THE WHIRLWIND OF WAR by Stephen B. Oates


Voices of the Storm, 1861-1865
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An epic but deeply flawed Civil War history (the second volume of a planned trilogy) suffers from the fictional techniques it employs, while benefiting little from that genre’s potential narrative punch. As in his earlier volume, The Approaching Storm (1997), Oates uses invented dialogue, dramatic staging, and “imaginative” manipulation of facts in fashioning this nontraditional history of the cataclysmic war years. Characters range from major players like Lincoln, Grant, and Lee to small-timers like Cornelia Hancock, a young battlefield nurse. The results are uneven. Fiery Sherman, his legendary profanity liberated from the expurgation his own age demanded, is a masterpiece of revisionism. Jefferson Davis, whose florid, long-winded monologues read like a caricature of Victorian prose, is a melodramatic nightmare. Oates—who was a consultant in Ken Burns’s televised Civil War series, but whose inspiration runs to Faulkner’s multiple fictional viewpoints and the gimmicky segues of Robert Altman’s films’strains to heighten the drama of America’s most turbulent period to prove that differing attitudes (a chivalrous code of honor in the South, harsh pragmatism in the North) made the war’s outcome inevitable. He pushes the envelope farther than Shelby Foote’s sterling history, but with exponentially less effect. Curiously, Oates’s fictionalization is less, not more, dramatic. The stoicism of generals desensitized to battlefield carnage, for example, or the fragmentation inherent in 11 different viewpoints (each with personal biases and blind spots) makes for flaccid narrative. The lack of tension is abetted by the absence of the historian’s guiding hand, and the much-needed interpretive objectivity it provides. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Oates’s putative scoop: John Wilkes Booth’s assassination of Lincoln had the approval of the highest Confederate authorities, including Davis himself. Outside Booth’s own fevered ranting, the tantalizing scenario is wholly unsupported by Oates’s facts or fiction. An ambitious but disappointing history whose drama arises from the historical facts, not from its freehanded embellishment of them.

Pub Date: May 1st, 1998
ISBN: 0-06-017580-X
Page count: 832pp
Publisher: HarperCollins
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15th, 1998


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