The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War

The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War

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The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War by David J Eicher

Like no other conflict in our history, the Civil War casts a long shadow onto modern America," writes David Eicher. In his compelling new account of that war, Eicher gives us an authoritative modern single-volume battle history that spans the war from the opening engagement at Fort Sumter to Lee's surrender at Appomattox (and even beyond, to the less well-known but conclusive surrender of Confederate General Edmund Kirby Smith in Galveston, Texas, on June 2, 1865).
Although there are other one-volume histories of the Civil War -- most notably James M. McPherson's Pulitzer Prize-winning Battle Cry of Freedom, which puts the war in its political, economic, and social context -- The Longest Night is strictly a military history. It covers hundreds of engagements on land and sea, and along rivers. The Western theater, often neglected in accounts of the Civil War, and the naval actions along the coasts and major rivers are at last given their due. Such major battles as Gettysburg, Antietam, and Chancellorsville are, of course, described in detail, but Eicher also examines lesser-known actions such as Sabine Pass, Texas, and Fort Clinch, Florida. The result is a gripping popular history that will fascinate anyone just learning about the Civil War while at the same time offering more than a few surprises for longtime students of the War Between the States.
The Longest Night draws on hundreds of sources and includes numerous excerpts from letters, diaries, and reports by the soldiers who fought the war, giving readers a real sense of life -- and death -- on the battlefield. In addition to the main battle narrative, Eicher analyzes each side's evolving strategy and examines the tactics of Lee, Grant, Johnston, Sherman, and other leading figures of the war. He also discusses such militarily significant topics as prisons, railroads, shipbuilding, clandestine operations, and the expanding role of African Americans in the war.
The Longest Night is a riveting, indispensable history of the war that James McPherson in the Foreword to this book calls "the most dramatic, violent, and fateful experience in American history."

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780743218467
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 03/30/2002
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 992
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

David J. Eicher is an astronomer and Civil War historian. The managing editor of Astronomy magazine, he is the author of several books on the Civil War, among them, Mystic Chords of Memory: Civil War Battlefields and Historic Sites Recaptured and The Civil War in Books: An Analytical Bibliography. He lives with his wife and son in the Milwaukee suburbs.

Read an Excerpt



The Civil War was the most dramatic, violent, and fateful experience in American history. At least 620,000 soldiers lost their lives out of a total population of 32 million. If the same percentage of the American people were to die in a war fought by the United States today, the number of American war dead would be 5.5 million. An unknown number of civilians in the 1860s also died from disease or malnutrition or exposure brought on by the disruption and destruction of the war in the South. The number of battle casualties in a single day at Sharpsburg, Maryland (September 17, 1862) was four times the number of American casualties on the Normandy beaches on D-Day, June 6, 1944. More Americans were killed in that single day at the battle of Antietam than were killed or mortally wounded in combat in all of the other wars fought by the United States in the nineteenth century combined.

Little wonder that the Civil War has produced more books and other publications than any other event in American history -- nearly 70,000 titles by one estimate. This outpouring began during the war itself, rose to a flood in the 1880s, ebbed and flowed during the following century, and has increased to an all-time high during the past twenty years. Most of these writings have focused on the war's military campaigns and battles, its commanders and soldiers, strategy and tactics. As early as the 1880s, twice-wounded Union army veteran Albion W. Tourgée complained about this emphasis. Americans, wrote this radical reformer and champion of equal rights for freed slaves, should remember "not the courage, the suffering, the blood, but only the causes that underlay the struggle and the results that followed from it."

Tourgée's plea was largely in vain. Although many academic historians today share his sentiments, most readers remain more interested in the stirring call of drum and trumpet, the Sturm und Drang of battle. That interest is not entirely misplaced. While it is true that the war's consequences profoundly reshaped the political, social, and economic landscape of the United States, these consequences were largely dependent on the outcome of campaigns and battles -- on the results of the courage and suffering and blood of those 3 million weary men in blue and gray who fought it out during four years of violence unmatched in the Western world between the Napoleonic Wars and World War I.

What were the principal consequences of the Civil War? Northern victory in 1865 resolved two fundamental, festering questions left unresolved by the American Revolution of 1776: whether this vulnerable experiment in republican self-government could survive in a world of monarchies, empires, czardoms, aristocracy, and counterrevolutions; and whether this republic, founded on a charter of freedom, would continue to exist as the largest slaveholding society in the world. Appomattox settled these questions: America did not perish from the earth, but experienced a new birth of freedom that ensured the nation's survival as one nation, indivisible and genuinely free. Moreover, the war ended the long contest between contrasting socioeconomic orders that had struggled for more than half a century to determine which order -- and which vision of America's future -- would prevail: slave-labor, plantation agriculture dominated by a landed gentry, or free-labor democratic capitalism dominated by an entrepreneurial spirit. For better or worse, the fires of civil war forged the framework of the world's only superpower and its economic engine by the end of the millennium.

