Book Reviews

Geoffrey Roberts, The Life of Georgy Zhukov (Random House, 2012)
[This review is taken from, August 1, 2012]

Stalin’s General: The Life of Georgy Zhukov—by Geoffrey Roberts (Random House, $30). The most formidable Allied commander of World War II was not British or American but Russian. Georgy Zhukov led the Soviet forces in all the decisive battles that decided the outcome of the war on the Eastern Front. Most Westerners don’t realize that the bulk of the fighting against the Nazis was carried out by the former Soviet Union, which bore about 90% of Allied casualties.

Zhukov was a budding furrier in Moscow when he was drafted into the czarist armies as a cavalryman during World War I. He sided with the Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War and remained in the military when that conflict ended. Though a loyal communist, Zhukov was first and foremost a soldier. He rose in the ranks during the 1930s, barely escaping Joseph Stalin’s capricious, murderous purges.

Zhukov first showed his extraordinary mettle against Japanese forces on the Mongolian-Manchurian border during the summer of 1939, where the two sides were vying for dominance. Several battles had already been waged by the time Zhukov arrived. With painstaking and detailed planning and training Zhukov pulled together an offensive battle plan that skillfully integrated all facets of the military. He adroitly concealed his intentions from the enemy, a method he would repeatedly employ later against the Nazis. That August Zhukov sprang his surprise offensive against the Japanese, routing them even though their forces were slightly larger. His success was overshadowed internationally by the lead-up to World War II. Nonetheless, the repercussions were profound: Tokyo turned its aggressive attention to Southeast Asia, which ultimately led to the attack on Pearl Harbor.

After Germany invaded in June 1941 Zhukov gave Russia a badly needed victory at Yel’nya, near Smolensk, the only check Germany suffered during its initial sweeping offensive. Stalin, who, unlike Adolph Hitler, grudgingly learned to defer to his principal military commanders, soon put Zhukov in charge of the Leningrad front. Zhukov stopped the Germans from seizing the city, which prevented the Nazis’ flanking Moscow from the north. (The Germans then blockaded the city, which was catastrophic for the civilian population.) Zhukov wasn’t at Leningrad long before Stalin called him to Moscow, where he successfully defended the city against a massive German assault in October and November and then launched a lethal counteroffensive in December.

During 1942–43 Zhukov successfully led the Soviet forces in Stalingrad, inflicting a devastating defeat on the Germans. In the summer of 1943 he was in charge at the critical battle of Kursk, which ended Germany’s offensive capabilities in the East.

Zhukov’s Operation Bagration in 1944 was on an even greater scale than Kursk or Sta­lingrad, driving the Nazis out of Belorussia and most of the Bal­tic States and knocking Finland, a German ally, out of the war. Then came the push to eastern Germany and the capture of Berlin. There were battlefield setbacks and operational delays along the way, but overall Zhukov had an astounding record of success.

The Soviets had a number of first-rate commanders—Konev, Vasilevsky and Rokossovsky—but Zhukov was the supreme captain. Stalin chose him to receive the German surrender in May 1945, and it was Zhukov, riding a magnificent Arabian, who took the salute at the Victory Parade in Red Square.

Unlike Dwight Eisenhower, who could achieve the pinnacle of political power in the U.S., Zhukov found his postwar career blighted by a jealous, paranoid and all-powerful dictator. Not long after the war Zhukov was humiliated and demoted and was virtually erased from official Soviet accounts of the war. He was too popular for Stalin to arrest or execute, a fate that befell some of his associates.

Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev, whom Zhukov had gotten to know during the war, returned Zhukov to personhood, eventually appointing him minister of defense. There Zhukov was open to ideas of reducing nuclear weapons, initially impressing Khrushchev with his willingness to downsize the massive Soviet military. Zhukov was even willing to cut a deal with the U.S. to make it easier for each country to spy on the other via reconnaissance aircraft.

In 1957 Zhukov played a critical role in saving Khrushchev from being ousted by his Communist Party foes. Khrushchev’s reward was to engineer Zhukov’s second fall from grace, barring him once again from public life and erasing him from official histories. He was even threatened with arrest because he didn’t conceal his disdain for the regime. Khrushchev was later removed, and Zhukov was rehabilitated.

Roberts’ book gives us a true appreciation of Russian generalship during the war. To judge from many Western histories Germany lost the war because of the weather in Russia, Hitler’s incompetence and Moscow’s willingness to “recklessly” expend human life in fighting the Nazis.

