The West, the Valley -- and Lincoln

Civil War books

July 11, 2004|By Mike Pride and Mark Travis | Mike Pride and Mark Travis,Special to the Sun

Whatever your taste in Civil War reading -- from the man in the White House to the family on the farm, from pure military history to the war's social consequences -- 2004 has good books to offer. Because that's not always the case, this is a year to savor.

Writers first offered accounts of the war's great battles even before the war had ended. Now, 140 years later, there are as many military histories as tourist footprints on Little Round Top. And yet critical aspects of the war remain under-explored.

Vicksburg Is the Key: The Struggle for the Mississippi River (University of Nebraska Press, 232 pages, $35) fills one of these gaps. It offers a readable, thorough, single-volume account of how the West (and, some would argue, the war) was won by Union forces led by president-to-be Ulysses S. Grant.

Historians of the war have long been guilty of an Eastern bias, so it is not surprising that this study was executed by authors within the Mississippi's reach: William L. Shea, a history professor at the University of Arkansas at Monticello, and Terrence J. Winschel, a historian at Vicksburg National Military Park.

There are many accounts of the battle for Vicksburg. This one stands out first for its broad view of the campaign, which did not end with the fall of Vicksburg, a city fortress in Mississippi. It is rich in detail and perspective, and the authors' judgments are crisp and persuasively argued.

That said, this is traditional, top-down history. If your interest is in learning how Grant's forces drove Vicksburg residents from their homes into dirt caves, this is the book to read. But if you want to feel the desperation of life in those caves, it has little to offer.

A new model for work of that sort is provided by a book of startling originality: In the Presence of Mine Enemies: War in the Heart of America, 1859-1863, (W.W. Norton & Co., 472 pages, $27.95) by Edward L. Ayers, a history professor at the University of Virginia.

The book is novel in concept: a study of the war through its effect on two border counties, one in Pennsylvania, the other in Virginia. It is an outgrowth of the decade-long Valley of the Shadow project, an archive of the war in the Shenandoah Valley that resides on the Internet.

Ayers' work is distinguished by its blend of what most historians treat as oil and water: social history, with its emphasis on demography and statistical analysis, and narrative history, with its emphasis on individuals and storytelling.

It is a brilliant synthesis. Ayers captures the complexities of the time in the most human terms while never failing to put single thoughts and moments in their broader context. To read of the murder of a free black by Union troops training in Pennsylvania early in the war, for example, is to gain new insight into the risks of Abraham Lincoln's decision to free the slaves many months later and the backlash it generated, North and South.

Despite this backlash, the Emancipation Proclamation was one of Lincoln's grand accomplishments. Yet unlike his inaugural addresses or the Gettysburg Address, it lacked phrases that stick in the mind -- no "better angels of our nature," "mystic chords of memory," "new birth of freedom" or "malice toward none."

The reason is simple, as Allen C. Guelzo writes in Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America (Simon & Schuster, 288 pages, $26). The proclamation was not a speech but a legal document. Lincoln crafted it to withstand challenges in a hostile court.

Guelzo's book is a well written and crisply paced human narrative of the events that pushed Lincoln to declare the slaves of the Confederacy free.

Lincoln favored gradual emancipation and colonization. He clung to the hope that slave owners would accept compensation, proposing to test the idea in Delaware. But the fortunes of war, the political rashness of some Union generals and the rush to freedom of thousands of slaves forced him to relinquish his own preferences.

Ever the pragmatist, Lincoln knew his election in 1860 had been the beginning of the end of slavery. He also knew his job as president was to use the tools at his disposal to put down the rebellion. Despite its limitations, legalisms and lack of lilting phrases, the Emancipation Proclamation was the right tool at the right time.

Guelzo brings care and judgment to the story of how this came to be and how, to this day, the proclamation must fend off criticism from many quarters.

One pleasure in reading a first-class historian is seeing his mind at work. In 'We Are Lincoln Men': Abraham Lincoln and His Friends (Simon & Schuster, 269 pages, $25), David Herbert Donald rarely steps from behind the curtain, but when he does, he is always a welcome presence.

Donald, now in his 80s, has been chronicling Lincoln and his contemporaries for more than five decades. He is the rare historian who is also a natural storyteller.

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