Civil War Links
Book Reviews (Con't)


THE WILDERNESS CAMPAIGN

Edited by Gary W. Gallagher
University of North Carolina
$29.95

Reviewed by Fernando Ortiz, Jr., 4/20/99

        In early May 1864, Ulysses Grant and the 120,000-man Army of the Potomac moved southward toward Richmond, Virginia. Robert E. Lee and the 62,000 soldiers of the Army of Northern Virginia awaited them near a Virginia scrub forest known as the Wilderness. Their first clash, the Battle of the Wilderness, commenced Grant's Overland campaign, one of the most important anthologies of combat the United States Army has ever experienced. It is the essence of this epic confrontation, and especially of the opening battle of May 5 and 6, that few works of historical scholarship have captured. Fortunately, The Wilderness Campaign can be included in that exclusive group. The compilation of eight excellent essays, edited by Gary W. Gallagher, brings priceless insight and a rare degree of clarity to a time in the Civil War too important to ignore, but often too poorly explained to properly appreciate.
        Brooks D. Simpson deftly begins the series of works with an introduction to the state of the Civil War in the spring of 1864. Lincoln warily awaited the impending presidential election as Democrats lined up to unseat him. His new general-in-chief held the keys for both political and military triumph. Grant's overall plan for Southern capitulation would be simultaneous Federal attacks throughout the Confederacy. He would personally supervise the centerpiece movement toward Richmond, which would become the Overland campaign. Grant worried over the Northern public's expectations, firmly rooted in the notions of Napoleonic warfare and climactic confrontation. Such hopes led them to despondency when after six weeks and 102,000 casualties Grant failed to destroy Lee. The lack of public understanding over the kind of warfare Lee and Grant resorted to, Simpson stresses, was due solely to the revolutionary aspects of such warfare - the first steps into the modern era of armed conflict. Gary W. Gallagher steps in with a fascinating examination of the Confederate people as it braced against Grant's concerted advances across the South. Despite major setbacks at Gettysburg, Vicksburg, Chattanooga and Knoxville, Confederate morale held fast and later rose as reports of recent victories in Florida, Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi blazed across the South. Southern soldiers' confidence in themselves and in their leaders enabled them to hearten their impoverished families. Gallagher's strength has always been in illustrating this social aspect, a vital one in understanding how the South kept fighting on.
        Swinging to the opposite camp, John J. Hennessey presents a fascinating look into the Army of the Potomac and the men that comprised it. As a microcosm of the society that produced it, the Army of the Potomac never seemed to truly embrace the war aims that changed halfway through the Civil War. As the war progressed, however, the cause for freedom took on its own logic: if slaves were the roots for continued rebel resistance, then of course the slaves had to be freed. But the most important part of Hennessey's essay is the greater observation of how the army in a society finally evolved from being a counterpart to an auxiliary of the government, "a tool to achieve both political and military ends."
        Gordon C. Rhea, an emerging expert on the Overland campaign, takes a bittersweet look at two of the Federal army's newest generals: cavalry commanders James H. Wilson and Philip Sheridan. Despite the fame future actions would earn them, their poor performances in the Battle of the Wilderness seriously endangered the Army of the Potomac. As Gallagher writes in his introduction, "Rhea suggests that anyone seeking to understand what went wrong for the Federals in the Wilderness must accord the cavalry considerable attention."
        Robert E. Lee's deputy commanders also had deficiencies at the Battle of the Wilderness. Peter S. Carmichael defends the actions of Richard Stoddart Ewell and Ambrose Powell Hill as he addresses the lambasting their records have taken throughout history. Ewell and Hill were victims of unfair comparisons to Stonewall Jackson, of historians' reliance on "questionable" memoirs from disloyal subordinate commanders, of inordinate expectations and of Lee's intractable detached style of command. More than anyone else, Carmichael asserts, Lee was to blame for not exerting firmer control and for issuing vague, contradictory orders, which resulted in Hill's near decimation on the morning of May 6.
        Robert K. Krick takes a closer look at that near disaster for Hill, and especially at a series of episodes which defective history has distilled into the Lee-to-the-Rear story. According to legend, Lee rushed to rally his disorganized men on May 6 and attempted to lead a counterattack. Krick maintains that historical liberties have warped the episode and explains that conflicting accounts of the situation are not conflicting at all. They simply chronicle the four separate moments Lee attempted to inspire his men to hold their ground. The essay is an important warning against the historical liberties some may take with actual events, distorting them into popularized but flawed anecdotes.
        Carol Reardon praises Lewis Grant's 1st Vermont Brigade for its staggering and exceptionally bloody contribution to the Federal attacks of May 5 and 6. Despite their fine battlefield performance, popular and official praise went to other units. Reardon restores the actions the brigade's men endured and lets the record speak for itself. She stresses the crucial caution historians must take when looking at battlefield performances. Some units may have been overly praised while others, like the 1st Vermont Brigade, may have been tragically overlooked altogether.
        Lt. Gen. James Longstreet and the Confederate First Corps arrived on the field as Hill's men reeled back from the savage Federal assaults of May 6. Robert E. L. Krick's thrilling essay threads through the events that followed. With Longstreet at his side, Lee could now look for a chance to smash back into Grant. Confederate intelligence indicated a vulnerability in the southern Federal lines, and Lee sent Longstreet to exploit it. Longstreet was accidentally shot by his own men soon after. Krick lays out the situation and the risks and introduces the Confederates who formed the sneak assault and the Federals who absorbed it, closing The Wilderness Campaign with a rich, gripping account of a critical point in the Army of Northern Virginia's history.
        As great historical analysis should, the works Gary W. Gallagher has brought together are fresh and insightful, crisp and concise, intelligent and entertaining. The Overland campaign is a complicated part of the Civil War, and no less is its opening battle. But as with each of Gallagher's preceding essay collections, this important book provides a basis for understanding the conflict. It is a fine introduction to the drama and its tortured characters. Essentially, it is a clear trail through the wilderness.

