In the spring of 1864 hopes were high in the North. The previous year had yielded great victories at Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and Chattanooga.
Northern armies appeared to be on the verge of a breakthrough on several fronts with the end of the bloody Civil War in sight. In Washington, the arrival of a new overall commanding officer of the mighty Federal hosts was anticipated. Ulysses S. Grant had risen from his pre-war days of bitter failure, to the post of supreme commander of the greatest military force yet raised by the American people.
Grant arrived in the nation’s capital with a string of victories to his credit. It was hoped that General Grant would bring the effectiveness he had shown in the western theater of operations onto the national scene and smash the Confederate forces that opposed him. Confidence was building among the citizens of the Union and it was broadly predicted that 1864 would see the end of the terrible conflict that had split the nation.
As Grant framed his strategy and moved south to begin his Overland Campaign in May of 1864 few Americans could imagine the horrendous suffering the people of that divided land still had to endure and how desperate the state of both the Union and Confederate governments would become.
It is the story of this final year of the Civil War that author S.C. Gwynne presents in this recent publication.
In telling the story of the bloodiest period of the Civil War, Gwynne takes his readers back into an era when hopes of victory rose and fell both for Union and Confederate supporters.
The final twelve months of the Civil War featured combat that was unlike anything the nation had previously experienced. During Grant’s initial offensive, fighting at places like the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor, and Petersburg generated more casualties than could ever have been imagined. Warfare under Grant was more reminiscent of World War I than prior Civil War battles as systems of virtually unassailable fortifications became the norm. Casualty lists for both sides grew like noxious weeds and dead and broken men became the norm. Grant’s ability to generate casualties linked to the inability of any of the major Union armies to win a significant victory, steadily drained the will to fight that many northerners possessed.
This decline in morale in the North left President Abraham Lincoln supremely vulnerable as he faced the daunting challenge of achieving reelection in the November general election. In the months approaching what could easily be labeled the most significant election in U.S. history, Lincoln became increasingly convinced that he would lose and that his defeat could lead to the permanent separation of the nation. Yet, only weeks before what could have been Lincoln’s defeat, a series of noteworthy Federal successes led to a sweeping Republican victory in the election that set the stage for the crushing defeat of the Confederacy. How could all of this have happened?
In answering that broad question, Gwynne adopts a writing strategy based more on telling the stories of specific leaders than recounting a chronological study of the Civil War’s final year.
Gwynne’s chapters take the reader into the lives of men and women who shaped the Civil War and who had a particular impact on its final year.
Individuals such as Ulysses S. Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, John Singleton Mosby, Clara Barton, and Abraham Lincoln all take center stage in Gwynne’s book. In many ways this is an intimate look at leaders who helped shape American history rather than common folk.
That approach is very traditional in some ways but it also is one that Gwynne pulls off.
Perhaps the author’s greatest accomplishment is the way he combines modern research with common understandings to paint a picture of the leaders he has selected to tell the story of the culmination of America’s most destructive war. For example, Abraham Lincoln has been written about in thousands of books. That fact makes it difficult for an author to travel much, if any, ground that might surprise a reader with any knowledge of Mr. Lincoln’s life.
Yet, despite the settled historical law that surrounds Lincoln’s life, the portrait of this penultimate American leader created by Gwynne resonates. Lincoln comes off the pages of Gwynne’s book as a man who was a realist and one who could be cold-bloodedly pragmatic in terms of policy.
In Gwynne’s book Lincoln’s handling of emancipation, voting rights, civil liberties, politics, and the machinations of his cabinet members all bespeak a man who could face the arithmetic of leadership with both compassion and ruthlessness.
In a similar way, Gwynne presents leading lights of the Civil War in ways that should both inform and enlighten readers. Perhaps most striking is the portrait Gwynne drafts of one of the most controversial Civil War figures—William Tecumseh Sherman.
It is well known by any student of the American Civil War that General Sherman was a controversial figure not only in his own time but also down through the years.
