“He Has Loosed the Fatal Lightning” - Hymns of the Republic: The Story of the Final Year of the American Civil War

Samuel C. Gwynne is an historian with a novelist’s heart. His recent work, Hymns of the Republic: The Story of the Final Year of the American Civil War, will be received enthusiastically by history buffs and all others who enjoy a story well-told.

The title is a bit of a puzzle. It connotes, of course, the well-known Civil War hymn, but what qualifies the twenty-three chapters as hymns?

If a hymn is, by definition, a “song of praise or joy,” shouldn’t we expect some of that? There is occasional praise and humor, but almost no joy. Hymns of the Republic is a somber book.

Generals make mistakes that cost thousands of lives, homes and barns go up in flames, prisoners are starved to the point of emaciation, and a president is assassinated.

One suspects that Gwynne did not write this book to make us feel good about ourselves.

Each chapter, or hymn, is complete in itself; the focus is usually on an individual and his or her importance to the war’s final year. Brief and incisive biographies are provided.

In Chapter One, we observe a White House reception where General Ulysses S. Grant makes his first appearance. Outside, fifty thousand soldiers in thirty-seven miles of trenches defend the Capitol.

In the East Room, ladies draped in crinoline and lace dance with men in swallowtails to the music of the Marine Band.

Into this gay assemblage, strides a rather undistinguished-looking person who brings a smile to President Lincoln’s face. It is General Grant, come east to save the Union.

Several themes are set in motion: the changing state of warfare in the war’s final year, and the looming presidential election.

We also learn to expect Gwynne’s novelist’s touch will add color and personality to the historical account.

For example, a day after Grant’s White House debut, President Lincoln tutors him on what to say and how to say it at a ceremony they will be attending.

Lincoln, despite his confidence in the General’s fighting spirit, seems to regard him as somewhat of a barbarian. Grant does not oblige his Commander-in-Chief; instead, he scribbles something on a scrap of paper, and afterwards stumbles over the reading of his own handwriting.

It is an amusing, private glimpse of the relationship between two very public men.

Chapter Two sets the stage for the final showdown between the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia. Gwynne offers insightful commentary on how the nature of combat had changed.

Troops race each other to a coveted defensive position and dig in.

The opposing army entrenches as well, because there is no knowing how the battle will play out. Soldiers know, however, that barricaded behind trenches, abatis’ and chevaux de frise, they are impermeable to frontal assault.

This had been proven at Beaver Dam Creek, Fredericksburg, and Gettysburg. It would hold true in the Wilderness, at Cold Harbor, and, finally, at Petersburg.

Despite Robert E. Lee’s victory at the Wilderness, May 7-9, Grant does not follow the practice of other Union commanders who withdrew to lick their wounds after a beating by the Rebel General.

He pursues Lee’s Army, resulting in almost daily warfare until the middle of June.

The rising number of casualties overwhelm Union medical personnel; it is at the crisis of neglected wounded and dying men holed up at Fredericksburg that Gwynne introduces Clara Barton.

The “Angel of the Battlefield” is one indication of the changing role of women in nursing stricken soldiers.

Barton fought for the opportunity to serve as close to the battlefields as possible.

She was not the only female caregiver; Dorothea Dix also deserves acclaim, but Barton was the most dramatic. Her writings and speeches were full of pathos; they moved civilians and government officials alike.

She had the confidence and backing of Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts who, after hearing Barton’s description of the disaster at Fredericksburg, threatened Secretary of War Edward Stanton until the Secretary took Barton seriously and sent aid.

Over the course of the war, nearly 180, 000 African-Americans served in the Union Army. They were welcomed and opposed by the Federals, constituted an affront to the Confederates, and, in 1863, were finally allowed to fight. Gwynne recounts two battles which illustrate the predicaments of black soldiers as they faced their enemy or struggled to take their desired role in combat.

The first is the tragic massacre at Fort Pillow where surrendering black troops were shot or bayoneted; the second is the fiasco that was the Crater.

A black regiment was trained to advance immediately after the explosion, but was kept back for political reasons.

Gwynne does not spare us the gruesome details of Fort Pillow, but he offers a balanced perspective on why it might have happened. At the Crater, General Grant supports General Meade’s contention that, if the attack failed, northern abolitionists would accuse him of using black troops as “cannon fodder.”

The 4300 black soldiers of the 4th Division are replaced sixteen hours before the attack.

The next morning, they are ordered into the fray hours after the explosion, just as the bomb crater becomes a death trap.

In Georgia, Grant’s chief lieutenant, General William Tecumseh Sherman employs new rules of warfare, to the initial distrust of his commanding officer.

