American Oracle: The Civil War in the Civil Rights Era, by David W. Blight,
Belknap Press , 2011, $27.95
Just before his death in 1870, Robert E. Lee wrote in a letter to a former aide, Lt. Col. Charles Marshall, that “It is history that teaches us to hope.” In his wonderful new book American Oracle, David Blight poignantly reminds us that only “a sense of tragedy makes real hope possible.”
Blight’s great gift as a historian is his ability to transform complex and often contentious issues into clear, concise and unfailingly elegant prose. Nowhere is this more evident than in his meditation on how four American writers—Robert Penn Warren, Bruce Catton, Edmund Wilson and James Baldwin—influenced public memory during the centennial commemoration of the Civil War, turbulent years that coincided with Cold War anxiety and the birth of a militant civil rights movement.
In his prologue—worth the price of the book alone—Blight opens the discussion by explaining public memory as the stories we tell ourselves to understand who we are and how we got that way. To answer why Americans continue to be fascinated by the war, he notes: “The American Civil War has been an event that fiercely resists popular consensus…it remains the mythic national epic.”
Warren, Catton, Wilson and Baldwin might seem an odd combination for such a study. But after absorbing Blight’s nuanced analysis of their lives and works, it becomes evident that, for each man, “a tragic temperament informed the view of American history generally and the Civil War era in particular.” The difficulty Americans have always had with understanding historical tragedy is a theme Blight returns to throughout the book.
Reading American Oracle requires intellectual courage and an inquiring mind. Those who take the challenge will have a veil of comfortable conventions torn away. In their place will be the Civil War, the seminal event in America’s story, unfurled in all its complicated tragedy, demanding to be interpreted anew.
For Duty and Destiny: The Life and Civil War Diary of William Taylor Stott, Hoosier Soldier and Educator, by Lloyd A. Hunter, Indiana Historical Society Press, 2011, $27.95
Most Civil War diaries and letters compiled by rustic Midwestern foot soldiers were written by uneducated men who had lived simple lives before they marched off to war. Anyone who has spent much time reading them will find plenty of dialogue about physical hardships, descriptions of landscapes and weather, and complaints about provisions and incompetent officers.
But the prose of William Taylor Stott, a future academician who fought with the 18th Indiana Infantry, reflects the intellect of an unusually bright and college-educated soldier who hailed from the cornfields of Indiana. Stott’s diary is full of religious and philosophical musings, reflections on great literary works, his observations about human behavior and relations between the sexes, and his frequent ruminations about being out of place as an intellectual thinker among his often crude and crass comrades-in-arms.
A devoted Baptist, Stott’s religious views leaned fundamentalist and doctrinal—he advocated temperance in the Army and insisted on baptism by immersion. But Stott can’t be stereotyped as merely religiously dogmatic. He fervently opposed slavery and embraced racial equality, quite unusual for a common soldier at the time. He was ecumenical, accepting of those with beliefs other than Baptist, and loved times of solitude and quiet meditation. His sense of humor was often expressed in subtle wit and understated playfulness.
Stott spent more than three years in uniform, fighting in several major engagements, marching (by his own
estimation) 10,000 miles and rising from private to captain. He saw the worst horrors war had to offer, but maintained a spiritual and philosophical assurance that it was all a part of a larger plan and purpose for good. Although he survived the war, he was plagued by health problems the rest of his life.
This book is more than just a reproduction of Stott’s Civil War diary. Author Lloyd A. Hunter, professor emeritus of history and American studies at Franklin College, covers Stott’s entire life story in-depth and lends insight into this renaissance man’s wartime service. Recommended reading for the Civil War history aficionado or scholar.
—James R. Hall
The Campaign for Vicksburg, 1862-1863: Leadership Lessons, Kevin J. Dougherty, Casemate, 2011, $32.95
When asked what qualities he most desired in a military leader, Napoleon reportedly responded he needed only one: luck. Yet the notion that success in warfare—or in any human endeavor—is largely out of the hands of those who pursue it does not usually sit well with most people. More appealing is the idea that there are universal principles of leadership, and that success or failure comes down to whether leaders have the wisdom to understand and apply them. To identify those principles, leadership theorists have invariably looked to the past, with a “lessons learned” approach to history reflected in the many books that purport to use military history as a tool to developing leadership.