Soviet casualties were indeed horrific, as were some of Moscow’s methods of waging war: retreating troops were often shot by special battalions; some 158,000 Soviet soldiers were executed for “disciplinary” reasons. Nonetheless, Roberts writes, “Zhukov was dismissive of the German generals: What none of them would admit, according to Zhukov, was that ­superior ­Soviet generalship was the primary reason they had lost the war.” Especially Zhukov’s.

In closing, Roberts compares Zhukov to other Allied commanders. “The conclusion to be drawn from this survey of comparable generals is that while Zhukov did not excel as ‘the best ever’ in any one field of military endeavor, he was the best all-around general of the Second World War. He combined prowess and courage in battle with ambitious strategic vision, ­determination, and organizational ability. He inspired the affection and confidence of his troops—as well as their fear—if not the ungrudging respect of all his peers. He was stoic in defeat and exuberant in victory. He had seemingly inexhaustible reserves of ­energy and the will to succeed however challenging the circumstances.

“These were qualities Zhukov needed to deploy again after the war when he came under personal and political attack from Stalin and then from Khrushchev.”

Historians’ battles over the reputations of politicians and military commanders of this war—or of any major conflict—will go on forever. But this book makes it clear that, despite his flaws and mistakes, Zhukov was at the summit of World War II’s military mountain.

The following reviews were written by historians4everyone:

Martin Kitchen, Rommel’s Desert War: Waging World War II in North Africa, 1941-1943 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009)

Summary: A welcome and provocative study of the North African campaigns from the Axis perspective, but one whose harsh reevaluation of the leadership of famed Afrika Korps commander Rommel is not entirely persuasive.

Of the many and varied campaigns of the Second World War, those in the North African desert between the German Afrika Korps and the British Eighth Army seem to retain a special hold on popular interest in the conflict. Partly it is the fact that these battles have the reputation of having been conducted in an unusually professional and “clean” way, as a sort of “war without hate” as one prominent participant dubbed it. That feature in itself would immediately distinguish the war in North Africa from that in other theaters.

The epic contest on the Eastern front, for example, was a ferocious, ideologically-driven struggle for annihilation. Stalin’s Soviet armies sought to repel Hitler’s invading forces bent on carving out an enormous swathe of German Lebensraum (living space) and eliminating any traces of what their Führer repeatedly denounced as a Jewish-Bolshevik threat to the foundations of Western Civilization itself. It used to be thought that the horrors of the Eastern front (the massacres of Jews and other civilians, the deliberate elimination of prisoners, and the wanton destruction of buildings and property) could be blamed on the SS rather than the regular German army, and the amnesia in this regard of early postwar German memoirs contributed to this misconception. We now know, from the work of a younger generation of historians like Omer Bartov and Wolfram Wette, that “ordinary men” (to use Christopher Browning’s title) from the regular army and from police units were deeply implicated as well. For their part, Soviet soldiers left a trail of human and physical destruction in their wake as they advanced upon Berlin, and “liberation” proved to be a highly ambiguous concept across Eastern Europe.

In the Pacific theater, the Japanese military waged war with an unremitting ferocity and persistent disregard for the status of their victims, as the appalling suffering and casualties associated with the “Rape of Nanking” (Chinese civilians) and the “Bataan Death March” (American military prisoners) indicate. Japanese troops habitually fought to the death (sometimes concealing weapons or grenades), in situations where ordinary humanity or the laws of war would dictate honorable surrender. As American forces surged westward across the Pacific in response, the result was, on both sides, what historian John Dower has described as “war without mercy.” Many American memoirs document brutal souvenir-hunting, where GIs not only collected weapons or uniforms from dead Japanese but extracted gold teeth and even, in a few cases, sent skulls home to their girlfriends or families (there is a famous Life magazine of May 22, 1944 documenting this). Aerial bombing, both conventional and atomic, claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians, and General Curtis LeMay accurately noted that his switch to low-level incendiary attacks on Japanese cities had boiled or roasted many of their residents.

