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Tarnished Victory: Finishing Lincoln's…

Tarnished Victory: Finishing Lincoln's War

by William Marvel

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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0547428065, Hardcover)

Amazon Exclusive: A Q&A with Author William Marvel

Q: What is the principle theme of Tarnished Victory?

A: I suppose the overall theme, as it was in the three previous volumes of my series on Lincoln’s War, is that the dominant narrative of the Civil War is not especially valid. There were many narratives, and even in the North, which was my focus, most of them were much more unpleasant and uninspiring than the romantic tale of altruism and patriotism that retails so well today. The earlier volumes examined whether the war was a prudent undertaking, and how its prosecution demanded much more than anyone expected (as well as more than many were willing to bear); this final volume considers both the ultimate cost and the degree to which the fruits of victory were squandered.

Q: Did we need another multi-volume history of the Civil War?

A: Most emphatically. For adequate detail, any history of the war would require multiple volumes. Several such histories exist, but the best of them were written a generation ago. Their perspectives are outdated, and they all rely to one degree or another on memoirs and secondary works, many of which were seriously flawed. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in a lifetime of study, it is that the history of an event starts to be distorted almost immediately, and the more chronologically distant from that event your source is, the more unreliable it is likely to be. For that reason I try to depend as much on contemporary, primary sources as I can, and in many cases that yields entirely different facts, not to mention a different interpretation.

Q:What do you regard as "primary" sources?

A: My definition is fairly narrow. I include mainly letters and diaries written at the time, along with newspapers, official documents, and records like the Congressional Globe. Those sources have their own weaknesses that always have to be considered, but the passage of time only worsens the effects of imperfect memory and impure motive, and makes an accurate interpretation all the more difficult.

Q: Where do you find these sources?

A: In historical societies, university collections, and public repositories across the country. For the Civil War period there seems to be an endless supply of manuscripts, and they are still coming in from descendants who want to see their ancestors’ papers preserved. It is no longer possible to make a credible claim of "exhaustive" research on any broad topic, and in pursuit of a general history one can easily work for weeks in places like the Library of Congress or the U.S. Army Military History Institute. During the eight years I was working on this series I drove upwards of a hundred thousand miles to visit about eighty repositories from Maine to California, spending at least six weeks a year on active research.

Q: Were you surprised by anything you found?

A: I was. I’ve been writing about the Civil War for more than thirty years, so I thought I was pretty familiar with the story when I began this project. Well established beliefs started falling apart from the very outset, however, beginning with the popular notion that unbridled patriotism motivated the earliest Union soldiers. I noticed a trend of especially poor classes of men enlisting in droves, and once I started looking for it I found plenty of evidence that a great many of those we thought had been driven by love of country were actually desperate for the regular income of army pay and family supplements. It was traditionally thought that mercenary incentives attracted only the later recruits, when enlistment bounties began to soar, but the same appears to have been true for legions of the war’s earlier volunteers. Many of those poorer men also wanted to preserve the Union, but a large percentage might never have enlisted had they been financially secure. Neither did I expect to find quite so many ardent supporters of the war dodging service, or to uncover so much manipulation of elections by state and federal officials, or see the government leaving soldiers destitute so they could pay contractors—and so on.

Q: How do you view President Lincoln’s performance?

A: I developed an early and powerful admiration for Lincoln, and I’m still influenced by that, but I don’t subscribe to the cult of Lincoln worship that venerates his every act and word. It was, after all, his very humanity that made him so remarkable, and I think those who revere him the most may misunderstand him as badly as those who revile him. For all his good intentions, dispassionate scrutiny reveals some important mistakes in his presidency, and most notably in his precedents for executive excess and government intrusion. There is supreme irony in the reflection that what people now generally regard as a war to end slavery brought some of the worst encroachments on civil liberties in our history, most of which appear to have been altogether unnecessary and ill- advised. Those precedents helped pave the way for future constitutional infringements, always in the name of national security, all of which are even more dangerous under the administration of a less benevolent spirit than Lincoln’s.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:06:32 -0400)

A conclusion to the sweeping four-part series that includes The Great Task Remaining chronicles the Virginia and Atlanta campaigns of 1864 through the final surrender of Confederate forces in June 1865.

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