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By July 1863 the Civil War has been fought over the farmlands and seacoasts of the South for better than two years, and is already one of the bloodiest wars in human history. It is a war that most believed would be decided by one quick fight, one great show of strength by the power of the North. The first major battle, called Bull Run in the North, Manassas in the South, is witnessed by a carefree audience of Washington's elite.
Their brightly decorated carriages carry men in fine suits and society matrons in colorful dresses. They perch on a hillside, enjoying their picnics, anticipating a great show with bands playing merrily while the young men in blue march in glorious parade and sweep aside the ragged band of rebels. What they see is the first great horror, the stunning reality that this is in fact a war,Â and that men will die. What they still cannot understand is how far this will go, and how manyÂ men will die.
In the North, President Lincoln maintains a fragile grip on forces pulling the government in all directions. On one extreme is the pacifist movement,
those who believe that the South has made its point, and so, to avoid bloodshed, Washington must simply let them go, that nothing so inconsequential as the Constitution is as important as the loss of life.
On the other extreme are the radical abolitionists, who demand the South be brought down entirely, punished for its way of life, its culture, and that anyone who supports the southern cause should be purged from the land. There is also a great middle ground, men of reason and intellect,
who now understand that there is more to this war than the inflammatory issue of slavery, or the argument over the sovereign rights of the individual states. As men continue to volunteer, larger and larger numbers of troops take to the fields, and other causes emerge, each man fighting for his own reason. Some fight for honor and duty, some for money and glory, but nearly all are driven by an amazing courage, and will carry their muskets across the deadly space because they feel it is the right thing to do.
From the North come farmers and fishermen, lumberjacks and shopkeepers,
old veterans and young idealists. Some are barely Americans at all,
expatriates and immigrants from Europe, led by officers who do not speak
English. Some are freedmen, Negroes who volunteer to fight for the preservation of the limited freedoms they have been given, and to spread that freedom into the South.
In the South they are also farmers and fishermen, as well as ranchers,
laborers, aristocrats, and young men seeking adventure. They are inspired first by the political rhetoric, the fire-breathing oratory of the radical secessionists. They are told that Lincoln is in league with the devil, and that his election ensures that the South will be held down, oppressed by the powerful interests in the North, that their very way of life is under siege. When the sound of the big guns echo across Charleston harbor, when the first flashes of smoke and fire swallow Fort Sumter, Lincoln orders an army to go south, to put down the rebellion by force. With the invasion comes a new inspiration, and in the South, even men of reason are drawn into the fight, men who were not seduced by mindless rhetoric, who have shunned the self-serving motives of the politicians. There is outrage, and no matter the issues or the politics, many take up arms in response to what they see as the threat to their homes. Even the men who understand and promote the inevitable failure of slavery cannot stand by while their land is invaded. The issue is not to be decided after all by talk or rhetoric, but by the gun.
On both sides are the career soldiers, West Pointers, men with experience from the Mexican War, or the Indian wars of the 1850s. In the North the officers are infected and abused by the disease of politics, and promotion is not always granted by performance or ability. The Federal armies endure a parade of inept or unlucky commanders who cannot fight the rebels until they first master the fight with Washington. Few succeed.
In the South, Jefferson Davis maintains an iron hand, controlling even the smallest details of governing the Confederacy. It is not an effective system, and as in the North, men of political influence are awarded positions of great authority, men who have no business leading soldiers into combat. In mid-1862, through an act of fate, or as he would interpret it, an act of God, Robert Edward Lee is given command of the Army of
Northern Virginia. What follows in the East is a clear pattern, a series of great and bloody fights in which the South prevails and the North is beaten back. If the pattern continues, the war will end and the
Confederacy will triumph. Many of the fights are won by Lee, or by his generals--the Shenandoah Valley, Second Manassas. Many of the fights are simply lost by the blunders of Federal commanders, the most horrifying example at Fredericksburg. Most, like the catastrophic Federal defeat at
Chancellorsville or the tactical stalemate at Antietam, are a combination of both.
By 1863 two monumental events provide an insight into what lies ahead. The first is the success of the Federal blockade of southern seaports, which prevents the South from receiving critical supplies from allies abroad,
and also prevents the export of raw materials, notably cotton and tobacco,
which provide the currency necessary to pay for the war effort. The result is understood on both sides. Without outside help, the Confederacy will slowly starve.
