US Grant: the Civil War Years: Grant Moves South and Grant Takes Command*****

usgrantthecivilwaryI was fortunate to receive a DRC of this two volume biography of America’s greatest general, US Grant. Thanks go to Open Road Media and Net Galley for providing it in exchange for this honest review. This is the sixth Grant biography I’ve read, and aside possibly from Grant’s own memoirs, which are valuable in a different way than this set, I have to say this is hands-down the best I have seen. Catton won the Pulitzer for one of his civil war trilogies, and this outstanding biography is in the same league. Those with a serious interest in the American Civil War or military history in general should get it. It’s available for purchase now.

When I had read a couple of US Grant biographies, I told myself that enough was enough, and that I should push away from this one subject in favor of others. I am glad I ignored my own advice, because I have come away from this prodigious, in-depth study with a deeper understanding than anything else has provided.  It’s over 1100 pages long, and over 800 pages once one discounts the end notes and index, but it is as great a pleasure to read at the end as at the start, if not more so.

Is this a good choice for someone new to the American Civil War? Generally speaking (if you’ll pardon the pun) I’d say no, but for someone otherwise well versed in military history or with a tremendous interest level, time, and stamina, it could be. Because Catton is known as an expert in this field, I especially enjoy not having to review his citations. I know his sources will be strong, and one brief overview convinces me this is true.

The first volume starts with his less than glorious entry into the war. As many know, he had been a member of the regular US army during the conflict with Mexico, and had fallen apart and had to go home. Now he is back, but only after a string or two has been pulled by a family friend, and even then, his task is a daunting one. Volunteer soldiers don’t take orders or submit to discipline as a West Point soldiers do, and when he arrives, it seems the lunatics are running the asylum. One of the things that I am impressed with anew every time I read about Grant is his unerring judgment, the social radar that is an indisputable part of his talent. By knowing where to go easy on his men and how to bring them into conformity where it’s most important, he creates a solid force to move South with.

The battles of Belmont, Fort Henry, Fort Donelson, and the tragic but technically successful battle of Shiloh open up the Mississippi River for the Union and divide the South. Catton uses a number of anecdotes that are new to me, and his congenial tone, occasionally caustic wit, and spot-on analysis leave me both energized and contented at the same time.

The second volume, however, is where I learn the most. Until I read this biography, I haven’t understood exactly how great a risk Lincoln takes when he orders that the US military forces should be given the ballot, an unprecedented move, as he himself runs once more for the highest office. His opponent, McClellan, is a former Union general that at the war’s outset, was at the top of the chain of command.  He didn’t go home a happy man, and now he is running as a Copperhead, the moniker given those in the North that want to end the war and let the South leave the Union, slaves and all. And though I know it is often the case that soldiers and sailors choose to support their Commander in Chief at the ballot box, I haven’t fully recognized how badly this may go for Lincoln. Doesn’t every soldier want to go home? This is the Democratic ticket’s promise; end it now and send them home.

On top of all that, Lincoln and Grant, who think a lot alike, clamp their teeth together and endure the white knuckled ride that they know they’ll be facing when they decide against further prisoner exchanges with the South. There are two strong reasons for this decision: first, the South refuses to recognize Black men in uniform as soldiers, and won’t exchange them, assuming that all of them must be escaped slaves, including those with Northern accents. Grant declares that no prisoners will be swapped until the South is willing to parole every Northern soldier, and he means it.

In addition, both Lincoln and Grant realize that the South is running low on manpower. There are thousands of their soldiers sitting in military prisons; to trade them out and risk seeing them back in uniform is to turn a military contest into a war of annihilation. With prisoner exchanges, the war will last longer, and there will be more death. In a peculiar way, refusing to exchange prisoners is the more humane policy.

In an election year, this is a tough sell. There are families up North that have been notified that their son, brother, father, is a prisoner of the enemy, and word has by now been spread as to what kind of conditions those poor men face. How much harder is it to vote for Lincoln and the fight for the reunification of the republic when to do so is to prolong the time their loved one sits behind bars, slowly starving? Lincoln and Grant could temporarily resume prisoner exchanges until after the election, but they stand on principle, and it pays off.

Another thing that I don’t really grasp until I read the second volume is Grant’s relationship with the Army of the Potomac, a collection of men that to some extent have been poisoned with McClellanism. It’s a real tightrope walk, and he is deft in his dealing with it. I can’t tell you everything he does here; that’s the point of the book, after all. But I came away with a renewed respect for General Sheridan, and an interest in reading biographies of that general also.

