Fateful Lightning

This is a one-volume history of the Civil War and Reconstruction era by Professor Allen C. Guelzo. It was published in 2012. With James McPherson’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning Battle Cry of Freedom now almost 30 years old, it needs a successor. This volume is a worthy candidate.

Professor Guelzo is an excellent writer, and the book makes for compelling reading. Some may not like his use of more of a topical rather than strictly chronological organization, but for me it worked after an initial question about what he was doing.

The book begins with Abraham Lincoln’s second Inaugural Address, delivered March 4, 1865, a little over a month prior to his assassination. “There were, Lincoln said, three fundamental causes that had pushed the United States into the war. One of them was political, and that was the fact that the United States had been organized since its birth as a union. It was the creation of thirteen former English colonies, huddled along the eastern seaboard of North America, that had declared themselves independent states in 1776 but also linked themselves together under a joint congress as a confederation. Ever since, there had been voices within those states arguing irritably that this Union was a bad bargain that ought to be terminated. The voices had come to a crescendo in the Southern states of the Union in 1861, and Lincoln had found himself as president ‘devoted altogether to saving the Union without war’ while at the same time having to deal with people who thought it right and proper ‘to destroy it without war–seeking to dissolve the Union, and divide effects, by negotiation. But simply because the Southern states thought the Union should be dissolved did not necessarily mean that it had to be, ought to be, or even could be, and that led Lincoln to the next fundamental reason for civil war. ‘One eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the Southern part of it.’ Protecting slavery, Lincoln declared, had become the chief irritant that provoked the Southern states to reach for the solution of disunion. … Lincoln had come into office in 1861 swearing to uphold the Constitution, which gave a number of vague guarantees to slaveholding in the fifteen Southern states where it was legal, and which gave presidents no power to meddle in state affairs such as slavery. … Should slavery be permitted to plant itself in [the] territories? There, Lincoln and his party had drawn the line: they would not crush slavery where it was, but they would not allow it to spread, either. … ‘Both parties deprecated war,’ Lincoln said, ‘but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive; and the other would accept war rather than let it perish.’ Lincoln paused for a long moment, looking out over the upturned faces crowding the Capitol steps. ‘And the war came.’ ” [pp. 4-5]

Professor Guelzo gives us a short history of our political development from the Articles of Confederation through secession. He includes why Democrats in particular didn’t like internal improvements, why they didn’t like the national bank, and he also goes over the forces that tended to increase our unity as a nation as well as the forces that tended to work to increase our national instability. “Jeffersonian Democrats especially opposed calls for government-financed public works, or ‘internal improvements,’ since it was obvious that the new roads, bridges, and canals could serve only one purpose–to make it easier for farmers to reach distant markets, and for the markets to tempt American farmers into their grasp. It also went without saying that ‘internal improvements’ could be financed only through federal taxation, and farmers who grew or manufactured only for their own households would never be able to find the money to pay those taxes without surrendering their cherished independence and growing what the market would pay them for in cash. Power was toxic, and no amount of it was safe for liberty. … The Democrats reserved their greatest venom for the two newest instruments of capitalist finance, the bank and the chartered corporation.” [p. 16] Taking us through the Nullification Crisis, Professor Guelzo tells us, “But even with all the forces that appeared to be pulling Americans apart–from the fissiparous nature of the federal Union to the clashing economic visions of Whig and Democrat–none of them had the weight to outbalance the forces making the American Union stronger with every decade, nor did they have the power by themselves to fracture the Union. That sort of disruption would require the introduction of a catalyst, which would act on all the divisions of Americans to worsen them. That catalyst would be slavery.” [pp. 22-23] He gives us a lengthy explanation of why slavery led to secession and to war.

