Commentary from the Bookshelves: Fateful Lightning: A New History of the Civil War & Reconstruction by Allen Guelzo

Emerging Civil War welcomes guest author Mark Harnitchek…

Reading the cover of Fateful Lightning, I was struck by author Allen Guelzo’s subtitle which claims his master narrative is a “newhistory of the Civil War and Reconstruction. In a well-trodden field of other highly-regarded Civil War narratives, including James McPherson’s Pulitzer Prize winning Battle Cry of Freedom, creating a unique synthesis of the war and its aftermath is tall order. Fateful Lightning, however, answers the bell, and Guelzo presents the scholar and popular history aficionado a fresh and expansive look at the war and its aftermath. Guelzo organizes Fateful Lightning in three, tightly-written, highly-readable sections – the coming of the war, the conflict itself, and reconstruction. 

The first three chapters of Fateful Lightning cover high-profile political events of the period, the growth of sectionalism, and brewing storm over the westward expansion of slavery – the Missouri Compromise, the Mexican War, the Compromise of 1850, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Dred Scott, et al. Where these chapters really shine, however, is Guelzo’s treatment of how political events and an evolving electorate shaped the north-south fracture of the Democratic Party, the failing fortunes and demise of the Whigs, and the creation of the Republican Party in 1854. Fateful Lightning also showcases how political events, like the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law, served to create public animus in the north against slavery where it had not previously existed. Similarly, Guelzo illustrates how Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin is more than just an anti-slavery novel. Uncle Tom’s Cabin certainly was that, but Guelzo highlights how the novel exposed how slavery was an unspeakable evil that held the entire nation, slave holders included, in its grip. Finally, Guelzo uses the Lincoln-Douglas debates to showcase the emerging fault lines in the Democratic party and the hardening of political positions between Democrats who favored popular sovereignty as a means to decide the slavery issue in the territories and the Republicans who viewed slavery as an affront to founding principles of the nation.     

In chapters four through ten, Guelzo covers the war, deftly moving the narrative forward chronologically, moving back and forth between the political, social, economic, diplomatic and military theaters of operation. Guelzo’s coverage of the war is handled at the strategic level, and in the context of the war aims the campaigns were intended to achieve. Far more interesting, however, are Guelzo’s chapters on the experiences of the common soldier and sailor, black and white, and how both nations mobilized their industries and finances for war. Throughout these chapters, the reader is treated to both the strategic big picture, like why Lee invaded the North twice in 1862 and 1863, and countless delightful details such as the Army of the Potomac, in 1864, needing 500 horses a day, at $170 per horse, to sustain operations. In a particularly poignant passage, and Fateful Lighting has many such vignettes, Guelzo describes how wounded soldiers would pull at their clothing to see where the bullet had struck them, knowing full well which wounds were mortal and which were not. Finally, Guelzo acknowledges that America’s Civil War was an international event which had political and social implications beyond the economic importance of southern cotton. As such, the author spends considerable time on the diplomatic front in Great Britain, France and Russia. 

If Fateful Lightning comes up short, it is Guelzo’s rushed treatment of Reconstruction in his final chapter, which is only about 50 pages. The lion’s share of this chapter deals with President Andrew Johnson’s fiery relations with Radical and moderate Republicans over congressional versus presidential Reconstruction, the passage of the Civil Rights Acts, the 13th and 14th amendments, and Johnson’s impeachment trial.  Reconstruction during Grant’s two terms is given wavetop treatment.  

Fateful Lightning finishes strong, however, with a thoughtful epilogue about the nation the war had wrought and what the conflict meant to Americans. In support of the war, the Federal government created significant, far-ranging new authorities and exercised substantially expanded jurisdiction. An income tax and a military draft redefined citizens’ obligation to the republic and powers that had been reserved for the states – banking, currency, suffrage, militias — were legislated out of existence. The Homestead Act, the Legal-Tender Act, and the Pacific Railroad Act fundamentally changed how Americans experienced their national government and what their government asked of them.   Reconstruction and the Gilded Age was a time of unprecedented social, cultural, and economic transformation, and as the difference between the haves and the have-nots grew, much of America wondered what the war was for and who their government represented – the common citizen or wealthy elite. These questions remain as prescient today as they did 150 years ago, and the author offers no answers. Instead, Guelzo offers a question of his own about what the Civil War meant: What would America look like, or what would the world look like for that matter, had slavery not been eliminated and the Union not survived during the 1860s? After appreciating Guelzo’s “new” history, I can answer those questions.


Mark Harnitchek retired from the military after 38 years of service and recently retired again from the aerospace industry.  He is currently a full-time Civil War history buff and just completed his MA in American History at George Mason University.  

