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 “new” history 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.