Nosworthy's 'Bloody Crucible': Unfulfilled promise


The Bloody Crucible of Courage: Fighting Methods and Combat Experience of the Civil War, by Brent Nosworthy. Carroll & Graf Publishers. 754 pages. $35.

For anyone wishing to understand the experience of the Civil War soldier, Bell Irwin Wiley's The Life of Billy Yank and The Life of Johnny Reb remain the essential texts. Wiley read through thousands of letters from soldiers, organized his material logically, stayed focused and wrote lively prose. More than half a century later, his work is still fresh on the page.

Although Brent Nosworthy's subject is broader than Wiley's, his aim is the same. In The Bloody Crucible of Courage, he seeks to write a comprehensive book about a big subject - in his words, "a single work devoted to the full spectrum of both the fighting methods and the combat experience during the entire Civil War" (the emphasis is Nosworthy's). Unfortunately for anyone interested in his subject, Nosworthy shares Wiley's ambition but none of his other traits as a historian.

The Bloody Crucible falls in the narrow literary range between catalog and encyclopedia. It is as relentlessly dry and plodding as it is thorough. The prologue runs 126 pages, the "Epilogue & Conclusion" 90 pages.

The book has a promising beginning, and Nosworthy clearly did his homework. He opens with accounts of Civil War battlefield engagements in which he attempts to demonstrate the way different approaches to fighting affected the outcome.

But soon he is deep into describing the mainly European antecedents of the tactics and weaponry used during the Civil War. Readers interested in successful formulas for propellant charges and a detailed history of breech-loading devices will delight in this.

Those same readers will be disappointed, however, if they interpret Nosworthy's promise of completeness in its most logical way. He does not take a cue from John Keegan's The Face of Battle and chronicle what Civil War generals learned from their mistakes and how their tactics changed over time as a result.

It isn't that he doesn't recognize that they did change, and drastically. He gives a fair account of the entrenched defenses with which the Rebel army stalled the campaign of Ulysses S. Grant in the spring of 1864, inflicting unacceptable casualties and prolonging the war for 10 months. This fighting presaged the trench warfare of World War I.

The Bloody Crucible has some utility as a reference work, and it is not entirely fair to compare it to classics like Keegan's book or the Wiley studies of soldier life North and South. But readers with a consuming interest in the tactics and weaponry of the Civil War will find many better books than this one.

Nosworthy lists some of them in his introduction.

And if it's the combat experience you're after, go back to Wiley or spend some time with Reid Mitchell's more recent work, especially Civil War Soldiers. On how and why the nature of the fighting changed, The Destructive War by Charles Royster is far superior to The Bloody Crucible. It is well written and full of humanity and has the added bonus of being told through a dual biography of William T. Sherman and Stonewall Jackson.

Mike Pride is the editor of the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where he has worked since 1978. A former Nieman fellow at Harvard University, he has earned the National Press Foundation's editor of the year award. With Mark Travis, he is the co-author of My Brave Boys: To War With Colonel Cross and the Fighting Fifth.

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