These are the kinds of questions about the impact of the Civil War that interest most professional, academic historians, many of whom could not care less about the military campaigns and battles. Yet, to deplore the emphasis on these campaigns and battles -- as did Albion Tourgée more than a century ago -- is to take a view as narrow as that of contemporary Civil War buffs who are interested only in the campaigns and battles, and indifferent to the war's causes and consequences. If some of those campaigns and battles had come out differently, the future of the United States -- indeed, of the world -- might have been quite different.

If General George B. McClellan had been bolder and more aggressive in the spring of 1862, he might have captured Richmond and won the war with only minimal damage to Southern society and slavery. If Robert E. Lee's invasion of Pennsylvania had fulfilled his hopes -- if he had won the battle of Gettysburg in the same fashion he had won at Chancellorsville against greater odds two months earlier -- the Confederacy might well have triumphed. Even as late as the fall of 1864, if William Tecumseh Sherman had not captured Atlanta, Lincoln probably would not have been reelected and his successor might have been compelled to negotiate peace with an independent Confederacy. Thus, an understanding of how and why McClellan was driven back in the Seven Days battles, how the Army of the Potomac triumphed at Gettysburg, and why Sherman captured Atlanta is important to understanding how and why American history has developed the way it has during the past 140 years.

For all of these reasons, the story of campaigns and battles -- and of the commanders, strategy, technology, and other matters necessary to understand those campaigns and battles -- that David J. Eicher presents in the following pages is an essential starting point for anyone who wants to know how and why the Civil War came out as it did. The Longest Night is almost unique among Civil War books: it is both a narrative and a reference work. Here the reader will find engrossing accounts of all the battles, large and small, linked together in a manner so lucid and logical that the cause-effect relationships among events taking place in several theaters of war in chronological succession -- sometimes even simultaneously -- emerge with new clarity. The reader will also find detailed descriptions and analyses of many technical aspects of Civil War armies, navies, and armaments: artillery, the Signal Corps, codes and ciphers, intelligence, cavalry, shoulder weapons, and many, many more. In other words, we have here two books in one. You can sit down and read an account of the battle of Shiloh or the Wilderness campaign, or you can go to the shelf and pull down this volume to look up a discussion of different kinds and calibers of artillery. No matter what you are looking for regarding the military history of the Civil War, you are likely to find it in this book -- and you will enjoy a good read at the same time.

Copyright © 2001 by David J. Eicher

Table of Contents


List of Maps

Foreword by James M. McPherson


Prologue: 1915

  1. The War Begins at Sumter
  2. Organizing the Struggle
  3. Southern Joy over First Bull Run
  4. A Massacre at Ball's Bluff
  5. An Unlikely Hero at Belmont
  6. Grant Moves into Tennessee
  7. Clash of the Ironclads
  8. A Bloodbath at Shiloh
  9. Jackson's Valley Campaign
  10. The Peninsular Campaign
  11. Confederate Triumph at Second Bull Run
  12. The War's Bloodiest Day
  13. Fredericksburg's Appalling Loss
  14. Stalemate at Stones River
  15. The Campaign for Vicksburg
  16. Lee's Master Stroke
  17. Three Days at Gettysburg
  18. Visiting the River of Death
  19. The Battles for Chattanooga
  20. Sherman Eyes the Deep South
  21. The Red River Campaign
  22. Grant Moves into the Wilderness
  23. Action at Atlanta and Petersburg
  24. Sheridan Raids the Valley
  25. Sherman's March to the Sea
  26. Fall of the Last Confederate Port
  27. Lee's Army Crumbles
  28. The End of the Civil War
Epilogue: 1865






Exclusive Author Essay

Why Write a New History of the War?
By one estimate, the Civil War literature has swelled to more than 70,000 books, fueled by a nearly insatiable desire of Americans to read about their most defining national event. So why write another history of the war? Prior to The Longest Night, the best general battle histories were those of Bruce Catton and Shelby Foote: Going on 40 years old, they represent an earlier stylistic generation, and contain quite a few ideas and assertions that Civil War scholars now consider outdated. The best recent one-volume histories of the war, notably James McPherson's stellar Battle Cry of Freedom, are all-encompassing works that treat all aspects of the conflict: politics, causes, the economy, social history, and all manner of other subjects. A modern narrative battle history of the war didn't exist, I discovered, when reading through the literature for the scholarly bibliography I wrote in the early and mid-1990s, and so I decided to write a book that would describe some 450 battles and skirmishes. I would not only be able to write modern accounts of the major battles -- Gettysburg, Antietam, Vicksburg, Chickamauga, and so on -- but also focus attention on the Western Theater, the Trans-Mississippi, the many naval actions on rivers and along coastlines, and many other aspects that earlier one-volume histories have brushed over lightly.

"A Thousand Voices Cry Out to be Heard"
In searching through many collections of archived letters, diaries, and journals of the wartime period for The Longest Night, it was staggeringly obvious that vast amounts of untapped interesting material on the war lie in repositories across the country. Even at 70,000, the count of Civil War books is in no danger of screeching to a halt. To tell the battle history of the war in an entertaining way, I used as much fresh manuscript material as I could from the National Archives, the Library of Congress, the U.S. Military History Institute, and many other collections, allowing the voices of the participants to tell much of the story in first-person, primary sources. The result was that some 1,000 excerpts from participants -- soldiers, sailors, politicians, nurses, doctors, and civilians caught in the forefront of battle -- are scattered throughout the story.

