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

Two weeks ago (November 8, 2019), I had the opportunity to hear the author, S.C. Gwynne, speak about this book at a local bookstore. While I have at best a layman's interest in the Civil War, I was impressed with Gwynne's presentation, so much so that I put in a request with my neighborhood library to check out a copy of the book.

"HYMNS OF THE REPUBLIC: The Story of the Final Year of the American Civil War" provides an apt and well-written summation of the final year of the Civil War and how it impacted upon the nation (North and South) militarily, politically, economically, and on a psychological level. Gwynne also brings vividly to life the many personalities (military, civilian, and political) who played key and significant roles in a year - 1864 - that began with the appointment of Ulysses S. Grant (the hero of Vicksburg) as Lieutenant General in charge of the Army of the Potomac by President Lincoln, which initially gave the North much cause for optimism that the war could perhaps be won in a short time and thus, ensure Lincoln's re-election later in the year. But despite Grant's initial successes against the Army of Northern Virginia (commanded by Robert E. Lee), the war in the East ground into a virtual stalemate by the summer.


As a result of these setbacks on the battlefield in 1864 (as evidenced by the Battles of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, and Cold Harbor), Lincoln's re-election prospects dimmed considerably. He felt certain that he was likely to be defeated in November by the Democratic candidate (George McClellan, the erstwhile commander of the Army of the Potomac til Lincoln relieved him of command late in 1862 because of McClellan's failure to mount an effective campaign against the Army of Northern Virginia throughout that year), leading to a likely truce between North and South resulting ultimately in the establishment of the Confederacy as an independent nation.  But then the fortunes of war would tilt in the North's favor by the early autumn of 1864.


Gwynne has written a history that reads like a novel comparable in some ways to Thackeray's 'Vanity Fair' with its dramatic sweep. Thanks to him, I learned so much more about why the Civil War continues to resonate in the nation's psyche. After all, it was a conflict that changed us from seeing ourselves as 'the United States are' to 'the United States IS.' That is, as one singular nation of Americans.