A RUINED LAND by Michael Golay


The End of the Civil War
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            A tautly woven narrative history of the last months of an awful war and the early days of a necessary peace. 

            No subject of American history is less in need of more coverage than the Civil War.  Yet Golay (To Gettysburg and Beyond, 1994) has found a fresh way to explore the conflict.  Based on apt (and some seldom used) manuscripts, letters, and diaries, his book chronicles the last months of war and the early months of peace through the lives of 21 little remembered figures – women as well as men, southerners as well as northerners.  Lively and readable, the tale captures the struggles, costs, exhaustion, and despair of those who remained at home, as well as of those who fought.  It’s not a book that glorifies war.  Instead it records the devastation of the Civil War to body, mind, spirit, and possession from the fall of Richmond in 1864 until after Lincoln’s assassination, when peace fell again upon the land.  But it does so by trying to reconcile the awful experiences of Unionists and Confederates while totally ignoring those in the middle:  African-Americans, slave and free.  Astonishingly, enslaved southerners, freed slaves, and northern freemen are scarcely in attendance here except as people done to rather than doing; and the fighting men and others we meet are either of the Southern plantation gentry or the solid Northern middle class – as if laboring and poor people in both sections weren’t deeply affected by the war.  No doubt their omission is due to the accident of surviving sources; the poor usually don’t write long letters and leave them for their heirs.  Nevertheless, as a result of such grave oversight, the book ends up being only a half-history of its promising subject, out of keeping with present knowledge and interpretation.

            A captivating, although deeply incomplete, book.  (26 photos and 4 maps, not seen)

Pub Date: Oct. 8th, 1999
ISBN: 0-471-18367-9
Page count: 400pp
Publisher: Wiley
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15th, 1999


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