First-rate study of the often overlooked closing months of the Civil War, which, though the impending end was visible, saw some of the fiercest fighting of the conflict.
So desperate was Confederate resistance, writes former Associated Press editor Wheelan (Bloody Spring: Forty Days that Sealed the Confederacy’s Fate, 2014, etc.), that in the late winter of 1865, it did the unthinkable: it enlisted African-Americans into the army, conferring “the rights of a freedman” on anyone who signed up. Hearing the news, Abraham Lincoln rightly remarked that the South was done, “and we can now see the bottom.” It helped the Union cause that the generals under Ulysses Grant were committed to a program of total war. As Wheelan notes, William Tecumseh Sherman had earlier “held the conventional view that war was between armies and did not involve civilians,” but a spell in Tennessee convinced him otherwise—and even in surrender, many Southerners vowed to continue hating their Northern foes. “Hatred was practically all that remained for many former Confederates,” Wheelan sagely writes, for the South lay in utter ruin. The author capably traces the closing military campaign in Virginia, with Robert E. Lee’s fast-dwindling army encircled by a vastly superior Union force, and he examines the lesser-known theaters that remained, including pockets of resistance in the Deep South and Texas. At the same time, he writes critically, by way of foreshadowing, of the failure of Reconstruction, which would follow the North’s perhaps-too-lenient policies of repatriation of former Confederate leaders, some of whom quickly returned to Congress. Particularly interesting are Wheelan’s occasional forays into speculation: what might have happened had Lee fought a strictly defensive war? Is there any way the South might have prevailed?
Wheelan has combed entire libraries to make this thoroughly readable, lucid survey. Well-practiced buffs will welcome the book, but novices can approach it without much background knowledge, too.