The second is the great bloody fight at Gettysburg. While a tragic defeat for Lee's army, there is a greater significance to the way that defeat occurs. Until now, the war has been fought mostly from the old traditions,
the Napoleonic method, the massed frontal assault against fortified positions. It has been apparent from the beginning of the war that the new weaponry has made such attacks dangerous and costly, but old ways die slowly, and commanders on both sides have been reluctant to change. After
Gettysburg, the changes become a matter of survival. If the commanders do not yet understand, the men in the field do, and the use of the shovels becomes as important as the use of muskets. The new methods--strong fortifications, trench warfare--are clear signs to all that the war has changed, that there will be no quick and decisive fight to end all fights.
As the Civil War enters its third year, the bloody reports continue to fill the newspapers, and the bodies of young men continue to fill the cemeteries. To the eager patriots, the idealists and adventurers who joined the fight at the beginning, there is a new reality, in which honor and glory are becoming hollow words. The great causes are slowly pushed aside, and men now fight with the grim determination to take this fight to its end; after so much destruction and horrible loss, the senses are dulled, the unspeakable sights no longer shock. All the energy is forward,
toward those men across that deadly space who have simply become the enemy.
Robert Edward Lee
Born in 1807, he graduates West Point in 1829, second in his class. Though he is the son of "Light-Horse" Harry Lee, a great hero of the American
Revolution, late in his father's life Lee must endure the burden of his father's business and personal failures more than the aura of heroism. Lee is devoutly religious, believing with absolute clarity that the events of his life are determined by the will of God. On his return from West Point,
his mother dies in his arms. The haunting sadness of her death stays hard inside him for the rest of his life, and places him more firmly than ever into the hands of his God.
He marries the aristocratic Mary Anne Randolph Custis, whose father is the grandson of Martha Washington, and whose home is the grand mansion of
Arlington, overlooking the Potomac River. The Lees have seven children,
and Lee suffers the guilt of a career that rarely brings him home to watch his children grow, a source of great regret for him, and simmering bitterness in his wife Mary.
Lee is a brilliant engineer, and his army career moves him to a variety of posts where his expertise and skill contribute much to the construction of the military installations and forts along the Atlantic coast. He goes to
St. Louis and confronts a crisis for the port there by rerouting the flow of the Mississippi River. In 1846 he is sent to Mexico,and his reputation lands him on the staff of General-in-Chief Winfield Scott. Lee performs with efficiency and heroism, both as an engineer, a scout, and a staff officer, and leaves Mexico a lieutenant colonel.
He accepts command of the cadet corps at West Point in 1851, considered by many as the great reward for good service, the respectable job in which to spend the autumn of his career. But though his family is now close, he misses the action of Mexico, finds himself stifled by administrative duties. In 1855 he stuns all who know him by seizing an opportunity to return to the field, volunteering to go to Texas, to command a new regiment of cavalry. But even that command is mundane and frustrating, and there is for him nothing in the duty that recalls the vitality and adventure of the fighting in Mexico. Throughout the 1850s Lee settles into a deep gloom, resigns himself that no duty will be as fulfilling as life under fire and that his career will carry him into old age in bored obscurity.
As the conflict over Lincoln's election boils over in the South, his command in Texas begins to collapse, and he is recalled to Washington in early 1861, where he receives the startling request to command Lincoln's new volunteer army, with a promotion to Major General. He shocks
Washington and deeply disappoints Winfield Scott by declining the appointment. Lee chooses the only course left to an officer and a man of honor and resigns from his thirty-year career. He believes that even though Virginia has not yet joined the secessionist states, by organizing an army to invade the South, Lincoln has united his opponents and the southern states, which must eventually include Virginia. Lee will not take up arms against his home.
In late April 1861 he accepts the governor's invitation to command the
Virginia Militia, a defensive force assembled to defend the state. When
Jefferson Davis moves the Confederate government to Richmond, the Virginia forces, as well as those of the other ten secessionist states, are absorbed into the Confederate army. Lee is invited to serve as military consultant to Davis, another stifling job with little actual authority. In
July 1861, during the first great battle of the war, Lee sits alone in his office, while most of official Richmond travels to Manassas, to the excitement of the front lines.
