One-Minute Book Reviews

October 28, 2009

John Keegan’s ‘The American Civil War’ — Was the Refusal to Allow the Confederate States to Secede the First Overt Act of American Imperialism?

Filed under: Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:35 am
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I admire the work of John Keegan, perhaps the finest living military historian, and have mentioned his Winston Churchill (Viking, 2002) and his foreword to a recent edition of John Buchan’s classic spy thriller The Thirty-Nine Steps (Penguin, 2008). But I may not be able to review his new The American Civil War: A Military History, a book likely to rank high on many holiday wish lists.

So I’d like to quote from the most interesting review I’ve read of the book, written the historian Robert Stewart for the Spectator, and encourage you to read the rest if you’re debating whether to add it to your own list:

“Whether the refusal to allow the Confederate states the right to self-determination, flying as it did in the face of the Declaration of Independence, was the first overt act of American imperialism is a question that goes largely undiscussed. John Keegan does not raise it. For him, unlike World War I, which was ‘cruel and unnecessary,’ the American Civil War was cruel and necessary. (What constitutes an uncruel war is not explained.) Necessary both sides deemed it. At the outset volunteers came forward in such numbers that equipping them and finding capable officers to lead them proved nearly beyond both the Union and the Confederacy. Cruel it certainly was, one of the bloodiest wars in modern history, though two-thirds of its casualties succumbed, not to gunfire, but to disease (much of it caused by bad cooking). …

“Keegan tells an old story in ample, uncomplicated prose and the scale of the book is well judged, sufficient to allow for richness of detail and depth of analysis without overhwhelming the reader. Occasionally words seem to get the better of him. Does it make sense to say that ‘the purpose’ of the war was ‘to inflict suffering on the American imagination,’ that ‘the whole point of the war was to hold mothers, fathers, sisters, and wives in a state of tortured apprehension’? Footnotes are so spasmodic that the criteria for citing sources are impossible to discern. Keegan has to be taken for the most part, on trust. But his command of the war’s geography, his thorough understanding of military organization and his deep humanity, all nourished by a lifetime’s immersion in military history, imbue his account with the authority that we have come to expect from him.”

You can read an excerpt from The American Civil War on the Knopf site.

April 10, 2009

Winston Groom’s ‘Vicksburg, 1863′ — The Creator of Forrest Gump Reconsiders a Pivotal Moment in the Civil War

Filed under: History,News,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:08 am
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Just back from a great talk by Winston Groom at a signing for his new nonfiction book, Vicksburg, 1863 (Knopf, 496 pp., $30). I didn’t take notes because a friend and I stopped by on our way to a Maundy Thursday service and planned to listen for just a few minutes. But the talk was so captivating we stayed for all of it and just made it to the church on time.

A few points stood out: Gettysburg is better known than Vicksburg and often viewed as more important to the Civil War. But by dint of its strategic location on the Mississippi, Vicksburg had more geographic value. Two years of bloodshed might have been avoided if the South had offered the North terms for ending the war as catastrophe loomed. After its besieged forces surrendered on July 4, 1863, the day after Robert E. Lee’s defeat at Gettysburg, Vicksburg didn’t celebrate the Fourth of July for a century.

Groom’s talk was full of lively details about how the residents of the Vicksburg tried to stay alive while trapped. Some ate mule meat or eluded artillery fire by digging caves – later intentionally destroyed — that might held fascinating clues to how people survived the devastation of 1863.

If you’d like to know more, an excerpt from the book appears on the Knopf site. The publisher also has posted a quote from a review by John Sledge, the books editor of the Mobile Press-Register, who “There have been many books about Vicksburg, but none better than this.”

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

November 19, 2008

Why Was Gettysburg So Important? (Quote of the Day / Drew Gilpin Faust in ‘This Republic of Suffering,’ a 2008 National Book Award Finalist)

“… we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground.”
— From the Gettysburg Address, delivered Nov. 19, 1863

The Gettysburg Address is the greatest speech in American history and one of the country’s supreme works of literature. Yet you can listen to the full text in just 1 minute and 46 seconds in an audio version on Wikipedia.

Why did such a brief speech have such power? The answer goes beyond Abraham Lincoln’s sublime words, the subject of a masterly book-length analysis by Garry Wills in his Pulitzer Prize–winning Lincoln at Gettysburg (Simon & Schuster, 1992). The power of the speech comes also from the occasion for it: the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery at Gettysburg on Nov. 19, 1863, not long after Battle of Gettysburg (July 1–3, 1863).

Drew Gilpin Faust provides a rich context for the address in This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award for nonfiction, the winner of which will be named tonight www.nationalbook.org.

Gilpin Faust notes that Gettysburg belonged to a new group of battlefield cemeteries, created during the Civil War, that were more than places to bury the dead:

“These cemeteries were intended to memorialize the slain and celebrate the nation’s fallen heroes. Gettysburg represented a particularly important turning point. The large numbers of casualties in that bloody battle were obviously an important factor in generating action, but it is not insignificant that the carnage occurred in the North, in a town that had not had the opportunity to grow accustomed to the horrors of the constant warfare that had battered Virginia for two long years. Gettysburg made the dead – and the problem they represented – starkly visible to northern citizens, so many of whom flocked to the small Pennsylvania town in the aftermath of the battle. Perhaps even more critical was the fact that the North had resources with which to respond, resources not available to the hard-pressed Confederacy.

“The impetus for the Gettysburg cemetery arose from a meeting of state agents in the weeks after the battle. With financial assistance from Union states that had lost men in the engagement, David Wills, a Gettysburg lawyer, arranged to purchase seventeen acres adjoining an existing graveyard. In October contracts were let for the reburial of Union soldiers in the new ground at a rate of $1.59 for each body. In November Lincoln journeyed to help dedicate the new Soldiers’ National Cemetery. This ceremony and the address that historian Gary Wills has argued ‘remade America’ signaled the beginning of a new significance for the dead in public life. Perhaps the very configuration of the cemetery can explain the force behind this transformation. The cemetery at Gettysburg was arranged so that every grave was of equal importance; William Saunders’s design, like Lincoln’s words, affirmed that every dead soldier mattered equally regardless of rank or station. This was a dramatic departure from the privileging of rank and station that prevailed in the treatment of the war dead …”

To read the full text of the Gettysburg Address or listen to a reading of it on Wikipedia, click here en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gettysburg_Address. Drew Gilpin Faust is president of Harvard University www.harvard.edu.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

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