Review by David Madden, 2/18/99
Thomas B. Buell's narrative of the Civil War focuses on three Northern
generals, Grant (the Yeoman),Thomas (the Roman), and Borlon (the Puritan), and
three Southern generals, Lee (the aristocrat), Hood (the Knight Errant), and
Gordan (the Cavalier). Having told each general's story before the war
(dealing mostly during the Mexican War), Buell moves back and forth from the
Eastern theater to the Western theater year by year.
Readers of Civil War military history may see by that brief description alone that this book frustrates, in a beneficent way, one's expectations. This study is informed by the distinctive conception described above and by a fresh and challenging point of view. Buell knows he will get an argument from those who hold fast to the conventional conviction that the generals of the Confederacy were superior in leadership, overall competency, and varied experience. Not so, says Buell. Strategic thinking and the use of modern tactics, not just greater manpower equipped with better and more equipment, were the salient characteristics of Northern leadership. It was not, he argues, Lee but Thomas, the "Rock of Chickamauga," who was the greatest general in the war.
Writing in a direct and readable style, Mr. Buell enables us to experience the war through the perspectives of six very different Generals, three on each side, from battle to battle. He goes further. He evaluates their conduct as warriors, with key attributes (aristocrat vs. yeoman, for instance). His narrative shifting, year by year, from the Eastern to Western theater is relatively unique and illuminating-- at moments, as one is swept back and forth, quite exhilarating.
The author of two award-winning books, The Quiet Warrior and Master of Sea Power, Buell takes a different approach to the currently popular, but gradually blurring, focus on Civil War battles and leaders by consistently blending a narrative of the war year by year and theater by theater with evaluations of the military tactics and strategy of the three major Northern and the three major Southern Generals. Buell's inclusion of Barlow, the Last Puritan, brings welcome attention to a general seldom discussed in this company.
The design of the book is excellent, creating a kind of ecosystem of evocative words and sensitively chosen images that other publishers, inclined to bunch a few photographs and drawings in the middle where their effect is diluted, will, one hopes, take as a model. The maps are superior. Even the five appendixes and the bibliography further stimulate the emotions, the imagination, and the intellect. To put a stop to all this praise, the index, one must admit, is merely an index. But a good one.
Review by David Madden, 2/18/99
Of all America's wars, the Civil War has produced, by far, the greatest
volume of published, and not yet published, memoirs by women. Walter Sullivan,
a native of Nashville, scholar of southern literature, author of three novels,
and professor of English and creative writing at Vanderbilt, draws on the
letters, diaries, journals, and memoirs of twenty-three women, whose ages
ranged from 13 to 58 the day Edmund Ruffin fired the first shot at Fort
Sumter. The thirty-one narrative sequences are arranged chronologically, from
the first months of anticipated decorous victory to Sherman's epic firestorm
to the sea. As George Core, editor of the distinguished literary journal
The Sewanee Review, promises in the foreword, each entry is a
fast-paced story, so that the book may be read as an informal history or a
loosely constructed novel.
Sullivan draws on many perspectives, young and old women, wives, daughters, sweethearts, nurses, teachers, slave managers, refugees, couriers, and smugglers and spies. The war the women lived is viewed from many vantage points: balconies and porches and parlors, but also hospitals, prisons, ships on the home front, behind the lines, but also on battlefields. Like the Chorus in Euripides' The Trojan Women, these testimonial voices bear witness.
They are not passive witnesses, but take-charge women whose deeds are the basis of their words, written on the scene, often rewritten, recollected in the tranquility of later years. They speak of a sense of land and property and of the very important relationships among family members. A few seemed to welcome a sense of danger. Some were critical of their leaders.
Context is provided by passages that set the historical scene; brief biographies of the women; and an epilogue that tells, as in Victorian novels, how their lives turned out. Sullivan's choices strike a balance between familiar voices and seven that are not often heard. He provides a bibliography of the complete works from which the entries were extracted; among the most memorable are Sarah Morgan's, Mary Chesnut's, Belle Boyd's, Phoebe Pember's, and Loreta Janeta Valesquez's.
These Southern ladies--a word more appropriate to the time than "women"--write not only with an expected grace, eloquence, and felicity but with forcefulness, intelligence, wit, humor and pathos, creating vivid images and metaphors, sharp descriptions. Modern readers may wonder sometimes whether under all the rhetorical phrases about it, the suffering is real or partly an occasion for stylistic indulgence. But words, said Emerson, are actions. The women cling to the oratorical rhetoric of religion and politics, drawn from the Bible and Sir Walter Scott, that came out of the mouths of the fire-eaters who espoused secession and stirred up war fever.
Now the men kill and the women write. They write not for publication but for survival; rhetorical phrases become things, objects that console, fortify, and sustain them, as old songs do, all the more as men die, property burns, and Southern values shatter. Now the speakers are gone, the women have only the rhetoric. The churches where women heard men orate are now hospitals where they hear cries of wounded soldiers. America has become, said Walt Whitman, one vast hospital.