In June 1862, while accompanied by Davis near the fighting on the Virginia peninsula, commander Joe Johnston is wounded in action and Davis offers command of the Army of Northern Virginia to Lee. Lee accepts, understands that he is, after all, a soldier, and justifies the decision with the fact that his theater of war is still Virginia. Defending his home takes on a more poignant significance when Lee's grand estate at Arlington is occupied and ransacked by Federal troops.
Lee reorganizes the army, removes many of the inept political generals,
and begins to understand the enormous value of his two best commanders,
James Longstreet and Thomas Jackson, who at Manassas was given the nickname "Stonewall." Using the greatest talents of both men, Lee leads the Army of Northern Virginia through a series of momentous victories against a Federal army that is weighed down by its own failures, and by its continuing struggle to find an effective commander. Much of Lee's war is fought in northern Virginia, and the land is suffering under the strain of feeding the army. The burden of war and of the Federal blockade spreads through the entire Confederacy and inspires Lee and Davis to consider a bold and decisive strategy.
In September 1862, Lee moves his army north, hoping to gather support and new recruits from the neutral state of Maryland. The advance results in the battle of Sharpsburg--known as Antietam in the North--and though Lee does not admit defeat, the outrageous carnage and loss of life force him to order a retreat back into Virginia. But his army is not pursued by the
Federal forces, and with new commanders now confronting him, Lee begins a great tactical chess game, and accomplishes the greatest victories of the war.
In December 1862, at Fredericksburg, Virginia, his army maintains the defensive and completely crushes poorly planned Federal assaults. In May
1863, at Chancellorsville, Lee is outnumbered nearly three to one, and only by the utter audacity of Stonewall Jackson does the huge Federal army retire from the field with great loss. But the battle is costly for Lee as well. Jackson is accidentally shot by his own men, and dies after a weeklong struggle with pneumonia.
Lee and Davis continue to believe that a move northward is essential, that with weakened confidence and inept commanders, the Federal army need only be pushed into one great battle that will likely end the war. In June
1863, Lee's army marches into Pennsylvania. He believes that a great fight might not even be necessary, that just the threat of spilling blood on northern soil will put great pressure on Washington, and the war might be brought to an end by the voice of the northern people. The invasion of the
North will serve another purpose: to take the fight into fertile farmlands where Lee might feed his increasingly desperate army.
Some in Lee's army question the strategy, raising the moral question of how to justify an invasion versus defending their homes. Others question the military judgment of moving into unfamiliar territory, against an enemy that has never been inspired by fighting on its own ground. There are other factors that Lee must confront. Though he is personally devastated by the death of Jackson, Jackson's loss means more to his army than Lee fully understands.
As the invasion moves north, Lee is left blind by his cavalry, under the flamboyant command of Jeb Stuart. Stuart fails to provide Lee with critical information about the enemy and is cut off from Lee beyond the march of the Federal army, an army that is moving to confront Lee with uncharacteristic speed. The Federal Army of the Potomac has yet another new commander, George Gordon Meade, and if Lee knows Meade to be a careful man, cautious in his new command, he also knows that there are many other
Federal officers now rising to the top, men who are not political pawns but in fact hard and effective fighters.
The two armies collide at a small crossroads called Gettysburg, a fight for which Lee is not yet prepared, and the fight becomes the three bloodiest days in American history. As costly as it is to both armies, it is a clear defeat for Lee. He had believed his army could not be stopped,
and begins now to understand what Jackson's loss might mean--that as the fight goes on, and the good men continue to fall away, the war will settle heavily on his own shoulders.
Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain
Born in 1828 near Brewer, Maine, he is the oldest of five children. He graduates Bowdoin College in 1852, and impresses all who know him with his intellect, his gift for words and talent for languages. He is raised by a deeply religious mother, whose greatest wish is that he become a man of the cloth, and for a short while Chamberlain attends the Bangor
Theological Seminary, but it is not a commitment he can make. His father's ancestry is military. Chamberlain's great-grandfather fought in the
Revolution, his grandfather in the War of 1812. His father serves during peacetime years in the Maine Militia and never sees combat. It is family tradition that his son will follow the military path, and he pressures
Chamberlain to apply to West Point. When Chamberlain returns to the academic community, a career for which his father has little respect, the disappointment becomes a hard barrier between them.
