Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Most Glorious Fourth

The Most Glorious Fourth: Vicksburg and Gettysburg, July 4th, 1863
© 2002 Duane Schultz
447 pages




When the American Civil War began in 1861, no one imagined that it would devastate the countryside for four long years. All the attempts to bring the war to a quick end, in one decisive battle,  failed, turning the war into one of attrition. Most of those failures were those of the Union army's, and for the first two years of the conflict it seemed as though the Union might actually remain broken. But then, on the Fourth of July in 1863 -- the anniversary of the nation's birthday --  two battles came to an end. In the west, the Federal siege of Vicksburg ended in the surrender of the city to General Grant; in the east,  General Lee sent the pride of his army to be slaughtered on the center of the Union lines in Gettysburg -- ending his invasion of the north, and crippling his strength.  Either battle might have marked the turning point of the war: together,  they were death knell of the ill-born confederacy. The Most Glorious Fourth is the story of the struggles that culminated on that Independence Day, but not one that celebrates the turning point of the war: instead, using Abraham Lincoln as a grounding figure, Schultz paints the day as a mixed blessing -- both a triumph and a tragedy as a missed opportunity to end the war in 1863.

Telling the story of these two struggles at the same time is difficult, given their varying scales. The Vicksburg campaign lasted months; Gettysburg was a three-day affair. The whole of Gettysburg -- all of the skirmishes, movements, what-if questions, stunning decisions -- took place during three days where Vicksburg was a foregone conclusion. Schultz tries mightily, though, and manages to make it work for the most part.  The spotlight is somewhat split: Vicksburg takes center stage in the first half of the book, while Gettysburg dominates the second half.  Schultz's approach is more casual than one might expect from a serious history of the period; at times, it reads almost like a novel, complete with dialogue.  It's definitely more popular history than scholarly, but that's no serious detraction.  Readers completely unfamiliar with the history of the war, but nonetheless interested in these two battles, will be served ably.  The section on Vicksburg isn't as detailed or harrowing as I expected:  Schultz is strongest when addressing Gettysburg.

Ultimately, Schultz's recommends itself not because of the military narrative, but for the way he demonstrates the human side of war and reflects on the battle's aftermath. While it' s not a social history of the war,  nor does it use the harrowing experiences to criticize the conflict,  the recurring role of civilians was refreshing and illustrates that the costs of war are not limited to those who volunteered to go into danger. At Vicksburg, mothers are forced to flee with their children into caves to take refuge from the shelling of the city, while living on increasingly-scarce rations: in Gettysburg,  not only were the food and goods of the town in demand by both armies, but the town itself became a battlefield. One woman rebuked a Confederate sharpshooter from trying to use her attic as his nest, realizing he would draw fire upon her home. Her concern was not unjustified, for Gettysburg did claim its civilian casualties.  And rather than exulting in the days' triumphs, Schultz reflects on the day as one that was ultimately disappointing. Abraham Lincoln, who is seen throughout the work  visiting the telegraph office to find out if there's any news of the fate of his army -- and the nation -- is not overjoyed to learn that Vicksburg has fallen, thus giving the Union complete control of the Mississippi and dividing the Confederacy on the same day that Lee's invasion was repulsed. Instead, he is disappointed at his newly-appointed general (Meade)'s lack of tenacity. Instead of seizing the opportunity to crush or trap Lee, Meade licks his wounds for days after the battle. By the time he orders the army into action, the Army of Virginia had stolen across the Potomac to the safe retreat of the south.  Schultz's work is the first Gettysburg history I've read which doesn't end with Lee's defeat,  but follows the action of his and Meade's army in the days that follow.

The Most Glorious Fourth is an easy and engaging read, obviously of interest to American Civil War aficionados.

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