Share This Article

From Battlefields Rising: How the Civil War Transformed American Literature, by Randall Fuller (Oxford University Press, 2010)

Mightier Than the Sword: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Battle for America, by Davis S. Reynolds (Norton, 2010)


“The real war will never get into the books,” claimed Walt Whitman. Yet Whitman’s work is indelibly linked with the Civil War: Witness two of his best-known poems, Drum-Taps and When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d, inspired by the pageantry of the sectional conflict and Abraham Lincoln’s assassination at its close. Two books that shed new light on how American literature as a whole was influenced by the conflict, as well as how Americans perceived the sectional struggle then and since, may inspire modern students of the war to revisit writers such as Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Herman Melville. In From Battlefields Rising, Randall Fuller points to Emerson and Henry Thoreau as among the abolitionists and ideologues who, as he puts it, “fanned the flames of national division” with their words and speeches and glorified the war as a means of “perfecting” the Union. For Louisa May Alcott, her experiences as a nurse in a Union hospital proved to be a springboard to literary recognition, and Herman Melville effectively pinned a revival of his career to the conflict. But faced with the reality of combat, some of their contemporaries, such as Hawthorne, increasingly found themselves questioning the inflated rhetoric that had sent so many of their countrymen to their doom.

Fuller concentrates primarily on the era’s best-known authors, mostly Northerners. But he doesn’t wholly ignore the Southern view. For example Rebecca Harding Davis, from Wheeling, Va., reacted vehemently to the abolitionists’ framing of the conflict: “I had just come up from a border State, where I had seen the actual war: the filthy spewings of it the political jobbery in Union and Confederate camps; the malignant personal hatreds wearing patriotic masks, and glutted by burning homes and outraged women; the chances in it…for brutish men to grow more brutish, and for honorable gentlemen to degenerate into thieves and sots. War may be an armed angel with a mission, but she has the personal habits of the slums.”

The war’s horrors and its anguished aftermath were vividly reflected in the verse of Northerners Emily Dickinson as well as Whitman. But as Fuller points out: “In many ways, the task of assimilating the war imaginatively…would fall less upon Emerson and his contemporaries than upon the next generation of authors.” These would include Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce and Stephen Crane, proponents of a new literary realism that took hold in the postwar era.

David S. Reynolds’ Mightier Than the Sword focuses on the far-reaching effects of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s seminal 1852 work, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, tracing it from antebellum abolitionism through its influence on wartime and postwar politics and on down to its lingering impact on popular culture today. So widely acknowledged was the novel’s influence by 1862 that when Stowe visited Lincoln at the White House, the president famously said on meeting her, “Is this the little woman who made this great war?”

During the prewar years Stowe’s novel—which Reynolds notes “had just the right blend of engaging storytelling and draw on popular culture to make its higher-law, antislavery message palatable to many readers”—had proved to be a great success, spreading abolitionist sentiment not just in America but around the world. It was also a great commercial success: A million copies sold in the United Kingdom within a year of its publication. Quickly translated into dozens of languages, it was also adapted for the stage. In fact, according to Reynolds, more people saw plays based on Uncle Tom’s Cabin than read the novel, and he also points out the economic benefits to African Americans stemming from Stowe’s work: “No popular genre offered a greater opportunity for empowering blacks during and after Reconstruction than did the Uncle Tom plays.”

Before and during the war, Southerners had worried that Uncle Tom might lead to more slave rebellions. In reaction, Southern writers attempted to justify the need for slavery and tell their side of the story. Reynolds points out that “At least twenty-nine anti-Tom novels were published before the Civil War,” among them W.L.G. Smith’s Life at the South, Mary Eastman’s Aunt Phillis’s Cabin and David Brown’s The Planter—all come down to little more than historical footnotes today.

Then as now, the Civil War’s causes and effects remain the subject of debate. From Battlefields Rising and Mightier Than the Sword both provide useful perspectives on that continuing discussion. Looking back on 150 years of American literature, we can trace the lineaments of lingering questions—about our national character, our cultural heritage and the challenges of race re relations facing a new generation.



Soldiering in the Army of Northern Virginia: A Statistical Portrait of the Troops Who Served Under Robert E. Lee, by Joseph T. Glatthaar (University of North Carolina Press, 2011)


Kudos to Joseph Glatthaar for his phenomenal statistical study of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. It is more than merely an attendant to Glatthaar’s 2009 General Lee’s Army: From Victory to Collapse. Using the information gathered for that book, Glatthaar has generated a history of Lee’s soldiers by the numbers. Thankfully his masterful portrayal provides both literary and visual acumen for the general reader. Soldiering in the Army of Northern Virginia is the finest melding of Civil War military and social history since George Rable’s Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg! (2002).

