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64 of 65 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fateful Lightning is an excellent one volume history of the Civil War era by Dr. Allen C. Guezlo
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...
Published on July 30, 2012 by C. M Mills

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4 of 8 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Fateful Lightning
Book Club selection destroys the simplistic history most know about the Civil WAR. It was complex, confusing period which laid the foundation of 20th century America. The triumphs and flaws of all the major players and institutions are explored. As a docent in a history museum this book will be a reference. Not necessarily an easy read but worth it.
Published 18 months ago by Lukey


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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Civil War and (a little) Reconstruction, November 29, 2012
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This review is from: Fateful Lightning: A New History of the Civil War and Reconstruction (Paperback)
I liked this book, but I only bought it because I thought it might contain some detailed information on the Reconstruction period. But it does not - a couple of pages at most. Still, it was good enough to keep rather than send it back. Just a heads up to others who might have the same interests.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars a complete education, October 20, 2013
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This is for young people out there. Unless you are planning to get a masters degree in American History, read this and the author's Gettysburg: The Last Invasion and you really don't need to read anything else about the American Civil War. But be forewarned: Reading these books may make you want to get a master's in American history!
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6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great New Book!, February 24, 2013
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Just finished “Fateful Lightning,” by Allen C. Guelzo. It is an overview of the Civil War, from its causes, through the end of Reconstruction. It is an easy and entertaining read—readable, I think for anyone in high school and older. At the same time, it is both insightful and filled with new scholarship about the Civil War.

As a prefatory matter, I was not familiar with Allen Guelzo until I discovered this book, but he has written extensively on the social, political, and religious matters surrounding the pre-Civil War era (or should I say, that part of the Civil War era that preceded the war itself). Discovering this author has opened a whole new avenue for my reading. (Curiously, “Fateful Lightning” does not appear on Amazon’s Allen Guelzo author page—hopefully, Amazon will correct that oversight.) But Guelzo appears to be one of a contemporary style of historians who supports his narrative with lots of empirical data, which often unravels much of conventional wisdom.

For example, while General Grant was decried as a “butcher” during his Virginia campaign—especially in light of the casualties at Cold Harbor—the numbers show that Grant actually took better care of his troops—preserved their lives—than did Lee; that it was Lee, not Grant, who was more prone to throwing his troops into the cannon’s mouth.

By way of another example, history has told that Grant’s administration was riddled with corruption, so much so that it prevented him from being an effective President. However, Guelzo notes that Grant’s administration was no more corrupt than any other administration up to that time; less so than even Lincoln’s, and much less so than Buchanan’s. Further, Grant’s “ineffectiveness” is tied to a particular interpretation of what should have been happening with Reconstruction. But as Guelzo notes, Grant presided over a period when the issues of the Civil War were waning, and new issues—the West, industrialization, the role of the federal government and its ability to fulfill that role, given its size, financial complexities—were overshadowing. Simply put, the decade after the Civil War saw a waning of the political will to do any more than emancipation had accomplished, or to supervise the needed social changes in the South. Grant acted in the context of that political will.

Moving on to the book: Guelzo focuses on a time period roughly bounded by the Missouri Compromise of 1820 to the inauguration of Rutherford B. Hayes in 1877. However, he discusses prior events to establish context, and naturally discusses how the seminal American event of the nineteenth century informs our world today. But to the extent Guelzo focuses on what we might call the “Civil War Era,” he examines events and writings only in their relation to the Civil War. Guelzo makes two large important points, which I—conceding my limited background in Civil War history and scholarship—have not seen asserted before.

First point: Guelzo begins from the premise that slavery was single driving cause of the war, and much of the book supports that premise. However, Guelzo reveals a view of slavery that we do not hold in modern times, and understanding that view unlocks a greater understanding of how the Civil War arose.

In modern times, we see slavery as a moral issue—an issue of human rights. It is repugnant to us, and we criminalize it in the harshest ways. But nineteenth century America viewed slavery as a political and economic issue. The mainstream struggles that revolved around slavery were about political—therefore economic—control of society; arguments regarding the morality of slavery, and the fundamental humanity of slaves, were left in the margins of public discourse. Accordingly, understanding slavery, as nineteenth century Americans understood it, is key to understanding the causes of the Civil War. With a nineteenth century understanding of slavery, the events from the Missouri Compromise to Fort Sumter become much more understandable and interrelated. Guelzo does a great job of revealing the nineteenth century American mind.

Second point, related to the first point: Guelzo makes the compelling argument that the war was essentially a useless struggle. Using empirical data to support observations about the social and economic consequences of the Civil War, Guelzo argues that no segment of American society was improved by the war.

