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Weep, wretched man, I'll aid thee tear for tear
on July 28, 2011
And let our hearts and eyes, like civil war;
Be blind with tears, and break o'ercharg'd with grief.
The Third Part of King Henry the Sixth, Act II. Scene V
On March 4, 1861, President Lincoln, in his First Inaugural Address, expressed the hope that the "mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature." Exactly, four years later, on March 4, 1865, President Lincoln, in his Second Inaugural Address, called on all Americans to go forward with "malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations." Those two stirring pleas to our better natures serve as ironic bookends for an American Civil War which unleashed carnage and bloodshed on American soil the likes of which had never been before, and hopefully never will be seen again.
Margaret Leech's magisterial "Reveille in Washington: 1860-1865" was originally published in 1941. As James McPherson notes in his brief Introduction, Leech wrote and published the book just before WWII transformed a rather provincial capital city (aptly described by JFK as "a city of Southern efficiency and Northern charm") into a world capital. As the book opens, Washington, D.C. barely qualified as a city, let alone a nation's proud capital. As the Civil War began there was no dome on the Capitol and the Washington Monument was not much more than a pile of granite. The streets were dirty and unkempt, open drainage ditches carried raw sewage across most of the avenues, and the town was filled with bawdy houses and transients. The book highlights not just the progress of the war but also the transformation of the city into a true national Capital.
I was captivated by Reveille for a number of reasons. Leech's research seemed very thorough and her writing was excellent. She has an exceedingly fine eye for detail and was able to convey those details to the reader. This is particularly true when she describes the city itself. I've worked in Washington for the last 20 years and my office sits right in the middle of "old Washington." I see the old General Post Office and Ford's Theatre from my office. Every day I walk the streets and look up and see remnants of Civil War era Washington. As Leech tells her story those streets and buildings came alive for me with almost a fresh set of eyes. That is a rare feeling for me, that sense of living and walking though history. Leech's book invoked those feelings throughout.
In addition to her ability to bring a city to life, Leech has also done an admirable job of bringing the city's characters to life. Leech has a sharp eye not just for Lincoln, Seward, McClellan Grant and the larger than life big players in the war, but also casts a sharp and detailed eye on lesser-known figures. Washington was a southern city in those days and sympathy for secession and slavery was more the norm than the exception. Leech is able to weave these characters, large and small, seamlessly into her narrative while also providing a wealth of information of the war that was waged in the Virginia countryside within `spitting' distance of the capital.
Written in 1941, some contemporary readers may find Leech's prose-style a bit dated and perhaps a bit too florid. Some have even suggested (elsewhere) that Leech's prose-style seemed to almost channel what may have been the prose style in fashion during the Civil War. I did not have any such problem and in fact Leech's writing had the same page-turning effect on me that some of the best fiction has. The only jarring notes I heard involved her use of common terms for slaves and freemen (`colored' for example) which while they may have been perfectly acceptable in 1942 seem quite out of place in 2011. Again, that is a reflection on our national evolution and not a criticism of Ms. Leech and I set it out for the benefit of potential readers who may have qualms about such things, even in period pieces.
I think Leech's "Reveille in Washington" is a tremendous addition to accounts of the Civil War. One may despair that we have never consistently acted upon the better angels of our nature or lived our lives with malice toward none, but Leech's book brings to life a time in our nation's history where much blood was shed to swell the chorus of our union. In that sense this book is one that bespeaks a mighty hope.
Highly recommended. L. Fleisig