Review: The Crooked Path to Abolition

The Crooked Path to Abolition: Abraham Lincoln and the Antislavery Constitution, James Oakes. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2021.

Summary: A historical account of how Abraham Lincoln, although not a traditional abolitionist, strongly supported and implemented the antislavery portions of the Constitution to pursue the end of slavery.

Abraham Lincoln was not an abolitionist in the traditional sense. He did not advocate immediate emancipation in the slave states. He did not advocate active resistance to the Fugitive Slave Act, but only for due process rights. He did not rail in his rhetoric against the vile evils of slavery. But Abraham Lincoln hated slavery and believed there were resources within the Constitution properly leveraged that would lead to its eventual end. How could this be so when the Constitution protected slavery in the states? Only states could abolish slavery, not the Federal government. Both Constitution and legislation allowed slave owners or their proxes to capture and return runaway slaves even where slavery was not legal. And there was that language of slaves being three-fifths of a person.

Actually those who believe in an antislavery Constitution might start there. Slaves are written of as “persons,” undermining the contention of slaves as being property. Beyond this, those who developed the idea of an antislavery Constitution drew on both the Declaration of Independence and the Preamble affirming the equality of persons. They focused on the due process rights protected under the Fifth Amendment to make it as hard as possible for slave owners to retrieve runaways, while not breaking the fugitive slave laws. They used the Federal power to regulate the territories to make these free rather than slave. The Constitution said Congress had no authority “to give legal existence to slavery in any territory of the United States.” They antislavery people were committed to no more compromises that would admit new slave states into the country.

Lincoln believed that slavery would eventually wither away of its own. Some proposed that slaves brought into free territory could sue for their freedom. The dynamic economy of the north would outstrip the south, particularly because it could not expand its economy, fenced about by free territories becoming states. Eventually Southern states would abolish slavery on their own, which only they could do, Lincoln believed, since the Constitution did not give this power to the Federal government.

James Oakes traces the development of this antislavery doctrine, particularly within the Republican party. With enough votes in the growing North, Lincoln was elected. While he assured the South that slavery would be upheld, the implementation of other aspects of the antislavery doctrine triggered secession. Oakes shows how this offered new avenues to antislavery effort: ending slavery in the District of Columbia, ending the slave trade and blocking slave shipping to southern ports, and most significantly, voiding Fugitive Slave laws for slave owners in rebel states, since they no longer were under the laws of the Union. Slaves who fled into Union lines would be considered “contraband” and emancipated. While this was not so for border states who remained in the Union, the Army was directed not to assist in the retrieval of any fugitive slaves, since they did not have the legal powers to properly adjudicate such matters. The owners were on their own, further contributing to abolition.

Oakes doesn’t portray Lincoln as an antiracist. He favored colonization of Blacks, believing Blacks and Whites could not live together. But he hated slavery with a singular focus. One senses a Lincoln both shrewd and resolute in availing himself of all the resources available in the Constitution to move the needle toward abolition and emancipation, even maneuvering conquered states to constitute themselves as free and to join in ratifying the Thirteenth Amendment.

What I continue to wonder about is whether Lincoln realized his approach would send the South over the edge, precipitating the Civil War? Or did the South adequately take on board Lincoln’s resolve to preserve the Union once attacked? I wonder, given the case Oakes make, whether there is an argument to suggest that the South played into Lincoln’s hand, accelerating the demise of slavery that may otherwise have taken another fifty to one hundred years. Did Lincoln fully understand the cards he was holding and play them to full advantage?

I’ve often commented about the writing of slavery into our Constitution. I don’t think we can dodge that terrible compromise. But Oakes offers another perspective, showing the side of the Constitution that assumes freedom and equality the norm and slavery an exception. He also shows the lawyerly genius of Lincoln to recognize and exploit that side to its full extreme. The great sadness of all this was the lives it cost, including in the end, Lincoln’s own.

Review: A Republic in the Ranks

a republic in the ranks

A Republic in the RanksZachery A. Fry. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2020.

Summary: A study of political loyalties in the Army of the Potomac, and the influence of junior officers and the experience of war among enlisted men, resulting in Lincoln’s re-election in 1864 to a second term.

At one point, it was not at all certain that Abraham Lincoln would win re-election. The Army of the Potomac suffered defeats or at best partial victories against the Confederacy. There was a growing Copperhead movement of Peace Democrats pressing for a settlement that would restore the Union without resolving the issue of slavery–a return to the status quo. This was further complicated after Lincoln cashiered General George McClellan, a popular leader among his men despite his lackluster record. Eventually, he became the Democratic presidential candidate on the Copperhead platform. Many in the senior command of the Army of the Potomac still supported him. Yet in the end, the Army of the Potomac overwhelmingly voted for Lincoln.

