How the North Nearly Lost

Two Great Rebel Armies: An Essay in Confederate Military History

by Richard M. McMurry
University of North Carolina Press, 204 pp., $19.95

Stonewall Jackson: Portrait of a Soldier

by John Bowers
Morrow, 367 pp., $19.95

The Civil War Papers of George B. McClellan: Selected Correspondence, 1860–-1865

edited by Stephen W. Sears
Ticknor & Fields, 651 pp., $35.00

Fighting for the Confederacy: The Personal Recollections of General Edward Porter Alexander

edited by Gary W. Gallagher
University of North Carolina Press, 664 pp., $34.95

Stonewall Jackson
Stonewall Jackson; drawing by David Levine

The American Civil War has evoked more historical writing than any other event in our past. That is scarcely surprising, for nearly as many American soldiers died in the Civil War as in all the other wars this country has fought put together. More than twice as many soldiers were killed in one day, at the battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862, than fell in combat in the War of 1812, the Mexican War, and the Spanish-American War combined. Southern defeat in the Civil War uprooted and transformed the social basis of half the country. Northern victory preserved the United States from dismemberment and, by destroying slavery, gave the nation its “new birth of freedom” called forth by Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg. The war shaped America’s future in numerous and profound ways; if the conflict had not occurred, or had not turned out as it did, the United States and perhaps the world would be today a radically different place.

The scars left by the war are deepest in the South, where most of the fighting, destruction, and social transformation took place. No southerner can escape the legacy of the Civil War; few have escaped its fascination. “Like more than one present-day Southerner,” writes the Tennessee-born novelist and literary historian John Bowers in the preface to his biography of Stonewall Jackson, “I fought knowing more about the Civil War than I needed to know. It was too much around me…. It was a dark abyss you might fall into and never be heard from again.” But the struggle against temptation was a losing battle. Bowers read classic narratives of the Civil War by Margaret Leach, Bruce Catton, and Shelby Foote: “I myself started to slide into that deep hole of obsession from which few Civil War buffs return…. I was lost.”

Fundamental questions about the war continue to provoke debate and reinterpretation: What caused the war? What were its consequences? Why did the South lose? This last question has been the center of considerable scholarship in recent years. It is an implicit question underlying the books reviewed here, particularly Richard McMurry’s cogent, concise Two Great Rebel Armies. McMurry starts from a basic fact: Confederate arms nearly won the war by victories in the eastern theater (defined mainly as Virginia) but ultimately lost it by defeats in the western theater (defined as the vast region southwest of Virginia). The Confederacy’s two principal armies were Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of Tennessee, which had six different commanders during its unhappy career. For nearly four years the Army of Northern Virginia (and its predecessor) held off invading Union forces, achieving a strategic stalemate in Virginia while winning several spectacular tactical victories that undermined northern morale and more than once came close to causing the North to give up trying to conquer the South. But at the same time,…

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