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This Great Struggle: America’s Civil War

Steven E. Woodworth; Roman & Littlefield Publishers

The sheer immensity and scope of the war has naturally lent itself to a host of multivolume accounts, as well as myriad books about myriad special subjects, from battles to biographies, units, armies and more. Worthy one-volume treatments of the conflict are rare. With This Great Struggle Steven Woodworth has joined a select fraternity of scholars who have written such gems. The gold standard among them remains James McPherson’s Pulitzer Prize–winning Battle Cry of Freedom (1988). Woodworth’s much shorter work doesn’t quite match that ideal, but he probably never intended it to.

Generously supplied with clear “big picture” maps and numerous period photographs, This Great Struggle covers the entire Civil War era—from the sectional controversies of the 1850s through the end of Reconstruction. Woodworth rarely minces words, and his signature sprightly prose delights far more often than it overreaches (which it does on occasion). Heroes and villains abound: Lincoln, Grant and Sherman among the former, Joe Johnston and William Hardee among the latter, all sharply drawn. The book is also thematically tight, emphasizing throughout that “the dispute was about slavery” and underscoring the decisive importance of the Western Theater, where the war was won for the Union. Woodworth characterizes Grant’s victory at Fort Henry early in 1862 as “one of the most decisive battles of the war.” He also includes wonderful thumbnail characterizations. Rebel General Leonidas Polk, for instance, is described as “a general…that never really saw the need of taking orders from anyone below the rank of God, with Whom he tended to confuse himself.”

Nevertheless, Woodworth’s book does have shortcomings. Scholars may find it wanting in several areas. Documentation, for example, is sparse—although the “Sources and Notes” section in the back contains an excellent rundown of the current literature, topically arranged. Reconstruction receives more or less perfunctory treatment in the final chapter. And political affairs in the Confederacy are little discussed compared to analysis of Abraham Lincoln’s White House and politics in the North. Conversely, is there any good reason beyond Woodworth’s obvious attachment to Lincoln to include the entire Gettysburg Address as well as a large swath of his Second Inaugural Address in a one-volume survey of the conflict?

These reservations aside, Woodworth’s book richly deserves a spot among the more colorful and readable single-volume books on the war.


Originally published in the April 2012 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.