The promise of emancipation—political and economic equality—was never realized in the generations after the war—arguably has yet to be fully realized.

The ideological proponents of the Confederacy regained their political and economic prominence in the South. At the same time, the war had so decimated the manpower of the South that it was unable to work its soil, or continue what relatively little industry it had. The combination of these factors led the South to a social system that was essentially slavery by another name. (This echoes arguments made by the late John Hope Franklin and others.) The combination of all these marginalized the South, as the nation industrialized and populated the West.

The North fared little better. The war had caused the North to accelerate its industrialization, but the empirical data shows that it was never able to transfer that industrial capacity to a commercial environment. Instead, industrialization gave rise to cities filled with an impoverished, largely immigrant, social underclass. (Jacob Riis might take issue with this view; he reported that immigrants stayed in the worst slums of New City on an average of sixteen weeks before moving into the middle class neighborhoods of the boroughs.) Guelzo also notes the rise of corporations in the generations after the war, which exacerbated working conditions, and concentrated wealth.

As a whole, the nation lost enormous wealth that simply vanished. Guelzo estimates the total in lost wealth to be around $7.5 billion, based on 1860 estimates. About $2.5 billion of that lost wealth was in the reported value of slaves, (this is the estimate of what slaveholders had invested in their purchases of slaves), which evaporated with emancipation. But the rest of the losses arose as wartime financial markets collapsed, and as the federal government repudiated Confederate debt (making millions in Confederate loans and bonds suddenly worthless—this affected not only Southerners, but Northern financiers as well). There was also the cost of waging the war. Guelzo notes that on the eve of the war, President Lincoln was contemplating a slave “buyout” plan: The federal government would pay slaveholders market rate for their slaves, emancipate and educate them, and give them the opportunity to buy farm lands in the West. The estimated cost of the plan was $6.6 billion—far too expensive, asserted contemporary critics of the plan. But Guelzo observes that the plan shows that it would have been less costly to buy the country out of slavery (leaving aside the moral component of a governmental participation in slave-trading) than to have fought the war. The generations after the war never recouped that loss.

Taking Guelzo’s two large points together, we may conclude that the Civil War, its toll in human life—arguably close to three quarters of a million lives—and the social and economic setback that arose from it, were the price America paid for slavery. As Abraham Lincoln put it, more eloquently than anyone before or since: The nation was conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal; the embrace of slavery was a fundamental contradiction; and the war was the price the nation paid for embracing that contradiction.

However, Guelzo does find a silver lining: The Civil War preserved the union. Our differences do not divide us. Whatever losses we suffered, whatever struggles we have, whatever challenges we rise to and overcome, we do as a unified nation. As Shelby Foote succinctly and elegantly put it, the Civil War made us and “is”—before the war, people said, “the United States are,” but after, we said, “the United States is.” Guelzo implies, and I am, withal, inclined to agree that we are stronger together than apart.

As I have said, Guelzo does an excellent job of relating the nineteenth century view of slavery as an essentially political and economic issue. As I read the book, this point kept resonating in a modern context for me, a context that Guelzo does not discuss.

Today, we are engaged in a public discourse regarding what is broadly called “gay rights,” and more specifically, the legal status of same sex marriage. Our public discourse tends to discuss these issues in terms of “rights” and “values,” but those terms are merely code for political interests. The essential fight over whether a class of persons defined by sexual orientation is essentially a fight over political market share. Look at the public discourse and you will see that it is led by the political class, and the media that foments political argument—granted, not all media, but such of it whose bread and butter is the political arena. Both proponents and opponents of so-called “gay rights” stand to garner votes from those who support their position. Put another way, “gay rights” is a “hot button” that gets voters to the polls. Votes translate to political office, which translates to power. Thus, the public discourse on this issue is no more than a fight for market share in the political realm.

But as the public discourse devolves to an issue that is really about obtaining votes, it reduces the rights and liberties of certain Americans to political and economic questions. Just as slavery was a political and economic question, and the failure to see it as a moral question tied to the fundamental makeup of our nation led to the great loss that was the Civil War, our failure to see “gay rights” as a moral issue, our failure to see denigration of civil rights and liberties to any person in our society as a fundamental contradiction, is heading us towards a great loss that we will not recoup for generations to come. We must hold certain self-evident truths as the fundamental basis of our society and political discourse: That all men (persons) are created equal; that they are endow (by their creator, or, if you will, simply by the fact of existence) with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We must realize that we harm our whole society when we deny these truths with respect to any class of persons, or indeed, to any one person. We cannot afford to re-learn the lessons of liberty one minority at a time.

