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Hymns of the Republic: The Story of the Final Year of the American Civil War

Review

Hymns of the Republic: The Story of the Final Year of the American Civil War

Subtitled “The Story of the Final Year of the American Civil War,” HYMNS OF THE REPUBLIC covers the entire last year of the conflict on American soil that follows us to this day. Author S. C. Gwynne skillfully writes history how it should be remembered. A full detailing of the Union and Confederate armies, backgrounds and military histories of those in command, and justifications for their actions give us a compelling picture of our country in 1865.

Following four years of conflict, Washington, D.C. was a compromised social and political scene. The city itself had been threatened by Southern troops three times, and everyone seemed to be on edge. President Lincoln was feeling the pressure of an upcoming election to retain his seat in the Oval Office. Residents of the Union coalition were losing faith in their generals and weary of the constant intense fighting. A new phase was now opening. General Ulysses S. Grant appeared to be playing cat and mouse with wily Southern opponent Robert E. Lee. One’s army would attack, then retreat; the other would follow but keep safe distances between the largest numbers of combatants. Fear of losing an advantage seemed to dictate the actions of both armies.

"HYMNS OF THE REPUBLIC is a product of Gwynne’s genius at penning actual history and giving readers personal insight. University historians and those who savor stories from our past will be enlightened."

Lincoln had appointed Grant Commander of the Army of the Potomac, the biggest military machine under Union authority. Perhaps a major reason he waited so long was that generals under Lee had acted with more brilliance than those led by Grant. In this phase, a stunning example was the battle at Fort Pillow, a garrison under the command of Major William F. Bradford, a member of a well-connected Tennessee family who had defected to the Union cause. The latest shift in the war saw civilians becoming guerillas, waging raids, pillaging Union food storehouses to supply Confederate soldiers, and taking potshots at Bradford’s soldiers.

At Fort Pillow, Union Major Lionel F. Booth died in a surprise attack by a unit under the order of Confederate Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest, a talented leader. The fort was built on a high bluff surrounded by outlying barracks; Booth and Bradford failed to secure or destroy these outliers for their own safety. The enemy took position there and offered a token of surrender to Bradford, who replied, “I will not surrender.” When Bradford’s shocked troops were soon overtaken, their leader shouted, “Boys, save your lives.”

The escaping federals found no place to hide, save the shores of the Mississippi River. Union soldiers held hands in the air to surrender. They were brutally shot down in mid-stance. Insane rage at seeing multitudes of black soldiers fighting alongside white men in arms further escalated the Southerners’ rage. Fort Pillow soon became a slaughter pen, “wholesale butchery of brave men, white as well as black, after they had surrendered.” When brought to task for his army’s actions, Forrest simply said, “It is hoped that these facts will demonstrate to the Northern people that negro soldiers cannot cope with Southerners.”

The desecration at Fort Pillow, though not a decisive battle for territory in the war, did showcase the impact that black soldiers in future battles would play in the outcome of the conflict. Gwynne then delves into the strategies by both armies as they aimed for a final victory. The personal and professional histories of Grant and Lee are fleshed out in outstanding detail. Well-documented research dictates his coverage of these painful years in American history.

Generals William T. Sherman and Philip Sheridan hold revered places in the Union army’s history, and both are covered extensively here in page-turning documentaries. Lincoln is seen as both a political figure and a man shouldering a nation’s future on his lanky frame. HYMNS OF THE REPUBLIC is a product of Gwynne’s genius at penning actual history and giving readers personal insight. University historians and those who savor stories from our past will be enlightened.

Reviewed by Judy Gigstad on December 6, 2019

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

  • Publication Date: October 29, 2019
  • Genres: History, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • ISBN-10: 1501116223
  • ISBN-13: 9781501116223