- Turning Points of the American Civil Wared. by Chris Mackowski and Kristopher D. White
So far removed from it, how is one to understand the tragedy of the U.S. Civil War? And for teachers, how can it be taught to students? Since the war's conclusion, millions of words have been written in attempts to explain it. Much of this historical quest has focused on battles and the most notable generals, the Confederacy's deified Robert E. Lee and the United States' tentative but persistent Ulysses S. Grant. Amid the books and articles about the war hover the ghosts of President Abraham Lincoln and, to a lesser degree perhaps, Jefferson Davis—whose roles and strategies for success in the war still lead to discussion and often disagreement among scholars at professional meetings. Monuments erected years ago bring many together today, either to protest the inclusion of a participant in the war or to claim an individual's relevance not only to the 1860s but also to the present. The Confederate flags that still often fly from the beds of pickup trucks and in more remote locations—maybe as indicators that, in the flag flyers' opinion, the South never lost and the North never won (unenlightened as such a perception may be)—suggest that the war still looms large.
Now there appears yet another book, Turning Points of the American Civil War, that seeks to explain, as the title suggests, nine occasions during the war that could have altered history and might have led to a far different outcome. In a series of essays, notable Civil War scholars explore the "what ifs" of history. However, editor Chris Mackowski explains that "explorations of 'what if' doubtless prove entertaining, [but] they are often fruitless exercises," adding, and most would agree, that "what didhappen and the consequences thereof" are [End Page 700]at the heart of historical inquiry (p. 233). Mackowski and coeditor Kristopher D. White cover Civil War battles and events, from the first battle of Bull Run to Lincoln's reelection in 1864. Each essay stands alone on its merit, with the editors' introductions to the chapters providing background and insight helpful to novice and scholar alike. These introductions are as valuable as the essays.
James A. Morgan's contribution, "Unintended Consequences: Ball's Bluff and the Rise of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War," is particularly outstanding. Not only was the battle one of the turning points of the war, but it also led to the joint congressional committee's formation and its early disenchantment with the manner in which Union forces were engaging the enemy. One could weep over Lincoln's discovery that his good friend, U.S. senator Edward Dickinson Baker, a Union officer, was slain in this battle, leading to the many woes the president faced in ensuing years. This factor was also a turning point, if not an omen, of what was to come. In another piece, "The Cresting Tide: Robert E. Lee and the Road to Chancellorsville," White quotes General Lee, who lamented his troops' lack of provisions because many were "destitute of shoes" (p. 119). Heartbreaking.
All the essays included in this slim volume are excellent, both readable and meticulously researched. Turning Points of the American Civil Waris a must-read for all Civil War buffs.