Monday, September 16, 2019

Review: Jeff Shaara's Civil War Battlefields: Discovering America's Hallowed Ground

Learning about the US Civil War is tricky business. Zoom too far out, and you end up with collection of names, dates and themes that lack meaning. Zoom too far in, and you become overwhelmed by minutia. Finding a balance between brevity and detail is one of the primary reasons Jeff Shaar's Civil War Battlefields is such a remarkable book.

Shaar's text is written for those who plan to visit one or more of the major Civil War Battlefields. While I don't have these plans, his book still caught my eye while searching through my library's audio book collection. Because it was a library book, I figured there was no harm in giving it a listen. Man, did I discover a gem!

Shaar answers three questions for each battlefield: what happened, why this matters and what you should see. I skipped the last section of each chapter, as I wasn't at the battlefield. The what happened and why does it matter sections, however, are delightfully written and bring both the battle and war itself to life. During the what happened section I found myself alternately cringing and cheering as both military genius and ineptitude were on display. The why this matters section put the various battles in context.

One of the best features of the book is how Shaar's narrative ties the battles together. From the shocking carnage of Shilo, to the defeat at Petersburg that seals the fate of the confederacy, he uses 10 battles to traverse the 4 year arc that is the Civil War.

Shaar steers clear of glorifying either the Union or Confederacy. He highlights stories of bravery and ingenuity on both sides, and doesn't shy away from noting atrocities and missteps that each army carries out. His writing brings the events to life, and made for an audio book I couldn't put down.

I especially enjoyed using my new found knowledge to better understand Civil War events I was familiar with. Take Pickett's Charge. I've been to Gettysburg a number of times and I've walked the sacred ground that was the site of this infamous attack. On the surface, a 3/4 mile frontal assault of high ground seems absurd. Of course it's going to result in a bloody defeat, how could the Confederate attackers expect any other outcome?

Once I understood the battles that preceded Gettysburg, however, Picket's Charge seemed less insane. The Rebel soldiers through skill, Union General incompetence and good old fashion luck had managed to pull off a number of unlikely victories. In that context, to depend on these same forces again seems somewhat reasonable. However, this time the crazy military maneuver was just that, crazy.

If you're looking for a fun and approachable way to understanding the events of the Civil War, I can't recommend this book highly enough.

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