The Magazine

Aftermyth of War

The Lost Cause is among the casualties in this definitive history.

Dec 31, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 16 • By MACKUBIN THOMAS OWENS
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Fateful Lightning will inevitably be compared with James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom. I once called the latter the best single volume on the Civil War, but Fateful Lightning is every bit its equal. There are many similarities between the two books: Both skillfully interweave political, military, economic, social, and religious factors to create a masterful tapestry of the war. Both are elegantly written. Both discuss the social trends at work, in the North and South, that led to war.

But there are significant differences as well. While Battle Cry of Freedom begins with the Mexican War and ends with the termination of Civil War military operations, Fateful Lightning begins with the Founding and carries the story through the end of Reconstruction. Battle Cry of Freedom is essentially a straightforward chronological narrative. Fateful Lightning, while also exhibiting a narrative structure, features chapters on particular topics: the war from the soldier’s perspective; manufacturing and logistics; the social upheaval that the war generated, especially in class relations, the relations between the races, and those between the sexes. 

Like Battle Cry of FreedomFateful Lightning is a general history. Those expecting a detailed description of campaigns and battles will be disappointed. But there are many fine books on these topics by the many excellent military historians who tend to put battles and campaigns in strategic context to an extent that the older generation did not. Fateful Lightning, instead, provides a general understanding of civil-military relations, the interaction of policy and partisan politics, diplomacy, legal issues, and the like.

Also like Battle Cry of FreedomFateful Lightning is a work of synthesis. There are many excellent recent books about all aspects of the Civil War, and Guelzo demonstrates his familiarity with such work, applying it skillfully in developing his own narrative. While even casual students of the Civil War will be familiar with many of the events that Guelzo describes, the true strength of this book lies in the author’s ability to illuminate the links among them. This is particularly the case when it comes to dealing with the interplay of strategy, operations, and the “sinews of war”—finance and logistics. 

Guelzo’s discussion of the competing American military schools of thought is a case in point. At the midpoint of the 19th century, Napoleon was the exemplar of military excellence, and his offensive mindset (especially as interpreted by the Swiss military writer Baron Antoine-Henri Jomini) provided one approach. But the American reliance on militia and volunteers rather than a professional army made this a risky alternative. The second school favored the defensive. With the exception of Winfield Scott’s campaign against Mexico City in the Mexican War, most American victories up to the time of the Civil War had been gained on the defensive, including Andrew Jackson’s victory at New Orleans and Zachary Taylor’s at Buena Vista. This preference was reinforced at West Point by the teachings of Dennis Hart Mahan.

“The American regular officer in 1861,” writes Guelzo, “was thus presented with a series of contradictions: tactics books that encouraged officers to take the offensive and make the enemy’s army their objective, and a professional military culture that looked to occupy enemy territory and fight a defensive war from behind fortifications.” At least one general, Robert E. Lee, embraced the cult of the offensive. 

Another issue that Guelzo illuminates is the relationship between the nature of the war and its conduct, especially from the Union perspective. Lincoln consistently argued that the “seceded” states were never truly out of the Union, and that the war was a rebellion “too powerful to be suppressed by the ordinary course of judicial proceedings, or by the powers vested in the Marshals by law.” But in international law, his proclamation of a blockade had the legal effect of granting the Confederacy belligerent status.