Allen C. Guelzo’s new book should occupy the same position in the current Civil War sesquicentennial as Bruce Catton’s books did 50 years ago during the war’s centennial.
Fateful Lightning: A New History of the Civil War & Reconstruction deserves this prominence for Guelzo’s thorough knowledge of the subject, his ability to draw fresh conclusion, and his exceptional writing skills.
The book encompasses the conflict beyond the war, starting with the early challenges to the union in the 1830s and continuing to the collapse of Reconstruction in the 1880s.
This broad context enables readers to understand how a national conflict went far, far beyond the deaths. Rather than simply ending his account with a reassuring image of Lee and Grant being all gallant and noble at Appomattox, it continued into the decades of Southern intransigence, bitter division in Washington, and the North’s slow abandonment of equal rights for freedmen.
Without this historical framing, the war would be just a solitary, bloody, distant episode in American life. Guelzo returns it to its proper context: the conflict at the heart of the union between property rights and human rights.
Guelzo narrates the events at a brisk pace that makes the book difficult to put down. He has a wealth of knowledge about this era, drawn from his previous seven books about Lincoln, slavery, and Reconstruction. He is also able to draw in several, diverse threads of social history, such as immigration, women’s rights, economics, the Romantic tradition, and the role played by black Americans to free themselves when they saw the Union army’s hesitant response to help them.
He is able to put his knowledge to good effect in illustrating his points and developing a clarifying insight. For example:
It will be difficult for us to appreciate the degree of desperation produced in the South by Lincoln’s election unless we remember what the presidency meant on the local level in the 1860s… Every federal appointive office—some 900 of them, all told, from the cabinet down to the lowliest postmaster—was filled at presidential discretion and usually according to party or philosophical loyalties…
[Lincoln’s] identity as a Republican was enough to convince most Southerners that he would appoint only Republicans to postmasterships (where they could ensure the free flow of abolitionist literature into every Southern hamlet), only Republicans as federal marshals (who would then turn a deliberately blind eye to fugitive slaves en route to Canada), only Republicans to army commands (and thus turn the federal army into an anti-slavery militia, and federal forts and arsenals in the South into abolitionist havens), and thus make the Republicans, and the anti-slavery attitude, attractive to the non-slaveholding whites of the South without whose cooperation the survival of slavery would be impossible.
Another strength of Fateful Lightning is the author’s skillful writing. Guelzo captures ideas and personalities with a few, well chosen strokes, e.g., “No one in American history has ever looked less like a great general than Ulysses Grant. He was the sort of person one would have to stare at very intently just to be able to describe him.”
Guelzo’s years of researching and writing about this violent epoch has led him to pose some interesting, if not startling speculations.
It would be interesting to speculate what might have happened if Andrew Johnson had obeyed his original impulse in the spring of 1865 to hang a dozen, or even more, of the Confederate leaders, since a punitive action that scale would have decapitated the potential leadership of any future Southern resistance. Instead, Johnson issued more than 13,000 pardons to former Confederate officers and officials, and as the political resolve of President Grant and the Congress evaporated, many of the former Confederate leaders stepped forward to reassert their old roles.
This is the sort of observation that will stir controversy. I expect this book—like any solid account book of the Civil War—will generate criticism. After all, it has been only 150 years, which is no time at all for lingering anger and resentment. And the issues and consequences of the War have come to define our nation.
Fateful Lightning offers countless rewards to anyone who knows the war, or doesn’t know the war, or is simply interested in American history, because the pattern of most of America’s past and future is contained in this conflict.
Fateful Lightning is available from Oxford University Press, USA.