Flowers and flags are metaphors for old times fading and armies turning to rags. But romance persists in a style that is sometimes very literary, drawing on the old Scott and the new Les Miserables, with echoes of cousin Poe's "Fall of the House of Usher." A heavy use of personification comes naturally, as the very skies weep for the women's plight. While trying to sustain manners and mores they learned as young ladies, circumstances force these women to forge in fire new attributes of steel. But magnolias bloom again when war ends.
Sullivan and Core exhort us to listen to these voices. But questions inevitably arise: Why? And what are we listening for, and what's this listening effort in the service of? How can we fail to hear, how can we not be distracted by, the muffled roar of a multitude of voices, the unrecorded, but once distinct voices of illiterate or poorly educated black and white women, made inarticulate only by the distance of 130 years?
Blacks are in the shadows, seen only as stereotypes, dancing, singing, refusing. Ironically, before the war, women shared the shadows with blacks and children; the women are seen only now in images they themselves forged, while blacks, children, and the poor remain mute shadows. Not even today do scholars give voice to the murmuring children; they speak only in books written for children.
Let us observe a moment of silence in honor of those whose voices have remained mute: slaves, children, and the people of the lower class who were far more tormented by the war and its aftermath than were these women. Also little heard are the voices of the women of the North.
Many readers may regard the trials and tribulations of Southern ladies as simply fire and brimstone retribution.
To move us to listen to these Southern ladies, Sullivan, Core, jacket endorsers, and some reviewers describe them with such words as courage, heroism, endurance, spunk, grit, compassion, hope, inventiveness, honor, devotion, faith, daring, patriotism, decency, fairmindedness, intelligence, devoutness, strongheartedness, generosity, kindness. But while trying to believe and behave as they always had, they forged new facets of their identities in the furnace of war.
The value of this book lies also in a dark side that is now clear to us. It is only human for women who experience terror, torment, humiliation, deprivation, death, danger, loss, suffering, risk-taking, hardships, ruin, and a daily struggle to survive as the destruction of war rattles the portraits on the parlor wall and the Yankees show up suddenly on the front porch to express also the venom, bitterness, resentment, doubt, despair, resignation, obstinacy, ingratitude, selfishness, selfcenteredness, necessary in the forging of steel magnolias. Not all were Melanies; some were Scarletts. What you cannot overcome, you must undergo. What made the women fearful of what another day would bring was the damned not knowing.
For this confluence of voices to be interesting, revealing, and valuable as one major cracked window on the past, the reader need not accept the praises heaped upon these "heroines of Dixie." The picture of a way of life itself is what is important. Each reader will form her or his opinion of the women and each, sympathetic or antagonistic, or a mixture of both, will be valid.
Women's words, in time of war, may speaker louder than actions, about some matters. These do. Above the cannon's roar their words exhort and grieve, but they also caution and reassess. Listen to the collective voices in Sullivan provides; then, to grasp the full range of implications of those voices, turn to Professor Drew Gilpin Faust's complex, but very readable study, Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, $29.95) She deals with all the problems posed by Sullivan's choices.
One of the finest historians of our time, Ms. Faust has a distinctive voice of her own that we do well to attend to. These women "created an extensive written record of self-justification as well as introspection and self-doubt." Her aim is to "explore how military and social crisis can challenge power and privilege to define" the "essential nature" of a half million southern women of the master class as they experienced the inevitable "moment of truth." Let us, at long last, listen, and take heed, but as Ms. Faust urges, let us understand the full range of complex aspects.
These women benefited most from the forced social arrangements of the Old South and were simultaneously victimized by them, and during a war of brother against brother and sister against sister, they were forced to play out the role of victim in a drama on which the curtain has yet to fall.
Review by David Madden, 2/18/99
Given the fact that almost everybody interested in the Civil War knows
almost everything about Gettysburg, more, generally, than about any other
battle, the title The Gettysburg Nobody Knows leaves itself open to
skepticism about the book's ability to deliver. But its achievement is that it
offers many facts, interpretations, and several totally fresh perspectives not
found in the many other books about the battle, while its interpretations and
speculations and its identification of areas of investigation that should be
pursued provide a very rich, controversial, and unique overview of a simple
battle that remains a mystery and that has many complex ramifications.
The nine experts responded to a request from the book's editor, Gabor Boritt, director of the Civil War institute at Gettysburg College, to search out fresh perspectives on the battle, while placing those perspectives in contexts that account for all previous scholarship. Participants and historians alike have offered over the decades conflicting, contradictory, and controversial accounts and interpretations of the battle. All those are taken into account. Among the newer approaches are a comparison of the battle of Gettysburg with the Vicksburg campaign which ended within hours of each other; a cultural, social, political analysis of the town itself, from that time to the present; and a discussion of the cultural impact of the battle and its memorialization upon the American consciousness. These historians not only know what they are talking about, they are willing to risk controversial conclusions and even speculations, and throughout, the style of each essay is engaging, vigorous, fast-paced.
