Civil War book surge invokes America's defining moment

The Argument

The nation's destiny was forged in fratricidal violence -- and the fascination never flags.

February 27, 2000|By Tom Linthicum | Tom Linthicum,Sun Staff

More than any war in U.S. history, the Civil War lays unique claim to the American psyche. None of its successor conflicts in the ensuing 135 years has been accorded a fraction of the glory, laud and honor bestowed by authors upon the war that rent this nation asunder.

Click on and find 8,000 Civil War titles. Barnes& offers nearly 7,000. Just last summer a new quarterly, Civil War Book Review, arrived on the scene to keep pace with the never-ending tide of literature.

"I thought it was kind of a crazy idea at first," says Michael Zibart, who publishes the review in conjunction with the U.S. Civil War Center at Louisiana State University. "Then I discovered that between 800 and 900 books on the Civil War had been published in the previous year."

Indeed there is an amazing stream of literature -- non-fiction, fiction, letters, diaries, journals, battlefield guides, histories of famous and not-so-famous military units -- that keeps flowing. Variations in quality can be considerable, given that some authors are rank amateurs, some books are merely lists of battlefield monuments and others are one step above vanity press family histories. But this is the war Americans never tire of reading about.

At the vanguard of the current wave of serious Civil War works is "Ulysses S. Grant: Triumph over Adversity, 1822-1865" (Houghton Mifflin, 576 pages, $35), the first installment of veteran Civil War author Brooks D. Simpson's two-volume biography.

Ulysses S. Grant? Don't we already know this story? He came, he fought, he won, he drank -- not necessarily in that order. Well, yes and no. While Simpson does not uncover startling new information, he develops new perspectives from a prodigious number of sources as he dissects and amplifies what we already knew -- or thought we knew -- about Grant. Along the way, he explores Grant's relationship with his father, his wife and children, his marriage into a slave-holding family and even his affliction with migraine headaches.

The book follows Grant from birth through Lincoln's assassination, but it is basically a chronicle of his Civil War exploits, from obscure adjutant general in the West to commander of all Union armies and victor over Robert E. Lee in the East.

Grant haters will be disappointed, as perhaps will his advocates, because Simpson neither villifies nor consecrates this unpretentious, plain-spoken Midwesterner. He addresses the drinking issue at length, concluding that Grant clearly could not handle alcohol but was generally successful in avoiding it, although there were occasions when he did not and the results were embarrassing but never disastrous. On military issues, "Grant the Butcher" comes off as much more of a tactician given to relentless attacks but preferring maneuver and conserving manpower.

Aside from biographies, tales of battles and tactics remain a staple of the Civil War genre. Although the results of these conflicts are well known, it doesn't seem to matter to authors or readers, who are always looking for one more insight or spirited retelling. With epic struggles such as Gettysburg and Antietam amply chronicled, more and more authors are carving off smaller slices of the action for analysis.

Gordon C. Rhea, for example, devotes an entire book to be published this spring, "To The North Anna River: Grant and Lee, May 13-25, 1864" (Louisiana State University Press, 475 pages, $34.95), to one small segment of the initial campaign between the two legendary generals. The third in a series of books on this campaign, Rhea's work is a masterfully told tale that uses so many eyewitness accounts that the action often comes to life right before your eyes.

James W. Wensyel takes a totally different approach with "Appomattox: The Passing of the Armies" (White Mane Books, 262 pages, $24.95), which also focuses on a sliver of time: March 31, when Lee is forced to abandon Richmond and Petersburg, through April 9, 1865, when he surrenders. A sequel to "Petersburg," by the same author, this is narrative history with dialogue attributed to historical characters and at least one fictitious narrator. It gets points for entertainment if not pure history.

The Civil War also continues to be a fertile ground for fiction. Howard Bahr, fresh from his critically acclaimed first novel, "The Black Flower" in 1998, will soon be out with "The Year of Jubilo" (Henry Holt and Co., 376 pages, $25), a moving account of the South just after surrender and before Reconstruction, a time of terror, turmoil and heartbreak.

From White Mane Publishing Co. Inc. in Shippensburg, Pa., which calls itself "America's Civil War publisher," comes a catalog bursting with new titles. There are attempts to plow new ground with books such as "Trial by Fire: Science, Technology and the Civil War" by Charles Ross (White Mane Books, 215 pages, $24.95). And there is a series of children's books called "The Young Americans" aimed at capturing the next generation of Civil War readers.

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