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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Fateful Lightning’
A one-volume macro-history is the best sort of history book. Though it rarely matches the literary panache and Herculean scholarship of, say, Winston Churchill’s six-volume history of World War II, or Edmund Morris‘ three volumes on Theodore Roosevelt, the one-volume history is still a kind of blue blazer or black cocktail dress of nonfiction — an established combination of utility and elegance. It is also the autodidact’s best friend. It is a wonderful thing to pick up a one-volume, soup-to-nuts account of an expansive historical topic, learn all you need to know in the concision of a few hundred pages, and move on to the next book. Sadly, however, the one-volume macro has lost some luster in recent decades, especially in the field of history, where specialization is the watchword of doctoral programs everywhere.
To that end, its hard to imagine a better one-volume history of the American Civil War than Gettysburg College professor Allen C. Guelzo’s new work, “Fateful Lightning: A New History of the Civil War and Reconstruction.” Mr. Guelzo moves briskly and fairly through the first 70 years of the republic, hopscotching through issues large and small, from the causes of the war to the size of Confederate army rations. Like a road trip through pleasant scenery, you don’t stop to contemplate every vista but happily keep moving after a snapshot.
Mr. Guelzo starts by tracing the issue of slavery from the founding of the republic through the 1850s. Aside from the fact that it “pitted cultures, economic interests, and moral antagonisms against each other,” slavery’s most dangerous feature was that it split America on broad geographic terms as well. Fifteen slave states joined together contiguously was a greater threat to national unity than pock marks of barbarism here or there. If only one or two states had clung to slavery, speculates Mr. Guelzo, the pro-slavery outposts would merely be considered “islands of complaint,” unable to stand on their own, and slavery would have never become as entrenched as it did.
As the nation inches closer to war, Mr. Guelzo correctly follows the lead established by Harry Jaffa in his revolutionary 1959 work “Crisis of the House Divided” and establishes why Lincoln was a truly great man, beyond his achievements of shepherding the nation through the war and emancipating the slaves. Formerly a country lawyer and state legislator who had served as a one-term back bencher in Congress in the 1840s, Lincoln rose to prominence in the wake of the rising tide of “popular sovereignty” — the idea that states entering the Union should vote for themselves whether to allow slavery.
But Lincoln, Mr. Guelzo argues, realized that popular sovereignty violates the spirit of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and insisted that to embrace slavery is a repudiation of the natural law axioms of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” upon which the Founders built the republic. To Lincoln, Mr. Guelzo says, “democracy must not be simply the vote of the majority but the choice by the majority of what is morally right.”
Then, to paraphrase Lincoln, “the war came.” One of Mr. Guelzo’s key achievements in telling the tale is balancing sometimes starchy descriptions of military strategy and maneuvers with colorful portraits of the principal agents of the war. There’s Union Gen. “Fighting Joe” Hooker, “a handsome, happy-go-lucky brawler with an alcoholic’s red nose and an awesome command of old army profanity,” and his successor, Ulysses S. Grant, “the sort of person one would have to stare at very intently just to be able to describe him.” And none is richer than Mr. Guelzo’s capture of Lincoln, from his personal preoccupation with the occult to his careful yet contentious exercise of presidential powers during the war.
Mr. Guelzo’s work isn’t all a history of the most visible belligerents, as he includes detailed dissections of American social and cultural life during wartime. Mr. Guelzo quotes diaries, letters and newspaper reports to capture the war’s effect on the population — women, soldiers, slaves, free blacks, free whites and others. Sojourner Truth stands at streetcar stops and screams “I want to ride!” in her efforts to integrate public transportation. One Union soldier describes Sherman’s march through Georgia (one of the most hellish events of the war), as “probably the most gigantic pleasure expedition ever planned” for Sherman’s sanction of countryside plundering.
Any historian worth his tweed should be able to use primary sources, but Mr. Guelzo has a special gift for using them to prove his point in a brief and entertaining way. Most importantly, he doesn’t resort to contorting his source material to fit class, race or gender ideology — the de rigueur practice among today’s cultural historians.
It’s a little disappointing that Mr. Guelzo doesn’t engage much with the perspectives of other scholars, which would have been helpful in shaping the reader’s consideration of such a contentious and documented subject (50,000 books and papers, by Mr. Guelzo’s estimate). But there’s an appropriate trade-off here — to do so would slow down and muddle the narrative. After 150 years, it is one that still demands to be told to new audiences, and Mr. Guelzo is among the most capable of telling it.
David Wilezol is a producer for “Morning in America,” a nationally syndicated radio show hosted by former U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett.
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