Sherman emphatically argues that instead of tracking and destroying the armies of Joseph T. Johnston or John Bell Hood, it would further the war effort to “make Georgia (and then South Carolina) howl.”

He marches his men, in columns down a path twenty to sixty miles wide, from Atlanta to Savannah, then into South Carolina where Columbia is burned to the ground.

His scorched earth policy was endorsed by Grant and similarly carried out by General Philip Sheridan in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Such reprehensible tactics would be again practiced by the three Union Generals (Grant, at that time, was President) during the Indian Wars on the Great Plains.

Gwynne devotes several chapters to Sherman, undoubtedly one of the war’s fascinating characters. Sherman marches and moralizes through the South, and Gwynne analyzes the General’s moralizing.

After revealing that Sherman was seldom an effective field commander, Gwynne opines that Sherman’s memorability has more to do with what he thought and wrote than what he did.

Sherman was the first to articulate bluntly and unabashedly the theory of “total war.” He and his Army inflicted great suffering on the South, but he was a charitable conqueror; Grant had to undo his surrender treaty with Joe Johnston because it gave away too much. Gwynne’s study of Sherman’s principles, motives, and the evolution of his thinking is prime reading.

Gwynne contrasts, to good effect, the success Grant and Sherman achieved during the war with their seeming ineptitude before it.

They experienced failure repeatedly in their schemes to support their families. A book that deserves to be written is a study of the inner lives of Mrs. Grant and Mrs. Sherman.

They must have felt demeaned and disappointed in those pre-war years, but remained loyal. How did they cope?

Despite important Union victories at Vicksburg and Gettysburg, President Lincoln, in 1864, did not expect to be re-elected. Northern morale had sunk, and “Peace Democrats” were clamoring for a negotiated peace. There was resentment among northern troops and civilians over the new war aim of ending slavery. There was treachery even in Lincoln’s own cabinet.

Officials in the Confederate government, as well as General Lee, understood the importance of the 1864 election. In a discussion of the Copperhead movement and prominent Peace-Democrat Clement L. Vallandigham, we learn that President Jefferson Davis authorized agents to negotiate with the former Congressman and his supporters. Meetings are held, but no effective coordinated action occurs.

The Democrats eventually recruit the once-popular General George C. McClellan for their 1864 Presidential candidate, but, incredibly, he refuses to endorse portions of the party platform.

Secretary of State William Seward believed he should have been President, and initially viewed President Lincoln as unequal to the job.

In time, however, Seward developed both respect and affection for his boss. Treasury Secretary Samuel P. Chase also believed he should have been President, but his disdain for Lincoln did not change.

Noting Lincoln’s vulnerability in early 1864, Radical Republicans in Congress began to view Chase as a more viable presidential candidate. While issuing denials, the Secretary used his opportunities for patronage to build political support within the Treasury Department.

The plot was uncovered, and Lincoln was magnanimous. Later, the President even nominated Chase to the Supreme Court.

Hymns of the Republic ends, as did the war, tragically. Northern rejoicing over Lee’s surrender at Appomattox is replaced, within days, with mourning for a murdered President. Washington D.C. grieved and became embittered.

What part did the South play in the President’s murder? Lincoln had called for “malice toward none and charity toward all;” Radical Republicans wanted to punish the South and keep the Democratic Party from regaining influence.

Clara Barton returns in the final chapter and we witness with her a scene of unfathomable suffering. She has come to the Andersonville Military Prison where approximately 13,000 Union POWs died of starvation and disease.

With the help of a former inmate, Barton identifies and reinters 12,475 bodies. At the completion of her work, she is given the honor of raising the United States flag in the midst of the stockade.

Nevertheless, the long nightmare of slavery had ended. War and the Thirteenth Amendment had seen to that. Slavery, Gwynne asserts, was more the fault of the North than the South. Certainly, racism was a virulent presence in both regions. A new era would commence with its own set of animosities, degradations, and injustices.

Gwynne is as clear-eyed and resigned as the Texan he quotes on the final page of his book. Addressing his freed slaves, their former owner announces, “You are just as free as I am. You don’t belong to nobody but yourselves. We went to war, and the Yankees whipped us, and they say the n******s are free. You can go where you want to, or you can stay right here, just as you like.”

African-Americans were free, and the southern economy was in ruins. Poverty and festering race relations would cripple the South for well-beyond the next century.

Title: Hymns of the Republic: The Story of the Final Year of the American Civil War

Author: S.C.Gwynne

Publisher: Scribner

Pages: 368

Price: $28.80