Nothing like this ever occurred in the clashes in Libya and Egypt. Thinly populated, the terrain the armies fought over did not possess any intrinsic value that would prompt units to occupy and hold them. There weren’t civilians to get in the way, either as inadvertent targets or potential partisans, so campaigns were confined to the soldiers themselves. Some desert veterans likened their experiences to war at sea, with no fixed landmarks and few physical barriers to inhibit movement. Given the terrain and climate, mechanization was essential, so battles were often fluid, with positions changing, and reconnaissance teams might find themselves trapped behind enemy lines several times as mobile units surged to and fro. Prisoners were treated well, and medical units did not discriminate between friend and foe in providing care. With officers deploying their units over an “empty” landscape, the battles sometimes resembled wargames conducted on a map (indeed one of the Avalon Hill company’s first military boardgames was Afrika Korps) and appealed to those who pondered the possibilities and potential lessons of “pure” warfare.

But for the idea of a professional, honorable clash of arms to have been a reality in the midst of a brutal war, it required more than the appropriate surroundings or circumstances; it needed the soldiers themselves to subscribe to the concept and conduct themselves accordingly. And here we reach the second reason for the Desert War’s hold on the popular imagination – the reputation of Erwin Rommel.

Both Rommel’s opponents and subsequent historians have been mesmerized by the German general. The fact that he was forced to commit suicide after the failed July 1944 assassination plot against Hitler made him seem sympathetic to the right side. Winston Churchill paid tribute to his gifts in the House of Commons (which German propagandists thought worth an additional division to the Axis) while refraining from publicizing the shortcomings of his British adversaries, and a number of Allied commanders displayed a marked inferiority complex as they contemplated operations against his troops. The Australian war correspondent Alan Moorehead reported that the Eighth Army could tell in combat whether the troops they were fighting were being led by Rommel or by an inferior substitute when the great man was periodically recuperating in Europe.

Certainly, Rommel’s career was capped by a dazzlingly swift ascent to command. It had begun poorly, however, as Rommel flunked a number of military academy entrance exams, and his Swabian background, humble origins, and coarse accent set him apart from the Prussian aristocrats who habitually held sway in the German army. He fought in World War I in the infantry, and distinguished himself by bold action in the Italian Alps, earning his nation’s highest award for valor. But during the interwar years, a posting in the infantry appeared to offer neither the opportunities for decisive action nor of swift promotion that Rommel craved. Armored units, in the development of which Germany was at the forefront under Heinz Guderian and others, were an obvious attraction for ambitious officers, and Rommel, despite his lack of preparation, managed to wangle his way in. To the astonishment of his contemporaries, Rommel rose to prominence within Hitler’s security detail in the Polish campaign and parlayed the Führer’s approval into command of the Seventh Panzer (armored) Division for the attack on France in May 1940.

After distinguishing himself in the Blitzkrieg through France, Rommel’s next major assignment in February 1941 was to take command of modest German motorized forces in North Africa in an effort to prop up Italian forces which had been routed following an initially promising but subsequently disastrous attack from Libya on Egypt. What followed was the stuff of legend. Rommel’s daring leadership not only restabilized the Axis lines, but actually sent the British backpedaling hundreds of miles, forcing them to relinquish the territorial gains they had just managed. He defeated one British commander after another, and when he was finally driven back, it was in the face of the overwhelming superiority of Montgomery’s Eighth Army. Rommel’s spectacular achievement and glowing reputation, seemingly secure with testimony from his opponents ranging from Churchill to Moorehead, are now subjected to searching critical reevaluation in Martin Kitchen’s study of the two year long campaign in North Africa from 1941 to 1943.

Kitchen’s perspective is from that of the Axis powers, and even before Rommel reached North Africa there had been plenty of criticism from his fellow officers. The great Field Marshal Gerd von Runstedt thought Rommel was fitted to be a divisional commander, nothing more. His superiors were irritated by Rommel’s penchant for ignoring their orders, and they were appalled by his habit of leading from the front lines and taking off for specific “hot spots” in the fighting even as it meant periodically losing touch with other sectors or other commanders. There was simply no way, his critics contended, that by acting in this way Rommel could responsibly exercise authority over his whole command. He drove men and machines to their limit and beyond, with little thought for their survival or replacement. More than a few traditionalists within the military resented his cult status, his propensity to whine and shift blame to others, his willingness to court publicity, and to manipulate his favored position with Goebbels’s propaganda machine and with Hitler himself. In North Africa, with an independent command, the General Staff feared, the reckless, glamorous Rommel would be in over his head.

