Authors who imagine they write for the ages should look to the chastening example of Allan Nevins (1890-1971). Once a giant in the field whose name often appeared alongside earlier luminaries such as James Ford Rhodes, Nevins worked almost literally to the end of his long life. A prolific historian and twice winner of the Pulitzer Prize who spent much of his academic career at Columbia University, Nevins produced a body of work that reached a broad popular as well as a scholarly audience. His masterwork, titled Ordeal of the Union and published between 1947 and 1971, covered the origins of the Civil War and the conflict itself in eight large volumes (he died before writing two proposed volumes on Reconstruction). The four volumes on the war, which carry the general title The War for the Union, total 1,972 pages and reflect engagement with a daunting range of historical sources. Written with verve and attentive to military, political, economic, social and diplomatic aspects of the conflict, The War for the Union makes a powerful case for the modernizing impact of the conflict on the loyal states.
The final two volumes, subtitled The Organized War, 1863-1864 and The Organized War to Victory, 1864- 1865, detail how the United States marshaled and applied resources to suppress the rebellion. “That the Civil War brought a systematic shift in American society from an unorganized society to a well-organized nation is undoubtedly much too strong a statement,” writes Nevins, “But that the Civil War accentuated and acted as a catalyst to already developing local tendencies toward organization, there can be no doubt….That such a pragmatic trend would have occurred without wartime demands is unquestionable, but it certainly would have been different and perhaps slower.”
Nevins’ close examination of how the United States mounted a powerful war effort does not convey a sense of inevitable Confederate defeat. For example, a chapter on the “Balance Sheet at Mid-War” reminds readers of “a fundamental difference” between the task each side faced in the spring of 1863. “The North had to fight for a decisive victory in the field,” notes Nevins, “for the destruction or hopeless crippling of the Confederate armies, and the subjugation of the rebellious areas and their inhabitants.” The Confederacy, in contrast, “could pursue a less difficult objective, well short of an elimination of the main Union forces.” A draw was as good as a win for the Confederacy because “Northern war-weariness would compel acquiescence in Confederate independence….” In other words, Nevins exposes the shallowness of the notion that Confederates strove against impossible odds—a notion made most popular, perhaps, by Shelby Foote’s observation in Ken Burns’ PBS series that the Union fought the war “with one hand tied behind its back” and always could have deployed the other hand if necessary.
Although Nevins avoids demonizing the Confederacy’s people and leaders, his sentiment clearly lies with the soldiers in blue. For him, the war marked a milestone of national advancement and improvement, a hard but worthwhile test for a republic that had wrestled with issues relating to slavery for decades. His handling of the war’s devastation illuminates this theme. “Yet the dragon of desolation that ravaged the South in the last year of war,” he observes, “carried, like Shakespeare’s ugly and venomous toad, a precious jewel in its head. It cleared a field for new tillage; it did a work of transformation that, however brutal, had to be done….Much was being destroyed in the South, but much had to be destroyed if a better land, with better institutions and ideas, was to be born.”
Like many citizens of the loyal states, Nevins finds purpose in the struggle to save the Union beyond its meaning for Americans. “The republic emerged from the struggle,” he argues, “as men enjoying a little perspective of time later realized, in the grip of some heady new impulses of vast extent and irresistible force.” The western world recognized, after Appomattox, “the permanence of American institutions” and watched as the U.S. extended its economic, political and military reach.
Nevins wrote at a time when historians took on projects that sometimes extended across a decade or two and yielded sweeping narratives of events or de tailed biographies. Reviewers recognized the effort involved in his work, predicting it would stand the test of time. “[I]t can be safely asserted,” wrote one reviewer in 1972, “that The War for the Union and the other volumes in Ordeal of the Union will outlast the carpings of their critics. The historical world can ill afford to lose an Allan Nevins whose dedication to scholarship, good writing, and diligent labor have served as an unattainable ideal to his students and count less others….”
A leading bibliography of the war echoes the reviewer in predicting Nevins’ influence, writing: “This incomparable work delivers a massive, heavily documented, and detailed story of the secession crisis and the Civil War written by one of the master historians of the modern era….the great accomplishment of this narrative will remain valuable for decades to come.”
In fact, Nevins’ four volumes have disappeared from the literary landscape almost completely. Such a fate is as undeserved as it is unfortunate. The War for the Union continues to merit serious attention.
Originally published in the October 2014 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.