aid Stations and Field Hospitals at Gettysburg

Author: James Gindlesperger

Publisher: Blair, Carolina Wren Press, 2020

Pages: 336

Price: $29.95

A Mortal Blow to the Confederacy: The Fall of New Orleans, 1862

Courier Book Reviewed by Greg M. Romaneck

In many ways, the Fall of New Orleans in late April 1862 was one of the turning points of the war. By seizing New Orleans, the largest city in the Confederacy and the gateway to the Gulf of Mexico, the Union forces involved in the city’s capture dealt a terrible blow to the Confederacy.

However, as Mark Bielski argues in this information-filled book, the Union victory at New Orleans may well have been utterly preventable but for poor leadership and faulty decision making at the highest levels of governance. If not for the poor personnel choices made by Jefferson Davis and other Confederate leaders, a miscalculation of just where a Federal invasion force might strike, and awful resource allocations to such an important city, New Orleans might not have fallen and the course of the early war years could have been very different.

As Bielski points out, the military force allotted to the defense of New Orleans was meager at best. Only a few thousand very inexperienced troops or civil guards were combined to form the infantry defense force of New Orleans. A great deal of weight was given to the powerful forts that held the Mississippi River south of the city with Forts Jackson and St, Philip being bulwarks of the Confederate defensive line. However, since the Confederate leadership from President Davis down through the ranks held the belief that any Union offensive would almost certainly come from the north and not from the Gulf side. Operating under this premise, Confederate military resources were concentrated north of New Orleans with very little attention being paid to a possible Gulf-side attack. Finally, no real preparations for the defense of New Orleans proper were in place. Operating under the assumption that a Union attack would flow southward and that Federal naval and infantry resources would not have to be repelled from the south, New Orleans was hanging by a thread of defensive prowess when the Federals struck.

On the Union side, as Bielski ably describes, the intention was always to attack New Orleans by going up river. A large flotilla of Union vessels was put under the command of David G. Farragut. Under Farragut’s command, and leading a force of motor boats, was David Dixon Porter, a rising star in the Union Navy and the foster brother of Farragut who was raised by David Porter Sr., himself a naval commander who fought in the War of 1812. These two dynamic naval commanders struck on April 25 and triggered what would be a series of naval engagements including motor bombardments of the Confederate forts, ship-to-ship engagements, fire rafts, ironclads, and an eventual Union naval victory. By the end of the naval battles, Farragut’s force had run past Forts Jackson and St. Philip and arrived at New Orleans proper. After fending their way through enraged citizens of the city, Farragut’s representatives negotiated the surrender of New Orleans. On May 1, 1862, Union land-based forces arrived under the command of General Benjamin Butler. For the next eight months, General Butler oversaw the Union occupation of New Orleans and did so in a way that earned him the contempt of most of its residents. Butler was nicknamed “the beast” and Spoons” by many locals due to his mode of leadership and alleged propensity for graft, corruption, fraud, and outright theft. When Butler was relieved due to a growing sense that he was a corrupt man engaged in lining his own pockets, he left behind only two positive legacies. It was Butler who coined the term “contrabands” in reference to escaped slaves who he refused to return to their owners as they were considered captive wartime resources. Secondly, Butler initiated a comprehensive upgrade of the streets and sanitation departments in New Orleans which resulted in a significant upgrade of the city’s wellness.

After New Orleans fell, President Jefferson Davis lost no time at all in blaming local military leaders for the defeat. Even many years after the war, Davis refused to accept any responsibility for the loss of New Orleans despite the fact that the allocation of military resources, choice of top commanders, and strategic perspective all had his fingerprints all over them. However, regardless of who was responsible or should have owned up to their role in the fall of New Orleans, the bottom line is that Farragut’s victory was the result of Union intrepidness combined with Confederate ineptitude. With New Orleans in Federal hands, the lion’s share of cutting the Confederacy’s pipeline of resources by way of the Gulf of Mexico was complete. One year later, the fall of Vicksburg and Port Hudson finally sealed off the Mississippi River but the Union capture of New Orleans set the stage for that strategic initiative.

In A Mortal Blow to the Confederacy, Mark Bielski walks his readers through a step-by-step recounting of the Battle of New Orleans. In telling this story. Bielski incorporates his deep knowledge of the city and its history, to describe just how the glorious Union victory and the incompetently engineered Confederate defeat came about. Bielski also includes a series of fascinating appendices which describe how New Orleans came to be a part of the United States, the post-war life of Jefferson Davis in the Gulf region, and historical museums in the city. The end result is a book that will provide a solid overview of a pivotal and often neglected Civil War battle.