All of these traits were on full display in the desert campaigns. Several times he barely evaded capture or catastrophe in his light reconnaissance plane. He could not be reached for stretches of time at critical junctures. He went relentlessly on the offensive, even when the prospects appeared poor and both his units and supplies were exhausted. Appearing to lack any sense of logistics, Rommel constantly complained about his shortages of everything, and, when these charges fell on deaf ears, blamed his misfortunes on his Italian allies, who provided the bulk of the troops. It is one of the great strengths of Kitchen’s book that he recognizes the desert campaigns were a three-sided contest, and he provides much valuable material on the Italian contribution and, to cite a phrase famous from the work of E.P. Thompson, rescues them from “the condescension of posterity.”

Kitchen’s sharpest insights, as befits the author of a fine volume on the Hindenburg-Ludendorff “dictatorship” in World War I Germany, illuminate his discussions of the realities of military administration – the contacts between Rommel and his nominal Italian superiors, and his relations with the German High Command. We see and understand their frustrations with Rommel and come to appreciate that the one-sided adulation upon which his reputation in the English-speaking world has rested is no longer tenable. By underplaying the skill of his adversary, Montgomery, who is depicted in this book as little more than an unimaginative plodder, Rommel’s stature is further diminished. The implication is that his victories came against third-rate opponents and his greatest defeat (at El Alamein in October/November 1942) against a mere second-rater.

But is this now the only way of looking at Rommel? We may suspect that Churchill’s inflation of Rommel’s reputation was not so much the result of star-struck awe but of a carefully calculated attempt to focus attention on the challenges in North Africa and entice a major American commitment to a theater they would otherwise have dismissed. Rommel’s persistently professed astonishment and frustration that he was being denied the men, aircraft, tanks, fuel he needed to compete make more sense when we realize that he was kept in the dark about Operation Barbarossa to invade the Soviet Union, which took absolute priority over any operations in the Middle East. Moreover, all of his superiors were in the dark about the enormous advantage the Allies enjoyed in intelligence, especially from their ULTRA decrypts, which gave them advance warning of German intentions and convoy sailings. No wonder Rommel was perennially short of supplies. Given his logistical disadvantage, Rommel knew that the gap between the Afrika Korps’ capabilities and those of the enemy would only widen, and that the choice was probably between a slim chance of victory now and no chance later. So, in his mind, there was a rational basis for an apparently irrational devotion to aggressive action, if, that is, one discounted a slow and dreary rearguard action sapping the enemy’s resolve as the most sensible alternative. Such a scenario was never to Rommel’s taste (though something of the sort would be required in Tunisia, and then in Italy), and with Hitler’s virtually inflexible insistence on never yielding territory, it would not happen in the desert.

In seeking to look at a familiar story from the other way around, Kitchen’s book is in tune with the historical profession’s rhythms of revision. Even its going somewhat overboard in the opposite direction is typical of many works of reevaluation. Yet, surprisingly, it also disappoints where one would least expect it. Despite the thrust of so much recent work to illuminate the social history of warfare, one gets very little idea from this book of what it was actually like to serve and fight in the desert. For that, readers should turn to John Bierman’s and Colin Smith’s War Without Hate, or even older classics such as Robert Crisp’s Brazen Chariots or Alan Moorehead’s March to Tunis. There are also details that reveal Kitchen may not be entirely secure with traditional military history: the variants of German Tiger tanks are confused, H.M.S. Renown is mis-identified as a battleship, and so forth.

In short, Rommel’s Desert War is a most welcome and stimulating look at a persistently fascinating episode of the Second World War. It restores the Italian contribution in North Africa to its rightful role and, in conjunction with the work of Brian Sullivan, John Gooch and Macgregor Knox, among others, permits a more balanced appraisal of Italian military capabilities. It also helpfully serves to highlight much of the revisionist work undertaken by historians in Germany with which many readers, nourished by decades of Rommel-hagiography, may be unfamiliar. The drawback is that by alerting us to Rommel’s significant flaws, it may blind us to that commander’s undoubted dazzling gifts.

