Share this article

print logo

A Civil War treasure trove: The generals remember

It is unlikely you ever have read a Civil War book quite like "Hearts Touched by Fire."

"Hearts" is not another telling of the story of reluctant Union generals who eventually won a war despite themselves, nor is it the romantic tales of the brave but outgunned Rebel commanders.

It is the down-to-earth recounting of the death, deprivation and destruction of the American Civil War, written by the very generals and chiefs of staff whose names 150 years later are forever linked to places like Manassas, Bull Run, Vicksburg, Gettysburg, Savannah and Appomattox.

In the 1880s, less than 20 years after the end of the most destructive war ever waged on American soil, two young editors at the Century magazine convinced their senior editors to allow them to solicit a few articles from ranking officers or their immediate subordinates on the major battles of the war. It might boost sagging circulation, they argued.

At first, all, including the senior editors, were reluctant to stir up old animosities between North and South, Yank and Johnnie. Then Ulysses S. Grant broke the ice after a personal financial deal went sour and he found himself in need of ready cash. That opened the floodgates.

Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard wanted his side told. So did Gen. George McClellan and Gen. James Longstreet. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman's right-hand man, Maj. Gen. Henry Slocum, wanted to set the record straight on the march to the sea. Brig. Gen. John Imboden wanted to do the same for his boss, Gen. Stonewall Jackson, who treated the Shenandoah Valley as his private highway until he was shot accidentally by one of his own men.

As magazine circulation shot up, a few articles grew to 99, published over a three-year span, complete with grainy photographs, sketches made from photos, freehand sketches drawn on the scene and detailed maps of the battlefields.

Lucky for us and for posterity. The articles called "Battles and Leaders of the Civil War" became a treasure trove of information, information which otherwise might have been carried to the graves of the Civil War generation.

Now, to commemorate the sesquicentennial of the war between the states, a team of Civil War scholars, led by Harold Holzer, whose name has been synonymous with Abraham Lincoln and the politics of the Civil War, has pulled together the best of these articles -- 62 in all -- into a narrative which covers the four years of war.

The editors have modernized the spelling and punctuation but otherwise have left the articles intact. The first-person accounts are highly annotated because as one might expect, the original authors presumed a knowledge of the war far beyond what exists today. The editors also have included a large number of the illustrations and portraits that accompanied the articles.

In addition to shaping the articles into an unfolding narrative, the editors crafted a synopsis of each year, which in itself is worth the price of this huge volume.

To be sure, the writing is uneven, but that is part of the charm of this book. It is part recollection and part memoir, with some of the personal memories overshadowing the outcome of the battles.

For example, Rear Adm. Henry Walker relates during the battle of Fort Donelson how "the guns furnished the Western Flotillas were less destructive to the enemy than to ourselves."

At another point, a Union aide-de-camp records for history how Abraham Lincoln came to Richmond shortly after that city's fall and sat pensively for a moment in Jefferson Davis' parlor chair. Then when Gen. Godfrey Weitzel asked the president how the rebel civilians should be treated, Lincoln said: "If I were in your place, I'd let 'em up easy. Let 'em up easy."

But for the most part, this is a story of battles, of strategic locations, and of the movement of troops and supplies more than it is a story of men and their heroic deeds. The battles at Gettysburg are told in minute detail by two Confederate generals and the Union's chief artillery officer. It is notable that the outcome at Gettysburg was not seen as a turning point in the war by those who survived the battle.

Grant describes the siege and surrender of Vicksburg in a 50-page article that included many maps and sketches. He complains that his major problem was how to feed 40,000 troops and keep them in ammunition. He also groused about communicating with subordinates and the outside world when all communiques were hopelessly outdated by the time they arrived. Some say this was his excuse for ignoring orders from the high command.

Still, through all the detail of the Vicksburg telling, the humanity of war in the 19th century comes through. The Yanks and the Johnnies regularly shouted to each other from behind fortifications. And after the fall of Vicksburg, the captured infantrymen signed parole papers promising not to fight again, and were sent home to farm their land.

Many of the articles are self-serving, just as many of the books written by generals after World War II were used to advance the post-war reputations and careers of the writers. The editors counsel that the writers are not objective observers and note the obvious errors of fact.

In an impassioned and sometimes bitter defense of his refusal to pursue the Confederates, McClellan blames the Washington politicians, especially Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, for his inaction.

Not to be outdone, Longstreet blames poor tactics by Gen. Robert E. Lee for the setbacks at Harper's Ferry, Sharpsburg and Antietam. And several Southern generals point a dismissive finger at President Jefferson Davis' incompetence for their own lack of success on the battlefield. By the time of their writing in 1884-87, Davis had been discredited on all sides and made for a most convenient scapegoat.

Yet Grant had nothing but praise for Lincoln. To counter claims that Lincoln and his war secretary attempted to run the war from Washington, Grant wrote that the president told him: "All I wanted, or ever had wanted, was some one who would take the responsibility and act . . . The President told me that he did not want to know what I proposed to do . . . I did not communicate my plans to the President."

Through 1,200 pages of battles and battlefield tactics, there can be found jewels of humanity.

The pathos of the fall of Richmond in the spring of 1865 is seen through the eyes of the captain charged with leading the local brigade once the defending Confederate troops slipped out of town.

He tells of the tearful fleeing, the rioting, the fires, the plunder of the remaining stores by starving civilians and the burning of the final bridge. It was clear to Capt. Clement Sulivane that the war was lost.

On the other side of the lines, we learn of "a small but enterprising Virginia newsboy [who] managed to slip into our lines with the morning paper. . . . He seemed utterly indifferent to the horrors of war, crossed the bridge with the cavalry and found his first customer in Lt. Whitehead," who paid a quarter for his copy of the Richmond Inquirer.

As horrible as this war was -- there were more than 359,000 military deaths -- it probably was the last war that ended with a victorious general (Grant in this case) instructing his infantrymen to stop the celebrations. According to Horace Porter who stood next to Grant outside Appomattox Courthouse, the future president said: "The war is over, the rebels are our countrymen again."

Holzer and his fellow editors have done a great service compiling these first-person recollections into a neat, if huge, volume. And those two young editors at The Century Magazine never knew the value and scope of the contribution they were making to American history.

Edward Cuddihy is a retired Buffalo News managing editor.


Hearts Touched By Fire: The Best of Battles and Leaders of the Civil War

Edited by Harold Holzer

Modern Library

1,227 pages, $38

There are no comments - be the first to comment