He marries Frances Caroline (Fannie) Adams, and they have four children,
two of whom survive infancy. Fannie pushes him toward the career in academics, and his love for her is so complete and consuming that he likely would have pursued any path she had chosen.
Considered the rising star in the academic community, Chamberlain accepts a prestigious Chair at Bowdoin, formerly held by the renowned Calvin
Stowe, husband of Harriet Beecher Stowe. Her controversial book, Uncle
Tom's Cabin,Â inspires Chamberlain, and the issues that explode in the South, so far removed from the classrooms in Maine, reach him deeply.
He begins to feel a calling of a different kind.
As the war begins in earnest, and Chamberlain's distraction is evident to the school administration, he is offered a leave of absence--a trip to
Europe, to take him away from the growing turmoil. Chamberlain uses the opportunity in a way that astounds and distresses everyone. He goes to the governor of Maine without telling anyone, including Fannie, and volunteers for service in the newly forming Maine regiments. Though he has no military experience, his intellect and zeal for the job open the door, and he is appointed Lieutenant Colonel, second-in-command of the Twentieth
Maine Regiment of Volunteers.
After a difficult farewell to his family, Chamberlain and his regiment join the Army of the Potomac in Washington, and in September 1862 they march toward western Maryland, to confront Lee's army at Antietam Creek.
The Twentieth Maine does not see action, but Chamberlain observes the carnage of the fight and, for the first time, experiences what the war might mean for the men around him. Three months later he leads his men into the guns at Fredericksburg and witnesses firsthand what the war has become. He spends an amazing night on the battlefield, yards from the lines of the enemy, and protects himself with the corpses of his own men.
In June 1863 he is promoted to full colonel, and now commands the regiment. He marches north with the army in pursuit of Lee's invasion. By chance, his regiment is the lead unit of the Fifth Corps, and when they reach the growing sounds of the fight at Gettysburg, the Twentieth Maine marches to the left flank, climbing a long rise to the far face of a rocky hill known later as Little Round Top. His is now the last unit, the far left flank of the Federal line, and he is ordered to hold the position at all cost. The regiment fights off a desperate series of attacks from
Longstreet's corps, which, if successful, would likely turn the entire
Federal flank, exposing the supply train and the rear of the rest of the army. Low on ammunition, his line weakening from the loss of so many men,
he impulsively orders his men to charge the advancing rebels with bayonets,
surprising the weary attackers so completely that they retreat in disorder or are captured en masse. The attacks end and the flank is secured.
During the fight, he is struck by a small piece of shrapnel, and carries a small but painful wound in his foot. As the army marches in slow pursuit of Lee's retreat, the foul weather and Chamberlain's own exhaustion take their toll, and he begins to suffer symptoms of malaria.
Though he is unknown outside of his immediate command, this college professor turned soldier now attracts the attention of the commanders above him, and it becomes apparent that his is a name that will be heard again.
Ulysses Simpson Grant
Born in 1822 in Point Pleasant, Ohio, he graduates West Point in 1843.
Small, undistinguished as a cadet, it is his initials which first attract attention. The U.S. becomes a nickname, "Uncle Sam," and soon he is known by his friends as simply "Sam." He achieves one other notable reputation at the Point, that of a master horseman, seemingly able to tame and ride any animal.
His first duty is near St. Louis, and he maintains a strong friendship with many of the former cadets, including "Pete" Longstreet. Grant meets and falls madly in love with Julia Dent, whose father's inflated notion of his own aristocratic standing produces strong objection to his daughter's relationship with a soldier. Longstreet suffers a similar fate, and in
1846, when the orders come to march to Mexico, both men leave behind young girls with wounded hearts.
Grant is assigned to the Fourth Infantry and serves under Zachary Taylor during the first conflicts in south Texas. He makes the great march inland with Winfield Scott and arrives at the gates of Mexico City to lead his men into the costly fighting that eventually breaks down the defenses of the city and gives Scott's army the victory. Grant leads his infantry with great skill, and is recognized for heroism, but is not impressed with the straight-ahead tactics used by Scott. He believes that much loss of life could have been avoided by better strategy.