Joseph Glatthaar, General Lee’s Army: From Victory to Collapse (Free Press, 2008)

Popular interest in the American Civil War continues unabated, as does the flow of significant books on the subject. Already this year we have seen the publication of Drew Gilpin Faust’s fascinating exploration of the themes of suffering and death as they related to the conflict, followed now by Joseph Glatthaar’s painstaking study of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. Prospective readers who can tackle only one Civil War book this summer might worry that Glatthaar’s account would be too narrow; focused on just one army in one theater of the conflict, could it really help its audience to see the war whole and grasp its overall significance? Aware of this potential pitfall, Glatthaar counters that the campaigns in northern Virginia were truly the crux of the matter, the battleground above all others on which the secessionist states would either win or lose the war. To understand the Army of Northern Virginia’s initial sustained series of triumphs, subsequent setbacks, and eventual collapse, the author suggests, is to understand the Confederate war effort as a whole.

As many previous scholars have noted, the Confederacy did not have to defeat the Union to win. A stalemate would serve its purposes well enough if the war dragged on without any conclusion in sight, if the Northern population tired of the interminable campaigns and casualties, and, beset by war weariness, compelled the Federal government to reach a negotiated settlement that recognized southern arguments about slavery and states’ rights. For Union forces, however, a stalemate was not good enough. They had to defeat the rebel armies in order to win, and above all, they had to defeat the Army of Northern Virginia. The proximity of the two capitals, Washington and Richmond, meant that the area between them would be crisscrossed by troops, and Richmond’s position as a transportation hub and industrial center further ensured that the campaigns in Virginia would be central to the war’s outcome.

There is no doubt that the Army of Northern Virginia has found its historian in Joseph Glatthaar. He has been working, intermittently and then intensively, on this book for two decades, and his mastery of the subject shows on every page. Although he provides ample discussion of Robert E. Lee and the army’s various distinguished (and occasionally less competent) senior officers, Glatthaar also considers the experiences of ordinary soldiers. The book is based on his reading of a truly staggering number of manuscript collections, letters and diaries (his list of archival sources alone runs to 22 pages) and he liberally seasons his chapters with evocative quotes from these materials. If you want to know whether the soldiers were homesick, what they ate, whether they were religious, how they loaded and fired their weapons, how far they could march, you will find authoritative analysis of these topics and more in this book. It will serve as the reference work, par excellence, on Lee’s army.

Yet Glatthaar clearly aims higher, and this is where the book proves marginally less satisfying. He tries to do two things simultaneously: to provide a structural analysis of life within the army (giving us chapters on specific topics, like religion, medical care, or supply) and a narrative account of the principal campaigns it waged and battles it fought over a four year span. The result is that the narrative flow is often interrupted by the thematic excursions, while the cumulative impact of the thematic sections is dissipated by their being scattered about the manuscript. Moreover, although the sections on various battles are clear and well-written, they are not as evocative as those by some of the brilliant stylists who have shown us the “face of battle.” To an extent, Glatthaar also sells himself somewhat short in the thematic sections as well. In an appendix, he reveals that he has gone to great trouble to compile a statistically representative sample of soldiers serving in the army AND (and this is a further example of the author’s astonishing industriousness) combed surviving records for information about these individuals. Yet nowhere do we find sustained statistical analysis of that material that would help us to follow someone through the war, or to see the pointilist detail obscured by the broader brush strokes of his account.

General Lee’s Army remains a formidable achievement. It makes clear that the civil war was about slavery and that the Confederate soldiers fought to preserve the South’s peculiar institution. It also makes clear that toward the end of the war the South simply could not produce or distribute enough war material to keep its armies in the field. One might argue that Lee’s offensives were misguided and squandered valuable lives when a purely defensive posture would have sufficed; one might quibble that Confederate leaders paid to much attention to a Jominian emphasis on holding territory when they should have been concerned with maintaining an effective fighting force that was free to move and maraud as it wished. But as one closes Glatthaar’s book with its depiction of exhausted, shoeless veterans, scavenging for weapons, ammunition and food, and melting away to safeguard their homes and families, it is hard not to conclude that those ragged soldiers had given everything that could reasonably be expected of them. And for enabling us to see the war from their perspective we must be grateful to Glatthaar’s General Lee’s Army.

Lacey Baldwin Smith, English History Made Brief, Irreverent, and Pleasurable (Academy Chicago Publishers, 2006)

Some seventy years ago, English history was a serious business. Anyone aspiring to make a name for themselves in politics or the law would necessarily study it, and would find it well-represented among college course offerings and university faculties. English history was a source of instruction and satisfaction, a successful saga in which the intrepid inhabitants of a tight little island oversaw the evolution of representative government and spread their beneficent influence to every corner of the globe. Looking back upon their past, Englishmen seemed wisely to have avoided the revolutionary zeal, cultural radicalism or debilitating poverty of their less fortunate neighbors, and they congratulated themselves upon the constitutional sanity, moral probity and entrepreneurial genius that underlay their nation’s uninterrupted progress.