Back to the List


COLD MOUNTAIN

By Charles Frazier

Reviewed by Fernando Ortiz, Jr., 4/20/99

        Hopeless romantics' most fervent belief is this: Two people not meant for each other will never truly unite, regardless of their proximity or relationship. If two people are meant for each other, however, even if they're on opposite sides of the world or in opposite ends of time itself, absolutely nothing can keep them apart.
        Charles Frazier believes in this wonderful idea, and he majestically expresses it in Cold Mountain, a fresh, complex masterpiece drama of two people destined for each other's love in the midst of the American Civil War.
        The world separating these two people, Ada and Inman, is late 1864 America. Lt. Gen. U.S. Grant and the Army of the Potomac are tightening their stranglehold on Petersburg and Richmond. The Southern landscape is scarred and barren, impoverished by the logistical needs of Confederate military efforts.
        Inman is a severely wounded Confederate soldier who longs for the warm serenity of his home, a small, misty out-of-the-way region in western North Carolina dominated by towering Cold Mountain. Inman has fought in the war since it began and can no longer remember why he's participating. He deserts from the Army of Northern Virginia and quietly heads west. The last thing Inman still believes in is the healing power of Cold Mountain, his life's symbol of security and safety, where Ada's heart might still be there to embrace him.
        Ada is a young woman raised in pre-war Charleston, S.C. She's educated, cultured, independent and solitary. Ada accompanied her preacher father, Monroe, to a hamlet near Cold Mountain, where he hoped to lead a healthier life in the countryside. It is there that Inman met and fell in love with Ada.
        But the Civil War erupted, and Inman ran off in a patriotic fervor to Virginia. Monroe is now dead and Ada's no farmer. The lush farm Monroe's money built is in desperate disarray, and she's alone. No one is left to help her except Ruby, a fatherless, hard-as-nails woman who suddenly appears to offer assistance. She's determined to teach Ada to take care of herself and revitalize the farm.
        And so Cold Mountain begins, chronicling the journeys two individuals make, armed with optimism and resolve. One waits and struggles to build a new life; another wades through the detritus of countless shattered lives, hoping to recover the one he lost so long ago.
        Inman wanders through the scorched, trampled North Carolina countryside, finding reflections of his own decimated psyche in the landscape. He encounters dancing gypsies and drunken hunters, brutal fugitive Union troops and frightened deserters like himself. Some help him along. Some try to kill him. Some just stare at him as he strolls by. Each character he meets has his/her own tragedy to lament, each a heartwrenching novella in itself.
        Frazier beautifully illustrates Inman's odyssey with gentle lyrical phrases. They bring forth both the allure of nature's gently changing seasons and the terror of its unpredictability. It's incredible how Frazier can take the smallest details of a raindrop falling off a leaf or rays of sunlight breaking through storm clouds and transform them into passionate expressions.
        Ada's gradual development from a shivering Southern belle trapped in the wilderness to a hardened farmer is Cold Mountain's heart and soul. Ruby is her catalyst. Every facet of Ruby's essence has been twisted by an underlying sorrow for a negligent father. Her priceless contribution to Ada's life is not just an endeavor to rejuvenate a dilapidated farm, Frazier tells us, but also an attempt to find a sliver of love for life left in her neglected heart. Every recultivated field, every new fence, every bigger crop is for Ruby a step closer to that dream.
        Frazier is lavish in his description of both women: Ruby's grace in pulling a horse out of the mud; Ada's sparkle of her tear-filled eyes when they turn up to the stars.
        What makes Cold Mountain so tearfully memorable is the grand underlying premise that true love conquers all. Ada moves in her own way toward Inman, and Inman in his way toward her, not even poverty, civil war or Nature keeping them apart. Frazier has created a fine work of historical literature, and the Civil War genre is blessed to count him among its luminaries.