In this work, Zachery A. Fry explores the hotbed of political discussion that was the Army of the Potomac, and how their votes ended up solidly in the Lincoln column. The Army was united by loyalty in its commitment to defeat the Confederacy and restore the Union. But there were two different ideas of loyalty. One group was loyal to the constitution, wanting to restore the Union, but without enforcing abolition and the emancipation of slaves. They favored a negotiated settlement and supported the Democrats. The other group was loyal to the Republican administration and its commitment to emancipation and hard war.

Fry traces the evolution of the political views in the ranks as the war progressed. At the beginning, most didn’t have strong political views as much as a rage militaire response to Southern secession. The initial battle experiences, both defeats and victories, and the dashing figure of McClellan led to a divided Army, during the Peninsula Campaign, and especially after he was relieved during the extended pause after the Maryland campaign. Things began to shift as Joseph Hooker took command as more and more junior officers led their men in loyalty to the administration. A combination of being excluded from voting by many Democrat-led states and the realities of what they saw in the South fostered support for the administration. Democrat generals in the upper ranks continued to advocate for the constitution and peace with the South. While a number of veterans refused to re-enlist, tired of war, they continued to advocate back home for Lincoln. The endorsement by McClellan of the Copperhead platform cemented the loyalty to the Republican/Union ticket leading to their overwhelming support of Lincoln.

Fry takes us from the big picture to the unit level, citing unit resolutions and the advocacy of individual officers. What is clearly apparent is that junior officers closest to the men had much greater influence that the senior officers who inclined toward McClellan. He offers a chronological bibliography of unit resolutions that document the political evolution in units. He also provides an appendix with unit-by-unit election returns beginning with 1863 gubernatorial races.

This is a valuable work for all Civil War buffs and scholars as well as those who study the impact of political beliefs inside the military and how those beliefs are formed. The role of junior officers is especially important. It seems that, equally, the alignment between battlefield realities and administration policy was significant. Soldiers would not accept politics that undermined the significance of their efforts or rolled them back. Fry helps us understand the political dynamics within the Army of the Potomac, and why Lincoln was re-elected despite the efforts of Peace Democrats.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Gettysburg: The Last Invasion


Gettysburg: The Last InvasionAllen C. Guelzo. New York: Knopf, 2013.

Summary: An account of the three day battle at Gettysburg, the personalities, key turning points, battlefield topography, and movement by movement narratives that both zoom out and come up close in describing the unfolding of the battle.

There are scores of accounts of the confrontation between Union and Confederate forces for a three day battle at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, July 1-3, 1863. Allen C. Guelzo’s account, written on the 150th anniversary of the battle has to rank among the best. Guelzo directs the Civil War Era Studies program at Gettysburg College, which means he resides on the site of the battle. I know of no book that reflects such an intimate acquaintance with the topography of Gettysburg, whether it be the two hills that make up Culp’s Hill, Sherfy’s Peach Orchard, or Little Round Top, or even the locations of fences, that made advances more difficult. At Gettysburg, topography was a critical factor on all three days, and Guelzo helps us see how strategic choices, topography, and leadership in battle all contributed to the outcome.

The book is organized into four parts, one for the decisions and movements leading up to the battle, and one for each day. It’s clear that neither Lee nor Meade had “planned” to fight at Gettysburg. Meade had only taken command three days earlier and wanted to gather his army behind Pipe Creek, positioning him between Lee and Washington, a strong position to receive an attack. Lee wanted to scare the North into negotiating, as well as secure much needed supplies for his army. If he could defeat a spread out army in detail, he would take that chance, but without scouting from Stuart’s cavalry, absent on a ride around the Union forces, he was guessing.

When lead elements of his forces engaged Union troops under Reynolds and Howard, he thought he had his chance. The Union leaders barely were right that they could get the rest of the army there ahead of the Confederates. On such calculations the battle swayed back and forth all three days. Guelzo traces these through the battle’s three days: Howard’s decision to leave troops on Cemetery Hill and Ewell’s decision not to attack this thinly held position the first night, Longstreet’s delayed movements on the second day and Dan Sickle’s near fatal advance of his troops to the Peach Orchard, the last minute decisions of Warren and Joshua Chamberlain’s stand that held Little Round Top and the near rolling up of the Union position by Barksdale’s Mississippians, and the fierce resistance of Alexander Hays troops redeeming their ignominious defeat at Harpers Ferry.

