Hymns of the Republic: A book review by Bob Morris

Hymns of the Republic: The Story of the Final Year of the American Civil War
S.C Gwynne
Scribner (October 2019)

The year in which a war was finally won while making “a terrible mess of things”

What we have here is S.C Gwynne’s rigorous as well as lively and eloquent account of what remains among the most significant years during the history of the United States thus far. The story begins with the Lincolns’ New Year’s celebration in the Executive Mansion following his re-election. Also, “inextricably lethal” Robert E. Lee had finally been defeated at Gettysburg and Vicksburg had fallen. It concludes on an August day “four months after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, when the final grave marker was put in place at Andersonville National Cemetery. Gwynne explains how and why these were (I channel Dickens) “the best of times, the worst of times.”

These are among the hundreds of passages of greatest interest to me, also provided to suggest the thrust and flavor of Gwynne’s narrative:

o “You would have been hard-pressed, in the early spring of 1864, to find a more obscure and militarily irrelevant backwater than Fort Pillow, Tennessee. Located eighty river miles upstream from Memphis on the Mississippi River, it sat on a high bluff and consisted mostly of crude earthworks, just dirt pushed up into walls, with a trench dug at their base…Fort Pillow would become both a rallying cry and a line of demarcation, a stark and brutal sign of the revolutionary change that had swept through the war and altered its nature.” (Pages 13 and 14)

o In 1858, Grant paid a long overdue debt of honor: “This was pure Grant: honest and steadfast and honorable in the face of hardship. To Longstreet — who in May 1864 faced Grant as Robert E. Lee’s principal lieutenant in the Army of northern Virginia — Grant’s behavior was fully in keeping with the man he knew. But such integrity didn’t help Grant in the slightest. His luck only got worse. By 1859, sixteen years after his graduation from West Point, his prospects for success in commercial were approaching zero…Grant is the most famous success story of the war, the man who failed and failed and failed again, then suddenly succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest expectations.” (49)

o On one of Lincoln’s most severe political enemies in his own party: “There was nothing nice about Henry Winter Davis, the ultra-Radical Republican representative from Maryland. He was youthful, handsome, smart, and an orator of uncommon ability. But he was also vengeful, self-righteous, and mean. Reporter Noah Brooks thought him ‘hollow-hearted and cold-blooded.’ He hated many things, and the thing he hated above all else was Abraham Lincoln.” (159)

o On why Sherman planned to conquer and then abandon Atlanta: “He would leave no significant garrison there. Because holding Atlanta didn’t matter, either. What he cared about was showing the South what unconstrained military power looked like. He believed the most important factor in the war in late 1864 was the South’s unyielding will, and he intended to beak it. He wanted to, as he put it, [begin italics] to make its inhabitants feel, that war, and individual ruin are synonymous terms.’ [end italics] This, perhaps the clearest statement of Sherman’s vision, is the best summary of how the war had changed.” (236)

o On the document specifying terms of surrender: “When Grant asked if that was satisfactory, Lee replied, ‘Yes, I am bound to be satisfied by anything you offer. It is more than I expected.’ It was more than most of Lee’s officers expected, too…Then the document was was handed over to be officially transcribed, by Ely Parker, a Seneca Indian engineer and diplomat. Lee had commented upon meeting him, ‘I am glad to see one real American here,’ to which Parker had replied, ‘We are all Americans.'”  (292)

In the final chapter, Gwynne shares his final thoughts on how and why The United States of America remained “a single thing instead of a multiplicity of things, a free, powerful, and coherent unity in place of an aggregation of warring principalities and contingent interests.” That said, “the war that had stitched the nation back together had also made a terrible mess of things.”

In this context, I am reminded of how vulnerable, indeed fragile, the new nation was after winning its war for independence. Its leaders then struggled to formulate a Constitution and Bill of Rights. The same nation (stitches conspicuous) was also vulnerable, indeed fragile, after Appomattox, struggling without Lincoln during a period of reconstruction that continues to this day.

I highly recommend this book and thank S.C Gwynne for what I have learned about one of the most important years in the history of the United States thus far.

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