Back to the List


THE LAST FULL MEASURE

By Jeff Shaara
Ballantine Books
$25.95

Reviewed by Fernando Ortiz, Jr., 4/20/99

        However much one reads books of essays analyzing the campaigns of the American Civil War, beautiful atlases lovingly illustrating every detail of individual battles or countless biographies of the era's central characters, such mountains of factual or presumed factual presentation cannot surpass the vivid recreation of a fine historical novel. One novel in particular is the newest from Jeff Shaara, The Last Full Measure, a heartwrenching conclusion to a trilogy compassionately studying the war's most captivating contributors.
        Twenty-five years ago, Michael Shaara won a Pulitzer Prize for The Killer Angels, his breathtaking exploration of the central figures at the critical three-day July 1863 battle of Gettysburg. Two years ago, his son Jeff Shaara released Gods and Generals, a wonderful prequel to The Killer Angels in which historical context and deeper analysis of Robert E. Lee, Joshua Chamberlain, James Longstreet, Winfield Scott Hancock and Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson examined the raging internal fires that drove them into and throughout the tempest of the Civil War.
        Now, with The Last Full Measure, Shaara has taken us into the most complex, most savage, most desperate years of the American Civil War, where victory is equally unsure in the North and the South, where the savagery of combat is hardly glorious, where the morality of purpose is now clouded by the cold directives of military necessity, where the art of war itself has somehow been horrifically transformed into something no one ever imagined. Shaara begins in July 1863, where his father left off. The Confederate Army of Northern Virginia slowly marches through the rain toward the swollen Potomac River, away from the devastation of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The disastrous Confederate repulse from Cemetery Hill has left General Robert Edward Lee depressed and deeply shaken. Watching his exhausted Confederates march across a rickety bridge into Virginia, Lee wonders what awaits a depleted, weakened, but inherently determined army. His optimism in an assured final victory is waning, bolstered only by his troops, who still wildly cheer him on sight, who still swear to live and die at his command.
        Shaara's Lee is a man growing more frustrated with the changing military outlook, more depressed as the costs rise ever higher, more angry with the ignorant political interference from Richmond. Too many of his top generals no longer hold his confidence in their command abilities. Too few are emerging as rising stars. Lee not only senses the bleakness of the coming dark months but a new force in the Federal army, a new face moving to the top of the Union effort: Ulysses S. Grant.
        Shaara's decision to include US Grant as a principle character was inevitable considering the section of the Civil War explored here, and Shaara does a fine job in bringing the Union lieutenant general to light. Grant, contrary to traditional characterization, is an intelligent, committed, caring commander, armed with a dry wit and an air of supreme confidence. He respects the men he's fighting, the men who command them, and the families that support them, but he's convinced their energies and resources are horribly misdirected into an immoral cause.
        There are but few concerns with the book. Joshua Chamberlain and James Longstreet, once the heart and soul of the Shaara saga, seem almost shuffled to the side in this installment. The long marches and the ravages of combat have hardened Chamberlain and too many personal losses and a serious wounding have brought Longstreet to the brink of dissolution, but Shaara seems to have just brought them along for the ride.
        As riveting as Shaara's portrayals are, the real power in his words comes through the unforgettable recreation of the great , tragic moments - the heartwrenching destruction of the Stonewall Brigade, John Gordon's attack on Fort Stedman, the death of J.E.B. Stuart, the Crater disaster, Grant's senseless Cold Harbor attacks, the devouring Wilderness forest fires, the desperate struggle at the Bloody Angle.
        It is through these illustrations that real growth can be seen in Shaara's style - a more direct prose than his father's, but with an equal crystalline clarity, with an equal shattering effect.
        Jeff Shaara has truly constructed a memorable milestone with The Last Full Measure. With insightful illustration of historically elusive personalities, vivid imagination interlaced with a strong mastery of Civil War detail and a subtle commitment to find his own unique style, Shaara has brought forth a work that will be deservedly supreme in a unique genre of literature.