Particularly as I read the second day’s account, I found myself on the edge of my seat wondering how the Union managed to hold on. It seemed to me that if Longstreet had attacked a little sooner, and had a bit more support, that the Army of the Potomac could have been shattered. In all this, Meade comes off rather poorly, letting Sickles take a weak position that opened a gap in the rest of his lines, promoting fellow McClellanite John Newton over Abner Doubleday for command of the 1st Division, and preparing for retreat while Winfield Scott Hancock moved troops into gaps, holding Cemetery Ridge and Hill. After they had held the position, according to Guelzo, Meade wanted to retreat and was overruled by his generals.

Then there is the third day and the perennial question of “why Pickett’s charge?” Guelzo reminds us of the military precedents for the success of such charges that may have been in Lee’s mind. Again we grasp what a near run thing this was as Armistead reaches the high water mark of momentarily seeing no one in front of him, only to fall. Had the artillery barrage been more effective, had Pickett more support, much more support, I would venture, the outcome might have been different.

Beyond understanding the outcome of the battle, Guelzo takes us inside the battle. We hear what soldiers are talking about as they wait to give or receive attacks, we witness the incongruity of fierce fighting and human compassion between opposing soldiers, and the gore of war, as brains spatter, limbs are torn off, and men are eviscerated. We read of the primitive surgeries, piles of limbs stacked up, and no infection measures.

Guelzo also helps us understand the politics in the Army of the Potomac that undermined Lincoln’s efforts to defeat Lee. As already noted Meade was a sympathizer with McClellan who wanted a negotiated settlement that likely would have preserved the Confederacy, and he promoted accordingly. Meade was satisfied to drive Lee back across the Potomac when he had an opportunity to defeat him, prolonging the war and the loss of lives (unlike abolitionist John Reynolds, who was spoiling for a fight, and whose aggressive actions precipitated the battle where he would lose his life).

This is a great book to read in conjunction with a battlefield visit. There is something for both Civil War aficionados and those reading their first account of the battle. Most of all, he helps us understand why this battle was “the last invasion” and just what a near run thing it was.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Civil War Soldiers Monument


The Man on the Monument. Photo by Jack Pierce (CC BY-SA 2.0) via Flickr

I have to admit that I never really looked closely at the monument on Central Square when I was growing up and if I were honest, I couldn’t tell you its story. All I know is that it was a slender, tall pillar with a man on top looking off to the north. I presumed he was a soldier–he looked like he was in uniform and was holding a rifle. Apparently that’s what most people around Youngstown see, because often this landmark is simply called “The Man on the Monument” when in fact it is the Civil War Soldiers Monument.

The recent controversies about statues of Confederate soldiers and other figures got me wondering about the story of the monument. [Note: please do not hi-jack comments either on this blog or Facebook to debate the current controversy–they will be taken down, that’s not what this post is about]. What I learned was that this was a monument to remember the men of Youngstown who died in the Civil War to restore the Union and end slavery. On the north side of the base, you can read the following:


On the four sides of the base of the monument, you can read the names of these men. The Ohio Geneological Society’s Mahoning Chapter has compiled a document organized providing information about each man who died. Here is an example of the kinds of information they provide about each of the men listed:

Shannon, Thomas J., First Infantry Division, Army of Virginia. Surgeon-in-Chief, Cedar Creek. Residence was not listed; Enlisted on 7/22/1863 as a Surgeon. On 7/22/1863 he was commissioned into Field & Staff Ohio 116th Infantry. He died of wounds on 10/20/1864 at Cedar Creek, Virginia. He was listed as: * Wounded 10/19/1864 Cedar Creek, Virginia.. Other Information: Buried: Winchester National Cemetery, Winchester, Virginia. Sources used by HDS: – Official Roster of the Soldiers of the State of Ohio – Roll of Honor of Ohio Soldiers.- The Medical and Surgical History of the Civil War.

On the pillar above the base the battlefields on which they fought are listed, along with the words “E Pluribus Unum” (out of the many, one), the motto of the United States, fitting in an effort to re-unite the states. The eight battlefields mentioned are Antietam, Chickamauga, Shiloh, Winchester, Stone River, Cedar Mountain, Perryville, and Vicksburg. The soldier at the top is standing at “parade rest.”

