During the last year of the Civil War, roughly April 1864-April 1865, everything changed. And “everything” includes more than the collapse of the Confederacy and the surrenders of the Confederate armies. At the beginning of that year, the eventual outcome was not a foregone conclusion. How the waging of the war itself changed made the outcome inevitable.
Popular historian, author, and journalists S.C. Gwynne explains what changed in Hymns of the Republic: The Story of the Final Year of the American Civil War. This is popular history at its best, with an account filled with anecdotes, written in a broad sweep og events, and written so well that the book sweeps the reader up and places him right in the middle of the narrative.
Gwynne doesn’t attempt a day-by-day diary of the last year. Instead, he’s selected key events and personalities, and then he elaborates upon his subjects. We read about Ulysses S. Grant’s arrival in Washington to receive his commission as head of the Union armies – and his hasty departure. We stand with Robert E. Lee as he watches the arrival of the Union armies across the Rapidan River. We experience the Battle of the Wilderness in all its horror. We read about why shovels were so important, and how Clara Barton fundamentally changed battlefield medicine forever. We ride with Confederate Commander John Mosby and his Rangers, borderline terrorists who operated as comfortably behind Union lines as in front of them.
The central characters of the book are Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman. Neither Union general would have been marked to become military success stories, and Gwynne explains how they did it.
Grant changed how the war was fought, adopting a “keep pounding them and throwing men at them until they relent” approach. It eventually worked, but the cost in human life and suffering – on the Union side as much or more than the Confederate – was staggering.
Sherman was one of the first more modern generals who advocated total war. It wasn’t enough to defeat an army; you had to destroy that army’s ability to function, and that meant destroying the crops that fed the army, the cotton that helped pay for its weapons, and the civilian morale that kept up support for the army. While his march across Georgia was vilified as a heinous crime by Southerners, it wasn’t as bad as they made it out to be, and least in most places. What did live up to the vilification was the looting and destruction by Sherman’s army of Columbia, South Carolina’s capital.
On both sides, and it was likely more marked on the Union side, the last year of the war became a war of revenge and retribution, paving the way for Radical Reconstruction, especially after President Lincoln’s assassination.
Gwynne is the author of Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History, Rebel Yell; The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson, and The Perfect Pass: American Genius and the Reinvention of Football. His journalism work has been published in Time, Texas Monthly, The New York Times, Harper’s, and The Wall Street Journal. He lives in Austin, Texas.
Hymns of the Republic is a stirring, marvelous work, explaining how a war that had already cost so much became even more vicious, more ruthless, and more punitive.
Top illustration: The burning of Columbia, South Carolina, on Feb. 17, 1865, as depicted in Harper’s Weekly.