Among the most striking are the thoughts of Susan Blackford, a Lynchburg, Virginia, resident who found herself near the action at First Bull Run; African Americans who took up the cause and fought for themselves and for emancipation in U.S. units, including the celebrated 54th Massachusetts Infantry; the confused officers on both sides of the tumultuous battle of Gettysburg who on Little Round Top, in the Wheatfield, and along Seminary Ridge left a record of the chaos that unfolds when a battle accelerates; and the intimate letters of army officers and naval participants stationed in countless places who wrote their wives and sweethearts, telling them exactly what they thought about their comrades and their experiences, never expecting their words to be shared with future generations.

What Surprises Lie in Store for Civil War Readers?
Many, even for experienced Civil War buffs, and I will not here give them all away. Let me mention one area of particular surprise that I found consistently throughout the collection of Generals' Papers at the National Archives, and included many examples of it in the book. The simple fact is that the Union Army (and the Confederacy, too) contained numerous general officers who were frequently arguing with each other, attacking their superiors or subordinates, attempting to go on leave, and acting with such disharmony that it's amazing either side ever won the war.

For example, Joseph J. Reynolds, a Union major general who served gallantly in the Western Theater and won accolades for Chickamauga and Missionary Ridge, repeatedly wrote the War Department asking for a leave of absence or an end to his commission so he could return to Indiana in order to save his brother's grocery store from financial ruin. This, in the midst of an active civil war! James B. McPherson, a much-liked major general who was killed at the battle of Atlanta, had to occasionally fend off charges that his sentiments were pro-Secessionist, even as he led Federal troops in battle. In St. Louis, Justis McKinstry, a Union colonel who had been entrusted with authority as the military department's quartermaster, was cashiered from the service after being caught stealing numerous supplies and falsifying his records. His pleas of innocence, even after being caught red-handed, somehow connect to today's media exposes of well-known people. Dozens of such stories reveal the human side of the armies and their commanders, stripping them of their mythology, which is often how histories have portrayed them in the past.

Did the Confederacy Stand a Chance of Winning?
It would have been exceedingly difficult, to say the least. When Jefferson Davis's original strategy of defending all Southern territory along an enormous battle front failed (with the fall of Forts Henry and Donelson), he concocted a new plan. The Rebels would fight a "defensive-offensive" war that would concentrate troops wherever they were most needed and occasionally lash out on the offensive, as Congress and selected officers were frequently prodding Davis to do. Among the major offensive raids were the two incursions by Robert E. Lee that led to the Antietam and Gettysburg campaigns, and Edmund Kirby Smith's penetration into Kentucky.

As the Federals regained more and more territory, however, the Confederate strategy needed to shift again, this time to a hope that Northern civilians would grow tired of the cost of the war and move toward peace. This was the "winning-by-not-losing" strategy, and it might have worked, except for the nature of the Confederacy.

For many years, Southern politicians and militarists such as Davis and his vice president, Alexander H. Stephens of Georgia, had preached the importance of states' rights, separatism, and anti-Federalism. This was one philosophical maxim of the Confederacy. Yet after Davis was elected provisional president of the Confederate States, he immediately asked for and formulated a strong national government, in direct contradiction to state's rights. The resulting dysfunction, lack of cooperation, and hoarding of men and materiel for the best interests of the states made a smooth Confederate nationalism impossible, and this certainly prevented the South from acting as efficiently on the battlefield as it might have. Did this make the difference in winning or losing the war? We'll never know, but it certainly didn't help.

How Does the Scope of the Civil War Translate to Today?
The Civil War touched every family in mid-19th-century America. Some 623,000 boys and men were killed during the four years, of a total population of 31.4 million. The same percentage of war dead today would translate to a staggering 5.5 million dead Americans, making it easier to appreciate the depth of how the war shocked Americans North and South. Beyond those who were killed, many thousands were wounded, both physically and psychologically, for life. Whether or not your family had sent a son off to battle, it was virtually certain that you had received funeral notices for relatives or at least knew of families that had lost members in the war. Because regiments and companies were usually local, a unit experiencing savage fighting --and therefore high losses -- could result in the wiping out of scores of a community's young men at once.

And the soldiers and sailors in the Civil War armies were far younger, thinner, and dirtier than most of the reenactors who portray them in movies and on television today. The Civil War was largely fought by teenagers -- my own great-great-grandfather, an Ohio private, was an old-timer in his regiment when he enlisted at age 25. For most of these boys, the war started as an unparalleled adventure. When it was over, no one could forget the fundamental event that had shaped their lives, scarring many and leaving behind a generation that was, as Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote, "touched with fire." The Longest Night brings the story of that generation to the current generation of readers. (David J. Eicher)

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Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War 2.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
A lot of work went into this volume but I felt it fell short of the mark. The author pointed out shortcomings in Foote and Catton but had faults of his own.There was too much detail and too little analysis. If you are interested in the strategy of the war try my recomended titles.