Governor David Tod first proposed the monument in 1864. One of the most interesting stories about it is that it was funded by ordinary citizens of Youngstown. I came across this interesting account in Stories of Central Square:

“No one who was in Youngstown on the Fourth of July in 1867 will ever forget it. Mrs. Susanna A. Filton, Mrs. Henry Tod and Miss Nancy Van Fleet recalled some of the circumstances yesterday at the Vindicator’s request. To raise money for the monument, as well as to provider for the crowds that were expected, the ladies of the town organized by wards: there were only four or five wards here then, and a friendly, though spirited rivalry existed as to which should raise the most money. Mrs. Felton recalled that on the morning of the Fourth the ladies of the Fourth ward which then took in the streets south of Federal and west of Market, met at the home of their chairman, Mrs. Breaden, the mother of Miss Nancy M. Breaden of Madison avenue. For several days previous they had been busy, cooking and baking, and they had scoured the country fo miles around for milk and cream and eggs. Dawn on the morning of the Fourth found them hard at work freezing ice cream and attending to the thousands of details that had been left until the last.

They had a long table on the Diamond. It was in the form of an L, and extended from Federal street around to Market. Their supplies were in the old Disciple church. Even though every girl and woman of Youngstown helped in one way or another, with the preparation and serving, the crowds that came from every part of the state were needed. The ladies of the Fourth Ward served all day long; besides a big dinner at noon, they served luncheons and ice cream and cake until late in the evening. They worked so hard, indeed, that some of them fainted from the strain, and it was midnight before they returned home. But they were happy after their long task, for they had led the other wards in the amount of money raised and turned over $400 as their contribution toward the expense of the monument.

Youngstown was neither large nor wealthy in those days and before the monument was entirely paid for it was necessary for a committee to canvass the town and secure subscriptions from nearly every man and woman in it. But most of the money was raised by the patriotic ladies.”

The monument was dedicated on July 4, 1870. Two future presidents, Governor Rutherford B. Hayes and congressman James Garfield spoke at the event.

Central Square has undergone a number of changes over the years. At one time, there was a fountain opposite the statue. Eventually this was covered over and a library branch was erected. It was turned into “Federal Plaza” in the mid-1970’s, closed off to traffic and bricked over. In 2005 Federal Street and Central Square were re-opened to traffic. Through all these changes, one thing has stayed the same–“The Man on the Monument”, the Civil War Soldiers Monument.

The Scandal of the Church in America: Part One


Dunkard Church, a key landmark in the Battle of Antietam, and some of those who fell.

The scandal of the Church in America is that there is no apparent Church but only churches. I suppose you could argue that it has always been this way, although I do not think this lessens the scandal. The proliferation of denominations and independent churches reflects our strong independent streak and that we do not wish to be answerable to each other. I do think it is a contributing factor, but I think the scandal goes deeper.

The scandal is that our captivities to racial, sexual, economic and political identities and ideologies has left the Church in America a deeply divided body–divisions that reflect and in fact parallel American society. We are a far cry from the beautiful and radical ideal that the Apostle Paul proclaimed in a similarly divided society: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free,there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

I am deeply troubled for what this means both for the Church in America, and for America itself. I have lived here all my life, and through the cataclysmic year of 1968, but I have never been so troubled. What disturbs me most is not the newly installed administration, nor all the push-back by others who oppose it. It is that I see believing people lining up on one side or another of these fault lines, and many others, and often not the least troubled at the things they are attributing to their fellow believers–sometimes vicious things. Nor are we troubled that we are often advocating diametrically opposed positions and invoking the name of Jesus as we do so. Often we are engaged in a tribal warfare of words between conservative evangelicals, progressives, Catholics, mainline churches, and churches of people of color. Often, we aren’t listening to what anyone outside our own “tribe” is saying.

My pastor made an observation in the midst of preaching through the gospel of Matthew that I have been mulling over. He observed that when the religious establishment colluded with the political powers of their day, the result was the killing of Jesus. While I believe that Jesus is risen, I also believe that the visible manifestation of Jesus, called “the body of Christ” is being torn apart, perhaps as the scourges used to whip Jesus before crucifixion turned his back into bleeding ribbons of skin. Church, do we see that this is what we are doing to ourselves? Is it a wonder that so many churches are declining?

Perhaps it has always been this way in our national history. The churches of the North were deeply divided from the churches of the South before (and after) the Civil War. They preached the same Christ from the same Bible, but the North advocated abolition while ignoring its own racism and complicity in a national economic system that depended on slavery. Southern preachers defended “the peculiar institution” even as slaves and former slaves turned to the same Christ, formed churches, and yet were excluded from being consider full human beings or the opportunity to worship at the same altar.