This, I submit, is the fundamental take-away from “Fateful Lightning.” Read and enjoy.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A different look at the Civil War., April 1, 2013
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This review is from: Fateful Lightning: A New History of the Civil War and Reconstruction (Paperback)
I have read umpteen books about the Civil War and thought I knew quite a bit. However Allen C. Guelzo taught me a lot I never knew before. And he did it in an authoritative and entertaining manner.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent Informative Overview, September 10, 2012
By 
Simko (Charlottesville, Virginia) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Fateful Lightning: A New History of the Civil War and Reconstruction (Paperback)
Having read much on the topic, I still found this a very compelling read.
Mr. Guelzo's greatest attribute as a writer is to tell an extended story that informs without loss of sweep; what was grueling and long-term, what was swift, of short duration and transforming all come across vividly.
'The Saga of America' ought to be this books' title, with 1 or 2 more companion volumes to take us up to the present. This author is just the person for the job.
As stated, the military events are elements of the narrative flow, not the 'real' story.
Some common over-generalizations about generals and battles that miss the better searchlights of, particularly, more recent scholarship, can be easily filled in by trolling the waters. Author James McPherson is a star to call on here.
One stand-out omission is the vast effort to create a superior cavalry arm on the part of the North. Longacre's two books, 'Lincoln's Cavalrymen,' and 'Grant's Cavalryman,' (Bio on General Wilson) shed much light on this topic. Mr. Guelzo makes it seem that no one really got a handle on a branch of service that was in a period of transition, historically.
But you come away from this work REALLY knowing what it took to create the various military and political ventures.
Also, I think he falls into the 'failed Reconstruction' school of thought, when, 'sabotaged Reconstruction' is the proper term.
Read 'The Life and Times of Stanton, by Thomas and Hyman to understand the instant war against Emancipation after the surrenders that southern leaders (And Andrew Johnson, our worst President) declared, not needing any goad from Yankee Carpetbaggers for inspiration. (The worst of that lot? Dixiecrat Governor of Mississippi and cheerleader for the 'Bloody Shirt' terrorists who stole $300,000!)
To really get to know the force of nature called Stanton, read Fletcher Pratt's bio, 'Stanton, Lincoln's Secretary of War. It serves as a marvelous intro to civil life of aspiring professionals in the emerging, Antebellum United States, west of the Appalachians.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars new insight, September 23, 2013
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It was nice that the author did not concentrate on just the North, but , spent an equal amount of time on the South as well.
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16 of 23 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars no deckle edge?, July 17, 2012
This review is from: Fateful Lightning: A New History of the Civil War and Reconstruction (Paperback)
Why isn't this fine insightful book, rich in anecdote and fresh interpretations available in hardcover? The font is small and the paper color off putting in this Trade Paperback version.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars in depth and well written, May 30, 2014
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This review is from: Fateful Lightning: A New History of the Civil War and Reconstruction (Paperback)
Nothing ever happens in a vacuum and the American Civil War is no exception. Allen Guelzo covers all the bases to help the reader understand more than just the obvious basic events and reasons leading up to the war. I have read many books about the war covering everything from battles and participants to causes and results. This book goes into great depth to explain what forces were at work based on 19th century attitudes and opinions and why people thought the way they did. While I haven't finished the book yet I'm confident he will cover the aftermath as thoroughly. This is truly one of the most enjoyable books I've read about the ACW.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Rich historical picture, August 5, 2014
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This review is from: Fateful Lightning: A New History of the Civil War and Reconstruction (Paperback)
I have been an admirerer of Allen Guelzo's Civil War writings and I also like his work and commentaries on C-Span and PBS, but this last book, Fateful Lightening surpassed even my high expectations. Guelzo's deals with sides and points-of- view in a different and--to me-- engrossing manner. From building navies, both Union and confederate to such small details as the two models for utilizing domestic resources, this book just keeps on with its rich historical picture of how the Civil War was fought and lived.
It is not a regular Civil War history but one that I would recommend to anyone interested in the 1860's.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great history from a master, September 18, 2013
This review is from: Fateful Lightning: A New History of the Civil War and Reconstruction (Paperback)
Allen Guelzo is well-known for his many contributions to Lincoln scholarship and related topics.

Fateful Lightning showcases Guelzo's beautiful writing along with his keen eye for capturing the telling details. I have not read James McPherson's survey of the Civil War, so I am not able to compare it with Guelzo's. Allen Guelzo has certainly produced a fine a piece of work which those wanting an authoritative overview will get by reading Fateful Lightning.
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Fateful Lightning: A New History of the Civil War and Reconstruction
Fateful Lightning: A New History of the Civil War and Reconstruction by Allen C. Guelzo (Paperback - May 18, 2012)
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