Some years ago, I had the pleasure to stay in a historic cabin on a property in Spotsylvania that still hosts extant Civil War trenches. Those who imagine great armies clad in blue and grey massed against each other with pennants aloft on open fields would not be wrong for the first years of the struggle, but those trenches better reflect the reality of the war as it ground to its slow, bloody conclusion in its final year. Those last months contained some of the greatest drama and most intense suffering of the entire conflict, yet often receive far less attention than deserved. A welcome redress to this neglect is Hymns of the Republic: The Story of the Final Year of the American Civil War, by journalist and historian S.C. Gwynne, that neatly marries literature to history and resurrects for us the kind of stirring narratives that once dominated the field.
Looking back, for all too many Civil War buffs it might seem that a certain Fourth of July in 1863—when in the east a battered Lee retreated from Gettysburg on the same day that Vicksburg fell in the west—marked the beginning of the end for the Confederacy. But experts know that assessment is overdrawn. Certainly, the south had sustained severe body blows on both fronts, but the war yet remained undecided. Like the colonists four score and seven years prior to that day, these rebels did not need to “win” the war, only to avoid losing it. As it was, a full ninety-two weeks—nearly two years—lay ahead until Appomattox, some six hundred forty-six days of bloodshed and uncertainty for both sides, most of what truly mattered compressed into the last twelve months of the war. And, tragically, those trenches played a starring role.
Hymns of the Republic opens in March 1864, when Ulysses Grant—architect of the fall of Vicksburg that was by far the more significant victory on that Independence Day 1863—was brought east and given command of all Union Armies. In the three years since Fort Sumter, the war had not gone well in the east, largely as the result of a series of less-than-competent northern generals who had squandered opportunities and been repeatedly driven to defeat or denied outright victory by the wily tactician, Robert E. Lee. The seat of the Confederacy at Richmond—only a tantalizing ninety-five miles from Washington—lay unmolested, while European powers toyed with the notion of granting them recognition. The strategic narrative in the west was largely reversed, marked by a series of dramatic Union victories crafted by skilled generals, crowned by Grant’s brilliant campaign that saw Vicksburg fall and the Confederacy virtually cut in half. But all eyes had been on the east, to Lincoln’s great frustration. Now events in the west were largely settled, and Lincoln brought Grant east, confident that he had finally found his general who would defeat Lee and end the war. But while Lincoln’s instincts proved sound in the long term, misplaced optimism for an early close to the conflict soon evaporated. More than a year of blood and tears lay ahead.
Much of the battle tactics are a familiar story—Grant Takes Command was the exact title of a Bruce Catton classic—but Gwynne updates the narrative with the benefit of the latest scholarship that not only looks beyond the stereotypes of Grant and Lee, but the very dynamics of more traditional treatments focused solely upon battles and leaders. Most prominently, he resurrects the African Americans that until somewhat recently were for too long conspicuously absent from much Civil War history, buried beneath layers of propaganda spun by unreconstructed Confederates who fashioned an alternate history of the war—the “Lost Cause” myth—that for too long dominated Civil War studies and still stubbornly persists both in right-wing politics and the curricula of some southern school systems to this day. In the process, Gwynne restores the role of African Americans as central players to the struggle who have long been erased from the history books.
Erased. Remarkably, most Americans rarely thought of blacks at all in the context of the war until the film Glory (1989) and Ken Burns’ docuseries The Civil War (1990) came along. And there are still books—Joseph Wheelan’s Their Last Full Measure: The Final Days of the Civil War, published in 2015, springs to mind—that demote these keys actors to bit parts. Yet, without enslaved African Americans there would have never been a Civil War. The centrality of slavery to secession has been just as incontrovertibly asserted by the scholarly consensus as it has been vehemently resisted by Lost Cause proponents who would strike out that uncomfortable reference and replace it with the euphemistic “States’ Rights,” neatly obscuring the fact that southern states seceded to champion and perpetuate the right to own dark-complected human beings as chattel property. Social media is replete with concocted fantasies of legions of “Black Confederates,” but the reality is that about a half million African Americans fled to Union lines, and so many enlisted to make war on their former masters that by the end of the war fully ten percent of the Union army was comprised of United States Colored Troops (USCT). Blacks knew what the war was about, and ultimately proved a force to be reckoned with that drove Union victory, even as a deeply racist north often proved less than grateful for their service.