We often talk about in our American history of the breakdown of political efforts to avert war, but has the Church in America ever reckoned that the blood of the 600,000 who died in the Civil War is also on our hands? Our dividedness then aided and abetted and inflamed the divides in our land and tore country apart even as it tore many denominations into northern and southern counterparts, some lasting to this day. One wonders what might have been if church leaders from North and South, who may have been educated in the same seminaries, had reached across the lines and said, “we must reconcile our differences and lead our country in doing the same.”

I am not an “America First” person, but rather a “kingdom of God” first person. The greatest commandment to love God and neighbor and the great commission to take the gospel to the nations has precedence in my life. Nevertheless I deeply love this country and the constitutional structures and freedoms that allows us to be many and yet one, e pluribus unum. What troubles me as a kingdom person who regularly affirms “the communion of the saints” is that this communion often does not extend beyond the church doors–sometimes not even within them! If we cannot model a unity that would consider it a scandal to speak with a divided voice as a church (and often bitterly against each other), then how dare we call on our political leaders to act with civility and to consider the common good when we will not do this even within the body of Christ!

I believe this is urgent, my brothers and sisters. We have had one civil war in our history that the Church made no effort to stop but in fact aided and abetted by our conflicting messages and inflammatory rhetoric. Another may take a different form where our political factions take up arms (Lord knows we have enough of them) in our cities if they cannot resolve their differences or be heard in the halls of Congress and the office of the President. We could fall into anarchy or tyranny. I like to say that children who play with matches inside the house often do not realize they can burn the house down until they do. Our incendiary and inflammatory speech may not stop there. It didn’t before the Civil War. Church, I’m asking, is it time to say “we must reconcile our differences and lead our country in doing the same?”

[Tomorrow, I explore what I think must be done.]

Review: Lee’s Lieutenants (One Volume Abridgement)

Lee's Lieutenants

Lee’s Lieutenants: A Study in Command (One Volume abridgement), Douglas Southall Freeman, abridged by Stephen W. Sears. New York: Scribner, 1998.

Summary: Stephen Sears abridged version of Douglas Southall Freeman’s three volume study of the military leadership of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia under Robert E. Lee.

Most of the reading I’ve done of Civil War history has either focused on the ups and downs of the Union’s military leadership, or covered different battles looking at what both sides are doing. The unique thing Douglas Southall Freeman did in this landmark work was study in detail the military leadership of the generals who served under Robert E. Lee, battle by battle throughout the Civil War.  Stephen W. Sears, noted Civil War historian abridged this work to one volume, deleting the fourteen appendices Freeman included and condensing the battle accounts, often detailed in other histories. What remains is a focused study of Confederate military history.

We see the rise of Lee, with the patchy, uneven performance of Beauregard, and the conflicts between Joe Johnston and Jefferson Davis. We see the efforts of Lee to weld the leadership of Jackson, Longstreet, Ewell, and cavalryman Jeb Stuart into the powerful fighting force that moved from uncoordinated performances on the Peninsula to a brief shining moment of indisputable glory at Chancellorsville, with Jackson’s brilliantly executed flank attack on the Union right.

That brings us to the sad tale that runs through this book, of tragic losses of irreplaceable commanders, foremost of whom was Stonewall Jackson. The army at Chancellorsville was just not the same a few months later at Gettysburg. The butcher’s bill continued, with the loss of great commanders like Dorsey Pender, Dodson Ramseur, Jeb Stuart, down to Powell Hill in the final defense of Petersburg. Much of the narrative describes Lee’s efforts to cobble together the needed leadership from those who rose within the ranks as shining examples of leadership through the fighting.

We see the rise of leaders like John B. Gordon, William Mahone, Wade Hampton, Robert Rodes and others. Some like Gordon and Mahone made it to the end while others like Rodes met their death on the battlefield. We see the decline of others like Richard Ewell, who after an amputation never was the same. And we have accounts of the “unlucky” commanders, often through no fault of their own, who ended up in the middle of losing actions. Probably the steadiest of all was Henry Heth. The most notable of all was George Pickett whose troops were decimated at Gettysburg through no fault of his own and at Five Corners at the very end of the war, while he was enjoying a shad bake.

The other category of commanders were those who were neither brilliant nor bad but consistently did their duty and led their men. Dick Anderson, Jubal Early, Powell Hill (when he wasn’t ill), and most of all, Longstreet, were in this category. All but Hill survived the war.