How much of Sherman’s march through Georgia and then to the sea is Grant’s idea, and how much of it is Sherman’s? I come away understanding this better than before as well, although I have read both Grant’s and Sherman’s memoirs. Catton has a way of crystallizing events without oversimplifying them.

And I nod with solemn satisfaction at the cold fury Grant experiences when he learns of the assassination of President Lincoln and the attempts on the lives of others, including himself.

I still shiver with pleasure when I reread the denouement, in which Grant sends General Weitzel and his troops, some of whom are Black, into Richmond when the Confederate capitol falls. I want to cheer as the throngs form for the military review in Washington DC after the war has been won; all those thousands of soldiers, all those citizens and international visitors in the stands and on the sidewalks, singing “John Brown’s Body”. Think of it!

I promised myself to be brief, and I haven’t really done that, but this is the least I can bring myself to say about this excellent biography. If my review is too long to hold your attention, then this two book series—even while allowing for the fact that Catton is a far better writer than I—will also be more of a meal than you are prepared for.

But for those with a sufficiently great interest level and stamina, I cannot imagine a better memoir of Grant for you to buy and enjoy. Enthusiastically recommended!

Union Soldier, by Gordon Landsborough***

unionsoldierI received this title courtesy of Endeavor Press, who invited me to read and review their material directly; I thank them for the invitation to read and review this Digital Review Copy free in exchange for an honest review.

Our protagonist is McGaughey, a physician with a troubled past who enlists as a Union soldier because he cannot enlist as a doctor. He falls in love with a young woman named Sara, and so this relationship is a key aspect of the book. He moves heaven and Earth to see that she is allowed to stay with his unit, even introducing her as a laundress, a thing I never knew Union troops enjoyed.

Landsborough does a middling job of character development and creates an aura of mystery around McGaughey. I found his depiction of Union soldiers in general alienating. For me, the American Civil War was the last really righteous war the US fought, and so his characterization of most recruits as men that would do anything rather than serve, men that were rough, dishonest and usually of poor character demeaning. I suspect he was striving for realism, or perhaps he truly believes the war should never have occurred at all. Those that take this position may find themselves enjoying the novel more than I did.

Setting was a problem for me. Whereas his descriptions of the immediate area in any given situation were well done, I could never place this story on the map. On the one hand, Flagstaff is mentioned several times and so I was thinking of Arizona. The prominent role given American Indians tells us he has to be in the West. But the Sioux confederation is in the North, primarily in the mid-western USA, and so I was confused.

Landsborough does a creditable job of pointing out that the American Indian was still fighting for justice during this time period. The US government strove to fulfill the integrity of the nation, but didn’t do well by native peoples.

The stereotype that McClellan was an unskilled general whereas Lee and Jackson were brilliant is a tired old saw. A more in-depth look at these generals demonstrates that McClellan was entirely capable but actually sympathetic to the Confederate cause. Considerable evidence proves that his failure to succeed militarily in most situations was intentional. Lee made a number of errors as did Jackson, who was often unreliable when he was expected to show up, but both were bold, and for a time their energy and boldness paid off. I would have liked to see more knowledge of the war itself in this story, which turns out to be more a Western and also a romance than a Civil War tale. To be fair, it was billed as a western, but I latched onto the title and expected something more.

For those that enjoy Westerns or historical fiction that contains romance, this book may be of interest.

The Reel Civil War: Mythmaking in American Film, by Bruce Chadwick****

thereelcivilwarI found this gem at my favorite used bookstore in Seattle, Magus Books, which is just a block from the University of Washington. Its strength, as the title suggests, is in tracing the story of the American Civil War as told by the cinema. Those interested in the way in which movie impacts both culture and education in the USA would do well to find this book and read it.

Chadwick spends a considerable amount of time and space carefully documenting the myth produced by Gone with the Wind, a completely unrealistic, idealized portrait of the ruling planter class of the deep South. Many of us would, in years gone by, have been inclined to dismiss this concern by saying that after all, the book and movie were primarily intended as a love story, but Chadwick demonstrates that this is not so. He ferrets out actual interviews with Margaret Mitchell herself in which she insists that this is exactly the way it was. Her sources? Former plantation owners, of course.