Kevin Dougherty’s new study of the Vicksburg Campaign is the latest addition to this pocket of literature. His brief overviews of the campaign and Civil War leadership challenges are informative and well-written. Dougherty includes 30 vignettes from the campaign that illustrate good and bad leadership moments, and offers a short list of “takeaways” for aspiring leaders at the end of each vignette (e.g., “Leaders must find their niche”; “Even leaders must know how to follow”; “Communication is a two-way street”). It’s not surprising that Dougherty presents Ulysses Grant, William Sherman and Abraham Lincoln as exemplars of effective leadership, while panning fellow Yankee John McClernand and Confederate Generals John C. Pemberton and Joseph E. Johnston.
There isn’t much here in terms of information and analysis that will be new to readers already familiar with Vicksburg and the commanders on both sides. Moreover, while the bibliography indicates Dougherty has consulted a respectable range of sources, he does not provide footnotes or endnotes to indicate the sources of particular information. Nevertheless, for those new to the Vicksburg Campaign, especially those with a taste for “lessons learned,” this will be a valuable book.
—Ethan S. Rafuse
To the Battles of Franklin and Nashville and Beyond, Benjamin Franklin Cooling, University of Tennessee Press, 2011, $45.95
After the war, Tennessee cavalryman Thomas Black Wilson declared, “I look on Fort Donelson as one of the most important battles of the war.” Benjamin Franklin Cooling, professor of history at the National Defense University, has spent much of his career corroborating the prescience of Black’s observation about this Union victory in early 1862 and the war in the Western Theater that followed. This triumphal volume concludes Cooling’s stellar trilogy detailing the war in Kentucky and Tennessee. He deftly combines the insights of a historian with the expertise of a national security analyst to portray vividly how the Confederacy’s hope for nationhood was shipwrecked in the rugged hills and rolling heartland of the Upper South.
Assessing the military situation after Ulysses S. Grant’s victory over Braxton Bragg at Chattanooga in November 1863, Cooling eloquently concludes that “dreams of ‘going back to Tennessee’ dissipated in the winter snows of north Georgia and became moot when spring blossoms presaged renewed Federal movements southward on the rail line to Atlanta as well as in Virginia.” Overly optimistic Rebel strategists lacked the men and materiel to throw the Federal juggernaut off balance and, Cooling concludes, “the Confederate moment had passed by May.”
But 16 months of hard fighting for the soldiers and severe economic deprivation for the civilians still lay ahead. Cooling punctuates his monograph with poignant anecdotes revealing how divided loyalties among the citizens of the two states made for tense and unsettled conditions behind the lines and Abraham Lincoln’s hopes of reintegrating areas occupied by Northern armies back into the Union remained unfulfilled.
Cooling also distinguishes himself as a master of battle narrative. His descriptions of the fighting at Spring Hill, Franklin and Nashville are spirited and analytically insightful. This is a must-read for anyone wishing to understand why the war really was won in the West.
The Untold Civil War: Exploring the Human Side of War, James Robertson, National Geographic, 2011, $40
The first submarine to sink a ship—and then go down itself. The only woman to receive the Medal of Honor, and her medical colleague in the enemy camp who became the only woman to be commissioned an officer. Two dogs that were buried with military honors. Flags whose capture—or the prevention thereof—could earn a soldier the Medal of Honor, but the carrying of which could cost him his life. A food staple that either teemed with mold and worms or was, as one Pennsylvania infantryman noted, “almost as hard as a brick, and undoubtedly would keep
These are just a handful of the vignettes, amid 475 photos and illustrations, James Robertson uses to present The Untold Civil War. Some of the stories and pictures will be familiar to most, but this sesquicentennial offering from the National Geographic Society abounds with others that may raise the eyebrows of even the most hard-core buff.
Given that Robertson is an eminent Civil War historian, it is surprising that a few missteps slip in. Jonathan Letterman’s use of field ambulances for rapid evacuation of wounded, for example, was not an innovation of the American war—Dominique Jean Larrey introduced it on Napoleonic battlefields more than half a century earlier. Henry Heth’s stated desire to obtain shoes for his men expressed an added benefit, not the causal objective, of the Battle of Gettysburg. The book’s strengths, however, lie in the lesser, more mundane facts of everyday life that remind the reader of who really fought the war: the ill-fitting shoes on which hundreds of thousands had to march millions of miles, the sacrifice of 2 million horses, the practice of wartime dentistry, the telegraph’s profound effect on both field communication and journalism, the treatment of black soldiers by both North and South that amounted to a national disgrace. Those and many more details serve to make The Untold Civil War live up to its title.