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Fateful Lightning: A New History of the Civil War and Reconstruction
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67 of 68 people found the following review helpful
on July 30, 2012
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Dr. Allen C. Guelzo is the Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War era at Gettysburg College. Dr. Guelzo has written a heaving shelf of well received books dealing with Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War era. His new one volume history of the Civil War "Fateful Lightning" is a small print 536 hefty pages in the Oxford paperback edition. The book is illustrated with period drawings and contains a detailed bibliography which will whet the appetite of Civil War buffs & historians and general readers. The book is a scholarly master effort and is the best one volume history of the war since Dr. James McPherson's peerless "The Battle Cry of Freedom." A caveat: this book is NOT STRICTLY A MILITARY HISTORY OF THE WAR containing detailed accounts of battles! There are many such books as these. What Guelzo has done is look at America during this horrific time of civil war thorugh the eyes of a social historian. Guelzo examines in detail such issues as:
a. The plight of slavery and the divisive battles in Congress in pre-bellum American society to deal with this horrible and divisive "peculiar institution." Many pages are discussed to explaining the ramificationos the Missouri Compromise of 1820; the Compromise of 1850; the Kansas-Nebraska popular sovereignity Act of 1854 and the Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision which stated that slaves were not citizens and owners did not have to relinquish their ownership of chattel servants. Leaders discussed in this time were Henry Clay; Daniel Webster and John Calhoun. Weak presidents were unable to deal with slavery; John Tyler; Franklin Pierce and the inept James Buchanan among others.
b. The role of women, native Americans, immigrants and African Americans are explored in depth.
c. The technology of modern warfare; the care of the wounded and the importance of the Union naval blockade are discussed.
d. The role of Protestant evangelicism in the rise of abolitionism is discussed as well as Southern religion and the lives lived by Jews and Roman Catholics is described.
e. Many pages deal with the life and career of President Abraham Lincoln from life on the Kentucky frontier to his assassination in Ford's Theatre on April 14, 1865 by John Wilkes Booth. Only with Lincoln's wise leadership and eloquent speech was the Union able to triumph over the Confederacy led by Presidet Jefferson Davis.
f. Guelzo looks at the literary works of the era as they are reflected by events during the war. Walt Whitman's poetry is especially moving and germane.
g. Union and Confederate diplomacy is explored especially regarding relationships with Great Britain and France.
h. Battles and campaigns are briefly covered and their role in strategy is presented to the reader.
Throughout this learned tome the author makes extensive quotes from the speeches, diaries, letters and unit histories of everyone from Lincoln to the common soldier. Guelzo has done his homework to make this book come alive in the mind of the reader!
If I were teaching a class on the Civil War era I would use this book as a textbook along with McPherson's "The Battle Cry of Freedom" and Shelby Foote's monumental three volume set on the American Illiad. As a veteran reader of Civil War literature I would highly recommend "Fateful Lightning" for your 150th anniversary of the Civil War reading!
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63 of 65 people found the following review helpful
on July 19, 2012
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This book is highly recommended for those who are generally familiar with the military history of the American Civil War. It explores, in some detail, the consequences of the war's impact on American society, both North and South. It adds another dimension to the understanding of the United State's greatest crisis.

This is not a military history of the Civil War. It is not about its great battles and military leaders, but rather it is a history of the causes of the war, its civilian leadership, its impact on ordinary people, how the soldier in the ranks was equipped, fed, led and died, ending with, a lucid discussion of the post war Reconstruction, its short term achievements and its ultimate failure. What did the war actually achieve, if anything? This book is a different slant on Civil War history, thus, the subtitle: ".........A New History of the Civil War.

Specific battles are discussed only in general terms related as to how their outcomes impacted policy both domestic and international. More emphasis is given to the details of the weapons used; fundamental battle tactics and how military units were raised, organized and equipped.

The dislocation of and the great change in the roles of the female population, particularly in the South, dramatically illustrate in part the war's impact on civilian populations. Wives of southern plantation owners, in the absence of males off to war, were thrust from the relative luxury of aristocratic plantation life to one of total responsibility of plantation management creating untold hardships. Violent riots occurred initiated by urban women in the south as a result of substantial food shortages, and in the North against the inequities of the military draft.

This work lucidly dissects post war Reconstruction. The congressional Republican Radicals and the Andrew Johnson administration crashed head on with diametrically opposed views of how to restore the Union. The former prevailed and the latter narrowly escaped impeachment. Despite some short-term successes Reconstruction failed long term. The issues of slaves relative to the Civil War are well known and further discussed here with emphasis on their struggle for freedom after they were "freed". If a purpose of the Civil War was to "free" the slaves it succeeded, however, it failed abolition in the sense of creating parity in citizenship with whites despite the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution. The reasons for this were multiple and clearly explained.