Title: A Mortal Blow to the Confederacy: The Fall of New Orleans, 1862

Author: Mark F. Bielski

Publisher: Savas-Beatie

Pages: 171

Price: $14.95

Soft Cover

The Assault on Fort Blakely

Courier Book Reviewed by Greg Romaneck

On the afternoon of April 9, 1865, Captain J.S. Clark of the 34th Iowa awaited the order to lead his men forward as part of a largescale Federal assault on the impressive earth works surrounding the Confederate Fort Blakely near Mobile, Alabama. Clark and his men were veterans who had participated in hard fighting at Chickasaw Bayou, Fort Hindman, and during the Vicksburg campaign. Looking at the formidable Confederate defenses, Clark felt a combination of anticipation and dread. Having “seen the elephant,” Clark and the men he led knew what could be expected once they left the protection of their entrenchments and entered into what could well be a killing zone. Later, Clark would record what he experienced in the minutes just before he led his men forward and how he felt just before battle, “Breathlessly all awaited the signal to move forward. The silence was interrupted only by an occasional shot from a Confederate picket. The waiting and suspense was a severe test of courage. Some tried to conceal their anxiety by an effort to appear reckless, careless, and brave; they whispered jokes and witticisms pretending that they enjoyed it immensely. Others, more candid and serious, gave their comrades messages to be delivered to loved ones at home in case they fell…” while Clark, and his men, would do well in this assault, not everyone survived the Battle of Fort Blakely unscathed in the last great assault of the Civil War and an engagement that is generally overlooked and ignored.

It is the Battle of Fort Blakely that author Mike Bunn addresses in this fascinating book. Bunn, himself, has served as the Director of Historic Fort Blakely State Park for years and, in that capacity, has been responsible for helping to develop the interpretive aspects of a number of self-guided tours of the battlefield. Bunn has also led thousands of visitors to Fort Blakely on tours of the site as well as doing countless presentations to various groups about this engagement. As an expert regarding the violent events that occurred at Fort Blakely, and the men who fought there, Bunn is a wealth of information about this generally ignored battle. In this fine book, the author demonstrates not only a depth of knowledge on his chosen subject, but also the ability to shape that information along with the words of actual participants in a way that results in a compelling look at this particular Civil War battle.

The Battle of Fort Blakely occurred on the same day that General Robert E. Lee surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia to U.S. Grant. Given the enormous amount of attention that has justifiably been paid to Lee’s surrender, which resulted in the defacto end of the Civil War, it is understandable that the fight at Fort Blakely would be viewed as an afterthought. However, As Bunn carefully reveals, the Battle of Fort Blakely was not a sideshow affair but rather the last mass assault on a fortified position of the war. At Fort Blakely, over 15,000 men under the overall command of General Edward S. Canby left their defensive positions at approximately 5:30 PM on April 9 to attack roughly 3,500 Confederate defenders led by General Liddell. In an era when massed attacks on fortified positions generally led to the slaughter of the attacking force, the advance on Fort Blakely was an exception to that rule. While the advancing Federal force, made up of primarily veteran regiments of USCT troops and men from states such as Illinois, Iowa, Indiana, and Ohio, did incur upwards of 800 casualties, they took the Confederate works in approximately a half-hour. Opposing this veteran group of Union infantrymen was a mixed Confederate force that included veteran fighting men with experience at places such as Fort Henry, Vicksburg, Nashville, and Shiloh, and a significant number of men who were rather green. By battle’s end, nearly the entire garrison of Fort Blakely was captured in a lightning strike by Canby’s veterans. With Blakely in Federal hands, the years-long efforts by the Union Army to take Mobile was essentially completed in those waning days of the war.

In telling the story of this forgotten battle, Mike Bunn adopts a novel narrative approach. In his book, it is almost as if Bunn is taking his readers on a walking tour of the battlefield. Bunn structures this informative book in a sequential manner featuring an initial historical overview of each element of the battle, followed by a detailed section of storytelling in the words of the men who actually participated in the battle. Bunn begins with an overview of the campaign that led to the Battle of Fort Blakely, and then divides his chapters into explanations of how the rolling Federal assault impacted each segment of the Confederate line, redoubt by redoubt. In this way, readers benefit from the author’s deep knowledge of both the battle and how to present it in a compelling fashion.

The sections of each chapter that share the experiences of the men who fought at Blakely in their own words are fascinating and include a wealth of unique perspectives penned by combat veterans. For example, one soldier who served with the 27th Iowa, and fought at Nashville and in the Red River Campaign, described his feelings before battle in this way, “Not a shot was fired and all seemed to be nerving themselves for the coming charge.

The hours of suspense before a battle are much more trying to the soldier and tests his courage more than the actual participation of it, for then he has time to think soberly and candidly of the larger danger he is to encounter.” This type of insight into the psychology of combat veterans is typical of the many gems of knowledge that Bunn incorporates into his informative book.

