A Main Selection of the History Book Club; Winner of the Lincoln Prize
A Great Civil War is a major new interpretation of the events which continue to dominate the American imagination and identity nearly 150 years after the war’s end. In personal as well as historical terms, more even than the war for independence, the Civil War has been the defining experience of American democracy.
A lifelong student of both strategy and tactics, Weigley also brings to his account a deep understanding of the importance of individuals from generals to captains to privates. He can put the reader on the battlefield as well as anyone who has ever written about war. All of the important engagements are covered, and he does it countless times in A Great Civil War. From Fort Sumter to the early clashes in the West and border states to the naval encounters in the East and on through the great and horrible battles whose names resound in American history—Shiloh, Corinth, Bull Run, Gettysburg, Vicksburg, Chickamauga, Antietam, Wilderness, Cold Harbor, Petersburg, Appomattox. A brilliant narrator of battle action and historical events, Weigley is never content merely to tell a good story. Every student of war will find new insights and interpretations at the strategic and the tactical level. There are firm judgments throughout of the leaders on both sides of the conflict.
A Great Civil War also analyzes the politics of both sides in relationship to battlefield situations. Weigley is unique in his ability to put all of the pieces on the board at once; the reader understands as never before how war and politics (and individuals) interacted to produce the infinitely complex story which is the Civil War.
As with any major work, there are themes and subtexts, explicit and implicit:
Both sides began the war with strategic and tactical concepts based on Napoleon which were already obsolete because of changes in technology—and both sides struggled throughout the war to develop new strategic and tactical procedures.
The Civil War was great not only in the massiveness of the slaughter and destruction. It was, for all its horror, a war about values—democracy and the freeing of the slaves—that was worth the effort.
The South, despite its powerful defense, was ultimately ambivalent about leaving the Union and gave up more easily than might have been expected.
Finally, there is an intimacy, a sense of personal urgency, in Weigley’s grand account. He is connected by blood as well as profession. Jacob Weigley, the author’s great grandfather, visited Gettysburg soon after the battle and wrote about it to his brother Francis, who was serving with the 7th Pennsylvania Cavalry; Francis later died in a Confederate prison camp. Then and now the Weigleys live in Pennsylvania, and the war and its lessons remain part of the family’s living memory, as it is also the nation’s.