Book Review: With My Face To The Enemy

With My Face To The Enemy: Perspectives On The Civil War, edited by Robert Cowley

Although I had already read this some years ago and owned the book in my Florida library, I was given this book some months ago by a friend of mine who knows of my interest in the Civil War, and so despite its length at more than 500 pages of material, and despite my own fairly crushing load of books to read and review on a regular basis, a burden that I place on myself, I read this book little by little, until I got to the point where, after the midpoint of the war, I was able to enjoy reading it at a much more rapid pace. This book is a collection of essays by noted Civil War historians like James McPherson, David Herbert Donald, Gary Gallagher, and others, and the essays cover a broad scope of the war and are in such small and discrete formats of fifteen or twenty pages or so that the book is easy to read as an anthology, with information about obscure battles, a Rashoman-like account of the fighting on Little Round Top, and some excellent biographical sketches of various important figures, both North and South, as well as some accounts of the often neglected naval history of the Civil War in addition to its more typical battlefield accounts, generously filled with maps of battles and campaigns.

Although this is an excellent book, it must be admitted that the book is designed to be written for those who are already knowledgeable about the Civil War, because several of the essays, including the excellent essay on the obscure Battle of Westport and its deadly aftermath for the Southern forces of the Trans-Mississippi front, focus on battles that are often neglected by casual narrative accounts. The approach assumes that the reader of this book is familiar with the standard narrative history of the Civil War and enjoys more specialized and narrowly focused accounts [1]. As a result, those readers who are not familiar with Civil War historiography will likely struggle to see the forest for the trees, while those that have a strong narrative understanding of the Civil War already will be able to appreciate and enjoy the small, polished essays that make up this volume as ways to savor familiar battles and leaders in perhaps unfamiliar perspectives, such as the view of Robert E. Lee before his costly victories against McClellan in the Seven Days’ Battles as lacking in aggression, or ways of picking up unfamiliar nuggets of information and intriguing stories and accounts that one might not have seen before.

Even for those who are very familiar with and passionate about the Civil War, this book has much to offer. As a noteworthy anthology it provides an opportunity for a wide variety of skilled historians to write about their specialties and areas of focus, which allows for a rich tapestry of essays when these essays are put together. Likewise, the fact that the book is not a single narrative but rather a strong collection of secondary essays about focused and targeted subjects, means that the book can be profitably read little by little, or as a way to occupy some down time, or to enjoy the familiar plot of the war, where one knows for sure that there is a book with a happy ending, since the (relatively) good guys win at the end. In a sense, reading about the Civil War in a book like this allows one both a bit of novelty along with the familiar and enjoyable aspect of reading something for the pleasure of reading without being burdened with having to learn everything that is in the pages, sort of like a collection of nonfiction short stories for the military history reader, and that is a worthy reading collection, even if one is reading it for the second time.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American Civil War, American History, Book Reviews, History, Military History. Bookmark the permalink.

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