Fateful Lightening, A new history of the Civil War and Reconstruction by Allen C. Guelzo.

Author:Mills, Edward J., III
Position:Book review

Guelzo, Allen C. Fateful Lightening, A New History of the Civil War and Reconstruction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. x + 576 pages. Paper, $19.95.

Allen Guelzo's Fateful Lightening is a wonderful book. It is the summit of a long career of a consummate historian. It is much more in-depth history than such popular histories as James McPherson's 1988 work, Battle Cry of Freedom. Yet Guelzo's prose is so effortless that it reads as well as similar popular histories of the era. It is a timely addition to a long tradition of scholarly histories of both the Civil War and Reconstruction. The most recent comprehensive work, that of historian Shelby Foote, is getting a bit dated, so it is time for another addition to this tradition of excellence in scholarly historiography. Guelzo's coverage of the war itself and the various battles and campaigns is more than adequate, but I found other sections of Fateful Lightening even more interesting. Guelzo seamlessly weaves the history of actual warfare with other cultural and historical events of the time. He offers, for example, a masterful introduction to the history of the Republic before 1860 and an insightful review of the historical, cultural, and social factors that led inevitably to the war. It was not a forgone conclusion that the two regions would go to war against each other, he argues, but the vast historical, cultural, social, and political differences between the two regions provided almost inevitable clashes about western expansion, slavery, and tariffs. Guelzo also points out that it was not a settled issue that states could not secede from the union as the several real threats of groups of states to secede leading up to actual secession prove.

The discussion of the rational or irrational sources of the war is particularly good. It was, writes Guelzo, a perfectly rational choice to secede and go to war--as against many other historians that claim that the conflict resulted from an irrational set of decisions. Given the historical, cultural, and social differences regionally, as well as the history leading up to secession, secession and war seemed entirely rational and logical decisions. Guelzo's analysis of Abraham Lincoln, spread out throughout the book, is some of his best work in this text. Being the author of a book-length work on Lincoln, Guelzo has an almost intuitive grasp of the quirks of Lincoln's personality as well as his political savvy, and his evolving thinking about...

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