To this day, if an avid reader goes to and under the caption “explore”, goes to “listopia” and from there selects a list of readers’ favorite Civil War titles, GWTW will place within the top ten, and sometimes be the foremost title, selected over nonfiction as well as more accurate fiction. I find this horrifying.

The research regarding the Civil War itself is nothing I haven’t seen before, but Chadwick makes excellent use of strong secondary sources to document the fact that Black folks in the pre-war South were neither happy nor well treated. He takes apart the myth Mitchell constructed in a meticulous manner, one damn brick at a time. Hell yes. About ten percent of the way into the book, Chadwick’s removed, scholarly tone changes to one of articulate outrage, and I found this tremendously satisfying.

Chadwick follows Civil War films forward, after first also examining Birth of a Nation, a painfully racist film which was famous at the time because of its length; its original claim to fame was not content, but technology. For those that have not seen the film, this will be interesting reading also, and those that have seen it may pick up some new information as well.

A couple of generations later, the more realistic and highly acclaimed Roots television miniseries told the story of Black America in a way that hadn’t been represented on film before. Chadwick is again careful in his documentation and clear in his explanation.

The book’s final film treatment is of the most positive and accurate film depiction of African-Americans is the film Glory. This reviewer used this film in the classroom. It depicts the Black Massachusetts infantry that tried to take Fort Wagner and in doing so, inspired President Lincoln to order more Black troops to be armed and trained for combat in the American Civil War.

For those interested in the connection between film and American history, and of the American Civil War in particular, this book is recommended.

The Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd*****

theinventionofwingsTwo of today’s hottest political topics have to do with equality. As we follow and sometimes participate in the Black Lives Matter movement, along with the fight to keep Planned Parenthood funded and maintain a woman’s right to own her body and say what happens to it, this elegantly crafted work of historical fiction could not, strangely enough, be more timely. The Invention of Wings is a fictional biography of Sarah and Angelina Grimke, abolitionists and feminists, the first to make screaming headlines by speaking out publicly decades before women would see the right to vote, and decades before the first shots of the American Civil War were fired. As is essential in dealing with the rights of then-enslaved African-Americans in the south, Kidd adds an additional character, a slave named Hetty, written alternately with the Sarah’s story. I say it is essential to do so; this is because it is wrong to write about the marginalization and subjugation of an entire people, and then not include a representative of that group into the plot. As usual, Kidd doesn’t disappoint.

Much as I love historical fiction, one thing that makes me a little crazy is wondering where the research ends and fiction commences. In her afterword, the author lets us know specifically what is true and what isn’t. She even gives us a brief bibliography to pursue if we feel moved to do so; the only other historical fiction writer I know of that does this is Laurence Yep, my hands-down favorite YA author. Thus, Kidd places herself in outstanding company.

The Grimke sisters were born into the elite planter class, a tiny minority among Caucasians in the South, and in the very belly of the beast: Charleston, South Carolina. Partially because of the tremendous brutality meted out to the plantation’s slaves right before her tiny eyes there at home, Sarah Grimke grew up opposed to slavery. As a much older sister, she had a formative role helping her mother raise Angelina, who also became a fierce, uncompromising abolitionist.

It is one thing to take up a cause that is small but in which one has a support base. For the Grimkes, there was nothing. Eventually both had to move north for their own safety. And although, as a history major and a feminist of the 1970’s I had read about the Grimke sisters many times, it is within the well-crafted, deeply thoughtful, well researched pages of this novel that they first came to life for me.

Hetty, the slave depicted within these pages, actually existed, but the story Kidd writes for her is entirely fictional. The real Hetty died before Sarah was grown. Still, her character felt as real to me, and was easily as well developed as either of the Grimke sisters. Hetty is not passive, not waiting to be “set” free. She understands that the only freedom she is likely to receive will be what she can do for herself. A nice touch Kidd adds is in making Hetty one of the children of Denmark Vesey, the free African-American that attempted to organize and lead a slave revolt.

Everything here is carefully constructed and absorbing. Kidd has long demonstrated formidable talent in constructing well developed characters and vivid settings; the difference here (as opposed to The Secret Life of Bees and The Mermaid’s Chair, the two others of hers I have read) is the research involved. As with everything else, she blends fact and detail into a well spun tale.