One has to consider "what ifs". What if Lincoln had survived? Would he have implemented Reconstruction more successfully? The author points out that Lincoln's political genius enabled him to achieve objectives by circumventing direct confrontation. Johnson, on the contrary was extremely confrontational, a recipe for failure in dealing with the equally confrontational Republican Radicals, who's majority was veto proof. However, there were certain factors contributing to Reconstruction's long-term failure over which Lincoln would have had little control. Lincoln predicted that it would take a hundred years for the freed slaves to live side by side with whites, which it did.
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18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on August 4, 2012
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I started reading Civil War history about a year ago -- I have some time to devote to this interest after semi-retiring. I had read several books of history and memoirs (including Grant's), but I still didn't have a clear view of the overall context and course of the War. So this book is just what I needed at the time. I learned a lot about the events that led to the war, and there is also information about Reconstruction that led me to order a book recommended by Guelzo: The Era of Reconstruction 1865-1877 by Kenneth M. Stampp. (I haven't read it yet.)

I recommend this book to those whose interest in the Civil War is sufficient to justify reading a work of this length.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on February 16, 2014
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I read a very good book by this author titled "Gettysburg: The Last Invasion" last year and was looking forward to this volume. It was not what I expected but the more I read the more I enjoyed the book.
I was expecting a narrative survey history of the era similar to Battle Cry of Freedom. Instead I learned that what is "new" about this book is the author's approach to the history of the era. This book contains a more diversified discussion of various topics written with a broad brush emphasizing social and cultural issues over the military history of the war. The military history of the war is most often seen as a result of the political and social events and not so much the cause of them. When I say broad brush I mean that the author wrote about what he felt was important without feeling compelled to make sure that he provided all of the details of a particular subject. Several times he mentioned Robert E. Lee riding his horse without ever telling the reader that the horse was named Traveler. Most books I have read included that information either because the author was showing off or they felt that those types of details were necessary for a thorough historical record. For this book that was an insignificant detail.
Instead of those types of details the author has several discussions on different aspects of the role of women in the history of the Civil War era. He goes far and wide to include women of all walks of life and their participation in different events. I cannot recall another history of this era that mentioned the Seneca Falls convention and its importance. I was not aware that because of his support of women's rights the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison lost control of the American Anti-Slavery Society. This happened in 1840 and is part of a lengthy discussion of the political changes that led up to secession. Guelzo describes in some detail the problems that confronted women when all of the men left home to go to war. Many women joined the work force or had to learn how to manage a 50 acre farm with all of the physical labor that was required.
The political events in the South are given equal time with those of the North which means they receive greater attention than is usual. One of the ongoing themes is the changes that took place in the Confederate government in its fight to survive. The Southerners began by founding a nation and then turned to creating a nation-state whose principles were in many ways contradictory to the state's right ideals they began with. The South began military conscription before the North did and like the North suspended the writ of habeas corpus to deal with internal dissension. The Southern Vice-President was highly critical of the government and spent the last years of the war out of Richmond living in his home in Georgia. Most significant was the enlistment of slaves as soldiers by the Southern army in the last months of the war.
The author provides some insightful criticisms of mistakes made by the South in their handling of the war. The informal embargo on the sale of cotton at the beginning of the war deprived the South of the wealth from their prime economic asset when it was critically needed to build up their army. Their attempt to finance the war by printing money led to inflation which destroyed the economy. At one point in the book the author worked the name of Immanuel Kant into a discussion of the effect of the ideas of the Enlightenment and the Romantic movement on the culture of the South. The discussion focused on the unrealistic and self destructive qualities of Southern political ideology.
The emphasis in this book is not on narrative history but analysis of the people and events which provides some new insights. This is not a book written for someone interested in details about the military or political history of this era. The author has turned away from the standard chronological narrative. He sought new understandings and explanations for what happened and why during this portion of the continuing American revolution. I feel he has made a valuable contribution to a "new" history of of the subject.
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17 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on August 11, 2012
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Many writers of history, even those who win Pulitizer Prizes, often provide a Niagara of details-- but give little, or often almost no explanation of how each new detail is connected to details in previous pages, or previous years. Midway in their books the reader has learned countless new details or small facts, but is struggling to connect the small moments and facts in history with other moments or facts so that the book makes sense to the reader(s)
President Lincoln's famous words, spoken on the steps of the Capitol Building, "And the war came" are without meaning without knowing the connections of those words with other facts which were the Prologue to the Civil War.
Allen C. Guelzo's splendid book, A New History of the Civil War and Reconstruction is one of the best books I have read in a lifetime of reading because it provides facts and details and connects them with other moments in history and the new facts that were a part of those "other moments."
Jim Dunne
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on November 22, 2013
Format: Paperback
My personal library of Civil War books ranges close to about 50 but I would have to rate this one with the best and that is after having read many really good ones. This is not really a book that concentrates on the battles (although it does provide reasonable coverage and high level details). But it does provide a lot of thoughtful "under-pinnings" as to why the war happened, was fought, and some of the aftermath. Very comprehensive over view. And the author is a good non-fiction writer who is easy to read and to follow. The only fault I find would be that while it does sort of cover some of the Reconstruction Period in the last 100 pages, this is definitely not an in-depth coverage. So maybe the title is a bit misleading? All in all, a excellently written and diverse book that I would strongly recommend.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on June 18, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition
I've gone back and re-read sections, particularly the initial ones, again and again. This is not, as others have said, a military history of the war. There's little or no "bring history alive, feel like you're in the camps" sort of writing. Instead, this incisively describes the political struggle that was the Civil war, from the founding of the nation through the Jackson administration and the difficult compromises that finally resulted in war. The closing sections where the author considers the war not in terms of what was not accomplished but in terms of what was, and what otherwise might have been, are great food for thought. If some books try to put you "on the ground", this book is much more of a 1000 foot view. Very much worth not merely reading, but owning.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on February 14, 2013
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I'm a serious student of the Civil War; not a professional historian, academic or military strategist. I've read many, many books on the war over 30+ years and I only wish this was the first book I had read. It would have put many of the others in a better context.
I'm familiar with Allen Guelzo's work and was expecting this to be an interesting read. However, what I found far exceeded my expectations.
This is a book that covers the entire span of the war, beginning with the many factors that fed into disunion starting with the Articles of Confederation. It doesn't go into much detail on Reconstruction. Guelzo doesn't spend a great of time on tactics of either battles or campaigns. What he has managed to do is a magnificent job of creating the context for the conflict and the strategies employed in the various campaigns. This book did a great job of helping me to understand the "backstory"; allowing me to contextualize many things that, before, I hadn't really thought about. For example, he talks about the rivers in the west (Mississsippi, Cumberland, Ohio, Tennessee) and their importance to commerce as well as their usefulness as avenues for armies. As a result, of his treatment of this subject, I have a much better understanding of the importance of the Western theatre of the conflict.

