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Tarnished Victory: Finishing Lincoln's War

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A master Civil War historian re-creates the final year of our nation’s greatest crisis. With Tarnished Victory William Marvel concludes his sweeping four-part series—this final volume beginning with the Virginia and Atlanta campaigns in May 1864 and closing with the final surrender of Confederate forces in June 1865. In the course of that year the war grows ever more d A master Civil War historian re-creates the final year of our nation’s greatest crisis. With Tarnished Victory William Marvel concludes his sweeping four-part series—this final volume beginning with the Virginia and Atlanta campaigns in May 1864 and closing with the final surrender of Confederate forces in June 1865. In the course of that year the war grows ever more deadly, the home front is stripped to fill the armies, and the economy is crippled by debt and inflation, while the stubborn survival of the Confederacy seriously undermines support for Lincoln’s war. In the end, it seems that Lincoln’s early critics, who played such a pivotal role at the start of the series, are proven correct. Victory did require massive bloodshed and complete conquest of the South. It also required decades of occupation to cement the achievements of 1865, and the failure of Lincoln’s political heirs to carry through with that occupation squandered the most commendable of those achievements, ultimately making it a tarnished victory. Marvel, called the “Civil War’s master historical detective” by Stephen Sears, has unearthed provocative details and rich stories long buried beneath a century of accumulated distortion and misinterpretation to create revisionist history at its best.


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A master Civil War historian re-creates the final year of our nation’s greatest crisis. With Tarnished Victory William Marvel concludes his sweeping four-part series—this final volume beginning with the Virginia and Atlanta campaigns in May 1864 and closing with the final surrender of Confederate forces in June 1865. In the course of that year the war grows ever more d A master Civil War historian re-creates the final year of our nation’s greatest crisis. With Tarnished Victory William Marvel concludes his sweeping four-part series—this final volume beginning with the Virginia and Atlanta campaigns in May 1864 and closing with the final surrender of Confederate forces in June 1865. In the course of that year the war grows ever more deadly, the home front is stripped to fill the armies, and the economy is crippled by debt and inflation, while the stubborn survival of the Confederacy seriously undermines support for Lincoln’s war. In the end, it seems that Lincoln’s early critics, who played such a pivotal role at the start of the series, are proven correct. Victory did require massive bloodshed and complete conquest of the South. It also required decades of occupation to cement the achievements of 1865, and the failure of Lincoln’s political heirs to carry through with that occupation squandered the most commendable of those achievements, ultimately making it a tarnished victory. Marvel, called the “Civil War’s master historical detective” by Stephen Sears, has unearthed provocative details and rich stories long buried beneath a century of accumulated distortion and misinterpretation to create revisionist history at its best.