I should add here that the literacy level required to deal with this text is higher than most. Don’t toss it out there for your average middle schooler to read, because it will prove too difficult. Because of the way she builds her story, brick by brick, the pace doesn’t really pick up until about halfway into the book. This isn’t a rip-roaring page turner; it’s a series of quiet nights by the fire, or curled up on your favorite window seat, or by the side of your bed. Give it the time it deserves.
Though I got my copy from the Seattle Public Library, I consider this title worth the cover price. Highly recommended.

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.

The Fateful Lightning, by Jeff Shaara *****

thefatefullightningThose that love strong Civil War fiction have to get this book. It comes out in June, but thanks to the wonderful people at Net Galley and Random House/Ballantine Publishers, I was able to sneak a peek ahead of time. Although it is the fourth in a series, it also works really well as a stand-alone novel if you know the basic facts regarding Sherman’s siege of Atlanta and its subsequent burning. As we join him and his hardened veterans fighting under Howard and Slocum, “the two fists that Sherman intended to drive through the heart of the deep South”, they prepare to march to the sea.

I have read every one of Shaara’s novels, those about the Civil War as well as the American Revolution and US war against Mexico. I am a fan. The last in the series, The Smoke at Dawn, left me hovering between a four and five star rating. It was a good read, yet I wasn’t sure I liked the way he voiced Sherman; I thought he made him sound a bit remote. But then it became evident that the controversy that sparked the indignation of other reviewers was his inclusion of one fictional character among the various perspectives presented (he flips back and forth, a format he uses regularly and that readers of his other work will recognize). The fictional character was invented to represent the too-often-voiceless rank and file, without whom the war would not have been fought or won. And I thought that this was actually a great idea, so I flipped from four to five stars in defense of his choice.

In this final installment, Sherman’s voice sounds much more real to me. I don’t know what happened, but it feels to me as if all the cylinders clicked into place. William T. Sherman is one of my heroes; I consider him America’s all time finest general, with Grant coming in second. He remains controversial to this day, mostly in the American South, so for those who wonder, the perspective definitely leans toward the Union, though both perspectives are given space. And it seems gobsmackingly obvious to me that in a war between feudalism and industrialization, between slavery and freedom, the latter should be the team to root for. But for those that feel differently, you’ve been warned.

Here we also meet a new fictional character named Franklin. Franklin is a slave until Sherman’s men come through. His father, an older man who was hobbled permanently by one of the master’s coon hounds when he attempted to flee, won’t leave the Plantation even after he hears that he is free. The master is gone, but it doesn’t matter. Walking is too hard, and frankly, he is also too afraid. And if someone were to sic a mean dog on me, I just might feel the same. But his son, Franklin, is grown, strong, and completely unafraid. He is allowed to join Sherman’s men as a laborer, and during a fight, he makes a heroic choice even though he has not been given a weapon or even permission to touch one. And the role that Black troops and spies also played is also included.

Throughout the narrative, Shaara’s voice feels authentic and honest to me. The reality of racist Caucasians within the Union’s forces is acknowledged, and the horrible crossing in which one of Sherman’s new, political generals causes the drowning of an unknown number of African-Americans trying to follow the army across a pontoon bridge that’s being withdrawn from enemy forces is not glossed over. More importantly, the slave breeding that brought international shame on the United States, a practice done exclusively here, in the “land of the free and home of the brave”, is presented; I can’t think of any other novelist I’ve read who includes this critical factor.

Fans of military history will appreciate Sherman’s approach to the war, that one cannot win by capturing the capitol of the rebellion, but rather, the Confederate forces must be defeated, and the people of the South that supported them had to know they were done. The desertions that marked the end days of the Confederate Army were the result of Sherman’s “juggernaut” through the South. Those that left home to fight to defend it, sometimes deserted for the very same reason. Home might not be safe; they might be needed back there. Shaara’s depiction of Sherman was consistent with Sherman’s memoir in this and every other regard.

In reading Shaara’s note to the reader, I felt a bit sorry for him, because it sounds as if every single Civil War buff has some treasured bit of arcane information or some hero in the family and they’re annoyed that Shaara has failed to include them. But this was one big war, and as the author notes, he can’t include everything. His publisher has set limits in terms of time and space. And Shaara has served them, and the memory of those who served the side of moral right, admirably.

The book will be sold in time for Father’s Day. But really, you should buy it for yourself. It’s worth every nickel.

Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam, by Stephen Sears*****

landscapeturnedredHow familiar are you with the American Civil War? Can you tell McClernand from McClellan from McPherson? Did you know there was a General Ewell of importance for both the Union and Confederacy? One more miniquiz question: in what states would one find Shiloh, Corinth, and Fredericksburg?