That is, until the publication in 1930 of 1066 and all that by W.C. Sellar and R.J. Yeatman. A witty spoof of the prevailing turgid approach to English history, 1066 and all that disdained any effort at comprehensiveness, advertising itself as “a memorable history.” History, according to the authors, was not everything that happened at a given time, but what people could remember later – or deemed worth remembering. The book appeared to make few claims upon its readers’ memories, requiring them to remember only two dates (55 BC when Caesar’s Roman legions invaded and 1066 when William the Conqueror conquered at Hastings), but in fact took for granted its readers’ familiarity with medieval English history. Otherwise, anyone who picked up the book would not know what to make of the quick succession of sly allusions, outrageous puns, and witty illustrations, let alone the absence of traditional narrative, that all combined to throw a very unfamiliar light on a very familiar story. From Sellar’s and Yeatman’s perspective, the relentless march of English history often lurched forward as a series of accidents and contingencies perpetrated by a remarkably quirky and oddball set of characters.

Now, three-quarters of a century later, American readers can enjoy a successor volume which carries both the story, and the tongue-in-cheek tradition, forward. The guide in this instance is Lacey Baldwin Smith, a spell-binding lecturer who captivated several generations of students at Northwestern University with his surveys of British history. He retired some years ago as Peter B. Ritzma Professor of Humanities, maintaining to the end that he had never been formally trained to teach the subject he had mastered, and that only his inability to learn Hungarian prevented him from specializing in the diplomacy of the First World War. Professor Smith, however, is too effervescent a character to have settled for researching what one clerk in the Foreign Office wrote to another, and having already edited a four-volume textbook on British history, he turns here to distill a lifetime’s experience as a scholar, teacher, and tourist into a 250-page survey of the English past.

Entitled English History made Brief, Irreverent, and Pleasurable, Smith’s book also applies a `memorability test’ as the basis for what is included. Unlike Sellar and Yeatman, however, Smith does not presume much prior knowledge, and his coverage is genuinely thematic and far more comprehensive. He avoids a dreary catalogue of facts, but focuses on what made people in English history interesting and significant, what “made them tick.” Though outwardly similar to 1066 and all that with its clever bon mots and hilarious cartoons (many drawn from Punch), Smith’s English History actually provides a stimulating analytical essay on the English past. Moreover, although writing seventy-odd years after Sellar and Yeatman carries with it the need to incorporate `more’ history, Smith takes more seriously (if that is the right word to apply to either book) the obligation to address with a broader perspective various aspects of the centuries their two books have in common. English History, for example, has far more to say about imperialism and England’s influence overseas, or about Victorian political reform, than 1066 and all that whose coverage clearly was running out of steam well before the tight little island would lose its status as `top nation’ in the First World War.

True to its title, English History is indeed brief, slim enough to be digested on the flight between JFK and Heathrow. It is also irreverent, especially in a concluding chapter on the “Royal Soap Opera,” which deflates the reputation of nearly every monarch to have sat upon the English throne. Finally, given its witty text and aptly chosen illustrations, it is most pleasurable. Published by Academy Chicago, it affords a fascinating glimpse at America’s distinguished if eccentric partner in what Winston Churchill labeled “the special relationship.”

Edward L. Ayers, In the Presence of Mine Enemies: The Civil War in the Heart of America, 1859-1863 (Norton, 2004; pbk 2006)

Harry S. Stout, Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War (Penguin, 2006; pbk 2007)

Nearly 150 years after its conclusion, the American Civil War remains unsurpassed as the topic of general historical interest in this country. Reportedly, Civil War books outsell rivals on any other topic for the History Book Club. An estimated 40,000 adults don period clothing and shoulder authentic or replica weapons each year, rain or shine, to reenact battles from the conflict. Perhaps forty million viewers tuned in to watch Ken Burns’s eleven-episode PBS marathon on the war. More than 50,000 books and pamphlets already have been published on the Civil War, leading its preeminent historian of our generation, James McPherson, to label it “the war that never goes away.”