40 review for Tarnished Victory: Finishing Lincoln's War

  1. 5 out of 5

    robin friedman

    A Revisionist Civil War History William Marvel's "Tarnished Victory: Finishing Lincoln's War" is the fourth and final volume of his chronological history of the Civil War, each of which examines a 13-month period in the conflict. Thus, this volume begins in 1864, when Ulysess Grant becomes the commander of all the Union armies and concludes in May, 1865, with the Grand Review of the victorious Union armies in Washington, D.C. An important Epilogue takes a brief look at Reconstruction. Besides thi A Revisionist Civil War History William Marvel's "Tarnished Victory: Finishing Lincoln's War" is the fourth and final volume of his chronological history of the Civil War, each of which examines a 13-month period in the conflict. Thus, this volume begins in 1864, when Ulysess Grant becomes the commander of all the Union armies and concludes in May, 1865, with the Grand Review of the victorious Union armies in Washington, D.C. An important Epilogue takes a brief look at Reconstruction. Besides this four volume series, Marvel has written extensively on the Civil War. I have read his book on Andersonville but haven't read any of the prior three books in this series. This final culminating volume shows how Marvel's account of the War is "revisionist". Marvel attempts to modify what he believes are triumphalist accounts of the Civil War. In his Preface, the author explains that multivolume histories of the Civil War tend "to emphasize the more attractive elements of the story -- commemorating the abundant heroism, celebrating the restoration of the Union, and hailing the eradication of slavery." According to Marvel, these accounts downplay the misery of the war and how, with the loss of blood and treasure, it failed to realize many of its goals. He writes: "Those works frequently overlook that much of the heroism was wasted by military ineptitude and political perfidy; they usually ignore that the restored Union was no longer a voluntary community, and forget that the war did not really eradicate human bondage." His series, and this volume in particular, aim to correct an overly heroic interpretation of the United States' greatest conflict. Marvel criticizes the conduct of the War on two broad grounds. First, he argues that Lincoln entered the war believing it would be of brief duration. Lincoln did not realize, while some of his contemporaries did, the time, great loss of life, and suffering the conflict would entail. Marvel suggests that more effort should have been made to resolve peacefully the differences between the North and South. Second, Marvel finds that Union policy failed at the other end of the conflict. The country lacked the will to implement an effective Reconstruction. As a result, the former slaves found themselves little better off than was the case before the conflict. Their condition would be substantially improved only with the Civil Rights Revolution of the 1960's. These two points have been made many times in Civil War literature. Marvel overstates somewhat the originality of his account. His book shows great erudition and factual command of the vast literature on the Civil War, both in original sources and secondary studies. As I read, I thought that Marvel frequently chose his sources and the points he emphasized to fit his overall revisionist history of the conflict rather than to consider the material in its entirety, including possibly contrary accounts, and draw and explain his conclusions from them. Marvel offers a military account of the last year of the War, but his account is equally political, economic and social. He emphasizes the broad dissatisfaction with the progress of the War through just before the presidential election of 1864. Up until Sherman's capture of Atlanta in September, many observers, and Lincoln himself, thought he would lose the election to George McClellan. Marvel points to what he sees as the brutality of Grant's overland campaign which resulted in heavy casualties and apparently stalled permanently in front of Petersburg. Marvel also points to Sherman's Atlanta campaign which also for a time appeared stalled in front of strong entrenchments. Besides these two large theatres, Marvel emphasizes many subsidiary actions in 1864 which did not go well for Union arms and which resulted in great loss of life, resulting in public dissilusionment with the war. Marvel's account is at its best in considering some of these military actions that get insufficient attention in popular accounts of the war. Much of the book deals with Northern discontent and opposition to the draft and to military service. As the conflict dragged on, the government issued further calls for large bodies of men to replace the casualties and to replace soldiers whose terms of enlistment had expired. Many men tried to avoid service while others enlisted for the most mercenary of reasons. Marvel knows the enormous literature well and offers the reader many letters from soldiers and others who were weary with the conflict and who wanted no part of it. He also considers inflation, unemployment and the difficulties, sometimes understated, that prosecuting the war imposed on the home front. His book also emphasizes displeasure in the North for Lincoln's claimed failure to prevent the abuses in Southern prisoner of war camps, including the notorious Andersonville as well as some others. There is much in the book on the horrors of these camps, both North and South, and of the difficult, dangerous and distinctively unglamorous life of soldiers in the field. Marvel discusses the actions of Sheridan in the Shenendoah Valley and of Sherman in his March to the Sea and in his March through the Carolinas. He is clearly distressed by the harshness of these campaigns and of taking of war to the civilian population. He discusses some of the less well known parts of the war, such as the Republican insistence of a domestic conspiracy against the Union by an internal group called the "Knights of the Golden Circle". Marvel discounts actions against this alleged group and other actions by the Lincoln administration as unnecessary political actions depriving people of their civil rights. Some of the matters he emphasizes are too little addressed in some accounts and worth knowing. Marvel offers a good account of the Sultana disaster on the Mississippi River in which an overloaded steamboat carrying Union prisoners of war home exploded just past Memphis, resulting in tragic loss of life. He also discusses the final military action of the war near Brownsville, Texas, after the Confederate field armies east of the Mississippi River had surrendered. The Civil War was indeed tragic, and its purpose not fully realized. There is much to be learned from Marvel's thoughtful book even though, I believe, he overstates his case and his differences from "nonrevisionist" histories. It seems to me that Marvel's two critiques of most account work, at times, at cross purposes with each other. Through much of the book, he questions whether the conflict was necessary and he criticizes the brutal way in which the Union waged the war in 1864. He also, in this vein, praises Lincoln for his aim of giving the South an easy peace and restoring the section to America's national life. These parts of Marvel's criticism do not work entirely well with his criticism of Johnson's Reconstruction policy and with the failure of the United States to enforce the rights of the Freedpeople. The Civil War resulted in a "Tarnished Victory" for Marvel because the rights of African Americans remained at best partially unrealized. But if the conflict between the sections had been peacefully resolved, as Marvel suggests, or if the Union had fought a different kind of war, it is likely that these rights would not have been realized at all, or would have been deferred for a longer time. Marvel has written a thoughtful, valuable study of the final year of the Civil War. Because of its avowedly revisionist character, the book will be of most interest to readers with a good background in the Civil War. Such readers will benefit from Marvel's account and be able to compare it with other interpretations. Robin Friedman

