An engrossing history of the final gasps of the Civil War, a year in which “Americans mourned their fathers and brothers and sons but also the way their lives used to be, the people they used to be, the innocence they had lost.”
Journalist and historian Gwynne (The Perfect Pass: American Genius and the Reinvention of Football, 2016, etc.) begins in May 1864 with the Confederacy shrunken and impoverished but with no intention of surrendering. Aware that their armies were outmatched, Southern leaders kept their spirits up with a fantasy. If they could hold out until the November election, they believed, Lincoln would lose, and a Democratic administration would end the war, leaving the Confederacy intact. This was not entirely unreasonable. The July 1863 triumphs at Gettysburg and Vicksburg were ancient history. War weariness was common; Lincoln himself believed he would lose the election, and Northern media poured out invective. Everyone had high hopes when Ulysses Grant took command in March. Gwynne emphasizes that his strategy—unrelenting attacks on all fronts—was a war winner, but initial results were discouraging. Sherman stalled in front of Atlanta, and Grant couldn’t defeat Lee, although, unlike previous generals, he kept trying. As the author writes, by “the summer of 1864 the North was bitterly divided, heartily sick of the war, and headed into an election that would give full voice to all of that smoldering dissent.” Then, as fall approached, matters improved. Atlanta fell, Philip Sheridan eliminated the persistent threat to Washington in the Shenandoah Valley, rival candidates self-destructed, and Lincoln won reelection in a landslide. Five months of war remained, but the Union won all the battles. A consummate researcher, Gwynne has done his homework and is not shy with opinions. He especially admires Sherman, a mediocre general but an insightful thinker who taught that war had no positive value; it was misery pure and simple. He also punctures persistent myths, especially that of the great Appomattox reconciliation. Lee, Grant, and a few generals shook hands, but Union forces celebrated wildly, and Confederates fumed and stormed off.
A riveting Civil War history giving politics and combat equal attention.