Any prospective reader might be forgiven for wondering whether, in the face of this mountain of publications, there could possibly be anything new to say about the war, any novel approach to pursue that hadn’t already been tried. Of course, revision and reappraisal are persistent features of historical interpretation, and many scholars will admit that by standing on the shoulders of their predecessors, so to speak, they can see further into the past than the historians of previous generations.

Fortunately, the past few years have witnessed several productive new approaches. One involves the fusion of traditional historical methods with innovative applications from the digital age. A tried and true means of research is the local study, and whether one’s interest is the growth of America’s `streetcar suburbs’ or the rise of Nazism in a single German town, there are exemplary local studies that explore these issues in fine detail. When it comes to the Civil War, however, Edward L. Ayers (a longtime Professor of History and Dean at the University of Virginia, now the President of the University of Richmond), has gone them one better. For some years he has been directing a project at Virginia’s Center for Digital History on “The Valley of the Shadow.” It focuses upon, and deftly compares and contrasts, the experiences of Franklin County in Pennsylvania (just north of the Mason-Dixon line) and — some 150 miles to the south in the upper Shenandoah Valley — Augusta County, Virginia.

Ayers’s localities are shrewdly chosen, because the two counties shared similar social and economic characteristics (rich farmland, rural villages, small service towns, well-known county seats in Chambersburg and Staunton, respectively) even as they differed, of course, on slavery. Moreover, the Shenandoah Valley, the so-called “breadbasket of the Confederacy,” was a natural southwest-northeast highway for invading or marauding troops, and so was the scene of numerous military campaigns. Here Stonewall Jackson added further luster to a reputation won at Manassas, and here too Philip Sheridan brought the hard hand of war to Southern civilians so that even a crow flying across the valley would need to bring its own provisions. Famous personalities like John Brown, Frederick Douglass, and Jedediah Hotchkiss (the Confederate mapmaker whose skills contributed to Lee’s mobility at Chancellorsville) played their part in events in the counties. Studying two such carefully chosen, richly-documented and logically comparable localities makes for an illuminating entry into the experiences of communities during a horrifying ordeal. An initial volume based on Ayers’s research, entitled In the Presence of Mine Enemies: War in the Heart of America, 1859-1863, was published in 2003 by W.W. Norton and carries the study to the eve of Gettysburg; a second volume will continue the story.

The other great contribution of Ayers’s project is that much of it is readily available on the internet. Visitors to will find an award-winning site which makes accessible a mass of material on the two counties during the broader Civil War era. Divided into three sections (the eve of the war, the war years, and the aftermath) and with elegant entries to the material (based on the design of Jefferson’s Monticello), the site contains digitized statistics, letters, diaries, photographs, newspapers, church, census and military records, all of which will be a boon to anyone who wishes to delve into the period. This marvelous site affords anyone the opportunity to try their hand at doing history.

Ayers’s study of warfare in “the heart of America” also contributes toward a perennial topic of debate, namely the degree to which the Civil War figured as a precursor, or even the first modern example, of ‘total war.’ The First World War is often accorded that dubious distinction, a conflict of broadened scope and heightened intensity, one in which the distinction between soldiers and non-combatants eroded, where civilians and domestic economies were liable to mobilization on a ‘home front’ and where opponents were demonized as heartless villains beyond the pale of humanity. In contrast, historians of early modern Europe frequently cite the destructiveness of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) that cut a swathe through Central Europe, though many scholars prefer to reserve the term total war for the world wars of the twentieth century. Because the impact on civilians is so crucial to any definition of total war, however, Ayers’s study, when complete, will help historians to evaluate fully just how ‘total’ the experience of the Civil War really was.

Another approach to this issue is intellectual and cultural, as exemplified in Harry S. Stout’s Upon the Altar of the Nation, published by Viking Penguin in 2006. Stout has written what he describes as “a moral history of the Civil War” in which he mines sermons, diaries and religious periodicals and newspapers to illustrate how Northerners and Southerners alike grappled with the horrors of a conflict in which they assumed, and often proclaimed, God favored their side. Stout views the war as the central episode in the making of an American civil religion, in which martyrdom and sacrifice sacralized a powerful and enduring form of patriotism. The author frequently measures the participants’ ideas and actions by the then accepted notions of just war, which he finds all too often to have been violated by either side. The transgression of moral restraints on conflict is frequently seen as a defining feature of total war, so anyone interested in setting the Civil War in context will find Stout’s book stimulating. And, as the author clearly intends, it is not without implications for America’s conflicts today.

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