Book Review: Hearts Touched By Fire

Book Review: Hearts Touched by Fire: The Best Of Battles And Leaders Of The Civil War, edited and with an introduction by Harold Holzer

This one-volume collection of primary documentation of the Civil War written by officers of both blue and gray in the period about twenty years or so after the successful conclusion of the Civil War consists of about 1200 pages of material that can only fairly be considered as epic in nature, as well as essential for any serious student of the Civil War who wishes to understand many of the dynamics of the memory of the Civil War as well as read fascinating accounts of the battles and campaigns of that conflict [1]. It should be noted at the outset that this collection is a “best of” compilation that contains a substantial but selected portion of the entire four large volumes of material that was collected into essays as part of the series on Battles and Leaders of the Civil War published in the late 1800’s over a period of several years by The Century Magazine. Intriguingly enough, Holzer notes that the whole epic series started as a bit of a lark, as two staff writers for the magazine were in a debate that they could not resolve to each other’s satisfaction about the bloodiest battle of the Civil War, which led them to conceive of an idea where Civil War leaders would write about campaigns and battles they were familiar with, which ended up being an extremely popular series among the generals and their former staff officers and led to a lively and important set of papers that is well-represented here.

In order to describe the massive and sprawling scope of this one-novel compilation, it would be useful to discuss the contents of this book, which are divided by year into a mostly chronological account that is also divided somewhat by theater, with the Eastern theater showing up first followed by the Western theater. There are no materials from the far west included, and very little from the Trans-Mississippi front as well. For 1861, after an introduction by Craig Symonds, there are essays about Fort Sumter, war preparations, the establishment of the Confederate government, and the battles of Bull Run and Wilson’s Creek by the following people: James Chester, Stephen D. Lee, Jacob D. Cox, R. Barnwell Rhett, Warren Lee Goss, P.G.T. Beauregard, Joseph E. Johnston, N.B. Pearce, and Franz Sigel. For 1862, after an introduction by Stephen W. Sears, there are essays on the naval efforts on the Mississippi, the capture of Fort Donelson, the Battle of Shiloh, the Monitor and the Merrimac, the capture of New Orleans, the Shenandoah campaign, the Peninsular campaign, Second Bull Run, Antietam, and Fredericksburg by such leaders as Henry Walke, Lew Wallace, Ulysses S. Grant, S.H. Lockett, Alexander Robert Chisolm, John M. Brooke and John L. Porter, John Ericsson, John Taylor Wood, William T. Meredith, John D. Imboden, George B. McClellan, John Pope, James Longstreet, and Jacob D. Cox. For 1863, after an introduction by James McPherson, there are discussions of Chancellorsville, the Gettysburg campaign, the Vicksburg campaign, Port Hudson, Chickamauga, and Chattanooga by such figures as Darius N. Couch, James Power Smith, James Longstreet, Henry J. Hunt, John D. Imboden, Ulysses S. Grant, James Russell Soley, Richard B. Irwin, and Daniel H. Hill. For 1864, after an introduction by Joan Waugh, there are essays about the Overland campaign, Sheridan’s Richmond raid, the duel between the Kearsarge and the Alabama, the Atlanta campaign, Mobile Bay, Sheridan’s Shenandoah campaign, Hood’s invasion of Tennessee, and Sherman’s march through Georgia and the Carolinas by such people as E. M. Law, G. Norton Galloway, Theodore F. Rodenbough, Charlges S. Venable, William H. Powell, John M. Browne, Henry Goddard Thomas, Ulysses S. Grant, Oliver O. Howard, John Coddington Kinney, John B. Hood, Wesley Merritt, Henry Stone, Jubal Early, and Daniel Oakey. Finally, the happy ending in 1865 comes, after an introduction by James I. Robertson Jr., with essays about Sherman’s march through the Carolinas, Fort Fisher, Fort Stedman and the Appomattox campaign (including the surrender), the fall of Richmond, the final operations of Sherman’s army, and the last Days of the Confederacy by Henry W. Slocum, Thomas O Selfridge, Jr., John F. Hartranft, Horace Porter, Clement Sulivane, Thomas Thatcher Graves, Charles Marshall, and Basil W. Duke. Combined, the material reaches almost 1200 pages of some of the best prose about the Civil War from many leading participants, some of them wishing to settle old scores, including with rivals on the same side, or cast blame for their failures or difficulties on others, or to celebrate heroism and bravery on both sides, despite the fact that the cause of the Confederacy was among the worst causes in human history for which men have fought.

Besides providing some of the raw material that went into a mass of war memoirs by some of the most illustrious leaders of the Civil War, and revealing some of the fractures between different departments or different service arms, like that of the army and navy, or between different leaders who fought over prestige and promotion, and who often resigned from service when they were not given prestigious enough assignments or were placed under those they considered to be of lesser stature or precedence, the book includes some excellent maps and drawings, and some very worthwhile material for debates around a Civil War roundtable. In many ways, this book presents both an immense challenge as well as a worthwhile opportunity. One seldom has the chance to read so many worthwhile accounts that are part of the historiographical controversy of the Civil War in one volume, but few people will likely have the patience or stamina to read all the essays of this massive and sprawling book, even though it is a deeply touching work full of pathos and moving prose about brave and gallant officers who died or were gravely wounded in battle or by disease or the way in which managing prickly egos became the difficult task of the civil and military leadership of both sides. This is a book that shows the human side of the Civil War, the points scoring, the attempts to right historical wrongs and defend one’s own reputation against the excuses and blaming of others as well as to defend the reputation of those who died before they were able to write their own accounts and burnish their own reputations. This is a book not to be missed, but is probably too large of a book for most people to read at once. For those who are up to the challenge, this book is richly rewarding on many levels.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

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