The other thing this study of war brought out was the tension between strategy and “the fog of war” when commanders have to make decisions on incomplete information. Ewell’s hesitation of pressing the attack on Cemetery Hill at Gettysburg on Day One of the fighting was the classic example. Stuart’s calvary hadn’t returned from its raid and Ewell, not knowing what he was facing allowed the Union to establish its foothold. Others, like Jackson made key decisions to reinforce troops at places like Antietam that made the difference between victory and defeat.

Perhaps the most striking thing about Lee was his ability to weld these different personalities together and, for a season, to overcome the disadvantages facing the Confederacy while maintaining the support of Jefferson Davis, a difficult president at best under whom to serve.

I suspect there are more recent studies that have refined this work. But for its scope, this continues to be a magnificent work, served well by this abridgement by Sears. A must read for any Civil War buff!



Review: Ecstatic Nation

Ecstatic NationEcstatic Nation, Brenda Wineapple. New York: Harper Collins, 2013.

Summary: Ecstatic Nation explores the period of 1848-1877, and the heightened feelings and frenzy of a country contending over slavery, going to war with itself, and then engaging in the conflicts of westward expansion and Reconstruction.

Ecstatic Nation opens with the death of John Quincy Adams in the chambers of the House of Representatives. Adams was the last tie with the founding generation, and the compact that was forged by intelligent, thoughtful men who created a nation. His passing marked a passage into a tumultuous period of national life as a growing nation wrestled with future of slavery and how the rights of men (and women) would be determined in this growing republic.

Wineapple gives us a narrative as expansive as the spirit of the people of this time, encompassing both the colorless James Buchanan and Rutherford B Hayes, and the colorful Nathan Bedford Forrest and P.T. Barnum and George Armstrong Custer. We have the revivalist Charles Finney and the advocates for women, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.

The book is organized into three parts. The first covers the years of 1848-1861 and the attempts to seek alternately compromises that balanced slave and free state representation as the nation pushed westward and territories became states and changed the political fabric of the country. We have the abolitionists including Frederick Douglass and the nullifiers like John Calhoun. We learn of the dashed hopes of women, who must wait another half century for the right to vote because a nation couldn’t focus on both abolition and women’s rights. And there are all those in between trying to preserve the fabric of the nation. Most striking, and tragic, was Stephen Douglas, dying months after his failed attempt to garner enough Southern support to win the presidency, and save the Union.

The second part is the Civil War itself and the paroxysm of feelings both on and off of the battlefields matched by the almost mystical sense Lincoln had of the war as some form of expiation for the sins of slavery, even while he sought for the military leadership that he found in Grant and Sherman to bring an end to the terrible conflict. We glimpse the anticipated the work of reconstruction that would give the black man what the Union had fought so hard to achieve, while pursuing the reconciliation that would heal the wounds of the war.

The third part tells the story of the dashed hopes of Reconstruction, beginning with the death of Lincoln in the midst of the glow of victory and renewed hope. We see amendments passed and rights bestowed to land and the vote, only to be seized away to be replaced with the law of Jim Crow. And there is the westward expansion, hungry for land and gold and the war on the Indian led by Sherman and Sheridan, punctuated by the tragic folly of George Armstrong Custer. The period ends with the election of the colorless Rutherford B Hayes, and the compromises he makes with southern states to obtain that presidency.

“Ecstatic” is indeed an apt description of the period. At the same time, it seemed to me that Wineapple was content to narrate the ecstasy of the period without attempting to tease out the underlying causes of the kind of messy, destructive tumult we went through as a nation. Yet one cannot read a narrative like this without wondering whether it would have been possible to avert the paroxysms of conflict and brutal expansion, or whether this was simply the inevitable outgrowth of social and political structures unable to contain the expanding and changing nation.

Nor is this merely idle historical speculation. I wonder about our own day and the seeming breakdown of political discourse, continued racial discord, gun violence and various social fault lines. We have our own bloviating pundits and politicians whose incendiary rhetoric seems to overwhelm the voices of reason trying to appeal to our highest ideals. It leaves me wondering who will prevail, and with what consequence?

Wineapple’s book neither asks nor answers those questions. It simply shows what a mess we can make of things, and how slow real social progress often can be. And perhaps that can be good to give us pause before we enter ecstatically into “crusades” that turn citizens with whom we differ into enemies who we must fight, defeat, and maybe even kill.