Glatthaar’s database comprised a random sampling of 300 infantrymen, 150 artillerymen and 150 cavalrymen closely proportioned by rank (private through colonel) and by states that contributed troops. Analyzing 54 categories of information on these soldiers enabled Glatthaar to generate a wealth of data. Undoubtedly, some will find fault with his methodology, and available sources have limitations (e.g., not all muster rolls survived, and children might not have appeared on a census). Critics will have to prove Professor Glatthaar’s findings wrong, however, because differing conclusions will be measured by this cliometrician’s quantified yardstick.

Of the approximately 200,000 men who served in Robert E. Lee’s army, only 7.7 percent were at Appomattox. Along the way, 12.3 percent were killed in action, 11.6 percent died of disease, .6 percent succumbed to various other causes and 6.4 percent were discharged for disability. The remainder were POWs, recovering from wounds or illness, serving elsewhere or deserters.

Northern- and foreign-born soldiers were more likely to desert, which resulted in a lower mortality rate among them. Surprisingly, though, these outsiders were quicker to enlist than native Southerners.

A man from a slaveholding family was slightly more likely to serve as an officer, while one from a family without slaves was more than twice as likely to leave his comrades and desert. Whether officer or enlisted man, the wealthier the individual, the more likely he would be killed or wounded. Soldiers over 40 were more likely to die of disease than on the battlefield.

Married men were more likely to die than unmarried ones. Less than a third of volunteers were married, but more than two-thirds of conscripts were, and all the latter had children. Most astounding, it was a rich man’s fight: 44.4 percent either owned slaves or lived in slaveholding households. And 7.2 percent of enlisted men or their families, as opposed to 4.1 percent of officers or their families, came from the planter class.


A Little Short of Boats: The Battles of Ball’s Bluff & Edwards Ferry, October 21-22, 1861, by James A. Morgan III (Savas Beatie, 2011)


The October 1861 engagement at Ball’s Bluff, while small in comparison to the great clashes of armies at Antietam, Shiloh and Atlanta, had a profound effect on the war’s course. Not only did it produce yet another black eye for the Union war effort in 1861, it also contributed to Congress’ fateful decision to create the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. In 2004 James A. Morgan III’s A Little Short of Boats won widespread recognition as the best work yet published on Ball’s Bluff. The new edition is revised enough to merit the attention of anyone familiar with the initial work.

Like most students of Ball’s Bluff, Morgan is sympathetic to Charles Stone and critical of Edward Baker’s conduct. But Morgan’s work stands out in its tactical analysis of the fighting overall. For those who love battles and leaders, there is much here to enjoy. Those who like visiting battlefields will especially appreciate Morgan’s efforts to relate events to the ground. These features, as well as the first-rate battlefield guide provided in an appendix, make Morgan’s updated edition an essential work for anyone interested in going to Ball’s Bluff—and a guide that’s guaranteed to stoke their enthusiasm.


The Rashness of That Hour: Politics, Gettysburg, and the Downfall of Confederate General Alfred Iverson, by Robert J. Wynstra (Savas Beatie, 2011)


Early on the afternoon of July 1, 1863, Brigadier General Alfred Iverson’s veteran brigade, composed of four hard-fighting regiments from North Carolina, was slaughtered on John Forney’s fields of ripening timothy northwest of Gettysburg. Of the nearly 1,350 North Carolinians in Iverson’s ranks that day, 860 would be killed, wounded, captured or missing in action (a 65% casualty rate) in an ill-fated attack against Brig. Gen. John Robinson’s Federals on Oak Ridge. The losses in the 20th and 23rd North Carolina were most staggering. Each regiment carried 285 men into action that fateful day. Only 40 emerged unscathed from the 20th, while just 17 in the 23rd escaped unharmed. Among the 23rd’s casualties was its commanding officer, Colonel Daniel Harvey Christie, who was shot through both lungs and fell mortally wounded. The following morning, while suffering from his death wounds, Christie placed the blame for the brigade’s costly attack solely on its commander, whom Christie referred to as that “imbecile Iverson.”

The attack of Iverson’s Brigade on July 1, 1863, remains among the most notorious of war. Without skirmishers and without any clear idea of what lay ahead—and with Iverson remaining well to the rear—the four North Carolina regiments stepped off in parade-like precision only to be slaughtered by Robinson’s well-positioned and well-sheltered troops. In the immediate wake of the battle, and in the nearly 150 years since, Alfred Iverson received full blame for this disastrous attack. His reputation destroyed, he lost command of his brigade within a week.

