Thursday, September 08, 2005

Weigley, Russell F. A Great Civil War: A Military and Political History, 1861-1865. Indiana University Press, 2000, index, notes, bibliography, 612 p.

Martinez, J. Michael. Life and Death in Civil War Prisons: The Parallel Torments of Corporal John Wesley Minnich, C.S.A. and Sergeant Warren Lee Goss, U.S.A. Rutledge Hill Press, 2004, index, notes, bibliography, 268 p.

After Thailand, I spent some time immersing myself in the US Civil War. I have more than one book in my library that has been gracing the shelves for many months or years waiting to be cracked. Weigley's book is one of those. I don't remember exactly when I got it but I do know if came from the History Book Club and came highly recommended. After finally getting around to reading it, I agree.

So much has been written about the Civil War it's hard to think about anything else that could be said. Approaching Weigley's book with that in mind, I thought he did a good job putting the war into a context of the times. It's hard to think about the other things that were happening in the US at that time, but they were. The transcontinental railroad was being built. Non-native settlers were pushing further and further west. Combined with the war, American history was being dramatically re-written. Weigley does a nice job of creating context out of all this and explaining the major battles of the war in a cogent and well-organized way. Of course, the battles fly by in a few pages and are covered only in a cursory manner but he nails the effects the battle had on the north and the south. Weigley covers the time-period as well as anyone can in a one-volume overview.

Martinez's book takes a look at an aspect of the war that may be unreported. He picks a Conderate soldier who spent time as a prisoner of war at Rock Island Prison and a Union soldier who was imprisoned at Belle Isle Prison, Andersonville, and Florence Stockade. Martinez uses source material from both men. Both were prolific authors after the war and helped shape the perception of the prison system.

There is little doubt about the horrors of every Civil War prison. Food and water rations were horribly short. Shelter was inadequate at best and in the case of Andersonville and Florence totally missing. Every day was a struggle for survival. The pictures of men leaving these places rival the pictures of Holocaust victims after liberation by the Allies in World War II. The prisons were just more devastation and ugliness spawned by a war that saw much other devastation and ugliness.

Martinez writes dispassionately yet movingly about Goss and Minnich and their fellow prisoners. He often lets the men speak for themselves, then offers statistics and other evidence that might counter their most exaggerated claims. For example, Minnich is partially responsible for the impression that Rock Island was just as bad as Andersonville. Martinez uses mortaility statistics to show that this was not true. At Andersonville, more than 30 percent of the men who walked through the gates did not walk out. The comparable figure at Rock Island was 16 percent. As bad as Rock Island was, and there is little doubt that it was bad, it wasn't nearly as bad as the worst of the Confederate prisons.

Taken together these books offer good depictions of the war and American society during the early 1860s. Both are highly recommended.