Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Outstanding! A Profane and Unvarnished Portrait of the Horror of War

Although I rarely do reviews, this book deserves one.

To Hell or Richmond is a fictionalized version of very real battles on Grant’s drive to break Lee’s forces and destroy the mystique of one of the most admired military leaders in the annals of American military history.  The tale is peopled with historical figures who led men into battles that took a terrible toll on soldiers of both the Federals and Confederates.  From the impetuousness of the Chief General of the Army, Gen. U.S. Grant, to intellectual commander of the Army of the Potomac, Gen. George Meade to the fiery zealotry of Col. Emory Upton, and even to the earthy soldiers from Pennsylvania’s canal district, the portrait of men at war is stripped of glory and gentility.  Lee is portrayed in a more human than iconic manner, plagued with self doubts, infirmities, and at times confusion; Ewell as overly cautious, but competent; while Johnston, Cullen, Ramseur are resolute, but reactive; and yet J.E.B. Stuart maintains his image as the dashing southern cavalier, just the way he would have wanted it.  All are caught in the fog of war, making and recovering from strategic and tactical errors, all the while inflicting enormous casualties on one another in the most brutal fashion imaginable.  But that is the nature of war and in this realistic narrative, details of its horror are not spared.

From the griping of privates to the acrimony and strategic disagreements among the generals, this story rings true in a way that romanticized versions of Civil War campaigns fail to achieve.  To be sure, individual acts of bravery and cowardice, tactical genius and stupidity, politics, and just plain human foibles all are woven skillfully in the telling, adding to the brilliance of this tale.  Whether languishing in the commanders’ tents as they discuss grand strategies, or slogging through the mud with the men of II Corps, or behind the abatis and earthworks of the North Carolinians and Alabamans, it all just feels real... slaughter punctuated by spates of humor, malaise, boredom, and just plain exhaustion.  Through it all, one comes to appreciate that sheer industrial might and numbers will wear down even the most brilliant strategist and devoted army.  From the Wilderness to Spotsylvania, to N. Anna’s Creek, to Cold Harbor, and on to Petersburg, Hell or Richmond is a book no Civil War buff will want to miss.