A Thousand May Fall, by Brian Matthew Jordan**

I had such great hopes for this book. Jordan was a Pulitzer finalist for his work on American Civil War veterans, which I have not read, and this new work focuses on the life of an everyday soldier in the 107th Ohio Volunteer Union Infantry, which includes a large number of immigrant troops. My thanks go to Net Galley and Liveright Books for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

I love a good history book, but I don’t love this one. For starters, we have no apparent thesis. After reading the first third of the narrative, my largest question was where the author wanted to take this thing. Is he demonstrating that the German immigrants weren’t as worthless in combat as their reputation suggests? If so, maybe we should focus on that, rather than on the 107th. Give me a thesis focusing on German Civil War soldiers, support it, make it interesting, and I’ll be a happy reviewer. Another possibility is to find an ordinary foot soldier with a fair amount of interesting correspondence or other material to hold my attention. I like seeing the rank and file recognized, and there’s such an abundance of documentation available for this conflict that this shouldn’t be a difficult project.

Sadly, this isn’t what I find. We have a linear story here, and that makes sense, but we go through training, through the nightmare of Chancellorsville, and then Gettysburg, and when we reach the end, I still can’t locate much purpose to Jordan’s endeavor. Once in a while a compelling nugget jumps out, such as the training march at the book’s outset, where men are driven forward without water, and in the end two men are dead; the march concludes, several hours later, just a mile from the starting point, and we see that brutal leadership and poor planning left some surviving men disillusioned. But in many places research appears to be thrown in for its own sake, and no matter how you dress it up, what that is, is filler. We see bits of letters sent home saying that war is pretty bad. Another writer says that he experienced a “hard, tedious march.” Actually, that one shows up in multiple forms, several times also. There’s another quote about passing “porches and verandas,” and another about arriving at an attractive location. (“Beauty and tranquility.”) I could go on, but since he’s done enough of that for the two of us, I won’t. All of it is meticulously—feverishly, even—documented, but so much of it is documenting material that shouldn’t be here in the first place that I can’t get too excited. A professor should know that you have to edit out the extraneous junk and tighten your writing.

There are a few bright spots. I didn’t know there were two different kinds of court martial, so I learned one thing here. Jordan seems to point toward the German infantryman being courageous and willing, but crippled by cowardly, incompetent leadership. I wish that he had used this as his central thesis and thrown away the extraneous crud. There would be a point to the book if he did that, and I could write the sort of glowing review that gets me out of bed in the morning.

As it is, I can’t recommend it.

Glory Road, by Bruce Catton*****

gloryroadBruce Catton was known as a popular historian when he first published books about the American Civil War, because of his narrative nonfiction format. All of the books being released digitally now are ones previously published in a non-digital age. This reviewer hunted down Catton’s three volume Centennial History of the Civil War at a used bookstore some time back, and although they were among the best I have ever read by anyone on this topic, I was convinced that anything he had published earlier on the subject was probably repackaged in this trilogy, and so I stopped reading Catton, thinking I was done. Thank goodness Net Galley and Open Road Integrated Media posted the galley for this second volume of Catton’s Army of the Potomac trilogy. Now that I am disabused, I will have to find the first and third volumes also, because Catton is so eloquent that he can spin ordinarily dry-sounding military history into as good a read as the most compelling fiction.

Although his Civil War books are not written in academic format, there is no denying Catton’s research or his credentials. He was one of the founders of American Heritage Magazine, and served as its senior editor until his death. During World War II, he was the US government’s Director of Information for the War Production Board, then later worked in a similar capacity for the Department of the Interior and Department of Commerce.

Frankly, in order to spin the story of the three battles that comprise most of this volume out in such a conversational manner, dropping anecdotes in at just the right moments and then carrying on so as to make us feel as if he is a journalist traveling with the Union forces and we are concealed cleverly in his knapsack, bespeaks a remarkable amount of research. Only after reading the whole thing, spellbound, did it occur to me that for every vignette he included to make the telling more personal and more interesting, he must have edited out ten or twenty. The result is a masterpiece.

I came to this work as a former instructor in the field, and wished I had read his work in time to make use of it in the classroom. At the same time, it is sufficiently accessible that someone with no prior knowledge of the Civil War should be able to keep up just fine as long as they are able to read at the level of a high school senior or community college student. There is a definite bias toward the Union, which frankly is a requisite to my enjoyment of Civil War history. (Those that feel otherwise can go find Shelby Foote’s work.)

I never in a thousand years thought I would even consider rereading some of this war’s most painful battles—the battle of Fredericksburg being perhaps the most prominent in this regard—but Catton has some little-told things to say about these battles, and in particular about Burnside and that Tammany Hall political general, Sickles, that I hadn’t seen before. I had viewed Burnside as a failure from start to finish, but he makes a case that a lot of the mishandling of this situation was due to an ungainly Federal bureaucracy that wasn’t good at receiving information and passing it along in a prompt, useful manner. It gave me pause, and reminded me that we should never assume we know enough about something to call ourselves experts.

The Battle of Chancellorsville is likewise told in a manner fresh and readable, but the bulk of the text deals with that decisive, costly three day fight at Gettysburg. He gives an even-handed assessment of both Hooker and Meade, and again I learned some things I didn’t know before.

Catton’s writing is so engaging that it is destined to live for a long, long time after he is gone, educating subsequent generations. I found myself resolved, at the end of this volume, to look for other galleys of his work to read and review, and when there are no more left, to track down those still missing on my next pilgrimage to Powell’s City of Books.

For you, however, it is fortunate that Open Road is releasing this work digitally, so you won’t have to turn out the shelves of every used bookstore in the US in order to locate it. It will be available for purchase November 3, 2015 for your phone, computer, or e-reader, and is highly recommended to anyone with even a passing interest in the American Civil War.

Simply brilliant.

Chancellorsville, by Stephen Sears ****

chancellorsvilleSears won the Fletcher-Pratt award for his retelling of the battle of Chancellorsville, which is meticulously researched. In fact, about 100 of the 600 pages of this mighty tome are footnotes and Index.

If you are waiting for the excitement to start, don’t hold your breath. For one thing, if you are sufficiently interested in the American Civil War to read 500 pages about just one battle, you already know how this one ended, so there is no magic in terms of waiting for the end. The value here is for the die-hard researcher or military theorist, who either wants to examine why the battle turned one way or another, what could have prevented it, etc. Picking apart the miniscule parts of each battle and seeing how they are different in the eyes of one historian from another (usually in small ways) is interesting, for those of us sufficiently obsessed.

In a nutshell, if you are interested in the most minute details of this particular battle, having had your fill of books on Gettysburg and Antietam, this man has done a good job of putting it all together. Sometimes it is compelling, even amusing, and other times dry, but there was no time when I did not feel he had carefully laid the groundwork for what he was describing.