Firsthand accounts of the bloodletting whose 150th anniversary we are about to commemorate, some of which might have saved later historians embarrassment.
In 1883, only 20 years after Gettysburg, the editors of The Century magazine commissioned a comprehensive series of articles from senior officers on both sides of the conflict, documenting great events and more modest episodes alike. For the next four years, contributions poured in, and The Century experienced a huge bump in circulation. Here, political historian Holzer (Lincoln: President-Elect, 2008, etc.) serves up a comparatively compact selection, whittling the original down to a quarter and enlisting leading historians—James McPherson, Joan Waugh, Craig Symonds and others—to provide contextual introductions and notes. The result is a model of scholarship and historical editing—though, as is proper, its greatest value is in presenting those original views. Confederate Gen. Stephen D. Lee writes of the war’s stage-setting process. At the first Confederate Congress in Montgomery, Ala., many believed first that there would be no war; writes Lee, “The expectation of ‘peaceable secession’ was the delusion that precipitated matters in the South.” One of Lee’s counterparts, Jacob D. Cox, writes that the North was scarcely better prepared, though rumors of war had long been rumbling: “There had for many years been no money appropriated to buy military material or even to protect the little the State had.” After the disaster at Bull Run—ably recounted by victorious Confederate generals Beauregard and Johnston—the North was better equipped and would forever remain so. Every page here is fascinating, but historians should note the firsthand accounts of Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg, which has been second-guessed ever since, but which seems all but inevitable from a you-are-there perspective. The answer to why Robert E. Lee appeared at Appomattox in a brand-new uniform, which has puzzled some historians, is also revealed. Many of the Confederate writers are sharply critical of the political conduct of the South, condemning Jefferson Davis for, in the words of one, “drift[ing], from the beginning to the end of the war.” Some Union writers, for their parts, are scarcely more complimentary of their leadership.
There are few more essential books for Civil War buffs and professional historians alike. A welcome, valuable addition to the vast library devoted to the conflict.