  2. 5 out of 5

    Steven Peterson

    "Tarnished Victory" is a work with a provocative thesis: Lincoln's vision for the war and its aftermath came up short. Many analyses speak to the virtues of Lincoln's approach, including reunion of North and South, the end of slavery, and so on. But, so the author, William Marvel, says (page xiii): ". . .works [on the Civil War] frequently overlook that much of the heroism was wasted by military ineptitude and political perfidy; they usually ignore that the restored Union was no longer a volunta "Tarnished Victory" is a work with a provocative thesis: Lincoln's vision for the war and its aftermath came up short. Many analyses speak to the virtues of Lincoln's approach, including reunion of North and South, the end of slavery, and so on. But, so the author, William Marvel, says (page xiii): ". . .works [on the Civil War] frequently overlook that much of the heroism was wasted by military ineptitude and political perfidy; they usually ignore that the restored Union was no longer a voluntary community, and forget that the war did not actually eradicate human bondage." This volume looks at the last part of the Civil War (one in a series of works)--and the aftermath, in which, using the author's words, the result was a "tarnished victory." This volume begins with the Wilderness and what came after, the "Overland Campaign" and the siege of Petersburg. There is the story of Sherman's taking of Atlanta and the war thereafter, with Confederates vainly trying to stop the Union advance at Averasboro and Bentonville. But the main thrust of the work is to explore the extent to which the Union victory, ultimately, failed to achieve Lincoln's vision. An interesting argument. In some sense, of course, the author is right. But one might wonder if he also misses some points. Slavery was over, even though discrimination and practices hobbling blacks were put into place. For political purposes, the Union ended up giving up on "reconstructing" the South. But change had come about, although it was an ambiguous victory.

  3. 5 out of 5

    JW

    The conclusion of William Marvel’s four volume history of the war for the Union. This series is the story of the North and its battles in the Civil War. The Confederacy is only mentioned when it interacts with the Federals; that is, in battle. Actually, this volume does deal with Southern treatment of POWs. Marvel has exhaustively mined collections of letters to and from Union soldiers, providing the often neglected views of the troopers and their families. There is nothing like this for the Sou The conclusion of William Marvel’s four volume history of the war for the Union. This series is the story of the North and its battles in the Civil War. The Confederacy is only mentioned when it interacts with the Federals; that is, in battle. Actually, this volume does deal with Southern treatment of POWs. Marvel has exhaustively mined collections of letters to and from Union soldiers, providing the often neglected views of the troopers and their families. There is nothing like this for the South; but then, if he had done so, the books would have been twice as long. Marvel’s thesis is that the Civil War truly was Lincoln’s war. The book’s title, Tarnished Victory, refers to the failure to maintain the racial egalitarian regime after Reconstruction. But as the author argues, Lincoln, while an opponent of slavery, was primarily dedicated to the preservation of the Union. Andrew Johnson’s lenient policy towards the former Rebels was really Lincoln’s policy. The difference is that Lincoln was the abler politician and would have compromised with the Radicals. The defeat of secession was Lincoln’s goal, one he was willing to wage a brutal war to achieve. In that sense, the reconciliation of North and South, not equality for the Freedmen, was the victory Lincoln sought and achieved.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Jerome Lafayette

    William Marvel's narrative style is dense and multi-layered, producing the sort of books one does not read casually, but studies intently. His four-volume Civil War series is relentlessly detailed and a sobering exploration of how the powerful North misjudged, over played, and at times made a complete mess of the war's basic administration and management. Marvel does not romanticize any of the North's political or military leaders. While he is anything but a Confederate apologist, he does rather a William Marvel's narrative style is dense and multi-layered, producing the sort of books one does not read casually, but studies intently. His four-volume Civil War series is relentlessly detailed and a sobering exploration of how the powerful North misjudged, over played, and at times made a complete mess of the war's basic administration and management. Marvel does not romanticize any of the North's political or military leaders. While he is anything but a Confederate apologist, he does rather adroitly present a picture of a South that was in many cajoled into fighting, and a North morally outraged once the South so responded. Ultimately these books are an exploration of hubris from the most gifted chronicler of the Civil War since the legendary history Bruce Catton.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Casey

    The final volume of William Marvel's four part series on the Union in the Civil War. Continuing the pattern of the previous books, this contains a rolling chronological narrative of the military operations, the political turmoil, the economic situation, and the social dynamics across the Northern states in the last 14 months of the war. It ends with a short but pointed analysis of the immediate aftermath of the war. Various aspects are covered, to include the continuous manpower shortages, the e The final volume of William Marvel's four part series on the Union in the Civil War. Continuing the pattern of the previous books, this contains a rolling chronological narrative of the military operations, the political turmoil, the economic situation, and the social dynamics across the Northern states in the last 14 months of the war. It ends with a short but pointed analysis of the immediate aftermath of the war. Various aspects are covered, to include the continuous manpower shortages, the effects of victory or defeat on the economy, the byzantine political maneuvering surrounding the 1864 election, and the process by which the sudden (unexpected) collapse of the South influenced the path of Reconstruction. Though the author continues a pessimistic streak which I could never fully appreciate, this series of books is very helpful in understanding the close relationship between the army in the field and the citizenry at home.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Sky Thibedeau

