A biography of Andrew Jackson that focuses on a period before he was president of the United States—specifically, his rivalry with a U.S. Army general during the War of 1812.
Jackson detested the British—he blamed the deaths of his mother and brothers, who died of various causes during the Revolutionary War period, on them—and deeply pined for military glory, which offered two irrepressible incentives for him to fight in the War of 1812. Professional historians have meticulously scrutinized Jackson’s life, particularly his seemingly insatiable ambition, but debut author Turnbow, a Tennessee-based attorney, turns his attention to a comparatively neglected but intriguing part of his rise to fame, telling the story of the undying antagonism between Jackson and Gen. James Wilkinson. The latter was also profoundly ambitious, and he saw Jackson as a competitor in a zero-sum game for power and acclaim. He aimed to thwart Jackson’s success, even at the expense of military victory. He attempted to deny Jackson’s Tennessee Volunteers necessary supplies, tried to divert Jackson’s troops away from New Orleans to the Spanish province of East Florida, and worked to tarnish Jackson’s name and orchestrate his demotion. Jackson rightly believed that Wilkinson was a treasonous agent of Spain; indeed, the general provided Spain with sensitive intelligence regarding the United States’ plans for westward expansion. Turnbow paints Wilkinson as a “master of manipulation and deception,” who always seemed capable of gaining a strategic upper hand. Throughout, the author painstakingly depicts the historical context, including the precariousness of the United States as a still-fledgling nation and the threat posed by hostile Native American warriors; his account of Tecumseh’s extraordinary attempt to create a confederation to oppose American settlement is among the highlights of his rigorously researched study. Turnbow also lucidly captures Jackson’s impressive courage as well as the ways in which his ambition undermined his judgment; he nearly ruined his career by associating with the treacherous Aaron Burr. The account is relentlessly granular, and at times Turnbow produces an amount of detail that’s sometimes more disorienting than edifying. Overall, though, his effort is both original and thrillingly dramatic.
An impressive combination of scrupulous scholarship and powerful storytelling.