Civil War History 50.2 (2004) 207-209
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James M. McPherson's Pulitzer Prize-winning Battle Cry of Freedom is commonly referred to as the most useful single-volume study of the Civil War. David J. Eicher's massive nine-hundred-page history of the war is an attempt to supplement McPherson's focus on social, economic, and military history with a detailed study of the military side of the war. The author believes this is necessary for two reasons: first, military histories by Bruce Catton and Shelby Foote are outdated; second, since the publication of Battle Cry of Freedom in 1989, there has been a significant increase in the number of studies that have shed new light on many long-standing assumptions surrounding various aspects of the Civil War.
Eicher is well aware of recent Civil War studies because of his work on a bibliographical study titled The Civil War in Books: An Analytical Bibliography. There are many places in this book where his knowledge of the historical terrain appears, including detailed accounts of artillery, various kinds of [End Page 207] wounds, prisons, railroads, shipbuilding, clandestine operations, and the role of African Americans in the war. At the beginning of the chapter on the battle of Second Manassas, Eicher focuses on the history and importance of Confederate and Union Signal Corps. The broad range of Eicher's knowledge adds additional perspective to a narrative that for many Civil War enthusiasts has become routine.
At other places throughout the book, readers may wonder whether Eicher has done justice to recently published Civil War studies. In a comment reminiscent of Shelby Foote's claim that the North fought the war with one hand tied behind its back, Eicher admits in the preface that he believes the Confederacy could not have won the war. Unfortunately, he does not argue for this conclusion, which ignores the fact that many Confederates believed until relatively late in the war that their cause did in fact have a chance. More importantly, recent work by such notable historians as Gary Gallagher, George Rable, and even James McPherson suggests that the Confederacy came close to independence on more than one occasion.
This problem also appears in Eicher's evaluation of important campaigns. In evaluating Lee after the Antietam campaign Eicher comments that the battle and campaign had been a loss in every respect, with none of Lee's strategic goals accomplished. In recent years, historians have suggested that many Southerners regarded Lee's first invasion of the North as at least a partial success. Lee's ability to successfully defend against a much larger Union army, the rearguard action at Boteler's Ford along the Potomac, and a cavalry raid conducted by J.E.B. Stuart into Pennsylvania a few weeks later, received a great deal of attention from newspapers throughout the Confederacy. Most importantly and from a broader perspective, in only a few months Lee had drastically changed the military situation in Virginia.
In the overall context of the book, these criticisms are minor. It is perhaps impossible to take into account most of what has been published in the last ten years in one volume and maintain a readable narrative. On the other hand, the focus on military success may bring into sharp focus the need to take a wider view when judging tactics and strategy. Eicher does do justice to historians' insistence that the western theatre of the war was just as important as the fighting in the East, which is underscored by chapter titles covering Chattanooga, the Red River Campaign, Stones River, Vicksburg, Belmont, and Shiloh. In addition to the major battles and campaigns, Eicher examines lesser-known actions such as Sabine Pass, Texas, and Fort Clinch, Florida.
Eicher uses as many sources as possible from the war years, rather than postwar reminiscences. In doing so, he steers clear of common clichés, which [End Page 208...