A review of Fateful Lightning: A New History of the Civil War and Reconstruction, by Allen C. Guelzo and This Great Struggle: America's Civil War, by Steven E. Woodworth

The U.S. wins a long, costly, bloody war to establish democracy where it had not existed. Troops are left in place to combat terrorists who seek to undo the results of the war. The terrorists' nefarious efforts are stymied for a time, but eventually the American economy collapses, the public grows weary of the effort, and the troops are prematurely withdrawn. The terrorists overthrow the new democratic order.

The dates: 1861-1877. The place: the American South.

Two new volumes tell this story well: Allen C. Guelzo's Fateful Lightning: A New History of the Civil War and Reconstruction and Steven E. Woodworth's This Great Struggle: America's Civil War.

Both authors are eminent authorities on the period. Guelzo, the Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era and Director of Civil War Era Studies at Gettysburg College, has published several important studies of Lincoln, including Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President (2003); Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America (2004); and Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates that Defined America (2008). This spring, Knopf will publish his new history of the Gettysburg campaign. Woodworth, professor of history at Texas Christian University, has written or edited over two dozen books on the war, among them Nothing but Victory: The Army of the Tennessee, 1861-1865(2005) and Manifest Destinies: America's Westward Expansion and the Road to the Civil War (2010).

Both books scrupulously chronicle the tumultuous events of 1861-1865, and each contains a brief account of the postwar Reconstruction era. Fateful Lightning, which is twice as long as This Great Struggle, covers political, economic, diplomatic, social, and intellectual developments extensively, while Woodworth's volume focuses closely on battles and leaders. Both are written with verve and demonstrate a masterful command of the vast literature on the subject. (Guelzo's footnotes and bibliography offer an excellent guide to that literature.) Because Guelzo paints on a larger canvas, he offers a more detailed picture of the coming of the war, devoting roughly a quarter of his pages to that complex story, whereas only a tenth of Woodworth's book deals with the antebellum years.

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The Civil War pitted a modernizing society (the North) against a traditional one (the South). During the generation before the war, reform mania gripped the North, sparking innovations in agriculture, social relations, gender relations, education, manufacturing, transportation, penology, medicine, science, and religion. Among the many strands of Northern reform, one emerged dominant: the antislavery crusade.

White Southerners recoiled in horror at the upsurge of reform sentiment, especially the attack on slavery. They revolted when Lincoln's party, championing modernization and antislavery, won the election of 1860. Rather than accept the results of that contest, they seceded from the Union. Guelzo argues that their action was not irrational. Taking issue with the so-called Revisionist school of Civil War historiography, which blamed the war on a blundering generation of political incompetents, he asserts that "[i]f there is anything that is genuinely appalling in the political context of the Civil War, it is the dominance of the most glittering and hard-edged political rationality. It was the hard edge of that rationality that, in the end, made a final compromise impossible."

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There is much to be said for that argument. As Lincoln told Alexander H. Stephens of Georgia (future vice president of the Confederacy): "You think slavery is right and ought to be extended; while we think it is wrong and ought to be restricted. That I suppose is the rub. It certainly is the only substantial difference between us." But, Lincoln asked,

Do the people of the South really entertain fears that a Republican administration would, directly, or indirectly, interfere with their slaves, or with them, about their slaves? If they do, I wish to assure you, as once a friend, and still, I hope, not an enemy, that there is no cause for such fears. The South would be in no more danger in this respect, than it was in the days of Washington.


Therefore, Lincoln thought, rational Southerners would not break up the Union.

Stephens agreed and urged his state to reject secession, at least until Lincoln had done something overt to justify extreme measures. But hotheads prevailed, moving former South Carolina congressman James Petigru to remark sardonically that his state was "too small for a republic and too large for an insane asylum."

