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Book Review: Writing the Civil War: The Quest to Understand (edited by James M. McPherson and William J. Cooper, Jr.): CWT

Originally published on HistoryNet.com. Published Online: August 12, 2001 
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Writing the Civil War: The Quest to Understand, edited by James M. McPherson and William J. Cooper, Jr., University of South Carolina Press, 937 Assembly Street, Carolina Plaza, 8th Floor, Columbia, SC 29208, 356 pages, $29.95.

The "dean" of living Civil War historians, James M. McPherson, has joined with a fellow doctoral student of David Donald, William J. Cooper, to produce Writing the Civil War: The Quest to Understand–a compendium of essays by 12 well-selected, stellar scholars. The essays, though considerably varied in degree of readability, are all readable. So, even though the book is best suited for specialists and beginning students in the Civil War history profession, it may appeal to some general readers as well.

The initial essay, "Northern Strategy and Military Policy" by Gary W. Gallagher, is for the most part outstandingly sound, but contains a near-bizarre, unexplained disparity. Gallagher correctly points out that neither Charles Royster nor Mark Grimsley accept the assertion that the Northern war effort was a "total" one, but he presents their work (especially Grimsley's) as being in part a revisionist reaction to a recently published military textbook prepared mainly for the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, edited by Robert A. Doughty and Ira D. Gruber and published by D.C. Heath in several formats. Gallagher indicates that Royster's and Grimsley's supposed revisionist reaction is directed chiefly against the Civil War chapter of the textbook–"The American Civil War: The Emergence of Total Warfare"–which, it turns out, was written by none other than Grimsley!

Emory M. Thomas offers an excellent essay on "Confederate Strategy and Military Policy." "What went wrong?" he asks. "Why did Southern arms suffer defeat?" Robert E. Lee asserted that it was because of the Union's overwhelming numbers and resources, and a great many writers then and since have agreed with and supported that posit. But from the beginning there were others who suggested otherwise. The wartime newspaperman Edward A. Pollard, for example, strongly opined that the blame rested on the shoulders of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Thomas weaves a masterly synthesis of the myriad mindsets that pertain to his main question.

Joseph T. Glatthaar writes splendidly in "Battlefield Tactics." His is one of the most literally graceful of the essays. It would have made a fine article to stand alone in Civil War Times.

Mark E. Neely, Jr., shows why he was worthy of a Pulitzer Prize in his outstanding essay, "Comparing Presidential Leadership in the Civil War." Sweeping through the pertinent extant scholarship, Neely himself does a fine job of wrestling with the finer points of why Lincoln, in the end, so thoroughly bested Davis.

George C. Rable proves he deserves his recently awarded endowed chair in Southern history at the University of Alabama with his valuable essay, "The Shadowy World of Confederate Politics." Not nearly enough has been written about Confederate politics; writers have tended to emphasize things military. But Rable's scholarship and insight are exquisite, and if his topic has not been adequately addressed by enough writers, he has set a fine example for beginning the remedy.

Philip Shaw Paludan's essay, "What Did the Winners Win," is somewhat like Glatthaar's, a work of excellent literary quality that could have stood alone, this one more suitable as a scholarly article for a professional journal.

James L. Roark's essay, "Behind The Lines: Confederate Economy and Society," is in my estimate, the finest and best underpinned of them all. Starting with an account of Charles W. Ramsdell's 1937 Walter Lynwood Fleming Lectures in Southern History, Roark goes on to produce a piece of writing that suggests he might be an excellent candidate to give that lecture series sometime in the near future.

Other essays are by Reid Mitchell ("The Study of Civil War Soldiers"), Michael Hold ("Northern Politics During the Civil War"), Michael Les Benedict ("A Constitutional Crisis"), Drew Gilpin Faust ("Women and Gender in the Civil War"), and Peter Kolchin ("Slavery and Freedom in the Civil War South").

Overall this is a very fine book. The index, however, is rather a disappointment, because it does not list the historians and their books, instead citing only their concepts and ideas. This book probably will have but limited appeal. The bottom line is: historiography is not really most people's cup of tea. But for those for whom it is, this book is highly recommended.

Herman Hattaway
Leawood, Kansas







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