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Book Review: A GREAT CIVIL WAR: A MILITARY AND POLITICAL HISTORY, 1861-1865 (by Russell F. Weigley) : AHI

Originally published on Published Online: August 11, 2001 
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A GREAT CIVIL WAR: A MILITARY AND POLITICAL HISTORY, 1861-1865, by Russell F. Weigley, Indiana University Press, 648 pages, $35.00.

"Neither party expected for the war, the magnitude, or the duration, which it has already attained," said President Abraham Lincoln in his Second Inaugural Address. According to author Russell F. Weigley in his compelling book, A Great Civil War, generals on both sides expected the war would be quickly concluded by a decisive clash of arms, in the manner of Napoleon's victories at Austerlitz and Jena-Auerstadt.

Technology was to overturn this thinking. The bores of field guns and shoulder arms were now being rifled, meaning that shells and bullets could be fired from long range and with great accuracy, nullifying the effectiveness of frontal assaults by great masses of troops. Indeed, the failure of Pickett's charge at Gettysburg demonstrated the ineffectiveness of a frontal assault against an entrenched position defended with modern weaponry.

While the goal of war remained the same, the form it took changed. Union General Ulysses S. Grant used tactics of attrition by continually bearing down upon the enemy and decimating its troops through superior numbers. Congress, with successive conscription acts, kept those numbers steady and predictable. Complementing Grant's approach were tactics employed by General William T. Sherman–indirect, largely non-confrontational, marked by the destruction of the enemy's resources and the erosion of the popular will needed to support an army.

And at the top, in Washington, was President Lincoln, the former militia officer, lawyer, orator, and politician nonpareil. In Grant and Sherman, Lincoln finally found what he had sought since the attack on Fort Sumter–men who would, each in his own way, vigorously prosecute the war to its conclusion. Their battlefield successes assured Lincoln's reelection, itself guaranteeing the president's unbounded, continuing support for his warriors.

In this one-volume history, Russell F. Weigley has produced a clear, gripping account of the war's battles, the warriors in blue and gray who fought those battles, and the statesmen and scoundrels who occupied government positions on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line.

WILLIAM E. MCSWEENEY practices law in New York City. His work has appeared in various magazines, newspapers, and law publications.

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