Review: Crucible of Command

Crucible of CommandCrucible of Command: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee–The War They Fought, The Peace They Forgedby William C. Davis. Philadelphia: Da Capo Press, 2015.

Summary: This is a dual biography of Grant and Lee that studies their contrasting origins and yet similar qualities of command through back and forth narratives covering similar periods leading to their climactic confrontation, the peace they established, and its aftermath.

Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee have been the subjects of numerous biographies, including Grant’s own memoirs. What distinguishes this book is that it attempts, and I think, succeeds in rendering parallel accounts of these two men’s lives who met first in Mexico and finally at Appomattox Courthouse (and once later when Grant was President).

Davis traces their contrasting childhoods and characters. Lee was the Virginia patrician who loved his home state and rarely traveled from it except on assignments. By contrast, Grant was the merchant’s son who moved around, wanted to see the world and was a failure at everything except leading men in battle. Both were educated at West Point, Lee at the top of his class, Grant in the lower half. They briefly encountered each other in the 1840’s during the U.S. invasion of Mexico. In the years leading up to the Civil War Lee struggled with resolving the Custis estate while Grant struggled through a series of failed business ventures, finally working in his brother’s store in Galena, Illinois.

When war comes, Grant re-joins the army, commanding troops in Kentucky and Tennessee. Lee resigns his commission, and after serving as an assistant to President Davis, eventually gains command of the Army of North Virginia, which he leads for the remainder of the war. We see both learning to command large forces. Grant in his tactical defeat at Belmont, his victories at Forts Henry and Donelson and near disaster at Shiloh. Lee’s first command is in western Virginia where he is defeated at the battle of Cheat Mountain. What is clear about both is that they learn from mistakes, develop command staffs around them they can trust and win a series of striking victories that ultimately bring them opposite one another in the campaigns of 1864-1865 where the Union’s overwhelming superiority eventually outflanks and surrounds Lee. We discover hardening resolves, of Lee against the Union even while he extricates himself from slave-holding, and Grant from an indifference to the issue of slavery to increased support of emancipation and the capabilities of black soldiers.

The author also explores the political realities each faced and their skill in handling this. Lee learned through constant communication to win the trust of Davis who easily could have micromanaged the war. Grant had to deal with political generals and a sometimes hostile press. Part of the success of both men was their skill in navigating the political realities that military leaders cannot be ignorant of.

While reading this book, I forgot the last phrase in the subtitle–“the peace they forged.” This book does not stop with the dignified surrender of Lee nor the magnanimity of Grant in allowing the Confederates to return home with their horses and side arms. It explores the subsequent years and the efforts both made to promote reconstruction, efforts subsequently frustrated. And both men die in their early 60s, after serving as Presidents, Lee of a college, Grant of a country.

William C. Davis interweaves the narratives of the two lives skillfully, and while we see differences between the two men, we see two great military leaders, formed by common training and experience, coping with similar exigencies of war. Davis observes that in some ways, Lee has fared the better of the two, mostly because of the corruption in Grant’s administration. But it seems that, while on opposite sides, they were a pair of shining stars of equal brightness. And for the reader interested in biography who thinks they must choose between these great lights, Davis has provided the alternative of discovering them together.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher as an ebook via Netgalley. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Review: A Chain of Thunder

A Chain of Thunder
A Chain of Thunder by Jeff Shaara
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The first four days of July 1863 were a decisive turning point in the Civil War. Ending with the repulse of Pickett’s charge on July 3, the Union won a decisive victory at Gettysburg. Lesser known, but equally decisive in the West, Grant received the surrender of Vicksburg on July 4, opening up the Mississippi as a Union waterway, severing the connection with the western states of the Confederacy.

In this work of historical fiction, the second in his series on the Western Theater in the Civil War, Jeff Shaara chronicles the series of events leading up to this surrender. We learn of Sherman’s futile attempt to attack up the Yazoo the previous December. Then Admiral Porter bravely moves Union transports and gunboats past the Vicksburg batteries to be followed by Grant’s crossing the Mississippi south of Vicksburg and his movements between Vicksburg and Jackson, occupied by Johnston’s troops.

As Grant is on the move, we see the contrast between him and Pemberton, the Confederate general charged by President Davis with holding Vicksburg while ordered by Johnston to move against Grant before Grant takes Jackson. Grant is clearly his own man, despite being dogged by undersecretary Dana and newspaperman Cadwallader. Pemberton is not and only reluctantly moves part of his forces out of Vicksburg and in not enough time to relieve Johnston but in just enough time to lose several battles including that at Champion Hill to Grant, despite the heroic action of some of his generals, especially John Bowen at Champion Hill. Then, instead of taking the chance of joining forces with Johnston, he returns to Vicksburg in a valiant but impossible attempt to defend the city against much superior forces who can wait him out.

