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Tarnished Victory: Finishing Lincoln’s War

William Marvel; Houghton Mifflin

It has been said that a key contribution by T. Harry Williams to Civil War studies was that he made it acceptable to root for the North. To be sure, Abraham Lincoln’s leadership had always held a hallowed place in American memory of the war. Yet Williams’ scholarship not only burnished Lincoln’s reputation as a war leader, it also—in combination with the works of Bruce Catton, the success of the civil rights movement and increasing popularity of “bottom-up” approaches to war studies—encouraged students to develop a more positive view of the society and soldiers Lincoln led to victory. They willingly endured sacrifice and hardship in an effort to preserve the Union and end slavery.

If you cherish this image of the Northern war effort, William Marvel’s new book may not be for you, since it offers a very different take on the matter. Tarnished Victory is the final work in a multi-volume study distinguished by a decidedly unromantic take on the war for the Union, one in which self-interest and incompetence figure high in the qualities that characterized the people of the wartime North.

Marvel’s previous works include studies of such topics as the Petersburg Crater, Ambrose Burnside’s career and Andersonville, so it would be surprising if he did not possess an unromantic view of America’s favorite war. But it would be a mistake to lump Marvel together with neo-Confederates, who will undoubtedly welcome his effort to call attention to less savory aspects of the Federal war effort. This is no ham-handed exercise in scorched-earth revisionism, for Marvel’s analysis of events is rooted in impressive research supported by a richly detailed narrative of the war’s final year. These qualities are especially evident in Marvel’s picture of a Northern citizenry that, if not sick of the war altogether, did not necessarily place it high on their lists of personal priorities, as evident in the fact that many avoided serving in the Federal Army. He also describes how this affected the armies that battled the Confederacy in 1864, bringing once-proud Federal units to the brink of complete collapse—as was compellingly evident in the operations around Richmond and Petersburg.

In reviewing the first volume in this series, Mr. Lincoln Goes to War, I declared that, though one might not agree with all Marvel had to say, he was one of those authors whose provocative reexaminations help make studying the war interesting and fun. With the final volume in his series, that very much remains the case.


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