The Civil War sesquicentennial has further inspired historians to reimagine and reinterpret the most written-about period in American history. Still, one wonders how a scholar could gather up enough courage to take on a war narrative, let alone find something original to say. Susannah J. Ural’s book, Don’t Hurry Me Down to Hades: The Civil War in the Words of Those Who Lived It, does exactly that. Well, almost. The bones of the story are inevitably fixed, and her arguments about the cause, war, politics, and military effort are fairly standard. It is Ural’s beautifully assembled collection of documentary stories—taken from newspapers and the personal papers of generals, politicians, slaves, southern ladies, northern privates, and many people in between—that carries this Civil War narrative to unexpected heights.
Ural’s book opens rather awkwardly, with Homer’s Hector and Andromache, the Trojan War, and a nod to the common experiences shared by participants in all major conflicts; a modest prelude to a remarkable narrative that uses the stories of American families to paint a collective portrait of patriotism, faith, and grim-faced endurance. She introduces ordinary people, such as thirty-six-year-old Kentuckian Theodore Talbot, who found himself defending Fort Sumter before he had a chance to decide if he would cast his lot with the Union or the Confederacy; Helen Johnstone, a young Mississippian woman who had equipped a Confederate company to fight in 1861, only to face the prospect of defending herself against marauding Federal troops two years later; and Julia Grant, who mourned the escape of her slave to the army her husband commanded. To recount military campaigns and political milestones, Ural expertly taps into the personal lives of generals and politicians, throwing these vignettes alongside the stories of dying northern soldiers, steely editors penning war commentary and compiling lists of dead and wounded, and rioting southern women on the streets of Richmond.
It is not an easy thing to do, and in less capable hands it would have resulted in a scrabble of discordant voices fighting to hold onto a common narrative. [End Page 72] Fortunately, Ural is up to the task. Using the timeline of the Civil War as an anchor, Ural knits the convictions, doubts, fears, responsibilities, and familial ties of Union and Confederate citizens to the bigger story of war. The result almost leaves bitter sectional division subsumed to the shared human condition. As President Lincoln’s “shoulders sagged” in the days following his son’s death, so too did the spirits of Texan Felicia Loughridge, who begged her husband to obtain a furlough, in a letter ending with hand-drawn kisses (51). Varina Howell Davis mourned the death of her five-year-old son, Joseph, while thousands of mothers wept for their slain boys in distant lands. And Amos Humiston could have been a soldier from either side when he died on a Gettysburg battlefield with a picture of his children clutched to his breast. He remained unidentified for weeks, his photograph the only link to his life before. Ural unites these contrasting voices through common experience; the missing or wounded soldier, the wife struggling to keep the home fires burning, the confused private questioning his cause, and the politicians searching for a way through military malaise. The experiences that tied these families and communities together in war ultimately provide the ground upon which Ural’s book, and a new America, is built.
Susannah Ural is an exceptional historical guide. Don’t Hurry Me Down to Hades turns on a compelling narrative that is the result of her decision to cast her net wide over the source material. She has given priority to the story, and those seeking a deeper analysis of American families during the Civil War should not look for it here; certainly, that was never her aim. The detailed snapshots that appear in every corner of the book will captivate general...