A rough-hewn figure, Sherman was dogged in the early years of the Civil War by a reputation that centered on his mental illness.
As the war progressed, Sherman rose to a position of supreme trust and responsibility as one of Grant’s most trusted commanders. However, as Gwynne notes in this engaging book, Sherman was often unsuccessful in actual combat and much more successful in terms of strategy.
At Shiloh, Vicksburg, Kennesaw Mountain, and Chattanooga, it can be argued that Sherman’s handling of his troops in combat was less than stellar. Conversely, when maneuvering at Atlanta or on the destructive marches through Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina, Sherman implemented a strategy that devastated the hopes of southern people.
In Gwynne’s book Sherman also presents himself as an angel of destruction unleashed by the coming of war. Some of the best pages in this fine book are those within which readers encounter General Sherman and his philosophy of war.
When asked by Confederate leader why he had forced the residents of Atlanta to leave the town and become refugees Sherman responded, “You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty and you cannot refine it…You might as well appeal against the thunderstorm as against these terrible hardships of war. They are inevitable.”
In waging this type of destructive war, Sherman justified his actions by stating that his overall goal in the South was “to make its inhabitants feel that war and individual ruin are synonymous terms.”
For Sherman, previously unthinkable actions were part of a necessary strategy aimed at ending a horrific war brought on by, in his opinion, the arrogance and senselessness of the patrician leaders of the Confederacy. At Columbia, South Carolina, when confronted by residents after the burning of their town by Union troops, Sherman was asked why he had allowed that to happen.
Sherman’s response was direct and revealed why he felt justified in carrying out the strategy of destruction he crafted, “I did not burn your town, nor did my army. Your brothers, sons, husbands, and fathers set fire to every city, town, and village in the land when they fired on Fort Sumter. That fire kindled then and there has been burning ever since and reached your houses last night.”
In this way, General Sherman rises from the pages of Gwynne’s excellent book as if he was a fiery spirit of both destruction and vengeance.
By April of 1865 the armies of the Confederacy were beaten, battered, and ready for war to be over. Grant had slowly ground he Army of Northern Virginia into a hungry shadow of its past greatness.
Sherman had driven Joe John ston’s Army of Tennessee to the point when it had no hope of defeating their Union foemen. In other theaters of operation Union strength was growing and their opposing Confederate forces could hardly withstand them. Finally, at Appomattox the die of surrender was cast and the stage was set for the Civil War to slowly end.
Lincoln’s death was a last flicker of tragedy that was symbolic of all the pain and sadness birthed by the coming of the war.
Yet, as the war ended and the losses were calculated, the hope for America’s future remained strong. Gwynne choses to close his book with a chapter on the efforts of Clara Barton to reconstitute the identities of as many Union dead as she could at Andersonville Prison.
With the assistance of Dorance Atwater, a Union prisoner who survived Andersonville and compiled a list of the names and grave numbers of over 12,000 Union soldiers at the prison camp, Clara Barton was able to identify for families where all but 451 of the Federal dead at Andersonville were buried. After months of physically and emotionally exhausting work, Barton attended the flag-raising ceremony at Andersonville which commemorated the placement of accurate grave markers on almost all of the graves.
Barton watched as the colors were raised and, with a gust of wind, the flag unfurled.
The crowd sang the Star-Spangled Banner while tears flowed down the cheeks of those who gathered on ground where so much pain and suffering had occurred. Later, Clara Barton recorded the following thought in her diary, “The work is done…My own hands have helped to run up the old flag on our great and holy ground—and I ought to be satisfied—I believe I am.”
In many ways, readers of this thought-provoking book may well feel the same way when they finish this book.
The closing months of the Civil War were dramatic, tragic, terrible, and ultimately historic in nature.
We would do well to remember the efforts of the men, women, and children, who lived in that tumultuous era and books like Gwynne’s help us to do so.