- Hardcover: 523 pages
- Publisher: Alfred a Knopf; 1st Edition edition (1991)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0394524853
- ISBN-13: 978-0394524856
- Product Dimensions: 4.4 x 17.1 x 24.8 cm
- Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars See all reviews (1 customer review)
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,177,449 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
Destructive War: William Techumseh Sherman, Stonewall Jackson, and the Americans Hardcover – 1 Jan 1991
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" Royster's intriguing analyses fill every page with new information and offer a fresh interpretation of our bloodiest conflict...exhaustively researched, artistically written, brilliantly argued."
-- Boston Globe
" Parts of The Destructive War are as good as anything written...during the last generation...a masterful narrative."
-- Washington Post Book World
" A fascinating history of the ideas held by the people who fought the war...fresh, intriguing, philosophical." -- Detroit Free Press
" An illuminating interpretation." -- Wall Street Journal
Winner of the Lincoln Prize
"Royster's intriguing analyses fill every page with new information and offer a fresh interpretation of our bloodiest conflict...exhaustively researched, artistically written, brilliantly argued."
-- Boston Globe
"Parts of The Destructive War are as good as anything written...during the last generation...a masterful narrative."
-- Washington Post Book World
"A fascinating history of the ideas held by the people who fought the war...fresh, intriguing, philosophical." -- Detroit Free Press
"An illuminating interpretation." -- Wall Street Journal
Winner of the Lincoln Prize --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
From the Inside Flap
From the moment the Civil War began, partisans on both sides were calling not just for victory but for extermination. And both sides found leaders who would oblige. In this vivid and fearfully persuasive book, Charles Royster looks at William Tecumseh Sherman and Stonewall Jackson, the men who came to embody the apocalyptic passions of North and South, and re-creates their characters, their strategies, and the feelings they inspired in their countrymen. At once an incisive dual biography, hypnotically engrossing military history, and a cautionary examination of the American penchant for patriotic bloodshed, The Destructive War is a work of enormous power. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
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It's important to remember two big mental shifts were going on when this book was written. First, it reflects a post-Vietnam questioning of certain cherished beliefs about America and Americans themselves. Second, there are elements that break with traditional historical convention (and which may be termed "post-structuralist"). How so?
Royster's work seems disjointed, but it's actually thoughtfully constructed. He departs from conventional, linear historical narrative by starting at the end: The burning of Columbia, South Carolina. (Another historian, whom he later cites, defined this event as the end of the war, and Royster probably consciously followed suit). The chapter itself, like many in the book, is a virtuoso performance of straightforward historical description. At other points, Royster weaves forwards and backwards in time, sometimes within the same paragraph.
In one stand out passage recounting Jackson's wounding, he cites three of Jackson's aides, all of whom contradict each other. As such sources reveal, there may not be one objective truth (or one that is attainable by a modern historian), but rather opinions about it. In calling his book a long essay, Royster himself posits that the book is at best his own opinion, a viewpoint on the history. One might also call the work novelistic, which suggests that history is a story, maybe not quite a fiction, but a created reality, an attempt to approximate the truth through the author's hand. All of this has the effect of making the reader raise questions and ultimately raise doubts about objective historical truth.
This is most evident in the portrayal of the two leading figures, Jackson and Sherman. In this view, neither figure comes off as a whole, consistent, person. Jackson seems like the quintessential self-made American success. Royster portrays Jackson as self-consciously creating a construct of "Jackson" that was designed to play to the public's perception of him. Jackson embodied what Royster calls "The Vicarious War," as Southerners hoped to destroy the North through him.
The book spends a longer time on Sherman's career, perhaps because he lived longer. In one key chapter, Sherman is presented as a war hero -- that was the public's perception of him anyway. Then, after a paragraph break, Royster focuses on Sherman's doubts, his inner life, which was constantly at odds with his outer persona. (The last chapter, and how Sherman leaves the grand review, most clearly drives this point home). Sherman was obsessed with order, and he saw war as a force that could bring Southern anarchy back into true union. Yet, he saw the potential for chaos everywhere, and he remained troubled by these doubts.
Through this swirling, chaotic account, Royster questions American progress and the use of force to bring the world to order. In most books, we may see Jackson or Sherman in isolation, focused on their military campaigns. Royster tries to paint a more complete picture of each man. In Jackson, Royster seems to see a man who successfully created a public image for himself, tried to further it in the war, but who was ultimately (and somewhat ironically) killed by the thing he was supposedly most good at -- in a friendly fire incident.
In Sherman, Royster shows us a man who failed at banking in the California gold rush, who was called insane at one point, but who ultimately made the kind of war that was needed, and achieved success that way. Then, the war over, he was back to his old struggles, speaking but hating it, helping veterans but hating it, trying to fight the Indian Wars and hating that, too.