12 Responses to Commentary from the Bookshelves: Fateful Lightning: A New History of the Civil War & Reconstruction by Allen Guelzo

  1. Excerpts of interest from:


    By Dr. Clyde Wilson
    The Abbeville Institute Blog

    “Southerners are used to irrational hatred directed against us in the guise of fake history. It happens most of the time, but Guelzo is a gold medalist in this endeavour…
    To summarise Guelzo’s version of history: The North won the war but the white South won Reconstruction. The North should have continued Reconstruction until Southerners were forced to accept racial equality. The land of Southern whites should have been given to the freed slaves, who together with Northerners made the South prosperous during Reconstruction. But the Northerners left so the South reverted to racism and impoverished backwardness from the lack of Northern benevolence and enterprise. If Reconstruction had only lasted longer, the South would have been forced to become egalitarian and prosperous…

    The biggest false assumption is that the North and the U.S. government invaded and conquered the South and subjected it to military occupation in order to achieve racial equality for black Americans. Thus that Northern actions were always wise and benevolent and Southern actions were always evil and incompetent. This is a common self-righteous assumption that supports the myth of America’s unique goodness, but it is wholly false. The number of Northerners who would have risked their lives to achieve racial equality could have assembled in a small room…
    No Northerner before 1860 ever proposed any serious plan to achieve emancipation (much less equality), although many were free in their condemnation of Southern sins. Lincoln said that he did not know what to do about slavery even if he had the power, which he did not, and that Northerners would be exactly like Southerners if they had been in the same situation. He declared himself willing to protect slavery where it already existed in perpetuity, but declared that he must have his tariff revenue…

    General Sherman’s brother, Senator John Sherman, declared that establishing the national banking system was a more important goal than freeing the slaves. In Guelzo’s formulation, Northern politics is never about interests, like every other politics in human history, but only about noble mission…

    Most Northern States, including Lincoln’s Illinois, had laws forbidding the residence of free black people and severely restricting the lives of the small number who were there. During the war the Black Republican abolitionist governors of Massachusetts and Illinois refused to accept as residents even a handful of freed black refugees. The governor of Illinois said that his people would not accept them and the governor Massachusetts said they would be happier in the South…
    These are the people who conducted a war for equality for black Americans? In fact, the Northern people and soldiers were as “racist” as Southerners. Arguably more so, because Southerners were accustomed to living peacefully among black people…

    In sum, Reconstruction did nothing for black Americans except to make them voters, mobilize them to terrorize whites, and create hostility between the races that had not existed before. Like Southern white people they were left in poverty that lasted for generations…

    The primary Northern activity in Reconstruction was looting what was left of the South’s great antebellum wealth that had already been devastated by the war of conquest. The story of Reconstruction is not racial equality, it is corruption—corruption for personal enrichment that was a main activity of Republican politicians and fat cats and reached right into Grant’s White House…
    In fact, he dispenses not history but his own unanchored opinions on matters of great importance. His opinions are fashionable among the many who have a preference for an interpretation that damns Southerners and postulates an imaginary Northern crusade for racial equality. These opinions are not based on historical learning but are a product of crusading zeal. Guelzo is not a major historical authority but a media celebrity—someone who is well known for being well-known.”

    1. Ha, Ha, Ha. Guelzo was the only historian from a major institution to back Donald Trump’s harebrained 1776 Report. He is only “fashionable” among the denizens of MAGA-World.

    2. I’m not a huge fan of this book, but I’d note that the Abbeville Institute is hardly an unbiased group.

      1. The author Clyde Wilson helped found the White Supremacist group League of the South and served as a director for a decade. Not a reliable source.

    3. thanks for your commentary Rod … as expected, however, and true to form, you are right out of Gone With the Wind.

      1. Quoting Wilson – who founded the League of the South and is affiliated with the Mises Institute as well as with Abbeville – speaks for itself.

  2. Thank you, Mr. Harnitchek, for your wonderful review of “Fateful Lightning” by Allen Guelzo. I have his book on Gettysburg and will have to get a copy of this book.

  3. THe North started the war for Union and realized as Grant stated that Slavery had to be destroyed in order for the country to say as one. The average Northerner didn’t believe in racial equality outside a few kooks in New England. Nobody in Europe or Asia believed in racial equality either. Not suprisingly, racial equality is a 20th century belief.

    Accordingly, Reconstruction was bound to fail. Southerners weren’t going to accept their slaves as political masters. Northerners meant well, but weren’t going to enforce black voting rights with the bayonet.

  4. The big mistake was not giving black folks land they could farm on their own. That’s what Black needed in 1870, not voting rights. Had blacks owned their own land the whole deabiliting sharecropping system could have been avoided.

  5. As for Professoer WIlson, I thought he was dead. So, I”m glad he’s still writing, although he’s always giving us a differenent perspective on history. After all, don’t we all want intellectual uniformity? I find his challenging views scary and prefer to read the Washington Post.

    I mean should Trump voters be allowed to write about history? I dunno, isn’t that the way we got the 3rd Riech? And I wouldn’t want to be intellectually challenged. I feel much more comfortable when only the Right sort of people, Biden voters, mostly, and those with with RIght sort of politics write about the Civil War. I’ve always held the view, like some others, that there’s only ONE way to view history, and anyone who disagrees is sort of like – y’know – Hitler. Or at least Donald Trump. Who’s just as bad. Sorta.

Please leave a comment and join the discussion!