Book Review: The Oxford Handbook of the American Civil War

A good reference book bears several elements, beginning with its title: The Oxford Handbook of the American Civil War thus telegraphs its purpose.

Another is heft: this one has 675 pages. Third is a big raft of contributors, and recognizable ones at that. Three dozen scholars are represented here, including Wilson Greene, Kenneth Noe, Michael Parrish, Ethan Rafuse and Craig Symonds. Co-editor Hess contributes five articles, including one on the Atlanta Campaign. Endnotes document the authors’ research, and a bibliography at the end of each article tells you where to read more. A precise index adds more value to this reference source. Rounding out The Oxford Handbook’s strengths are Hal Jesperson’s crisp, dependable maps, numbering half a hundred.

Most important are the essays themselves. In a book like this, all the major campaigns should be covered (they are). Framed as chapters, the pieces generally run from fifteen to twenty pages, quite readable in one sitting.

Christian B. Keller terms Lee’s victory at Chancellorsville “a moment of great strategic contingency,” echoing his essay on strategic contingencies in the Virginia theater, published in Southern Strategies by Kansas last year. Kenneth Noe, author of The Howling Storm: Climate, Weather, and the American Civil War (2020), states that “heat, dust, and drought shaped the Kentucky campaign from the first to almost the last” (bet you haven’t thought that in a while). Will Greene reminds us that Petersburg was the longest sustained military campaign of the war, lasting 292 days from June 1864 to April ’65—which explains that his current history of the campaign is projected to run three volumes (the first came out in 2018).

Anne Bailey asserts that by marching through Georgia and the Carolinas, rather than reinforcing Grant, Sherman probably “delayed the end of the war by weeks”—something that we Georgians have been saying for years. In his narrative on the Seven Days’ Battles, Timothy J. Orr keeps an eye on how newspapers in the two countries reported weighty events. “Newspapers prepared to control the elucidation and dissemination of battlefield news,” he observes; “partisan writers had only to make the facts fit the narrative they had already imagined.” Thus when  “Confederate citizens uniformly gushed with pride” over Lee’s manhandling of McClellan, they were being egged on by such papers as the Richmond Enquirer, which trilled on July 4, 1862 that “the martial spirit of the South has emerged and never soared with so proud an ascendant as at this very hour.”

Oh, yes: there’s one more attribute of a good reference book, its price. Generally speaking, the more expensive the tome, the better it is. This one lists for one hundred-and-fifty dollars.

The Oxford Handbook of the American Civil War

Edited by Lorien Foote and Earl J. Hess

Oxford University Press    2021      $150 hardcover

Reviewed by Stephen Davis

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