Even when you are as fascinated by the American Civil War as I am, one sometimes wonders if there is much more that can be written about this momentous conflict. It seems that almost every aspect of the War has been covered in great depth. In my own modest library for example, books on the Battle of Gettysburg alone take up almost three shelves, whilst visiting the bookshops at any of the well-preserved Civil War battlefields maintained by the US National Parks Service one is presented with a vast array of Civil War books to choose from. It is therefore against this background that one can be somewhat sceptical when picking up another new book, particularly one that claims to examine ‘Civil War Controversies’.
“…revisits eleven episodes of the Civil War era—some lesser known than others—that, upon reexamination, may challenge our received understanding of the course of that conflict. It is hoped that this small volume will promote discussion and debate among those who enjoy Civil War history and contemplating alternatives to conventional conclusions and analyses.”
And it does exactly this, covering episodes that are both diverse and interesting.
The book opens with two examinations of what the author terms ‘The Greatest Confederate and the Greatest Federal’ errors respectively. In these opening chapters he lays out his approach, which is essentially to challenges some of the prevailing, and in cases, long-held ideas about the Civil War. Thus in these chapters he highlights the Confederacy’s mistaken reliance upon the power of ‘King Cotton’ to create international influence, and the Union’s failure to invest in breech-loading and repeating rifles early enough which, had it done so, might have helped shorten the War. In the subsequent chapters the author considers subjects as diverse as how banking in America was transformed under the leadership of Salmon Chase in order to finance the Union War effort; the responsibility for the burning of Atlanta; the relative merits of George H. Thomas and William T. Sherman as successful Union generals, and the relationship between McClellan and Lincoln. And of course the eponymous ‘Lost Dispatch’ receives its own chapter in which Leigh explores how the famous set of orders from Robert E. Lee’s headquarters in September 1862 fell into Union hands and should have gifted George McClellan the means to beat Lee. He considers the various theories as to how this situation occurred and concludes:
“Only the ghosts of those involved know the truth of how the Lost Dispatch came to be misplaced. But give the burgeoning access to historical information enabled by the Internet, more theories are surfacing. They range from the bizarre to the thought provoking. Perhaps you, dear reader, shall discover the answer.”
In all these and other subjects covered, the book provides thought provoking insights and observations on the American Civil War.
This is not a book that the average reader will pick up. As the author alludes to in the quote above, this book “revisits episodes” in the Civil War and a degree of prior knowledge is necessary to appreciate the discussion. However, this book is one that Civil War buffs will wish to read in order to have norms challenged and interest reinvigorated, and it will be retaining a place on the shelves in my library, despite the fact that they already bowing under the weight of Civil War literature!
Published: 21 May 2015