More on Woodworth’s, Nothing But Glory

Well, I am still reading Steve Woodworth’s, Nothing But Glory, though I now have new books that I bought at the AHA meeting, including a collection of essays in honor of Emory Thomas, Eugene and Elizabeth-Fox Genovese’s new book, a moral history of the Civil War by Harry S. Stout, a postwar study by Edward J. Blum, and a study of the Freedom Rides of 1961 by Raymond Arsenault. I’ve read through chapters on Shiloh, Iuka, and Corinth. All in all I am enjoying the book and learning a great deal. Still, it seems reasonable to offer some constructive criticism.

First, the absence of maps is disappointing. It is simply impossible to follow the ebb and flow of the battlefield, especially if you are unfamiliar with the history. Luckily I have Larry Daniel’s maps, etc. While it is incredibly difficult to follow at times, in the end, I don’t really care as I am not primarily interested in knowing where and when every unit was located. Woodworth’s archival material is so rich that it carries the story forward and offers wonderful insights into the life of the soldier. For me this is sufficient to keep me wanting more. It is by now clear to me that the star of Woodworth’s narrative is Ulysses S. Grant. At times the narrative takes on a Whiggish quality; the reader is reminded that Grant is destined to emerge as the shining star of the war. I much prefer my narratives with a heavy does of contingency. In short, I want the author to try to convince me that the future of the war is still in doubt even though I know in the back of the mind how it will in fact turn out. He has very little that is negative to say about Grant and it seems that others, including Henry Halleck carry much of the negative weight. In his analysis of the Grant-Halleck relationship following the successes at Forts Henry and Donelson, Woodworth concludes that, “No one was better at intrigue than Henry W. Halleck.” John Marszalek seems much more sympathetic in his new biography of Halleck, but perhaps that should not come as a surprise given that there is a tendency to sympathize or empathize with the subject of your study. Woodworth also gives the reader a little philosophical analysis as he tries to understand Sherman’s failure to acknowledge a growing Confederate threat on the first day at Shiloh.

William Tecumseh Sherman was one of the most intelligent men ever to wear the stars of a general, but for the past few days he had played the fool. No narcotic had been necessary to produce the effect. Sherman had formed a theory about the strategic situation and then simply made the data fit that theory. As is normal in humans, observed facts did not form the theory, but rather the theory determined Sherman’s interpretation of the facts. Only rarely do external realities so force themselves on a human mind that is compelled to discard one interpretive theory and adopt an entirely different one. Sherman was about to have such an epiphany.

My problem here is that the conclusion is simply stated rather than argued. Woodworth may be right for all I know, but it is impossible to know whether this generalization applies in this case. Seems to me that when it comes to broad philosophical positions, such as religion, metaphysics, or politics that such a statement may apply, but it seems reasonable to also assume that it was local factors that continually shaped Sherman’s reading on the ground. In other words it is not clear to me that one can legitimately characterize Sherman’s perception as a “theory” that he was continually testing.

In closing, the book is well worth the time it will take to read through it. The narrative flows, though it does not have the analytical edge of Gordon Rhea’s studies. I highly recommend it for those of you who are interested in the soldier’s experience both on the battlefield and in connection with the home front.

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