What I am trying to say is that this tome, which is either the definitive work on the battle at Antietam or a strong contender, is written for those of us who are pretty well versed in the basics. It won’t explain the essentials as it moves along; there is an assumption inherent in about 400 pages regarding the approach to this battle (about the first 100 pp), the battle itself, and the consequences regarding same. Sears writes with precision and authority, but he does not write for beginners.

As you can see from the rating, I loved it.

Sears isn’t on a mission to merely recount, blow by blow, what happened when. If he were set on hundreds of pages of injury and carnage, I don’t know that anyone but a masochist would care for that many pages of horrifying detail.

Instead, he sets out to prove that General McClellan, who essentially held the Union Army hostage for the duration of his tenure as commanding general, systematically and deliberately prevented the Army of the Potomac from crushing the Confederate forces. He proves the point. Beyond any question, McClellan chose not to send his soldiers to fight because he was sympathetic toward the slaveocracy and wanted the Confederacy to achieve its goal.

He contemplated participating in a coup d’etat,unseating Lincoln and tossing out the Constitution, but the vast groundswell of demand for such a thing,which he believed existed and might carry him to power, never unfolded. Though he had carved out a base of support for himself and his views within the Army of the Potomac sufficient to cripple its use for the duration of the war, there were also soldiers in this army who were sick of not fighting for their country, and who were pleased to see him leave.

I have read other histories of the Battle of Antietam, and they served the purpose of explaining who fought where, and how much blood was shed. What no one else has done is to lay the blame where it rightfully belongs. This battle should have been an open-and-shut deal, and the Confederate forces should have been disabled and the war brought close to a conclusion. Instead, through his reluctance to fight at all and then only because it was clear that to do otherwise would cost him his job, McClellan managed to make the whole thing a bloodbath that was almost a stalemate.

Technically, it was a Union victory, and that was what Lincoln had to have to declare Emancipation and prevent Europe from recognizing the Confederacy. McClellan opposed (of course) the Emancipation, but he was already about to be fired. The question was a political one; no one wanted him to leave before the elections, lest he make a mess of them. Once Congress was once more filled with majority Republican forces on both sides, it was safe to cut the connection and send him packing.

The manner in which he was fired was done with careful attention to military procedure so that he could not contest it without clearly committing a crime.

I had long felt that too much was going unsaid about General McClellan, but I couldn’t tell what it was. I had a hunch it would not do him credit. It was a little bit like childhood, when the grown-ups around you use coded phrases designed to protect you from the terrible truth, and the longer you are aware that you can’t be told something, the worse that something appears to be. And so it was with McClellan. I don’t know whether he has a bunch of really proud ancestors that other writers feared to offend or why he hasn’t been held suitably accountable before this. Perhaps the evidence was buried too deep.

One thing is certain: Sears has built his case as solid as the Rock of Gibraltar. Once the book is done, there can be no doubt whatsoever. For the serious American Civil War scholar, this outstanding volume provides information that is generally not in circulation, and that is key to understanding Antietam, as well as much of what took place before it.

Lincoln and the Power of the Press: the War for Public Opinion, by Harold Holzer ****

lincoln and the pressThis book is for the serious reader. Well researched and creatively conceived, it traces the influence of the newspaper on young Lincoln, and then follows its role in his emergence as a politician, as a contender for the presidency, and later the complicated relationship between Lincoln and the press during the American Civil War. It raises thorny, thoughtful issues regarding censorship; when do we hold the First Amendment dearest above all, and when may its authority be abrogated for the security and integrity of the Union?

It starts a bit slow, and I began wondering whether this would be one of those rare books that I skim and then review, as opposed to reading every word. Still…LINCOLN. I stayed the course and was rewarded. Just be aware that the narrative doesn’t really wake up until about the 30 percent mark.

Lincoln had amazingly little formal schooling. Though this was common among pioneer families at the time, with settlements sparse and young males needed to help with a tremendous amount of hard physical labor, but knowing not only that he became US president, but that he was an attorney before that, I was surprised to learn that most of his reading skills were obtained by reading every single newspaper he could get his hands on, no matter how old it was by the time it made its way to Illinois, which was then considered the northwestern USA. A sister later recounted seeing him turn a chair over and lean against it while he sat on the floor and used the firelight to read by. How many people are sufficiently motivated today to teach themselves reading skills through this sort of very difficult total immersion?

