The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War. (Book Reviews)

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The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War. By David J. Eicher. Foreword by James M. McPherson. Illustrated by Lee Vande Visse. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001. 990 pages. $40.00. Reviewed by Colonel Len Fullenkamp, USA Ret., Professor of Military History, US Army War College.

"Commanders screamed orders that were rarely heard in the chaos; great billowing clouds of white smoke belched from cannon; shells ripped trenches into the plowed fields; and men were dying at a great rate on both sides of the fight." As this description of the Battle of Antietam illustrates, David Eicher's military history of the Civil War resounds with what James McPherson describes in his forward as the "Sturm und Drang" of battle narrative. War, as it is often said, makes rattling good history, and this one rattles a lot.

With his eye-catching subtitle, the author gives fair warning that The Longest Night is not going to spend much time with politics, economics, social issues, or any other subject that causes the reader to stray too far from the battlefield. All things military, from strategy to tactics and nearly everything in-between, dominate this history of the Civil War. Those with a hearty appetite for the whiz of bullets, the bang of artillery, dying declarations, famous last words, and eyewitness accounts of the face of battle will not be disappointed.

Eicher's narrative begins with the April 1861 firing on Fort Sumter, an event described as a descent into darkness that for Americans, North and South, signaled the start of their "longest night." Nearly 900 pages later he closes his military history in the last days of June 1865 with the surrender of the last vestiges of the Confederate army scattered about Texas. Vivid accounts of combat fill the pages, with summaries of nearly every notable engagement of the war, from army campaigns to duels, each brimming with details, personal narratives, and all rendered with evenhanded analysis.

Is another book on the Civil War necessary? Rhetorically answering the question, Eicher avers that, compared with the dated works of Bruce Catton (considered by some a "Yankee apologist") and Shelby Foote (said to be "too flattering of Southern soldiers"), his book provides a new look that uses "fresh material" to "construct a realistic history of what happened on the battlefield" based upon the most reliable primary source materials "without embellishments." What exactly this fresh, realistic, and embellishment-free material consists of is not readily apparent. For the most part, the reader will find familiar facts and analysis, but the material is well-ordered and generally presented in an engaging fashion and bristling with details. Of the latter, this history has plenty, making it potentially useful as both a history and a reference work.

The Longest Night blends styles and formats such as one finds in E. B. and Barbara Long's Civil War Day by Day, Ezra Warner's Generals in Blue and Generals in Gray, Mark Boatner's The Civil War Dictionary, and any of Stephen Sears' excellent books on the Civil War (Landscape Turned Red, chancellorsville), noted for their effective use of personal narratives by eyewitnesses to advance the story and bring it to life. To tell the story Eicher strings together a series of tightly written summaries of practically every incident of combat worthy of the name--on land, on rivers, off the coasts, and on the high seas during the four years of the war. That's no small feat when one considers that E. B. Long puts this number of combat engagements at "10,455, not considering naval actions." Embedded throughout are interesting digressions to explore strategy, tactics (infantry, artillery, cavalry, signal, engineers), logistics (everything from the soldier's basic load and daily rations to the stuff needed to keep an army i n the field for days and weeks at a time), balloon operations, railroads, military prisons, paroles, and many other subjects related to military operations. …