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Allen Boyer: Review of “Vicksburg,” by Donald L. Miller, and “Hymns of the Republic,” by S.C. Gwynne

Editor’s Note: On Wednesday, Oct. 30 at 5:30 p.m. at Off-Square Books, authors Donald L. Miller and S.C. Gwynn will read and sign copies of their Civil War histories “Vicksburg: Grant’s Campaign That Broke the Confederacy” and “Hymns of the Republic: The Story of the Final Year of the American Civil War.”

In May 1862, the primal forces of the Mississippi valley overshadowed the armed forces of North and South. At Greenwood, hundreds of iron bars that had been intended to armor the Confederate gunboat Arkansas were at the bottom of the Yazoo River, carried down with a sunken barge. Further south, at Natchez, the Yankee fleet of David Farragut battled the Mississippi River itself. The Mississippi curved in lazy meanders, but it was rightly called “the Old Devil River” – known for vicious currents, sandbars, battering rams of floating trees, and snags that could rip out the bottom of a warship.

By March 1864, the war had all but ruined Robert E. Lee. Lee had lost his home and his savings had vanished into Confederate bonds. His wife was bound to a wheelchair, and he himself, once thought the handsomest young officer in the army, was feeling the chest pains that would kill him. “His once ruddy countenance turned a pasty white. He had gained considerable weight, and his hair had turned a bristly gray-white.” Lee’s eyes were weakening, even if his officers feared their glare.

S.C. Gwynne, author of “Hymns of the Republic.” Photo courtesy of Simon & Schuster.

Two memorable Civil War histories, Donald L. Miller’s “Vicksburg” and S.C. Gwynne’s “Hymns of the Republic,” differ in their scope. That matters little. What makes these books memorable are the authors’ eye for telling, even symbolic details. Both writers are veteran historians. Miller has written widely on twentieth-century America, including the island war in the Pacific and the air war in Europe. Gwynne’s books include “Empire of the Summer Moon” (on the Comanches and their half-white war chief Quanah Parker) and “Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson.”

In “Vicksburg,” Miller writes sweepingly of the longest, broadest campaign of the war: the clumsy but inexorable process by which Ulysses Grant moved his army south, by railroad and steamboat and summertime marches on dirt roads, until he had his divisions in place around Vicksburg. In the last eighteen days, Grant and his men marched two hundred miles, fought and won five battles, and captured a Confederate capital. They slept in the open and moved so fast that they ran short of food and left their wounded to the care of nurses, women volunteers, and Confederate doctors. But the last chapter of the campaign would be agonizingly prolonged: a siege of 47 days, punctuated by sniping and artillery bombardments.

Donald L. Miller, author of “Vicksburg.” Photo courtesy of Simon & Schuster.

In “Hymns of the Republic,” Wynne studies the final months of the Civil War, once Grant had been summoned east. Washington and Richmond are scarcely a hundred miles apart, and Grant pinned down Lee’s army in brief weeks of fighting (to clear the Mississippi had taken him more than a year) – but if this focus may seem narrower, it is not.

War is often called a crucible; Wynne treats it as a troubling vortex. The last year of the war saw Abraham Lincoln face down rivals within the Republican Party and triumph – barely – over Democrats who wanted to peace. William Tecumseh Sherman emerged as “the Northern ideologue of war,” ready to dispossess stubborn rebels, but offering peace to Southerners who accepted a new political order. In the Shenandoah Valley, two gifted cavalry officers, Phil Sheridan and John Singleton Mosby, waged a bitter guerrilla war, in skirmishes that were daring, innovative, and increasingly irrelevant. The war raised issues that its participants could not settle – not even when Lee surrendered at Appomattox; not even in August 1865, when Clara Barton raised the American flag above the prison camp graves that had become Andersonville National Cemetery.

“As she raised the colors, Clara Barton stood in the midst of a destroyed country whose impoverishment went beyond and reckoning of ledgers and balance sheets. Cities lay in ruins, farms and plantations lay desolated . . . . How, in the wrecked South, could one even fund a school or a hospital? What was the reconstituted nation to do with 4 million freed slaves and hundreds of thousands of starving white refugees? What was to become of all those soldiers, North and South, who were returning to different worlds?”

Gwynne may be the more eloquent writer, but Miller gathers vignettes and sagas. “Vicksburg” offers a dense, vivid pattern of details, and centers on Mississippi. Grant approached through Iuka and Corinth and Oxford, suffered reverses at Chickasaw Bluffs and Holly Springs, shifted westward and came on through Bruinsburg and Port Gibson and Jackson and fought his way through at Raymond and Champion Hill and the Big Black River. Miller’s accounts of this campaign (built up from war records, diaries, and memoirs) will resonate with readers who know this landscape.

“Vicksburg: Grant’s Campaign That Broke the Confederacy.” By Donald L. Miller. Simon & Schuster. 663 pp. $35.

“Hymns of the Republic: The Story of the Final Year of the American Civil War.” By S.C. Gwynne. Scribner. 400 pp. $32.

Allen Boyer, Book Editor for HottyToddy.com, is writing a book on the history of the law of treason. His grandmother’s grandfather, Pvt. Thomas B. Holaday, was at Vicksburg with Company F of the 59th Indiana Volunteer Infantry Regiment, and later marched across Georgia with Sherman.

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