By late 1861 and early 1862, people on both sides of the Civil War had begun to understand that this conflict wasn’t going to be “over by Christmas.” There would be no knockout punch; instead, it was going to be a long, tough slog. And the outcome was anything but assured. While we have the benefit of hindsight, the people who lived through the Civil War didn’t have foresight.
You can argue that every year of the Civil War was a critical year in some way, and 1862 was no different. The naval blockade of the Southern states would tighten; New Orleans would fall to Union Admiral David Farragut; and some of the bloodiest battles of the war – like Shiloh and Antietam – would be fought, along with Second Manassas or Second Bull Run. And Abraham Lincoln had begun to move toward a proclamation to emancipate the slaves in the seceding states – a political move rather than a military one, and one fraught with political risk.
The Civil War: The Second Year Told by Those Who Fought It tells the story of 1862. And it tells it in the words of the political and military leaders, soldiers, and ordinary citizens who led it, fought it, experienced it, survived it, and, in some cases, died during it.
Edited by historian and author Stephen Sears, the volume is the second of four in the Library of America collection of first-account Civil War writings. Sears has made use of memoirs, newspaper reports, letters, legislative acts, speeches, proclamations, and more, providing a short introduction to each to provide context. But you read what was happening by the people who were there.
The volume includes accounts by well-known authors like Nathaniel Hawthorne, who visited the White House and met Lincoln; the poet Emily Dickinson; the poet and author Herman Melville; and Ralph Waldo Emerson. You read minutes and letters by the members of Lincoln’s cabinet, and diplomatic summaries from Charles Francis Adams (grandson of John Adam and son of John Quincy Adams), reporting from London. A considerable number of Lincoln’s letters, acts and proclamations are included (including both the first-draft Emancipation Proclamation issued together with the suspension of the write of habeus corpus). Speeches are here, like by former slave and emancipation activist Frederick Douglass. The letters of soldiers and officers to loved ones are represented.
What emerges from all these reports is the understanding that the war would be costly, that there was nothing romantic about it, and that politics could be just as important in making military decisions as military objectives themselves.
Sears has published books on the battles of Gettysburg, Antietam, the Peninsular Campaign, and Chancellorsville, and on George McClellan, Lee’s lieutenants, Lincoln’s lieutenants, Lincoln’s generals, and related subjects.
The Civil War: The Second Year by Those Who Lived It is an often surprising, sometimes shocking, and always fascinating story of what happened in 1862. And it’s told by the people of the time.
Top illustration: The Second Battle of Manassas or Bull Run in 1862.