'Civil War' history is striking, comprehensive


"My shoes are gone; my clothes are almost gone. I'm weary, I'm sick, I'm hungry. My family have been killed or scattered. . . . And I have suffered all this for my country. I love my country. But if this war is ever over, I'll be damned if I'll ever love another country."

A Confederate soldier confided this to his commanding general as they trudged toward Appomattox, we are told in Geoffrey Ward's "The Civil War: An Illustrated History," (Alfred A. Knopf; $50; 425 pp., illustrated) and his tragicomic sentiments are a surpassingly apt summation of America's schizophrenic, semi-suicidal war with itself. And appearing as they do toward the end of this unswervingly striking book, the man's words produce yet another vivid moment in a grimly enthralling historical chronicle. Indeed, the simultaneous publication of this book and the airing of a companion public-television miniseries must comprise a bounty of Civil War history more rewarding than any other ever to come our way in a single season. The old stories are refreshed by new ones, and to look with indifference upon the whole is to look with equivalent indifference upon one's identity as an American.

"Any understanding of this nation has to be based, and I mean really based, on an understanding of the Civil War," historian Shelby Foote says in an interview in Ward's book (on which the PBS series is based). "Before the war, it was said, 'The United States are . . .' After the war, it was always, 'The United States is . . .' [The war] made us an 'is.' "

The objective of "The Civil War" is precisely to foster a profound appreciation of our maturing into true nationhood, and to count out at what a killing cost the tiny, uniting verb was bought. Its compass is also the same: tracking America's political, moral and military landscape from just before the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln (everybody's second choice for president) until just after a pistol ball four years later ended his incalculably gifted life.

The untangling of the social complexities of those few years is an illuminating and sobering experience. For no illusions should be harbored, writes essayist Barbara Fields in "The Civil War": Between Northerners' nobly seeking to preserve the Union (Lincoln's "last best hope of earth") and Southerners' nobly seeking to preserve their states' rights (Jefferson Davis' "last best hope of liberty" -- including the incongruous liberty to enslave the blacks), "all concurred that the aggrieved parties in the struggle of North against South were white citizens."

With simple, decent justice for blacks shunted aside, the politically aggravated issue of freeing the slaves in the border states loyal to the United States was not resolved until Congress, strapped for manpower, decided pragmatically to recruit those blacks for military duty. "The slaves themselves had to make their freedom real," Fields writes, conceding that pragmatism works better than nothing.

But this is a mere glimpse of the many interdependent issues, materials and maneuvers comprehensively examined in this book -- including Ward's noting the patrician remove that let springtime Harvard-Yale boat races continue untouched by the war. Excepting his more scholarly approach (for which these books make no pretension, dispensing with substantiating references), even Professor James McPherson's matchless (and best-selling) "Battle Cry of Freedom" is challenged by the narrative excellence of "The Civil War."

Photographer Matthew Brady in New York in September 1862 mounted a show of his assistants' work titled "The Dead of Antietam." Nothing like these pictures had ever been seen in America. To a public accustomed to non-illustrated newspapers, said a New York Times reporter, the "horrible significance" of Civil War battles was being overlooked "amid the jumble of type." A "battle-field [account] . . . is like a funeral next door. It attracts your attention, but it does not enlist your sympathy.

"But it is very different when the hearse stops at your own door and the corpse is carried over your own threshold . . . if [Mr. Brady] has not brought bodies and laid them in our door-yards . . . he has done something very like it."

Geoffrey Ward and his co-authors, brother film-makers Ken and Ric Burns, have done in their book something very like that, too. It is not just the 500 photographs (they are, sometimes, ghastly), nor the pastoral battlefield paintings (they are, sometimes, beautiful), nor the soldiers' campground drawings. It is not just the rending (and risible) selections from diaries and letters and reminiscences; not just the handsome, helpful maps; not just the five splendid essays by celebrated Civil War historians. It is the combining of these several things with such graceful, affecting prose as is not commonly found in history books. Consequently, the battlefields do not seem remote, the horrible significance is not lost amid the jumble of type; the funeral is almost palpably upon one's own threshold. Sometimes, longing for an end to these pages of persisting sadness, one cannot help but laugh in relief at the Yankee soldier in Sherman's 20th Corps who shouts to a courier carrying the news of Robert E. Lee's surrender: "You're the sonofabitch we've been looking for all these four years!"

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