He later fed his newspaper habit by becoming postmaster, and he used this office to read the newspapers being sent by mail before they were delivered to their intended recipients. (He would later use the franking privilege bestowed upon postmasters to send out his own campaign materials free of charge.)

Newspapers were tremendously influential, approaching the zenith of their importance during this time. There was no radio or any other media to spread the news of the nation besides word of mouth. Litigation for libel or slander had not yet blossomed, and so newspapers were often very loose with the facts, and this made it all the more important to read as many of them as possible in order to tease apart truth and rumor.

Young Lincoln left home hoping to become a journalist himself. He was well known as a gregarious fellow who always had a great story ready for whoever wanted to listen. I envision his parents throwing their arms up in the air: all that work to be done at home and where is their son? Off somewhere talking, talking, talking. I also found this tidbit interesting because it contrasts sharply with the haunted and often depressed man he would later become when authority and personal tragedy marked him.

As a congressman and also as a frequent writer of freelance articles and letters to editors, Lincoln marked out his position against the extension of slavery early and with great passion. He called the war with Mexico for what it was: a land grab that would primarily benefit the feudal rulers of the south. At one point he even suggested that the attack against US citizens by Mexican soldiers was a hoax, demanding to know exactly where on the map this had occurred. Folks in Washington DC, Illinois, and even New York sat up and took notice.

Holzer also traces the beginnings of the most notable newspaper publishers of the time. The unfortunate Elijah Lovejoy is dispatched with haste, just as he was in life. Greeley, the bootstrap newsman and fervent abolitionist, at least most of the time, at first spurned Lincoln. For most of both of their careers, they had a strong working relationship, but Greeley was both quixotic and a bit unstable, and he turned on Lincoln at some pivotal times, most noteworthy when the latter was running for re-election. Bennett, founder of the Herald and innovator of a number of the institutional practices that are still in place today, was conservative politically and represented Manhattan’s pro-secessionist, pro-slavery majority. Raymond was Lincoln’s most steadfast supporter and campaign manager the second time around, though he wavered for a brief but terrible time when the tide seemed to turn in favor of the Copperhead Democrats, who wanted to give the secessionist states independence in order to end the war.

In the land of Dixie, there was no debate about Constitutional rights to freedom of speech and the press; newspapers who even hinted at Union sentiments were quickly suppressed without qualm. Despite Lincoln’s suspension of Habeas Corpus and at times the suppression and/or closure of newspapers that either leant aid to the enemy by publishing battle plans before the fights had taken place, or by less overt and therefore more controversial antiwar editorials, he won his office in a fair fight, not attempting to tamper with the electoral process or outlaw the printed word that ran in favor of McClellan, a former general whom this reviewer regards as a treasonous scoundrel.

I confess it gave me a good deal of food for thought. I was a child during the 1960’s and a teen during the 1970’s, but I recall well the controversy regarding free speech, the Vietnam War, and Nixon’s enemies list. If I am in favor of free speech and press during contemporary times, why should it have been different during the Civil War? But I eventually concluded that it was indeed different, and the exasperation of General Sherman toward the press that gave away critical secrets all in the interest of a scoop and the bottom line was entirely correct.

But that’s just one reviewer’s opinion; thanks to Net Galley for the ARC. If you are willing to devote the time and attention this tome demands, you are sure to come away with a viewpoint of your own.

To those interested in the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln, or the history of the American newspaper, highly recommended.

Confederate Bushwhacker: Mark Twain in the Shadow of the Civil War, by Jerome Loving *****

confederate bushwhacker Good things come to those who wait. Jerome Loving established his credentials as an academic and historian a long time ago. I haven’t read the other biographies he has written, but they’re going on my list now.

Here’s what you have to know going into it: if you are looking for the sound bite, the cut-to-the-chase, you can’t have that wish. Loving uses induction rather than deduction, and brick by brick he builds toward his conclusion, taking the time to set context in a way that only a specialized biography such as this one, which focuses on the single year 1885, can do. And since I received this gorgeous little hardcover book as a First Reads giveaway, I was impatient at first. “What the heck. Where’s the bushwhacking? Where’s Grant?”

Uh uh uh. No. Go back, reread. Everything that is in this book is there for a reason. If you hustle through the first part to get to the second, you may leave too many holes in the foundation. Do you want the wall to fall down? Of course not.