    A history of the last year of the Civil War. I'm disappointed a bit because the title seemed to indicate it would delve into why the Victory of the North was tarnished and had to be revisited 90 years later but the book barely touches that aspect of things in the final chapters. What we have is the very bloody events that made the American Civil War the first Modern Total War. Grant's war of attrition against Lee in the East and Sherman's march to the Sea taking up most of the volume. Marvel does A history of the last year of the Civil War. I'm disappointed a bit because the title seemed to indicate it would delve into why the Victory of the North was tarnished and had to be revisited 90 years later but the book barely touches that aspect of things in the final chapters. What we have is the very bloody events that made the American Civil War the first Modern Total War. Grant's war of attrition against Lee in the East and Sherman's march to the Sea taking up most of the volume. Marvel does use some letters and correspondance from some sources I've not seen before (being from Mississippi its hard not to be engrossed in the history that shaped your community so I do read a lot of histories). One engrossing narrative follows a newlywed couple from the man's enlistment, to his assignement to a Minnesota regiment in Tennessee, then to his capture at Brices Crossroads, followed by disease and death in the POW Stockade at Andersonville. very sad. Marvel also notes the decline in quality of Northern Soldiers as communities pay draft bounties for newly arrived immigrants from Ireland and Central and Southern Europe to take the place of her well educated citizens in the Frontlines. This decline in the quality of the soldiers lead to the North's high casualty rates in the East where Grant was constantly launching spoiling attacks towards Richmond. Overall it is an enjoyable history but only the last chapter is devoted to why it was a tarnished victory that ended with Southern Planter families back in control of things in the South in less than two decades with the Jim Crow Aparteid laws in place that would not be overturned until the Civil Rights movement of the 1960's. Jay Winik's "April 1865, the Month that Saved America" is in my opinion the best book on the last days of the Civil War.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Ron Nurmi

    I was disappointed with this book on the last year of the Civil War. The author (that I could find) never explains why victory was tarnished. It appears he views the end of slavery not worth the cost. I find his view that the Federal government's victory were the result of overwhelming numbers, and he seems to discount the skill of both soldiers and officers. The book does have many personal views of the combatants on both sides as they discussed their views. It is my opinion the war could have e I was disappointed with this book on the last year of the Civil War. The author (that I could find) never explains why victory was tarnished. It appears he views the end of slavery not worth the cost. I find his view that the Federal government's victory were the result of overwhelming numbers, and he seems to discount the skill of both soldiers and officers. The book does have many personal views of the combatants on both sides as they discussed their views. It is my opinion the war could have ended any time the Confederacy want it to end by giving up the fight. This is a revisionist history of the Civil War, but I do not think he made his case what ever it was. I will grant I have not read the first two volumes of this series where he may have presented his case.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Michael W. Fulmer

  9. 5 out of 5

    Zbigniew Szalbot

  10. 4 out of 5

    Rebecca Graf

  11. 5 out of 5

    Joe

  12. 4 out of 5

    Patrick Callahan

  13. 5 out of 5

    Blake

  14. 5 out of 5

    Chris

  15. 5 out of 5

    Maxwell Zimmerman

  16. 5 out of 5

    Donald M Bailey

  17. 4 out of 5

    M.J. Gardner

  18. 5 out of 5

    Kris

  19. 5 out of 5

    Michael Ramirez

  20. 4 out of 5

    William B

  21. 4 out of 5

    James Heyworth

  22. 4 out of 5

    Greg Stafira

  23. 5 out of 5

    Edward Gingrich

  24. 5 out of 5

    Jerome

  25. 5 out of 5

    Gill Eastland

  26. 5 out of 5

    Katie Heglund

  27. 5 out of 5

    Barry

  28. 4 out of 5

    Richard

  29. 4 out of 5

    Terry

  30. 5 out of 5

    Joseph

  31. 5 out of 5

    David Corleto-Bales

  32. 5 out of 5

    Julianna

  33. 4 out of 5

    Chad

  34. 5 out of 5

    Dawn

  35. 4 out of 5

    Tom

  36. 4 out of 5

    Rudy

  37. 5 out of 5

    John Nellis

  38. 5 out of 5

    Peter

  39. 4 out of 5

    Paula

  40. 4 out of 5

    Robert Anderson

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