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New book on the last year of the Civil War

Wheelan150 years ago this spring the American Civil War finally ended after four years of bloodshed, turmoil, and heartaches uncountable. More than 700,000 young men lay dead, with tens of thousands more maimed, disabled, sick, or otherwise permanently incapacitated. Residents in many areas had lost their livelihoods, their homes and property, and beloved family members. Truly, the “Vacant Chair” was in evidence in many an abode.

Throughout the winter of 1864-65, it was clear to most observers that the North with its now overwhelming advantage in military numbers, resources, finances, and firepower would surely grind down the struggling Confederate forces. The questions were how soon and at what cost would the Union finally prevail?

Veteran author Joseph Wheelan examines the last few months of the terrible conflict in his excellent new book, Their Last Full Measure: The Final Days of the Civil War. The former Associated Press reporter and editor focuses on the uncertainty and dread of the average soldier in the field, who, while knowing the end was coming, nevertheless worried about his own future. Wheelan, the author of seven previous books, skillfully weaves a strong narrative which captures the pathos of the Southerners who faced an uncertain future, the nervous anticipation of Northerners who sensed victory but dreaded the final cost, the reactions of the press on both sides as they examined the ever changing news from the battlefields, and the politicians who had to shape the future course of a likely reunited country.

Straban-20130705-00085Presented in chronological order, the book focuses on the actions in Virginia and the Eastern Theater, with some vivid descriptions of the key battles and maneuvers which eventually led to the surrenders of the two leading Confederate armies on the Atlantic seaboard, namely those of Robert E. Lee and Joseph E. Johnston. Wheelan rightfully spends a fair amount of time examining the situation and the interplay between the White House, Cabinet, and Congress, as President Lincoln and his officials oversaw the final push which would lead to the death knell of the Confederacy.

Wheelan does not give much detail on the concurrent events in the West or Trans-Mississippi (or on Sherman’s chase of Johnston), choosing to concentrate on U. S. Grant’s persistent pressure on Lee’s entrenched Army of Northern Virginia as his men slowly strangled the Confederacy’s most famous army and its charismatic leader. His battle descriptions are clear and concise, and he does a nice job of placing the various fights within the larger context of their strategic implications to the respective governments in Washington and Richmond and to military planners and strategists, as well as to the average soldier.

Jay Winik and others have previously written similar books on the final days of the Confederacy, but Wheelan’s book stands on its own merits and is a well crafted work that is easy to read and understand, yet comprehensive enough to paint a sweeping overview of the end of the Civil War.

Joseph Wheelan, Their Last Full Measure: The Final Days of the Civil War, New York: da Capo Press, April 2015. ISBN 978-0306823602, 432 pages, indexed and annotated with end notes.