This was exactly the book I was hoping it to be. For all the millions of pages of Civil War literature extant, there seems to be a shortage of well-known, scholarly writing about the events leading up to its outbreak. We are taught in school that “the South seceded” in December 1860, that Fort Sumter was fired upon the following April and that the first major battle happened in July. From a modern perspective, this seems ludicrous. Wars have been fought and finished in less time!
Bruce Catton expertly fills in the gaps. We learn of the politicking that led to Lincoln’s upset nomination and the fracturing of the Democratic party. We learn of the rhetoric that culminated in secession after the election. I was captivated by the four month dance around Fort Sumter, an antebellum precurser to the Cuban Missile Crisis in which both sides are daring the other to strike first and so be the aggressor. Amazingly, it is lost on the lay public that Fort Sumter produced not a single casualty and was thus a political symbol rather than the true start of the war. The last amazing fact I learned from this book was about the formation of West Virginia and General McClellan’s early successes in that campaign, before his caricatured ineptitude on the peninsula.
Having never read extensively about it, I consider myself representative of the public conception of what the Civil War was all about, and the basic sequence of events we’re all taught in school. While I’m still no expert, I feel I know so much more about the subject now that I’ve read this book. I’ve always been more interested in what led up to the war, why it broke out when it did, and what life was like in various sections of the country at that time, than the battle schedule and cast of romantic hero characters. If you feel the same, this is a must read.