Borrowing a page from the latest scholarship, Gwynne points to the prominence of African Americans throughout the war, but especially in its final months—marked both by remarkable heroism and a trail of tragedy. His story of the final year of the conflict commences with the massacre at Fort Pillow in April 1864 of hundreds of surrendering federal troops—the bulk of whom were uniformed blacks—by Confederates under the command of Nathan Bedford Forrest. The author gives Forrest a bit of a pass here—while the general was himself not on the field, he later bragged about the carnage—but Gwynne rightly puts focus on the long-term consequences, which were manifold.
The Civil War was the rare conflict in history not marred by wide scale atrocities—except towards African Americans. Lee’s allegedly “gallant” forces in the Gettysburg campaign kidnapped blacks they encountered to send south into slavery, and while Fort Pillow might have been the most significant open slaughter of black soldiers by southerners, it was hardly the exception. Confederates were enraged to see blacks garbed in uniform and sporting a rifle, and thus they were frequently murdered once disarmed rather than taken prisoner like their white counterparts. Something like a replay of Fort Pillow occurred at the Battle of the Crater during the siege of Petersburg, although the circumstances were more ambiguous, as the blacks gunned down in what rebels termed a “turkey shoot” were not begging for their lives as at Pillow. This was not far removed from official policy, of course: the Confederate government threatened to execute or sell into slavery captured black soldiers, and refused to consider them for prisoner exchange. This was a critical factor that led to the breakdown of the parole and exchange processes that had served as guiding principles throughout much of the war. The result bred conditions on both sides that led to the horrors of overcrowding and deplorable conditions in places like Georgia’s Andersonville and Camp Douglas in Chicago.
Meanwhile, Grant was hardly disappointed with the collapse of prisoner exchange. To his mind, anything that denied the south men or materiel would hasten the end of the war, which was his single-minded pursuit. Grant has long been subjected to calumnies that branded him “Grant the Butcher” because he seemed to throw lives away in hopeless attempts to dislodge a heavily fortified enemy. The most infamous example of this was Cold Harbor, which saw massive Union casualties. But Lee’s tactical victory there—it was to be his last of the war—further depleted his rapidly diminishing supply of men and arms which simply could not be replaced. Grant had a strategic vision that set him apart from the rest. That Lee pushed on as the odds shrunk for any outcome other than ultimate defeat came to beget what Gwynne terms “the Lee paradox: the more the Confederates prolonged the war, the more the Confederacy was destroyed.” [p252] And that destruction was no unintended consequence, but a deliberate component of Grant’s grand strategy to prevent food, munitions, pack animals, and slave labor from supporting the enemy’s war effort. Gwynne finds fault with Sherman’s generalship, but his “march to the sea” certainly achieved what had been intended. And while a northern public divided between those who would make peace with the rebels and those impatient with both Grant and Lincoln for an elusive victory, it was Sherman who delivered Atlanta and ensured the reelection of the president, something much in doubt even in Lincoln’s own mind.
There is far more contained within the covers of this fine work than any review could properly summarize. Much to his credit, the author does not neglect those often marginalized by history, devoting a well-deserved chapter to Clara Barton entitled “Battlefield Angel.” And the very last paragraph of the final chapter settles upon Juneteenth, when—far removed from the now quiet battlefields—the last of the enslaved finally learned they were free. Thus, the narrative ends as it has begun, with African Americans in the central role in the struggle too often denied to them in other accounts. For those well-read in the most recent scholarship, there is little new in Hymns of the Republic, but the general audience will find much to surprise them, if only because a good deal of this material has long been overlooked. Perhaps Gwynne’s greatest achievement is in distilling a grand story from the latest historiography and presenting it as the kind of exciting read Civil War literature is meant to be. I highly recommend it.
I reviewed Their Last Full Measure: The Final Days of the Civil War, by Joseph Wheelan, here: Review of: Their Last Full Measure: The Final Days of the Civil War, by Joseph Wheelan
The definitive study of the massacre at Fort Pillow is River Run Red: The Fort Pillow Massacre in the American Civil War, by Andrew Ward, which I reviewed here: Review of: River Run Red: The Fort Pillow Massacre in the American Civil War, by Andrew Ward