Friday, October 18, 2019

Booknotes: Hymns of the Republic

New Arrival:
Hymns of the Republic: The Story of the Final Year of the American Civil War by S.C. Gwynne (Scribner, 2019).

Journalist and popular historian S.C. Gwynne's previous Civil War book was 2014's Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson. I only read a few parts of it back then (and my recall of the experience is a hazy blank going on five years later), but it is rather impressive (and also a mark of strong promotion) to find a Civil War title of any kind with almost a thousand reader reviews in one place.

Gwynne's new book, which will be officially released near the end of this month, is Hymns of the Republic: The Story of the Final Year of the American Civil War. Though it looks like much of the focus is on the war in the east, there is some wider coverage. The book "addresses the time Ulysses S. Grant arrives to take command of all Union armies in March 1864 to the surrender of Robert E. Lee at Appomattox a year later. Gwynne breathes new life into the epic battle between Lee and Grant; the advent of 180,000 black soldiers in the Union army; William Tecumseh Sherman’s March to the Sea; the rise of Clara Barton; the election of 1864 (which Lincoln nearly lost); the wild and violent guerrilla war in Missouri; and the dramatic final events of the war, including the surrender at Appomattox and the murder of Abraham Lincoln."

Though the book is targeted at a popular audience and its research based on published sources, it certainly sounds like the author is not wedded to conventional story lines. From the description: "Hymns of the Republic offers angles and insights on the war that will surprise many readers. Robert E. Lee, known as a great general and southern hero, is presented here as a man dealing with frustration, failure, and loss. Ulysses S. Grant is known for his prowess as a field commander, but in the final year of the war he largely fails at that. His most amazing accomplishments actually began the moment he stopped fighting. William Tecumseh Sherman, Gwynne argues, was a lousy general, but probably the single most brilliant man in the war. We also meet a different Clara Barton, one of the greatest and most compelling characters, who redefined the idea of medical care in wartime. And proper attention is paid to the role played by large numbers of black union soldiers—most of them former slaves. They changed the war and forced the South to come up with a plan to use its own black soldiers."

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