Two Civil War victories by the Union make this date the most important July 4 in US history—quibblers should know that the Declaration of Independence wasn’t signed on Independence Day.
Prolific historian Schultz (Quantrill’s War, 1996, etc.) offers a serviceable account of the two events accompanied by thumbnail biographies of the principle figures and a review of previous battles. Like most Americans, he sees the surrender of Vicksburg and the great battle in Pennsylvania as the beginning of the end for the South. Like all popular history, it’s not quite true. Despite four years of mostly Union defeats, the war east of the Mississippi remained a stalemate until near the end. On all other fronts, the South was in retreat from the first days. Yet any aspect of the Civil War possesses endless fascination and paradox. In the events of 1863, both leading generals seemed to switch historical roles. Grant, the brutal, straightforward slugger, fought the most brilliant campaign of the war in Mississippi. Cutting himself off from his supply line, he marched hundreds of miles through enemy country, winning half a dozen battles before laying siege to Vicksburg. At Gettysburg, Lee showed a puzzling lack of imagination, ordering repeated frontal assaults on well-defended positions. The author has written solid history in the past, but this is strictly mass-market entertainment and based largely on secondary sources. All traditional interpretations are accepted without question (Stonewall Jackson’s death doomed the South, Lee would have won Gettysburg if Longstreet had attacked on time). Traditional anecdotes appear in profusion. Women witness the carnage of battle and are horrified. Soldier after soldier has a premonition of death, and it’s never wrong.
It may be impossible to write a dull book about Civil War battles, and this one is certainly enjoyable—but it’s history lite nonetheless.