It’s last of the four volumes of Civil War, told in the words of people who lived it. The Civil War: The Final Year covers the year from March of 1864 through June of 1865, and it’s every bit as somber and thought-provoking as its three predecessors.
The volume is edited by Aaron Sheehan-Dean, Fred C. Frey Professor and History Department Chair at Louisiana State University. The Final Year covers some of the final major battles of the war, including Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor, Atlanta, and Petersburg, as well as Ulysses S. Grant taking control of the Union army and William Sherman’s march across Georgia to the sea.
Using letters, diaries, memoirs, speeches, official orders and directives, newspaper reports, and much more, the book provides a broad telling of how civilians and soldiers on both sides lived that final year. You get the good and heroic, and you read the bad and the cowardly. You also see how newspapers on both sides, but especially those in the Union, helped fan the flames of hatred and desire for retribution.
You read the experiences of women and children in the path of Sherman’s army in Georgia, and how troops routinely ignored Sherman’s directive not to touch private homes (barns, stables, smokehouses, sheds, and henhouses were fair game). You read how a Louisiana woman deals with both Union troops and slaves who’ve freed themselves. You read letters full of hope and heartbreak. You see communications between generals and their subordinates. And you experience the presence of Abraham Lincoln, and what happens when the president is assassinated at Ford’s Theatre.
You can also read what was already emerging as the postwar sentiment on both sides, from radical Republicans and unrepentant Southerners, including and sometimes especially the women. It’s the Civil War in all its glory and terror, and the Confederacy in its death throes.
At LSU, Sheehan-Dean teaches courses on the Civil War and Reconstruction, history of the New South, nd a graduate readings seminar on 19th century America. He received his B.A. degree from Northwestern University, and his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Virginia. In addition to the numerous articles he’s written on the Civil War and related topics, he’s also edited or co-authored several books on the war, including Why Confederates Fought: Family and Nation in Civil War Virginia and Concise Atlas of the U.S. Civil War.
The Civil War: The Final Year Told by Those Who Lived It is a fitting conclusion to the entire series. It’s the history of an event, a time, and the people who lived it whose effects we are still experiencing and living with today.
Top photograph: the McClean House in Appomattox Court House, Virginia, where Lee and Grant met to discuss surrender terms.