Civil War Experts Revive Series for Anniversary

Posted April 13, 2011 at 4:29pm

Just after the Battle of Gettysburg’s 20th anniversary, a group of magazine editors stumbled on a brilliant idea during a brainstorming session.

They decided to create a series focusing on the military engagements of the country’s bloodiest war by gathering together dispassionate, accurate battle accounts from generals and soldiers. A project on this scale had never been attempted before, and the editors set about tracking down the important surviving figures.

The magazine articles soon ballooned into a massive and influential four-book series, “Battles and Leaders of the Civil War,” filled with vivid firsthand reports of critical decisions and major military actions. 

Now, 125 years after the first articles in this collection went to print, Abraham Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer and top Civil War historians have compiled the best writing from this long-out-of-print series into “Hearts Touched by Fire.” 

This newly released volume offers history buffs a chance to delve into the nitty-gritty of the Civil War’s defining battles, covering everything from Confederate Gen. James Longstreet’s account of the Battle of Fredericksburg to Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s reflections on preparing for the military campaigns of 1864. 

In addition to the selections culled from the classic 19th-century series, the book features essays on each year of the war written by Pulitzer Prize winner James McPherson and historians James Robertson, Craig Symonds, Stephen Sears and Joan Waugh.

“They were the perfect people, all superstars of the field,” Holzer said. “And with the release coming on the 150th anniversary of the outbreak of the war, we know this is going to be a finite moment of celebrity on a small scale.”

Holzer — who noted he has long relied on the original “Battles and Leaders of the Civil War” as an important source — said the Civil War sesquicentennial offered the perfect opportunity to republish the series as a single, best-of volume.

“I was thinking about the connection between media and memory, and I came up with a format of getting experts in various years of the war to comment,” Holzer said. “I wanted to focus on how it all happened, how these magazine editors had this brilliant idea and pitched all these war heroes.”

Holzer’s introduction tells the story of how the editors persuaded prominent Civil War figures to write their battle memoirs. The editors’ greatest coup was recruiting Grant, who couldn’t pass up writing several essays for the collection after falling into financial ruin. 

He also encouraged his friends to participate, and soon submissions began rolling in from soldiers of both blue and gray. Other major writers in this compilation are Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, Union Gen. George B. McClellan and Confederate Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard, who all detailed their most important military campaigns.

Holzer, who previously worked as a campaign press secretary for ex-Rep. Bella Abzug (D-N.Y.) and former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, said that while the book is geared to Civil War buffs, it offers political junkies a look at parallels between the 1860s and today.

“There are articles that deal with second-guessing back home,” Holzer said. “A lot of these military guys were cognizant of a committee on conduct in the war in Congress, and when things didn’t go perfectly right, they had to testify. And these campaigns required enormous amounts of money. This is the war that inspired an income tax because it was a pay-as-you-go war, which is not a bad lesson for our friends today.”

Along with the historians’ essays and the Union and Confederate soldiers’ accounts, the new edition offers readers a variety of illustrations and maps from the era. “Hearts Touched by Fire: The Best of Battles and Leaders of the Civil War” hit bookshelves earlier this month.