Pettigru had a point. Emotional fury rather than cold, calculating reason underlay the arguments of many secessionists, who protested that critics of slavery had hurt their feelings. A New Orleans editor proclaimed that his region "has been moved to resistance chiefly…by the popular dogma in the free states that slavery is a crime in the sight of GOD. The South in the eyes of the North, is degraded and unworthy, because of the institution of servitude." Louisiana Senator Judah P. Benjamin, who was to become the most capable member of the Confederate cabinet, denounced "the incessant attack of the Republicans, not simply on the interests, but on the feelings and sensibilities of a high-spirited people by the most insulting language, and the most offensive epithets."

Secessionists were motivated not only by hurt feelings but by a fanatical desire to maintain white supremacy at all costs. That desire made rational sense for slaveholders. Non-slaveholders had other satisfactions. For them, as poor, ignorant, and backward as they might be, the slaves would always offer a caste of inferiors to which they could feel superior.

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War became inevitable when Lincoln refused to sanction any compromise permitting the expansion of slavery and denied the legitimacy of secession. Shortly after hostilities began, when informed that the White House mailbag bulged with appeals to abolish slavery, he replied:

For my own part, I consider the central idea pervading this struggle is the necessity that is upon us, of proving that popular government is not an absurdity. We must settle this question now, whether in a free government the minority have the right to break up the government whenever they choose. If we fail it will go far to prove the incapability of the people to govern themselves.


Throughout the war, he emphasized this theme, most notably at Gettysburg, where he explained that a chief aim of the war was to assure that "government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth."

Lincoln seemed frustrated that the public did not more fully appreciate that point. Over three years after the bombardment of Fort Sumter, he told a group of soldiers:

I wish it might be more generally and universally understood what the country is now engaged in. We have, as all will agree, a free Government, where every man has a right to be equal with every other man. In this great struggle, this form of Government and every form of human right is endangered if our enemies succeed. There is more involved in this contest than is realized by every one. There is involved in this struggle the question whether your children and my children shall enjoy the privileges we have enjoyed.


Both Guelzo and Woodworth are at pains to make that very point: although the war was fought to save the Union and (as time went by) to end slavery, it was also fought to vindicate democracy. Woodworth asserts: "the Civil War generation established that a free government truly could function and survive." Guelzo makes the case at greater length. Scorning the cynics who sneer "that Lincoln was merely a closet racist, that abolition counted for nothing in the absence of economic equality, and that white Northerners too quickly gave up on an ‘abolition war' for black freedom in order to embrace a painless reunion with their unrepentant foes," he insists that while emancipation was a great result of the war, "there was an even greater victory," one "so thoroughgoing that is has become easy for subsequent generations to take it for granted, or even to discount it as a poor companion to emancipation, and that was the survival of the Union, and with it, liberal democracy in the nineteenth century." He speculates that "[i]f a liberal democratic republic as successful as the American one had turned on itself and fractured from pressures it had created, the rejoicing from every crowned head, every dictator, and every princeling would be heard around the planet." To appreciate the importance of the North's victory, Guelzo invites readers to imagine what the world would have been like "if the American republic had fragmented into two pieces—or maybe three or even four and five pieces." Among other things, it could not have become "almost all that stood between civilization and the universal midnight of Nazism."

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Woodworth properly acknowledges the central role played by Lincoln in the North's war effort: "Thanks especially to Lincoln's superb civilian leadership, northern will to fight endured long enough to allow northern superiority in numbers and generalship to crush the Confederacy's uniformed armies." He also praises Lincoln's military "horse sense," which often gave him "better insight than his generals during the course of the war." Guelzo, one of the premier Lincolnians of our time, examines closely Lincoln's role in the prewar years as well as during his presidency.

In analyzing the reasons for Confederate defeat, Guelzo argues that the North's free market economy outperformed the South's command economy: the "free-labor ideology of the Republican Party, with its confidence that a ‘harmony of interests' naturally existed between capital and labor," impelled the Lincoln Administration to avoid "drastic economic interventions," whereas the Confederates, "insensibly obeying the logic of an authoritarian labor system, conscripted, confiscated, and imposed state-ordered controls." Woodworth emphasizes heavily the failure of touchy, vain Confederate generals to cooperate with each other.