He returns home with a strong sense of despair for the condition of the
Mexican peasantry, which he sees as victims of both the war and their own ruling class. It is an experience that helps strengthen his own feelings about the abominable inhumanity of slavery.
Returning to St. Louis, Grant receives reluctant consent to marry Julia,
and eventually they have four children. He receives a pleasant assignment to Detroit, but in 1852 he is ordered to the coast of California, an expensive and hazardous post, and so he must leave his family behind. The following two years are the worst in his life, and despite a brief and enjoyable tour at Fort Vancouver, he succumbs both to the outrageous temptations of gold-rush San Francisco and the desperate loneliness of life without his young family. Shy and withdrawn, he does not enjoy the raucous social circles of many of his friends, and the painful isolation leads him to a dependency on alcohol. His bouts of drunkenness are severe enough to interfere with his duty, and his behavior warrants disciplinary action. Because of the generosity of his commanding officer, Grant is afforded the opportunity to resign rather than face a court-martial. He leaves the army in May 1854 and believes his career in the military is at a painful conclusion.
He returns to his family unemployed and penniless, and attempts to farm a piece of land given him by Julia's father. With no money to provide the beginnings of a crop, Grant attempts the lumber business, cutting trees from the land himself. He eventually builds his own house, which he calls,
He is generous to a fault, often loaning money to those who will never repay the debts, and despite a constant struggle financially, he is always willing to help anyone who confronts him in need.
In 1859 he is offered a position as a collection agent for a real estate firm in St. Louis, and trades the small farm for a modest home in the city, but the business is not profitable. Though he is qualified for positions that become available in the local government, the political turmoil that spreads through the Midwest requires great skill at intrigue and political connections, and Grant has neither. He finally accepts an offer from his own father, moves to Galena, Illinois, in 1860, and clerks in a leather and tanned goods store with his brothers, who understand that
Grant's military experience and West Point training in mathematics will make for both a trustworthy and useful employee. But the politics of the day begin to affect even those who try to avoid the great discussions and town meetings, and Grant meets John Rawlins and Elihu Washburne, whose political influence begins to pave the way for an opportunity Grant would never have sought on his own.
As the presidential election draws closer, Grant awakens to the political passions around him, involves himself with the issues andthe candidates,
and finally decides to support the candidate Abraham Lincoln. When Lincoln is elected, Grant tells his friend John Rawlins that with passions igniting around the country, "the South will fight."
Persuaded by Washburne, Grant organizes a regiment of troops from Galena and petitions the governor of Illinois for a Colonel's commission, which he receives. After seven years of struggle as a civilian, Grant reenters the army.
Serving first under Henry Halleck, he eventually commands troops through fights on the Mississippi River at Forts Henry and Donelson, each fight growing in importance as the war spreads. Promoted eventually to Major
General, Grant is named commander of the Federal Army of Tennessee, but still must endure Halleck's fragile ego and disagreeable hostility. On the
Tennessee River at a place called Shiloh, facing a powerful enemy under the command of Albert Sidney Johnston, Grant wins one of the bloodiest fights of the war, in which Johnston himself is killed. Here, Grant's command includes an old acquaintance from his days in California, William
In July 1862, when Halleck is promoted to General-in-Chief of the army and leaves for Washington, the army of the western theater is a confused mishmash of commands under Grant, Don Carlos Buell, and William Rosecrans.
While the focus of the nation is on the great battles in Virginia, Grant gradually establishes himself as the most consistent and reliable commander in the West. He finally unites much of the Federal forces for an assault and eventually a long siege on the critical river port of
Vicksburg, Mississippi. In July 1863, the same week Lee's army confronts the great Federal forces at Gettysburg, Grant succeeds in capturing both
Vicksburg and the Confederate force that had occupied it.
Now, Lincoln begins to focus not just on the great turmoil of Virginia,
but toward the West as well, and it is Grant's name that rises through the jumble of poor commanders and the political gloom of Washington. After the disasters of leadership that have plagued the army, Lincoln's patience for the politics of command is at an end. He begins to speak of this quiet and unassuming man out West, a general who seems to know how to win.