The Rashness of That Hour: Politics, Gettysburg, and the Downfall of Confederate General Alfred Iverson is a fascinating study—an insightful behind-the-scenes look at one of Robert E. Lee’s hardest-fighting brigades and one of his most star-crossed brigade commanders. Robert Wynstra, who spent more than a decade researching Iverson and who has a background in both history and journalism, does a fine job explaining the turbulent politicking that was all-too-often present within a Civil War command, and deftly weaves it into the larger story of the brigade’s campaign and battle experiences. The focus, of course, is on Iverson’s attack at Gettysburg on July 1, 1863; yet Wynstra also presents a good biographical look at Iverson’s pre-Gettysburg career as well as a fine back-story on each of the regiments in his command. One will also find in this work a good accounting of General Robert Rodes’ Division, of which Iverson’s Brigade formed part, during the entire Gettysburg Campaign, and an in-depth look at the division’s actions on July 1. There is little discussion of Iverson’s post-battle Civil War career—he commanded cavalry under Joe Wheeler during the war’s final months—and little of Iverson’s post-war life, which leaves one wanting to learn more.

The Rashness of That Hour is a must-read for anyone interested in the Battle of Gettysburg and in Lee’s storied Army of Northern Virginia.



The Siege of Washington: The Untold Story of the Twelve Days That Shook the Union, by John Lockwood and Charles Lockwood (Oxford University Press, 2011)


Brothers John and Charles Lockwood, both lifelong residents of Washington, D.C.—the former a park ranger with more than 25 years’ service on the National Mall; the latter an author who has written extensively on the history of the capital—have joined forces to pen a much-needed work of Civil War history. The Siege of Washington: The Untold Story of the Twelve Days That Shook the Union chronicles in dramatic fashion the tense-filled days that immediately followed the capitulation of Fort Sumter, when panic gripped the U.S. capital.

With Washington surrounded by either enemy or at least hostile territory, and with the city itself infused with thousands of pro-Confederate residents, the threat of an immediate attack by Rebel forces was very real and the fear pronounced, especially in the wake of Virginia’s secession on April 17. As the Lockwoods clearly demonstrate, the anxiety felt during these earliest days of the war by the city’s Unionists and within the highest levels of government was palpable.

That the capital would fall by a quick attack was a fear shared by many Northerners, as the nation held its collective breath for what they imagined would be the inevitable Confederate attack. Many in the Confederacy, including some high-ranking government officials, were clamoring for such action, pleading in the newspapers and with top civil and military authorities to gather forces to take Washington by storm. That they never did puzzled many Northerners, who felt the lightly defended city would have easily fallen. The fact of the matter was that the hysteria for such an attack in the South and the paranoia over the fall of the capital in North was much greater than the reality, or practicality of it.

As the Lockwoods argue, despite the loudest calls for action and the fiery cries of Southern newspaper editors, the Confederacy was simply not prepared to mount the offensive so early in the conflict. Neither Jefferson Davis nor Robert E. Lee, who assumed command of Virginia’s military forces following his resignation from the U.S. Army, ever truly envisioned or had a plan to seize Washington. The Confederacy, maintain the Lockwood brothers, “did not have enough arms and materiel or, certainly, transport and provisions for the large number of troops needed for such an ambitious target as Washington.” Those in the Confederacy who so loudly clamored for an immediate attack—such as Henry Wise, former governor of Virginia—were blind to this military reality. With no assault envisioned or ever attempted, Northerners—especially those in the capital—breathed easier with each passing day, their anxiety lessened with the arrival of an ever-increasing number of volunteer soldiers.

John and Charles Lockwood provide a crisp, clear narrative of these dramatic days, documenting the fears that gripped a nation concerning the safety of their capital. Told, too, are the actions of Lincoln and his Cabinet in the wake of Sumter, such as the president’s April 15 call-to-arms; the formation of ad hoc militia companies in the capital, including the “Frontier Guards,” led by Kansas Senator James Lane, and the Treasury Guards, composed almost entirely of government clerks; and the arrival of the Union’s first volunteers, some 475 Pennsylvanians on April 18, followed the next day by the better remembered 6th Massachusetts. The Lockwoods recount in vivid detail the bloody and, in the case of the Massachusetts regiment, deadly march of these volunteers through the streets of Baltimore on April 18-19, tying this bloodshed into a larger theme of Maryland’s loyalty.

Each of the book’s chapters is devoted to each of the 12 harrowing days that succeeded the fall of Sumter, beginning on April 14 and continuing until the 25, the date the siege was “lifted” with the arrival of the 7th New York and 8th Massachusetts regiments in Washington. With The Siege of Washington, John and Charles Lockwood help to fill a void by addressing in detail and in an entirely readable manner a forgotten though important chapter of America’s Civil War.