Acclaimed historian Marvel (The Great Task Remaining: The Third Year of Lincoln’s War, 2010, etc.) delivers the final volume of his finely written, minutely researched four-part history of the Civil War.
The author’s subject is the final year of the war, thus building on his prior three volumes, which assess and often challenge the generally accepted portrait of America’s most divisive conflict. Marvel begins in the spring of 1864, with a nation so bogged down in a bloody, mismanaged war that many legitimately despaired of its end. Readers’ knowledge that the conflict would be resolved in a bloody burst of energy nearly 12 months later causes this inauspicious start of the 1864 campaign to be all the more remarkable. The author has the historian’s gift of assimilating facts and extrapolating stories. Compelling narratives emerge from the study of Northern draft protocols, the appalling conditions of the Confederate Andersonville POW camp and its Union counterparts and the creaking machinery of a war department so burdened by bureaucracy that its soldiers and their dependents were left waiting months—even years—for their back pay. Marvel culls evidence from a wide variety of sources, from the lowliest private’s letters to his sweetheart to Gen. Grant’s communiqués with Lincoln. It is this breadth of perspectives, both personal and contextual, that differentiates this chronicle from the many dry recitations of battles and their attendant losses that characterize a particular genre of Civil War history.
Marvel is both credited with and accused of writing revisionist history, and this final volume is in keeping with its predecessors in both tone and direction. It aptly concludes the author’s extensive effort to elucidate the errors of those powerful men who began the Civil War and quickly found themselves trapped by their own creation, forced to see it through to a merciless end.