Five Books on the U.S. Civil War

In This Review

The War That Forged a Nation: Why the Civil War Still Matters
By James M. McPherson
Oxford University Press, 2015
232 pp. $27.95
The Cause of All Nations: An International History of the American Civil War
By Don H. Doyle
Basic Books, 2014
400 pp. $29.99
Marching Home: Union Veterans and Their Unending Civil War
By Brian Matthew Jordan
Liveright, 2015
384 pp. $28.95
Fortune's Fool: The Life of John Wilkes Booth
By Terry Alford
Oxford University Press, 2015
464 pp. $29.95
The Man Who Would Not Be Washington: Robert E. Lee's Civil War and His Decision That Changed American History
By Jonathan Horn
Scribner, 2015
384 pp. $28.00

One hundred and fifty years after its end, the American Civil War continues to reverberate in U.S. culture and politics. This is partly because of the sheer scale of the conflict (more Americans were killed in it than in all other U.S. wars combined) and partly because the issues at its core—race relations and the nature and power of the federal government—remain central to American political life.

McPherson, the dean of U.S. Civil War historians, offers readers an insightful overview of some of the most important questions in contemporary Civil War scholarship. Was emancipation driven by top-down national policy or by a grass-roots movement of blacks, both slave and free, that forced the hand of reluctant politicians? How close did France and the United Kingdom come to intervening in the Civil War, and what held them back? How good a military strategist was U.S. President Abraham Lincoln? McPherson’s mastery of the Civil War literature and the field’s historiographic debates allows him to present nuanced answers to those questions and many others, and his gift for narrative clarifies even the most obscure scholarly disputes. The literature on the Civil War is one of the greatest accomplishments of the American historical profession, and this collection of lucid essays is a distinguished addition to the field.

As rich as that literature is, however, it has generally shortchanged the issue of the Civil War’s impact on international politics. Doyle’s important book reveals why the war was more than a domestic quarrel; it was also a geopolitical event that shook the global balance of power, and it catalyzed an important turning point in the ongoing battle between democracy and despotism in Europe. In Europe, the shattering of the United States revived the hopes of imperialists; both France and Spain seized the opportunity to rebuild their American empires. European supporters of democracy cheered for the Union, while the Confederacy won the support of conservatives and monarchists across the continent. These realities helped shape strategic choices in both Washington and Richmond; Lincoln and Confederate President Jefferson Davis thought much more about international politics than many conventional Civil War histories suggest. Doyle’s overview leaves some gaps; Russian attitudes played a larger role in blocking French and British intervention than Doyle allows, and this complicates his picture of a pro-democratic, pro-Union front in Europe. Nevertheless, Civil War buffs and students of U.S. foreign policy will find this book useful.

A focus on geopolitics can obscure the human side of war, a crucial subject that Jordan’s Marching Home addresses by exploring the fate of Union army veterans after the end of the most terrible conflict in U.S. history. Most affecting are the stories of maimed soldiers and of the survivors of Confederate prison camps, such as the notoriously brutal Camp Sumter, in Andersonville, Georgia; these men found little sympathy and even less understanding in civilian life. The book falls short in some ways; the experiences of African American soldiers and immigrant conscripts are largely absent. Also, Jordan tends to portray veterans primarily as suffering victims rather than as vigorous participants in postwar life. But despite their psychological and physical scars, many Civil War veterans played an active and important role in postwar business, culture, and politics. Still, readers of this clearly written and exhaustively researched book will come away with a deeper appreciation of the sacrifices soldiers make; many living veterans will thank Jordan for his attention to an often neglected but important aspect of U.S. military history.

In Civil War histories, the spotlight that rarely falls on the masses of men who did the fighting often shines instead on a few larger-than-life figures. One of those is John Wilkes Booth, the man who assassinated Lincoln less than a week after the Confederate surrender in 1865. Lincoln’s death plunged the North from the heights of joy to an abyss of mourning and sent waves of dread through a defeated South, which trembled before what it feared would be a fierce retribution for a horrifying crime. As Alford’s excellent book makes clear, Booth was a celebrity in his own right, and his high profile heightened the drama of the deed: imagine if Elvis Presley had assassinated President John F. Kennedy. As the Civil War approached, Booth developed strong anti-abolitionist passions and, in 1859, briefly absconded from an acting gig in Richmond to participate in the execution of the radical antislavery activist John Brown. Booth’s pro-South sentiments grew even as he spent most of the war performing to sold-out houses and critical raves in Northern theaters. Ironically, by cutting down Lincoln at the height of his glory, before the grinding problems and inevitable shortcomings of Reconstruction could tarnish Lincoln’s reputation, Booth may have done more than anyone else to make Lincoln one of the most revered figures in U.S. history.

Another crucial character in the Confederate story is Robert E. Lee, the commander of the South’s main fighting force, the Army of Northern Virginia. Lee is an inevitable but difficult subject for biographers: much like George Washington, Lee projected a opaque image of patriotism, honor, and dedication to duty that impressed contemporaries but resists deconstruction. Horn, like other biographers, struggles to get behind Lee’s façade, but his account is at times illuminating, especially when it looks at Lee’s complex family and its tangled relationship to Washington’s legacy (Lee’s wife was Martha Washington’s great-granddaughter). The “decision that changed American history” to which the book’s subtitle refers was made when Lee, a unionist who opposed slavery, turned down Lincoln’s offer to command the Union forces and chose instead to follow Virginia into secession. Horn’s book could have shed more light on Lee by looking more closely at the history of Virginia’s precipitous decline from the 1770s, when its statesmen and military leaders dominated the American scene, to the Civil War era, when the so-called Cotton South drove Virginia into a ruinous war. To unlock the mystery of Lee, one might have to grapple more closely with the faulty vision, failing business ventures, and unraveling political ideas that haunted an entire class of Virginians, whose state proved unable to preserve the greatness they had once known.

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