 Back to the List


The Children's Civil War

By James Marten
University of North Carolina Press
$34.95

Reviewed by Meg Galante-DeAngelis 4/20/99

        "Children haunt our images of war," begins James Marten's groundbreaking book which illustrates the lives and perspectives of children who lived through the American Civil War. Although children made up more than one third of the population on both sides of the conflict, little has been published about these citizens who carried the legacy of the War with them throughout their lives and passed it down to us through generations.
        Marten explores the lives of children, North and South, male and female, black and white. On the surface their lives appear to be very different. What shines through though, is the similarity of ideals that these children possess and express: patriotism, family pride, duty, honor and political interests.
        Marten knows these children, and conveys their stories in an engaging style that places us in the moment. We listen to the advice of concerned fathers, sent from far flung fields of battle. We attend rallies and are fortified and uplifted by patriotic speeches and music. We knit, pull lint and roll bandages at Soldiers' Aid Society meetings. We devour news from the front and despair at the posting of casualty lists. We hold fairs and sponsor entertainment to raise money for the soldiers. We drill and march and practice and relive great military moments in our play. We attend school and learn about the war, its causes and consequences, from our side's point of view. We do the work once done by our mothers and fathers. We exult and mourn and struggle to understand. And when the war is over, we assimilate our feelings and experiences and use them to shape our adult lives and belief systems.
        The Children's Civil War presents a formidable amount of information in six distinct chapters. Each chapter introduces yet another fascinating area. Thus armed, we are able to apply the modern paradigm of child development research to children long grown; we are able to see the emotional, physical and political environments in which a child is raised which shaped their lives as adults.
        The children speak to us through a wonderful variety of sources, pulled from libraries, historical societies and private collections across the nation; many will be new to most readers. Marten analyzes contemporary children's literature, including novels, newspapers, periodicals and school books, most written with a partisan bent. He shatters the notion that the 1860's child was free of media influence. Turning a fresh eye to family letters, memoirs and diaries, as well as the reminiscences of men and women who were born into slavery recorded by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930's, he reveals the hopes, dreams and fears of Civil War era children.
        Reviews often state that a book is a comprehensive history of this or that, that nothing else need be written on the subject because this work captures it all. Marten's contribution is different; he has given us not the definitive end but the definitive beginning. The Children's Civil War exposes a subject that begs for more inquiry, more analysis. For those of us who have devoted our lives to the study of children, we are not surprised by their depth of experience, understanding and courage, and the fact that yet again they have something to teach us.

 Back to the List


Reluctant Witnesses: Children's Voices from the Civil War

By Emmy E. Werner
Westview Press, Colorado, 1998

4/20/99

        Emmy E. Werner has written a thought provoking book revealing war from the child's point of view that is both striking in its simplicity and jarring in its reality. She focuses on the place of children in a homeland torn by war. Werner compels us to revisit our notions of the fragility of children and the resilience of children in the same instant.
        Professor Werner examines children who endured the War Between the States with the eye of a developmental psychologist. Some of her previous work helped to define the concept of the resilient child that is integral to current psychological study. This perspective allows her to weave the story of children in a way that acknowledges their individuality and their response to their troubled times.
        The accounts in the main body of the book take on the nature of a chronicle. Stories are separate yet connected by the series of horrors that war always provides. Most of the historic accounts Werner uses will not be new to those who have studied children in America in the 1860's, but her purpose is new. Professor Werner wants us to understand that children are not silent witnesses of war. She emphasizes that it is the children who will in the end be the final chroniclers of the war. Here, in their own voices, children speak of fear and courage, of family and community, and of the power of faith. And with surprisingly little bitterness or hate, they reveal their ability to face great adversity and continue to hope for peace.
        The children we get to know are from both the North and the South. They are boys and girls, slaves and civilians, and yes, even soldiers, ranging in age from infants to teenagers. Some accounts are written by children, others are written about children by their parents or other adults. Their stories compel us to acknowledge their insight and innate ability to find truth in situations that often confound adults. They are not afraid to speak of the continuum of emotions that war engenders. In their voices there is little bravado and no insincerity.
        Reluctant Witnesses
acknowledges the subtle yet infinitely unique perspective that a child can bring to the cataclysm that we, in hindsight, call the Civil War. Werner's book offers readers the opportunity to see in one volume what has long been the domain of a minority of researchers and historians who have acknowledged the value of the children's perspective on historical events. Although the main text is not footnoted, her bibliography presents all the necessary information for readers who wish to research the individual accounts or topics more fully. The prologue and epilogue speak to the unity of experience of children in war torn countries in the past and present. A more complete comparative investigation of these unified experiences would be a fitting continuation of this theme.
        One hopes this work will spark more interest in this often overlooked field of study, the experiences of the young, perceptive and reluctant witnesses of war.
        Meg Galante-DeAngelis holds Masters degrees in Educational Psychology and Family Studies. She is the program coordinator for the University of Connecticut Child Development Laboratories, and a faculty member of the University of Connecticut School of Family Studies. Galante-DeAngelis has conducted extensive research in the history of childhood, particularly in the 1860's. She owns The Children's Quartermaster Sutlery, specializing in children's toys, games, clothing and books of the Civil War era and is involved in a variety of living history programs with her family.

 Back to the List

 Return to Books: Lists and Reviews