Review: Hymns of the Republic

Review: Hymns of the Republic: The Story of the Final Year of the American Civil War by S.C. Gwynne

Scribner, 2019. Hardcover, 395 pages.Cover: Hymns of the Republic

Written by the author who penned the popular Empire of the Summer Moon  and Rebel Yell, Gwynne takes on the daunting task of writing about the pivotal final year of the American Civil War and its immediate aftermath.  Topics addressed are varied, from the battlefield to the halls of government. A major focus are the battles between Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee, both of whom are portrayed as simple, realistic men, not the mythological giants they are often made out to be.  For example, Grant’s first trip to Washington, D.C. after taking command in the East he came humbly and without a retinue, with only his son as a companion unlike George B. McClellen’s caravan earlier in the war. Or Lee’s scouting Grant’s camp from a mountain top and plotting a course of action based on the patterns and terrain he viewed.  And of course the battles of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, and Cold Harbor are detailed as is the famous surrender at Appomattox.

Stepping away from the major figures, Gwynne addresses all aspects of the war.  He describes how African American regiments came to be and what happened to those the Confederates captured at Fort Pillow.  He details William Tecumseh Sherman’s March to the Sea. Even the fighting in the West is covered, including the aforementioned Fort Pillow north of Memphis and the guerilla warfare in Missouri (though much more could have been covered in regards to my home state).  On the political side of the events, the 1864 election is covered as is its ramifications for both Lincoln’s reelection or failure to do so. On the scientific front, Clara Barton’s advances in battlefield medical care are also addressed, ensuring women’s achievement’s were also highlighted.

As a whole, this book was packed with information that the above can only hint at.  While predominantly history, Hymns of the Republic was also part biography and political science.  Each major figure mentioned as a mini-biography worked in with details of their lives previous to war and what made them a major figure in the war.  All of the political, diplomatic, and military issues from the last year were covered, including political meetings aimed at ending the war and examples of how generals prepared for battle.  It’s also the first book I’ve read on the Civil War that addressed many of the issues after Lincoln’s assassination so well, including all the roles Grant had to jump into and Sherman’s brokering a peace treaty (and the ramifications of that).  For those who enjoy reading about the Civil War, I’m sure you’ll learn something new by reading this book.

The copy of this book reviewed was provided by FSB Associates.


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