The seige of Vicksburg occupies the second half of the book. It begins with two demonstrations of the folly of charges upon entrenched positions, strengthened by Pemberton’s engineer, Lockett, something it would take military leaders another fifty years to fully grasp, only in the latter stages of World War I. Thereafter Grant and his generals extend their lines and settle in for a seige that lasts from mid-May until July 4.

How do you tell the story of a two-month wait? Shaara does so by chronicling the role of sharp-shooters, of whom Fritz Bauer, who we met in A Blaze of Glory, is one. He details the effects of repeated artillery bombardments in terms of the destruction of the town, the sheltering of its people in caves, and the scores of shrapnel wounds suffered. This leads to an innovation in a Shaara novel, the introduction of a civilian character, Lucy Spence, a single woman who becomes a volunteer nurse, braving the horrors of a Civil War field hospital with its ghastly wounds, amputations, and dying men. And we see the most deadly result of siege warfare, the creeping starvation that reduces people to trapping rats and squirrels and leads to increasing desertions.

The story concludes with the surrender, negotiated by General Bowen, himself a dying man from dysentery. His previous friendship with Grant and sterling battle record helped overcome both the hard edges of “unconditional surrender” Grant and the pride of Pemberton. Nine days later, he is dead.

Shaara gives us a read that sustains our interest through the seige and helps us glimpse once again the nobility and futility that combine in the horrors of war. And for those who feel most of their knowledge of the Civil War is limited to the Eastern campaigns, this helps us understand the decisive role these Western battles played.

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The Month in Reviews: October 2014

As the days shortened and the nights grew chillier, my reading this month tended toward the weightier, with wonderful respites of George MacDonald fantasy and Civil War fictional history and the first installment of Morris’s Teddy Roosevelt biography. At the same time, I explored the question of secularity as a definition of reality, freedom of conscience, a theology of the Holy Spirit and an intellectual and social history of the religious right. Here’s the list of books from the past month:

1. Is Reality Secular?, Mary Poplin. Poplin challenges the secularist assumptions that govern, as she sees it, public discourse and explores four different worldviews and their take on reality.

2. Earthquake StormsJohn Dvorak. Dvorak gives us a combination of history, biography and science in a fascinating account of the history of the San Andreas fault.

realityearthquakesrise3. The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, Edmund Morris. This is the first of a three volume biography on the life of Teddy Roosevelt, tracing his adventures from sickly childhood through young rancher, civil servant to the fateful day he learns he has become President at the death of McKinley.

4. Meditation and Communion with God, John Jefferson Davis. Davis seeks to articulate an evangelical theology of spiritual formation and relationship with God.

5. The Princess and the Goblin, George MacDonald. This classic fantasy explores themes of evil and courage and faith in the intersection between the goblins, Princess Irene, Curdie, her “great grandmother” and the King.

public squareGoblinmeditation

6. The Global Public Square, Os Guinness.  This book argues that a public square safe for diversity is one that protects freedom of conscience for all.

7. Spirit of Life, Jurgen Moltmann. Moltmann’s theology of the Holy Spirit. The title is important, as this book is an exploration of the Spirit’s role in our embodied existence.

8. A Blaze of Glory, Jeff Shaara. This is Shaara’s slightly fictionalized account of the Battle of Shiloh and explores what a near run thing this was to a Confederate victory.

spirit of lifeblazegendercidetheocracy

9. The Cross and Gendercide, Elizabeth Gerhardt. This book breaks new ground in giving a theological basis in the cross of Christ for Christian advocacy and resistance against violence toward women and girls.

10. Blueprint for Theocracy, James C. Sanford. A carefully researched study of the theology behind the Christian Right and actions resulting from this theology, marred, I thought, by its scare-mongering tone.

What will I be reading and reviewing in the coming weeks? I’m in the midst of the second volume of the Teddy Roosevelt biography, covering his presidential years, a book on the life of the apostle Paul, an exploration of Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and a book on modern literature and the question of belief. Soon, I will be picking up the next installment in Jeff Shaara’s western battles of the Civil War series, which focuses on Vicksburg. I also am planning to read the sequel to The Princess and the Goblin, titled The Princess and Curdie.

What will you be reading in November?