In his closing paragraph Mike Bunn captures, in a way that is worth noting, the importance of preserving places such as Fort Blakely. In the author’s words, “Blakely’s natural beauty belies the fact that it was once the scene of a pivotal battle waged for the control of Mobile and access to Alabama’s river systems. The serenity of its shady wildernes

s trails and rolling meadows, the beautiful murmuring of its streams and the gently lapping waves along the banks of the mighty Tensaw today all make it difficult to imagine in the mind’s eye what the place looked and sounded like as nearly twenty thousand men waged a desperate struggle…in April 1865. Simultaneously, this tranquil natural setting renders the effort even more poignant, for it is a place where men fought and died, where they performed daring acts of bravery that echo through the ages and where they perished in sudden acts of violence with their stories untold.” In writing this excellent book, Mike Bunn does honor to the sacrifices of the men who fought at Fort Blakely and simultaneously offers his readers a rare look back at this often ignored Civil War battle.

Title: The Assault on Fort Blakely

Author: Mike Bunn

Publisher: The History Press

Pages: 159

Price: $21.99

Soft Cover

‘The Underground

Railroad’

By Greg M. Romaneck

Early in director Barry Jenkin’s The Underground Railroad, the leading character of the series, Cora, spends some time recalling her mother, Mabel, who fled from the Randall plantation never to return, leaving her only child behind to suffer under the ownership of madmen. Looking back, Cora remembers what her mother told her just before she fled, “The first and last thing my mama gave me was apologies.” Over the course of ten episodes, and ten hours, viewers will come to understand just how deeply true those apologies were, not only for Cora and her fellow enslaved people, but also for African Americans living in a nation still dogged by the aftereffects of slavery and all the metastasized stands of that cancerous “peculiar institution.”

The Underground Railroad follows two distinctly different yet intertwined narratives. On the on hand, Jenkins highlights young Cora, a bold and determined woman who flees from her wretched owners and encounters sufferings of untold impact along her path towards freedom. Alongside Cora’s journey to freedom and all its difficulties, viewers also get an up-close look at the evolution of Arnold Ridgeway, a slave catcher raised by a liberal and kind father but driven by his own violent and racist tendencies.

Ridgeway is dispatched to capture Cora and he pursues this assignment with a singlemindedness reminiscent of the killer cyborgs featured in the Terminator movies. Alongside Ridgeway is his trusted partner, Homer, an eleven year old former slave who forms a strange partnership with a killer who treats him well but operates in a way bent on the destruction of his fellow Black people. This pursuit of Cora by the Ridgeway drives the narrative in this compelling mini-series and sets the stage for a great deal of reflection by viewers.

Cora’s flight from the Ridgeway plantation, along with her friends Lovey and Caesar, is precipitated by a lifelong chain of cruelty capped off by the horrendous whipping and death by fire of one of the Randall plantation slaves. Once they take flight, Cora and her friends face all the seemingly insurmountable odds that every enslaved runaway had to cope with. Lovey is swiftly recaptured, but Cora and Caesar are able to connect with the Underground Railroad. Jenkins adopts a symbolic and surreal tone when showing the Underground Railroad which, in this thoughtful series, is shown as an actual rail line running through a series of tunnels hewn into the stone beneath southern soil. Hopping on a train, Cora and Caesar are able to escape from Georgia and begin a new life in a seemingly enlightened town in South Carolina. In their adopted home, Cora and Caesar begin to hope for a new life of freedom, only to see those dreams crushed by the realities of White hatred of their race. The seeming paradise in South Carolina is, in reality, merely a façade hiding a deeply seated hatred of “blackness” and medical experiments designed to shape the race. Fleeing from this lost dream, Cora finds herself alone as Ridgeway has recaptured Caesar.

The Underground Railroad takes Cora into North Carolina where she must hide in a town run by religious zealots who slaughter or lynch any African American or abolitionist who enters into their territory. Facing death, Cora flees only to be captured by Ridgeway who takes her through a burning and blighted landscape in Tennessee. With the assistance of Underground Railroad operatives, Cora escapes again and journeys to Indiana where she settles on Vincent Farms, a winery established by Free and escaped African Americans. At Vincent Farm, in the prosperous winery, Cora begins to shed her layers of sadness and even falls in love with a kindhearted man named Royal. However, just as happiness appears to be within reach, Whites angered by the audacity of Black people who simply dared to thrive, destroy the farm and splinter the hopes of all its residents. Cora is forced to confront Ridgeway yet again and while her triumph over him allows her to escape death and begin a journey west, it does nothing to erase all the pain she, and her people, had endured.

