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Thursday, February 16, 2012

“The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War”, by David John Eicher


992 pages, Simon & Schuster, Inc., ISBN-13: 978-0684849454

Although I have read many books on the Civil War, this book is perhaps the best single volume (actually big enough for two) book on the Civil War. This book will appeal to someone who has not had the opportunity to appreciate the complex nature of the war that spread completely across the country from not only Virginia in the East but to Fort Craig, New Mexico in the far west, from Robert E. Lee to Kit Carson. While there may not be new ground for the seasoned CW veteran reader, there is no doubt that this book will appeal to an aspiring CW historian that wants the total picture of what occurred during the war.

Eicher provides detail on virtually every major battle down to substantial skirmishes, including the identification of every major general down to the division level with short biographical sketches on the main participants. The detail is somewhat overwhelming, but for seasoned CW readers, there is some useful material as one can actually follow the names of generals that disappeared or were banished from the eastern theater, such as Magruder, Slocum, Hooker, Rosecrans, Butler, Pleasonton, Loring, Colquitt, D. H. Hill, Holmes etc. In addition, Eicher clarifies the true rank status of generals, provides historical updates such as the recent discovery of the Hundley and maintains an objective point of view particularly on Grant, Sherman, Longstreet, Forrest and many others.

Although descriptions of the major battles are somewhat difficult due to the compressed nature of this single volume, as all CW books would benefit from maps galore to understand troop movements, the best part of this big book are the descriptions of raids, small battles such as Ball's Bluff and interesting actions such as the daring sinking of the ironclad ram the Albemarle by Lt. Cushing with his nighttime mission involving a small sleek boat with a torpedo as a spar. Eicher even includes detail on the Vermont bank raids by Confederates, the attempts to burn NYC and Confederate attempts to spread yellow fever. There may be some small mistakes such as the author sites Booth's death near Port Tobacco which I think he meant Port Royal (or maybe that was the original name) and there may be others - I wasn't aware that Picket had 19,000 men at Five Forks (with a number that large it seems that A. P. Hill should have commanded it). This is a huge book that takes some patience to read and it sometimes is tedious in detail but even for a veteran CW buff it can be rewarding. For the CW veteran it may be like a referee rereading the rules to see if you really do know it all. 

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