Despite the tendency of publishers and readers to shy away from collections of essays, even those as sharply focussed as this one, and to regard 80 pages of notes and bibliographical essays in a 353 page book as daunting scholarly apparatus, I am certain that this book will appeal not only to the many readers who never tire of reading about this most major of battles but to readers who are fascinated by military matters generally. The overall effect of these nine perspectives on a single battle is fascinating and actually quite wonderful.
Boritt, whose lucid introduction will guide readers eagerly into the book, has done it again; readers remember his bold excursions in previous years; and they know that he will do it again.
Review by David Madden, 2/18/99
Daniel E. Sutherland's Seasons of War is a breakthrough book that
should influence the ways Civil War books are written from this day forward.
His subject matter is unusual enough to set an example: the ordeal of a single
Confederate community, Culpeper, Virginia, during four years of war. But it is
his audacious decision to describe that ordeal in the present tense that
thrusts his book into the vanguard of change.
Because the present tense is always dramatic, it discourages the kind of overblown rhetoric that characterizes many Civil War histories. Use of the present tense characterizes much contemporary fiction. This technique spawns a more lively and vivid style that gives narrative a feel of immediacy. In fiction, the decision to use present tense instead of the usual past tense sometimes seems arbitrary. But in Sutherland's nonfiction the choice has the effect of a brilliant act of the imagination. Sutherland's unusually clear and dramatic rendering of the book's sole battle scene provides some typical passages."This will be their first battle, maybe their last. They think of home... Some wonder if there is a God...What is it like.... Will they measure up ....? Will they flee at the first shot? How does it feel to be wounded? Do not think about it.... They are here, and they must fight.... Jackson orders his men to bivouac. Many men... drop where they stand. Others crave water. They submerge their faces in one of the two branches of Cedar Run... They either do not notice or do not care that the creek runs red with blood."
Seasons of War is likely to appeal not only to Civil War enthusiasts who thrive on recreations of battles and the exploits of leaders but to women and men who crave a sense of what everyday life was like during the War. In his lively style, Sutherland raises and answers such questions as: What was the class structure of the Culpeper community and what feuds or other conflicts erupted? What changes did war force upon politics, education, journalism, religion, health care, and the food supply? What effects did the war have upon the farmers, free blacks and freed slaves, merchants, and manufacturers who struggled to keep the community's economy functioning? How did the people of Culpeper behave during Federal occupation? How prevalent was lawlessness, guerilla activity, and fraternization? Sutherland places readers in the midst of it all and activates all their senses. He is uncannily adept at intertwining the social and the military life to create a prism through which readers may feel, imagine, and think about the many facets of this defining event in their history.
Drawing on a vast reservoir of sources, Sutherland blends phrases from letters, newspapers, and official reports with his own paraphrases, giving readers the impression that they are listening to the voice of a single group, comprised of both civilians and soldiers, modulated to fit each type within the group. Some passages are dated, giving the impression of entries in a kind of communal diary.
The fast-paced narrative of Seasons of War has the enhancements it needs: unusually vivid photographs, simple maps, brief notes, a sufficient bibliography, and an index that includes topics as well as names.
Nobody was famous in Culpeper, but the famous came to Culpeper: Generals Lee , Stuart, and Grant and civilians Clara Barton and Walt Whitman. Maybe now Culpeper itself will be famous. It has long been merely a miscellaneous name found in many of the histories and in the captions of photographs. Professor Sutherland was wise indeed to give it a place on the forestage of history, to breathe life into a community's past with a style that makes it an active and lingering presence in the reader's mind.
Reviewed by: Nicole Moliere-Bold, 2/18/99
That African Americans greatly contributed to the outcomes of the U.S.
Civil War is now widely recognized, but thoughtful and detailed analyses of
their contributions are still rare. The discussion of slaves and slavery is
often an afterthought or aside, in comparison to the numerous and lauded
volumes on the war's military figures. Ervin L. Jordan's Black Confederates
and Afro-Yankees in Civil War Virginia offers, in contrast, a sophisticated
and meticulous account of how Virginia's owned and free African Americans
managed their lives and their hopes on both sides of America's most definitive
Jordan presents a pointed historical examination of the lives of African Americans in the Old Dominion before, during and after the "War Between the States". Topics ranging from sex, marriage, and miscegenation to caste conflict, soldiering and espionage, among other disturbing and fascinating subjects, serve as enlightening and enticing clues to many of the American Civil War's most overlooked questions. For example, after reading the book, it will be easier to understand why some African Americans supported the Confederacy and how current American ethnic relations reflect the War's enduring legacy.
Historians, anthropologists, sociologists and the general reader will appreciate Jordan's thorough research and his attempt to treat African Americans as the subject, rather than the object, of Civil War history. Jordan's wide-ranging book takes a piercing look at the social, cultural, economic and political opportunities slaves and free persons grasped and cultivated within the oppressive, and often deadly, wartime environment. Black Confederates and Afro-Yankees shows us why "African-American history is not for the squeamish." All who require an authoritative, critical and culturally-inclusive study of the American Civil War will thank Jordan for this text.
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