Lincoln’s Darkest Year: The War in 1862
by William Marvel, Houghton Mifflin, 2008, $30
Even the best authors sometimes have trouble getting their heads out of the present and into the past they are writing about. This “presentism”— to use an academic term—tends to corrupt the work as a whole, no matter how well researched it is or how reputable the author’s credentials. Sadly, that is the case with William Marvel’s Lincoln’s Darkest Year: The War in 1862, an obvious antiwar diatribe clothed in historical scholarship.
The book is, as the title states, about the decisions and actions surrounding the second year of the war: those made by President Lincoln, the generals and soldiers in the field and the Northern population at large. Marvel deftly weaves scenes between the White House and the headquarters of the Army of the Potomac, between the battlefield and the home front. The focus is on how the war was executed, Lincoln’s decisions, Maj. Gen. George Brinton McClellan’s actions (or inactions), and the major and minor battles that shaped a dark year for the Union cause.
Marvel’s sources are legion, and impressive. He found a number of letters, diaries, newspaper articles and other sources hidden in archives and never before used, and with these weaved a story of the war unlike any recently published. Marvel proclaims this to be revisionist history, which is why his sources are so abundant and well established. As he states in the book’s introduction, “The presentation of contrary interpretations requires much attention to the contradictory evidence itself, in order to drive the new information home with enough force to crack the armor of established opinion.”
That is an admirable goal, and revisionism shouldn’t necessarily have a negative connotation, as interpretations typically should be revised when new evidence comes to light. Revisionism can be taken too far, however.
Lincoln’s Darkest Year reads as though the entire Union Army and Northern population despised Lincoln and the war from beginning to end, and the soldiers were mostly mercenaries—in it for the money rather than love of country; that Lincoln single-handedly prolonged the war by his warmongering refusal to let the South just leave the Union; that he was a blundering commander in chief who misunderstood the art of war and made egregious mistakes; that he was a tyrannical despot, a constitutional usurper and an outright murderer for fighting an unjust war begun under false pretenses. On that last argument, one could easily substitute Marvel’s prose for the current criticism of George W. Bush and the Iraq War, which makes one wonder about Marvel’s true objective. He comes across as an irate give-peace-a-chance, hugs-not-guns idealist for whom war is never the answer. He projects that ideology onto the causes, the decisions and the execution of the war, deriding them all and failing to seek any understanding of the actions and events.
This ideological approach overwhelms the text, and even though Marvel admits in his introduction that the book only seems one-sided in its attempt to show previously unused evidence, this can’t hide the fact that it is. He gives short shrift to anything positive, and focuses too intently on the war’s negative aspects: that soldiers enlisted more for the paychecks than any other reason, that Union morale was constantly and consistently low, that desertion among soldiers was common and high and that Lincoln overwhelmed command positions with inexperienced political hacks.
Marvel is an engaging, award-winning writer and accomplished researcher. His last book, Mr. Lincoln Goes to War, was the first in a planned four-volume series on the Civil War, and focused on Lincoln’s first year in office. Lincoln’s Darkest Year is the second in the series. His revisionist approach to studying the war makes his books innovative and original—definitely not the same old Civil War study, and certainly a book that should be read. It gives the reader much food for thought, especially on Lincoln’s successes and failures as president during this tumultuous time. Marvel’s insistence on casting the war as unjust and Lincoln’s presidency as inept and corrupt, however, smacks too much of ideology, rather than objectivity. Readers must be aware of this and keep their minds open; they shouldn’t blindly accept every point Marvel makes.
Originally published in the January 2009 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.