In brief, this is one of the most amazing Civil War books I’ve ever read. I picked it up almost at random–it has a blurb by James McPherson–and read it slowly over the course of a couple of weeks.
Here’s what happens: There are, in most Civil War histories, certain events dealt with in a single sentence, or maybe a short paragraph. For example, Colonel Anderson moved his command from Fort Moltrie to Fort Sumter. Or, Elmer Ellsworth was killed while taking down a Confederate Flag in Alexandria, Virginia, and there was mourning throughout the North. General Butler created the concept of “contraband” so he wouldn’t have to return slaves to their Confederate masters. But: Why was Anderson’s move such a big deal for the country? Who was this Ellsworth, and why did people care about him so much? And exactly who were those slaves, how is it they came into Union lines, how did Butler make that decision, and what were the effects of it?
In 1861, we learn of why and how these events–and several others–were significant. We learn how they contributed to the mood and feel of the time; to the attitude of the Northern civilian and soldier. We learn how they flow from history, and how they effect that history.
“By the end of May, Northerners were starting to accept the idea of Southerners not just as opponents–let alone the wayward brethren they’d been just a few months earlier–but as enemies.” How that change took place is what this book is about, and it isn’t what you’d thought.
That old, tired cliche about a book being good as an introduction and for those who’ve done a lot of reading, well, it’s actually true this time. If you’re familiar with the American Civil War, this will more than fill in gaps, it will cause you to reevaluate a number of things you knew. And if you’re not, it would be a place to start that gives you a solid platform from which to understand everything that follows.
I can’t recommend it strongly enough.