Taking us through secession and into the war, Professor Guelzo gets into the strategies favored by the two sides, including Robert E. Lee’s outlook on the war. “Lee knew that democracies do not easily bear the burden of long wars. Democracies are geared to peace, and public opinion in a democracy cannot be regimented and drummed up repeatedly. If the Confederates were wise, they would ‘give all the encouragement we can, consistently with truth, to the rising peace party of the North.’ Let Lincoln’s Northern opposition declare the war to be lost, let them wax eloquent about their desires for an armistice and negotiations ‘for a restoration of the Union,’ and let their constant yammering for peace talks finally compel Lincoln to agree to an armistice. Once a truce was announced and the talks begun, Lincoln would never be able to convince war-weary Northerners to restart the war; the Confederates could then dismiss any talk about ‘bringing us back to the Union’ and demand a ‘distinct and independent national existence.’ That, of course, meant allowing Lincoln’s Northern opposition to think that the goal of peace talks would be reunion when in fact the Confederates never intended any other outcome than independence, but ‘it is not the part of prudence to spurn the proposition in advance, merely because those who wish … to believe that it will result in bringing us back to the Union.’ Cynical, perhaps, but ‘should the belief that peace will bring back the Union become general, the war would no longer be supported, and that after all is what we are interested in bringing about.’ Looking to wear down Northern morale before Northern numbers could overwhelm him, Lee leaped to the attack at every opportunity he could.” [p. 338]

The book does have some minor errors in it. On page 7 he writes, “Three of the state conventions that eventually ratified the Constitution–those of New York, Virginia, and Rhode Island–agreed to ratification only after adding resolutions that declared that they still retained the right to retrieve the powers they had surrendered.” That’s a misinterpretation of what they wrote, as I discuss here. On page 20 he says, “In December 1814 delegates from Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island met at Hartford, Connecticut, to express their opposition to the war and make ugly suggestions about seceding from the Union and making a separate peace with Great Britain.” This again is incorrect. There was no discussion of secession at the Hartford Convention, nor was their any threat or even suggestion of secession. I discussed the Hartford Convention here. On page 78 he writes, “James M. Mason, who had read the dying Calhoun’s demand for an open door into the territories for slavery in 1850, happily prophesied that the Kansas-Nebraska bill ‘bore the character of peace and tended to the establishment of peace.’ His fellow senator from Ohio, Benjamin Franklin Wade, could not have disagreed more.” This is perhaps not worded the way Professor Guelzo intended. It makes it seem as though both Mason and Wade were senators from Ohio, instead of just Wade. Wade was indeed a fellow senator, but Mason was not from Ohio–he was from Virginia. Perhaps it should have been worded, “His fellow senator, Benjamin Franklin Wade of Ohio, …”

On page 340 he says Lee suffered a heart attack on March 30, 1863. That is very possible, but we have no definitive proof of that. He should have worded it to make it clear it’s a speculation.

On page 344 he said, “only vigorous protests from his corps commanders prevented Meade from throwing in the towel and ordering a retreat” at Gettysburg. This, I think, is too tough on Meade. While some sources, such as Daniel Sickles, back this up, other sources do not.

On page 346 he said Meade failed to pursue Lee after Gettysburg. That’s not the case. Meade did indeed conduct a pursuit of Lee.

On page 437 he said “a West Point education was a poor preparation for anything but army employment.” That is an egregious error, as West Point was perhaps the premiere engineering school in the United States at the time.

On page 447 he claims John B. Hood took opium and alcohol for pain. That’s patently untrue and was shown to be false by historian Stephen Davis in 1998.

In several places, pages 63, 197, 211, and 213, he refers to Ulysses S. Grant as Ulysses Simpson Grant. That’s inaccurate. Grant’s real name was Hiram Ulysses Grant. His name was changed due to a foul-up by the congressman appointing him, who forgot his actual name and assumed his middle name was actually his first name and his middle initial was S since his mother’s maiden name was Simpson. The middle name was never officially written as “Simpson.” Only the initial “S.” was used.

The minor errors above don’t affect the reliability of the book as a whole, It’s still an excellent book and I still highly recommend it for students who are new to the study of the war.


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