Book Review: “Hymns of the Republic”

When the topic of the Civil War’s turning points come up, the traditional answers have always included the Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, or Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation. Recently, though, historians have advanced the idea of 1864 as being one of the most important years of the conflict, with key decisions on the battlefield, and the pivotal election in November, as shaping up how the war would culminate. The newest author to have a monograph about 1864’s importance is S.C. Gwynne, whose Hymns of the Republic’s subtitle is “The Story of the Final Year of the American Civil War.”

Gwynne is familiar to readers from his award-winning books Empire of the Summer Moon and Rebel Yell, a biography of Stonewall Jackson. An excellent writer, Gwynne brings the usual cast of characters— Abraham Lincoln, U.S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, William T. Sherman, and Clara Barton—alive on his pages.

Gwynne’s basic thesis is that the war was decided in 1864. He argues this through the fact that, by 1864, the war had hardened its participants. In one of his opening chapters he describes the Fort Pillow Massacre in vivid detail, calling it “the war’s greatest atrocity,” and details how the fighting there in April, 1864 showed a shocked, horrified populace that the war would have many more bloody days before it was finished. (23)

With an evocative, yet accessible and easily-readable prose, Gwynne brings the reader from the promotion of U.S. Grant as lieutenant general through the bloody campaigning and ends his book in the wake of Lincoln’s assassination.

Between the pages Gwynne highlights the importance of the United States Colored Troops (USCTs) in the Federal war effort, detailing the large mountain of obstacles those men had to climb just to prove themselves. As such, the USCT’s efforts in the opening attacks at Petersburg and their fighting at the Crater is told in grand style.

In the wake of the bloodletting and the thousands of casualties, Gwynne also makes one of his central characters Clara Barton, describing her work with the wounded after the Wilderness and Spotsylvania. Gwynne’s narrative carries Barton through to her efforts at Andersonville when she, alongside Dorence Atwater, helped to identify thousands of Union dead there. By devoting multiple chapters to Barton’s efforts, Gwynne shows the real-impact that these battles had on the soldiers who fought and were maimed in them. It’s one thing to say the Wilderness caused nearly 30,000 casualties—it’s another thing to reflect on what it meant to evacuate and treat the wounded over uneven roads in shockless wagons.

In the backdrop of the fighting across Virginia is Abraham Lincoln’s bid for reelection. Lincoln is shown as a tired man, worrying about his efforts and the realization that, if the fighting continued with tens of thousands of casualties with little, if anything, to show for it, a different administration would soon be in the White House. Behind the scenes politicians in his own party like Salmon P. Chase and Henry Wade worked against him, trying to vie for a seat at the head of the government. Gwynne tells these stories well; so well that for a moment, the reader can forget that these events were decided almost 160 years ago.

There are places, though, that will cause some readers to hesitate. For one, Gwynne’s Hymns of the Republic is very much a Virginia-centric book. As a book that showcases itself as telling the story of the final year, events outside of the Washington-Richmond corridor are not mentioned much. As important to the election as was William Sherman’s capture of Atlanta, his campaign gets barely mentioned. Sherman’s March to the Sea is certainly covered well, as part of Gwynne’s thesis of a harder war, a more-devastating war, but by then it has taken very much a back seat to the actions of Grant and Lee.

Secondly is the fact that, for the more experienced reader, there’s not a whole lot that’s new here. Looking at Gwynne’s bibliography shows just books, articles, and online sources. There are no manuscripts or collections listed, thus not much original research. The usual suspects appear—the reminiscences of John B. Gordon, Joshua Chamberlain, Horace Porter, the ever-necessary Official Records of the War of the Rebellion. For the reader that is just beginning their study of the Civil War, or 1864, this book is a perfect, well-told tale. For the reader who already has Gordon Rhea on their bookshelf, Gwynne’s telling of the Overland Campaign will sound familiar; ditto with Doris Kearns Goodwin and Lincoln’s reelection.

But Gwynne’s book isn’t necessarily for that person with the encyclopedic knowledge of the Civil War. It’s for the person just getting started, or someone who just wants a good book to read. For them, this is the ideal book. It’s well-told in clear language, and it reminds us how close the Civil War really was. It took sacrifice—lots of it—to unify the county and free the nearly four million enslaved people. Gwynne closes his book with a masterful passage. Enslaved people, just told of the war’s outcome, are left pondering what to do next. “There it was, right in front of them, the thing dreamed about and so ardently hoped for: freedom, with all of its terrible and thrilling promise” (325).

It was a conclusion reached only after much suffering and a hectic, bloody year that transformed the country.

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S.C. Gwynne, Hymns of the Republic: The Story of the Final Year of the American Civil War.

325 Pages Main Text; End notes, Bibliography, Index, 395 Pages Total.

Simon & Schuster, 2019.

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