What I noticed, as I marched through with my sticky notes, is that the clusters were initially sparse, as the stage was set, and then suddenly ramped up around page 100, and by the end of the biography I was putting a sticky on every page and sometimes on facing pages.

I could tell you what he has to say; I went back and looked at all of those notes, but then, why would I wreck it for you? An author who builds up to the last page does not need a reviewer to hand over his punch line for him.

Instead, I can tell you that this is a careful, painstaking, well-documented analysis of a complex character. Twain’s ideas evolved between his 20’s and the end of his life, and of course, for most of us they do, but perhaps because his mind was open and searching, or perhaps because of his great fondness for “Sam” Grant, he watched what took place–including the Haymarket martyrdom, which I never knew had been an interest of his–and revised his ideas accordingly. Smart people can do that.

Perhaps the greatest measure of the success of this work is that it not only makes me want to see what else Loving has written, it also makes me want to revisit Twain. I had avoided much of Twain’s philosophical writing because of his anger toward the “damn human race”, to which I am much attached, thanks. But I want to see more about the connection between the events that played out during this time period and his changing perspectives.

One small correction is in order to Loving’s work, though I know this is a tiny, picky detail: Loving states that a huge redwood tree had been named for Grant. Ahem. It is a Sequoia tree. It is immense, but it is General Sherman’s that is the largest in the entire world. Sequoias belong to the same family as redwoods, but they are different. Having driven several days from Seattle to Southern California to see the tree; survived a four-car pile-up, rescued my luggage, bandaged and iced myself and my children, hired a rental car and driven onward to fulfill my mission, I can’t let it go by without mentioning it. Two great huge trees in honor of my two favorite American generals of all time. Sequoias. A hint is that they are located in Sequoia National Park. Makes sense, no?The biggest tree in the world!  50%

If you are reading this exclusively for the Civil War aspect, I will tell you that most of the book is not devoted to that time period; it says it is about 1885, not 1865, and when examining the book’s jacket, a knee-jerk reaction will leave you dangling. There is a small but meaty portion in which Twain discusses his part in the American Civil War, but this is not a Civil War history.

For those who read memoirs and biographies as rapaciously as I do, this is a must-read. For those who enjoy American history and literature, and most of all Twain, it is highly recommended. If you like Grant and maybe have even plowed through his remarkably readable autobiography, even better! But you can easily understand this book without it.

Many of my First Reads will eventually be given away to my daughter’s school or some other good cause. Not this one; it will retain a place of pride in our home library. Thank you for writing it, Mr. Loving, and thanks to the University Press of New England for the free copy.

War On the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 by James McPherson *****

This was my Mother’s Day gift from waronthewatersmy spouse last May, and boats are HIS thing. I thought, Psssh. RIGHT. But since I strive to be a scholar of the American Civil War and the navy is about the only stone (as opposed to gravel, metaphorically) that I’ve left unturned, I started in. No, I FELL in.

First of all, it has to be recognized that McPherson is undeniably the USA’s #1 living Civil War scholar. His status as professor emeritus at Princeton has been well earned. When he decides to delve into some aspect of Civil War history, he finds his primary sources wherever he has to go. So, though he is an old man, he went on those waters. He walked where soldiers trod in order to get to the forts he, too, visited. He believes that in order to understand how any battle unfolded, on land or sea, you’d better get a sense of the geography. This is what a serious scholar looks like.

Then he tracked down the letters and journals of the key players. Once his tools were out and he was ready to go, he stated his bold thesis and then methodically proved it. And it is something of a startling thesis to me. He says that without the navy’s contributions, the war could not have been won.

When Grant says it, one wonders if it was a diplomatic gesture toward the seamen who so tenaciously pounded away during the siege of Vicksburg. How many times have you heard someone who is receiving an award say, “I would not be here tonight if it were not for the support of…” (whoever)?

When McPherson says it, I sit back and say, “Whoa.”

He takes his case and spins it into an enjoyable narrative, for those interested in the American Civil War. There are maps with just exactly the right amount of detail to prove the point. Photographs are clear as a bell (remember that this is the first U.S. war in which photography was available, though not so much for action shots…but for a naval battle? Certainly!).

So although my husband never reads anything on this site, Honey? Sorry to have misjudged you. And I forgive you for stealing it back to read when I was thirty pages from the end. Do you forgive me for stealing it back? You can finish it now if you like!

And to other readers who are Civil War buffs: why are you still on this page? You should be on another screen, ordering the book!