Near the end of the series, one of Cora’s fellow members of the Vincent Farm community declares, “Makes you wonder if there ain’t no real places to escape to, only places to run from.” In many ways this is an abiding truth for Cora, and perhaps all too many African Americans across all of U.S. history.

In this series, Barry Jenkins offers his viewers not only the story of Cora but also the saga of African Americans trying to live in a land their ancestors never chose to come to. So many echoes of events in U.S. history unrelated to the actual Underground Railroad but having linkages to slavery are brought to bear in this series that one finishes it with a sense that the nation’s story is partially grounded on oppression of Black people. The destruction of Vincent Farm is a precursor to the Tulsa Riots of 1921 when Whites angered by the existence of a prosperous African American business district, chose to destroy it and kill hundreds of innocent Black people. The medical solutions to “blackness” presented in the South Carolina town where Cora and Caesar stay is reminiscent of medical experiments and sterilization laws actually put into play in many states in the Union. The horrendous nature of slavery and all its cruelties, many of which Jenkins recreates in brutal detail, are precursors to the destructive results of segregation, voter suppression, second-class citizenship, mass incarceration, and any number of other elements of institutional racism which many White people presently deny while simultaneously benefiting from.

The Underground Railroad is set in the antebellum period of American history, but its message is one of ongoing suffering that is all too prevalent amidst the African American community. This message is portrayed in a remarkable manner by director Barry Jenkins and it is hard to think of a better choice to lead this production.

Barry Jenkins is a rising star in his field with films such as “Moonlight” and “If Beale Street Could Talk,” both of which received Academy Awards, to his credit. Jenkins uses an unusual directorial style and, in many ways, is a very “artsy” director. Jenkins’ ability to use point of view shots, unusual camera angles, lighting that emphasizes the granular realities of the outdoors, and lingering images of people’s faces as they react to events the viewer may never see, are all components of his outstanding talents.

Jenkins also is a master of sound usage and, in this series, incorporates background sound in very creative ways. A terribly cruel scene in which a man is burned to death transitions to slaves working in a cottonfield where the wind makes the plant stalks crackle while the human faces of men and women at work remind the audience that they all have been scarred by this cruel spectacle. Likewise, Jenkins uses wind sounds, insect noises, whipping sounds, and other natural noises to help frame his shots. Likewise, Jenkins is a master of using light to enhance a shot.

In several instances important conversations occur with sunlight periodically blocking out some of the viewer’s perspective just as it would have for the people having the conversation on film. In these ways, Jenkins draws his audience into the power of the visual imagery he crafts in ways that are striking. All these sights and sounds are made even more memorable when combined with the score of Nicholas Britell. Britell is an Oscar nominated composer whose credits include If Beale Street Could Talk, Moonlight, Free State of Jones, and 12 Years a Slave. In this production, Britell’s music is striking and consistently adds poignancy to the powerful story being told.

In terms of casting, Jenkins selected a combination of known and unknown performers with little-known South African actress Thuso Mbedu as Cora being his most amazing selection. Mbedu’s performance as Cora is a tour-de-force and one that captures a full range of emotions in ways that will be hard for viewers to forget. Another performance that is stellar is that of eleven-year-old Chase Dillon as Homer, the slave catcher’s assistant.

Dillon, who had limited prior acting experience, breathes life into a character who owes loyalty to a monster who lifted him out of slavery and gave him purpose. Other performers such as Aaron Pierre as Caesar, William Jackson Harper as Royal, and Joel Edgerton as the hateful Ridgeway all add to the fine cast that came together to tell this difficult story.

The Underground Railroad is a difficult series to watch. Dealing with the cruelties of slavery, Jenkins does present some horrific scenes. This is not a film for younger or more sensitive viewers as it includes horrific whippings, attempted rapes, suicide, infanticide, and a man burned to death. Slavery was all cruelty and any film about it cannot refine that fact. Millions of African Americans were enslaved, treated like livestock, sold like commodities, raped, brutalized, and forced to see their families splintered. In The Underground Railroad viewers will have to cope with some very difficult scenes but that is a small price to pay when one considers what has happed to Black people in the U.S. Perhaps the true message of this outstanding series is captured by one of Jenkins’ characters late in the series.

Just before the Vincent Farm is shattered, a leader of that community states, “We cannot escape slavery…its scars will always be with us.” That statement was true in the Civil War era and reminds so to this very day. That is the deeper message of Barry Jenkins’ powerful series and one that is worth considering every day of the year. Available on Amazon Prime Video,

The Underground Railroad is a necessary and important program and one that viewers should consider watching a few episodes at a time rather than binge watching. This series is a fine wine to be sipped rather than a scorching shot of alcohol to down in one painful gulp. (2021…600 Minutes) 4.5 Stars