Reading this raised questions about the nature of American war heroes, myth making, and Civil War historiography generally. Royster deftly raises questions about the perceptions of these men in their own times, and makes readers question their own understanding of these men -- icons, really, of their respective causes. Too, we see ourselves in the public of the time; the editorial writers and diary keepers remind us of ourselves and our own relationship to similar American leaders in our own times. These people embraced and supported Jackson and Sherman most times, and so Jackson and Sherman become reflections of what their fellow Americans wanted to see in themselves, then and since. Jackson and Sherman are America.
As I followed Royster on this journey into the soul of the United States, I found myself questioning my own beliefs about the American way of war, and this certainly would have been top of mind in the post-Vietnam era, when the book was written and which Royster lived through. It's still a relevant topic today, in many respects. In Royster's telling, Sherman (in particular) seems to become a metaphor for America, ever marching toward order, democracy, and progress through violence. Jackson seems to be for Royster the quintessential American rise-and-fall story, his Gatsby, someone who climbed to the pinnacle of success only to be undone by the very thing he did so well, and then became a questionable idol.
I found a review online published in an academic journal written around the time of this book's publication. The reviewer essentially said, "Sure, it's brilliant in parts, but is that enough, and what to make of it?" This is a difficult book to appreciate in those (perhaps overly traditional) terms. Instead, we may see the book as raising questions, rather than providing us answers. In the end, readers will have their own reaction to it, and it's precisely the questions we ask ourselves that are most important.
In another novelistic touch, Royster puts his un-numbered citations in the back, which made them hard to see while reading the main narrative on the Kindle. Yet, the amount of research that he did in writing this seems thorough and impressive. He even remarks on a tick-marked passage in one of Jackson's own books; presumably, Royster himself saw the actual tick mark when handling the actual book from Jackson's personal library. Private letters and newspaper editorials abound.
Overall, "The Destructive War" is an unconventional book written by a historian who understands conventional historical method, and the result is a brilliant, thought-provoking success.
Royster depicts the Civil War as-primarily-aggresive, anomalous, vicarious, and as the title suggests, destructive. The Confederacy sought aggressive war to achieve quick legitimacy, its viability depending on the ability not only to wage war, but also to take that war north of the Potomac, make the Yankees feel its effects, and thereby convince them that the costs of prolonged combat would be far too dear. Royster argues that the Union pursued aggresive war, ultimately, to bring progress to the South and demonstrate the superiority of free labor over slave labor, by razing the Confederacy to its foundations and then rebuilding it in the North's own image.
For Royster no one better epitomizes the Confederacy than Thomas Jonathon Jackson, better known by his sobriquet Stonewall, which Royster asserts, reflected a self-created persona. Jackson's Stonewall was an inelegant fusion of plodding resolve, frustrated (if not checked) ambition, and intense piety, smacking of both Calvinism and Arminianism, all funneled into a zealous devotion to duty. His untimely death at Chancellorsville gave birth to the Stonewall myth-patriotic Christian warrior-providing tantalizing 'what if' grist for the counterfactual mill of post hoc Confederate nation building. An advocate of "the tactical offensive in battle" Jackson is certain the Civil War will be "earnest,massed, and lethal."
The essence of the Union, according to Royster, can be found in William Tecumseh Sherman. Alarmed by Confederate strength and resolve, Sherman presciently observed that tactical defensive warfare would be woefully insufficient in what he believed would be a long and costly war. Egged on by newspapers ravenous for victory on the cheap, and deferring to troops already engaged in wanton mayhem, Sherman embraced, then embodied, that which he originally resisted: total war.
Royster includes subsidiary characterizations of the war as drastic, Republican, and vigorous. Drastic war knows no limits in the pursuit of emancipation and abolition. Republican war means "Emergency war powers" and "passionate nationalism" which will create "a new republic, purged of antebellum evils and backwardness." Vigorous war is possible because of the "widespread eagerness to be exonerated of the criminality attached to bloodshed." Auxiliary adjectives such as harsh, bitter, ineluctable and causeless are employed to complete the illustration. In the book's chapter on vicarious war the author asks, "How had the naive notions prevalent at the start given way so readily to killing on a scale supposedly unimaginable?" This single question is the essence of Royster's work.
Royster is a veteran of Vietnam who became convinced of certain "truths" about America long ago. In this book, he subtly manipulates his evidence into consonance with his truths. Thus, e.g., when General Jackson suggests policies the Union armies (under Sherman and others) actually follow, this makes the C.S.A. morally equivalent to the U.S.A. Never mind that the reason Jackson's suggestions were never implemented is that his superiors in the Confederate government thought them morally repugnant; never mind that Lincoln actually revelled in similar suggestions' success. Does this "moral equivalency" theory remind you of anything more recent than 1865?
It is only after deep consideration that I've reached this caveat about this book. It is a literary gem on a par with the greatest histories. Whether you care about the "Civil War" or not (and I use the quotation marks because since the Confederates were not fighting for control of the U.S. Government, it was not really a civil war), this book repays a reading. Or two. Or three. It's marvelous.