You have to keep dads preoccupied over the holidays. Otherwise they'll ask you to pull their finger, or get sloshed on sweet sherry and pontificate on politics, or some other important-to-avoid cliché. And some dads can't simply be mollified by plopping them in front of the tube as a bunch of pituitary cases throw around the ol' pigskin. So if your dad is one of those dads, perhaps he is also a military history dad. If he is, these books may help keep this year's holiday season a bit more peaceful.

Sailing the Graveyard Sea: The Deathly Voyage of the ‘Somers,’ the U.S. Navy’s Only Mutiny, and the Trial That Gripped the Nation

Richard Snow. Scribner, $29 (304p) ISBN 978-1-982-18544-2
Historian Snow (Disney’s Land) examines in this gripping narrative the mystery surrounding the 1842 execution of three sailors aboard the training vessel USS Somers. One of the ship’s young recruits was midshipman Phillip Spencer, a teenager who was “insolent, sullen, [and] scornful of hierarchy.” (He was also the son of the secretary of war, John Canfield Spencer.) While on a voyage across the Atlantic, the ship’s “self-righteous” captain, Alexander Slidell Mackenzie, was informed that Spencer was sharing with his fellow recruits fantasies of seizing the Somers and turning it into a pirate ship; Mackenzie acted immediately, harshly, and, many claimed in the aftermath, illegally, by assembling a court-martial. According to Snow, it was due to intimidation by the captain and his first officer that the jury reached a guilty verdict. On Dec. 1, 1842, when the ship was only 13 days from home port, Spencer and two supposed coconspirators were hanged. The events on the Somers became headline news, and speculation abounded: Had there really been a mutiny afoot, or had the captain committed murder? As a result of pressure from Spencer’s powerful father, Mackenzie was tried by a Naval court, but he was acquitted. Snow delves into the investigation and courtroom drama, drawing on court transcripts to vividly recreate scenes on board the Somers. Readers will be intrigued. (Nov.)

Longstreet: The Confederate General Who Defied the South

Elizabeth R. Varon. Simon & Schuster, $35 (516p) ISBN 978-1-982-14827-0
This incisive biography from historian Varon (Armies of Deliverance) offers a fresh take on Confederate general James Longstreet (1821–1904), who was Robert E. Lee’s trusted “war-horse.” Rather than trod the usual ground of Longstreet studies—his renowned military command during the Civil War, including his generalship at the Battle of Gettysburg, where he argued against Lee’s disastrous decision to attack the center of the Union line—Varon provides a thorough account of Longstreet’s remarkable postwar political conversion from “ardent Confederate to ardent Republican.” Inspired by his longtime friend Ulysses S. Grant, Longstreet joined the Republican Party after receiving congressional amnesty and, during Grant’s presidency, inflamed former Confederates by supporting the Reconstruction Acts of 1867. In 1874, white supremacists attempted to overthrow the Republican-controlled Louisiana state government in New Orleans, but Longstreet led an interracial state militia that stopped the coup attempt. The backlash against Longstreet for firing on former Confederates was vicious, but the more “white Southern critics treated him as an apostate on the issue of race,” Varon writes, “the more receptive he became to Republican ideology.” Varon draws an intriguing parallel between this event and the Jan. 6, 2021, U.S. Capitol insurrection, and suggests the consequences of not punishing rioters can be irreversible. The result is a must-read for Civil War buffs that contains valuable insight on today’s political polarization. (Nov.)

November 1942: An Intimate History of the Turning Point of World War II

Peter Englund, trans. from the Swedish by Peter Graves. Knopf, $32 (496p) ISBN 978-1-524-73331-5
Swedish historian Englund takes a captivating firsthand look at a pivotal month of WWII by drawing on the diaries, letters, and memoirs of 39 people who lived through it—the same approach he utilized in The Beauty and the Sorrow, his 2012 study of WWI. Over the course of November 1942, the momentum toward victory shifted away from the Axis powers and to the Allies: U.S. troops landed in North Africa; the British defeated the Germans in Egypt; the Soviets trapped the German army in Stalingrad; and the Japanese suffered defeat in Guadalcanal and New Guinea. Englund’s subjects, who document aspects of this turning of the tides, include Sophie Scholl, a German university student leading a secret war against the Nazis; Mun Okchu, an 18-year-old Korean woman forced to work as a sex slave for the Japanese army in Burma; and Adelbert Holl, a German officer embedded behind enemy lines in Russia. There are also such well-known figures as Albert Camus, living outside Lyons, France, while recovering from tuberculosis and finishing his novel The Plague, and Humphrey Bogart, waiting in Hollywood to shoot the new ending of Casablanca as news of U.S. troops in Africa dominates headlines. This gripping and propulsive account, expertly translated by Graves in lyrical prose, recreates the daily uncertainty of war as experienced by regular people with limited information and few resources. It’s a monumental work of history. (Nov.)

State of Silence: The Espionage Act and the Rise of America’s Secrecy Regime

Sam Lebovic. Basic, $32.50 (464p) ISBN 978-1-5416-2016-2
Historian Lebovic (A Righteous Smokescreen) charts in this probing study the evolving impact of the 1917 Espionage Act and its broad but vague proscription of communicating information related to national defense. Initially, the law was used to quash not just speech about military affairs but political dissent in military matters; it especially targeted left-wing opposition to American participation in WWI and advocacy of labor strikes that would affect wartime production. As free-speech rights were strengthened in later years, Lebovic notes, federal officials instead used the law to classify huge swaths of information and punish government employees who divulged it. The result was absurd overclassification—at one point the amount of peanut butter eaten by soldiers was deemed a vital national secret—and the coverup of such scandals as the CIA’s torture of terrorism suspects after 9/11. Lebovic’s skeptical, clear-eyed analysis of America’s secrecy policies untangles murky legal issues while spotlighting the human drama surrounding them. There are gripping recaps of landmark espionage and free-speech cases, including the prosecution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the publication of the Pentagon Papers, Edward Snowden’s whistleblowing about ubiquitous NSA spying on telecommunications, and Donald Trump’s spiriting of classified documents to Mar-a-Lago. The result is a riveting account of the rise of the national security state and its ongoing distortion of American politics. (Nov.)