That was evident in the Gettysburg campaign, which both authors cover admirably. Woodworth wryly observes that Confederate troops behaved badly as they marched through Maryland and Pennsylvania, seizing blacks and carrying them off to slavery: "It is ironic in the extreme that Confederate propaganda, both during the war and since, succeeded in establishing as fact the myth that Lee's noble soldiers left civilians and their property untouched during their march to immortality at Gettysburg, in contrast to the blue-clad ‘Yankee vandals' in their marches through the South. The real contrast was that the ‘Yankee vandals' did not kidnap civilians."

Those "vandals" included William T. Sherman's troopers who swept through Georgia, and Philip Sheridan's cavalrymen who stripped the Shenandoah Valley of its resources. Woodworth defends both generals: in Virginia and Georgia, "peaceful civilians were safe from personal abuse or injury." Sheridan's Valley campaign fell "far short of a total devastation of such an abundant farming district." Sherman's men "for the most part" obeyed his orders to exercise restraint on their foraging efforts and not to torch buildings wantonly. "All that Sherman proposed to do in Georgia was well within the existing laws and customs of war and not all that different, at least qualitatively, from what Lee and his army had practiced in Pennsylvania." Woodworth notes that "no evidence exists that anyone starved, either in the Shenandoah Valley or anywhere else in the South, outside of prison pens such as Andersonville."

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Wartime atrocities were mainly perpetrated by Confederate guerillas and regular troops who killed black soldiers after they had surrendered. Moreover, as Sherman passed through South Carolina, Confederates routinely slew captured Union foragers, black and white. When Confederate General Wade Hampton refused to stop that practice, Sherman threatened to retaliate, but after killing one Confederate POW he called a halt to further executions.

The burning of Columbia, South Carolina, is often cited as an example of Sherman's barbarism, but in fact some of the flames that enveloped that city were set by Confederates who destroyed cotton bales lest they fall into enemy hands; other flames were set by newly freed slaves; still others were set by Union soldiers. But thousands of other Yankee troops helped fight the fire.

Both Woodworth and Guelzo defend U.S. Grant as a general and as a president. They refute charges that he was merely a butcher who ground down the Confederates in a war of attrition. Woodworth rightly points out that Grant "favored maneuver over human erosion," as he demonstrated in the brilliant Vicksburg campaign. Comparing the Union commander to his Confederate counterpart, Guelzo concludes: "Over the long haul, Grant husbanded the lives of his men far more effectively than Lee; it was Lee, not Grant, who bled armies dry."

Grant's presidency, as Guelzo notes, "has frequently been portrayed as a miasma of corruption," but in fact it "was probably no more spotted than most of the prewar administrations." Moreover, Grant deserves credit for showing "considerable determination to smash anti-black civil violence from the Ku Klux Klan."

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Though Guelzo and Woodworth do not strain to draw lessons from history, they allude in passing to some parallels between the Civil War era and our own time. In his discussion of the scandals that marred Grant's second administration, Woodworth mordantly notes that "government money attracts corruption the way a carcass draws flies." One of the chief accomplishments of Reconstruction was the passage of the 14th Amendment, whose first section granted citizenship to blacks and mandated equal protection of the laws. But, as Woodworth observes, the authors of that document and the voters who ratified it "would have been amazed if they could have seen the interpretations the Supreme Court would make of their words in the twentieth century, but then so would the original framers of the Constitution."

In his treatment of Reconstruction's failure, Woodworth also observes that the "American people have never been very good at coping with a situation that is not quite an open war but not quite peace. They also fare poorly at waging a disputed occupation far from home against a hostile local civilian population." His remarks are apropos of the failure of the Grant Administration to protect freed slaves from violent whites in the 1870s, but they could equally well apply to the Obama Administration's decision to pull out of Iraq and Afghanistan. During Reconstruction, the U.S. in effect tried to bring true democracy to the South by granting blacks citizenship and intervening militarily to protect them from Klansmen and other terrorists. By withdrawing troops prematurely, the Grant Administration allowed Southern whites to overthrow the experiment in democratizing the South. A similar development is taking place in Iraq and may soon occur in Afghanistan.