Friday, October 8, 2021

Booknotes: The Generals' Civil War

New Arrival:
The Generals' Civil War: What Their Memoirs Can Teach Us Today by Stephen Cushman (UNC Press, 2021).

Its first volume published in 1885, the Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant was an immediate commercial and critical success that relieved the Grant family's financial straits and left an eager reading public with what many consider today to be the war's premier general officer memoir. From the description: "Seeking to capitalize on Grant's success and interest in earlier reminiscences by Joseph E. Johnston, William T. Sherman, and Richard Taylor, other Civil War generals such as George B. McClellan and Philip H. Sheridan soon followed suit. Some hewed more closely to Grant's model than others, and their points of similarity and divergence left readers increasingly fascinated with the history and meaning of the nation's great conflict. The writings also dovetailed with a rising desire to see the full sweep of American history chronicled, as its citizens looked to the start of a new century."

Of course, modern scholars still make heavy use of these memoirs in their research and writing. In The Generals' Civil War: What Their Memoirs Can Teach Us Today, Stephen Cushman "considers Civil War generals' memoirs as both historical and literary works, revealing how they remain vital to understanding the interaction of memory, imagination, and the writing of American history." There were many factors involved in the writing and publishing of these memoirs, and the book "shows how market forces shaped the production of the memoirs and, therefore, memories of the war itself; how audiences have engaged with the works to create ideas of history that fit with time and circumstance; and what these texts tell us about current conflicts over the history and meanings of the Civil War."

One chapter examines what the memoirs of opposing commanders William T. Sherman and Joseph E. Johnston say about the 1865 Bennett Place surrender and each other. Another offers an in-depth reexamination of Chapter Five "The Valley Campaign" of Richard Taylor's Destruction and Reconstruction, which is "unanimously considered the best" chapter in the memoir. "Simplicity" is the major theme of the volume's discussion of Grant's Memoirs. Though not a fan of Little Mac himself, Mark Twain's Webster and Co. also published McClellan's Own Story, and Cushman looks at that book's "many turnings," centering on three aspects: McClellan's religious conversion, the counterfactuals that pervade MOS, and the writing's emotional resonance. The next chapter discusses the merits of Philip Sheridan's Personal Memoirs, which never achieved the heights of acclaim that Grant's and Sherman's did. The final piece probes Mark Twain's prominent role in the business of Civil War memory. All of that sounds interesting.

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