Guelzo uses many anecdotes which are well place to underscore his points. However, he doesn't allow himself to get bogged down in endless quotes from diaries, letters and newspapers to beat you to death with the validity of a point. I really get annoyed when authors state the obvious and then proceed to fill pages with quotes which become distracting. He has plenty of references and footnotes but they aren't overdone. Thank you Allen for that.

This is a very readable book. It isn't ponderous or pretentious but neither is it bland. There were, for me, many "ah-ha" moments in this book. I will use it often as a resource.

For me, this has been one of those "finds" in my endless reading on the topic and the kind of experience which keeps me coming back for more.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on May 28, 2014
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“Fateful Lightning” tells the story of the American Civil War and part of the story of Reconstruction. In a single volume, Guelzo covers the period leading up to the War, the War itself, and its aftermath. He covers familiar ground, but his two chapters on the pre-war period were a true eye-opener for me.

Guelzo brings out the culture of the South and how it evolved into a place so alien from its Northern half. The mysterious Whig party is revealed to have been a major force for unity, but with its collapse the war became more inevitable. I never really understood who the Whigs were and what they believed, Guelzo does an amazing job of explaining them and their importance. The Whigs performed a long dance with Jefferson’s Democrats to keep the Union in tack. It was one compromise after another, it was yielding the presidency to Southerns almost exclusively for decades, it was packing the Supreme Count with Southerns, all in the name of maintaining peace and the Union.

The Compromise of 1850 kept the Union together by bringing in a balanced number of slave and free states, but it also spawned the Fugitive Slave Act, a monster in the eyes of most Northerners, even those opposed to abolitionism. From there it all went downhill, with a seemingly endless list of horrors: The Dread Scott decision, Bleeding Kansas, John Brown, and on and on. Until the war came. Guelzo tells the story the best way I have ever heard it told.

That was just the prelude to the war too. From there to book goes into the political, economic, and military aspects of the war and even goes into such neglected areas as the effects of the war on Native Americans and the role of women on both sides. The military narratives are brief, but well drawn, with enough detail that the flow can be followed. The nearly hopeless situations of both Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln stand out starkly. Quelzo points out that both sides avoided a military dictatorship by using essentially the same methods; fascinating stuff.

The world turned upside down times of Reconstruction are outlined in enough detail to be interesting, but it left me wanting more. Which is as it should be I suppose.

I would give this book a top rating, five stars, but for two shortcomings: too few maps and illustrations, and a layout whose font I find thin and hard to read. The tremendously interesting “Further Reading” section, with its notes about the chapters and their sources, almost makes up for it though. Oxford University Press published this book and “Battle Cry of Freedom,” on the same topic, twenty-five years apart. Guelzo’s book is a fine successor, although it does not make the earlier book obsolete. Highly recommend.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on April 1, 2014
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
This is an incredible work of historical art. Like so many of you , I have been reading about the Civil War, Reconstruction and the monumental aftermath, (which continues to this day) for many decades. There are, of course, many historical artists (Foote, McPherson, Catton and so many others well known and loved by you) whose works are so very crucial in obtaining as much knowledge and understanding as possible. But Allen Guelzo's Fateful Lightning goes beyond helping to understand. It is titled well as a "New History of the Civil War and Reconstruction". What is new is huge. It is a bringing together of the disparate facts and events to impart a deep, visceral feeling of Civil War history as a vibrant and organic event, the relevancy of which is very clearly of great impact now, and which will retain that greatness of impact throughout the future of the United States. Guelzo answers the question that so many of you Civil War historians have been asked time and again-"Why are you studying such a long ago event?" Guelzo's answer is, "Because it isn't over".

Robert Henry, M.D.
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