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Hymns of the Republic: The Story of the Final Year of the American Civil War

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From the New York Times bestselling and award-winning author of Empire of the Summer Moon and Rebel Yell comes “a masterwork of history” (Lawrence Wright, author of God Save Texas), the spellbinding, epic account of the last year of the Civil War.

The fourth and final year of the Civil War offers one of the most compelling narratives and one of history’s great turning points. Now, Pulitzer Prize finalist S.C. Gwynne breathes new life into the epic battle between Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant; the advent of 180,000 black soldiers in the Union army; William Tecumseh Sherman’s March to the Sea; the rise of Clara Barton; the election of 1864 (which Lincoln nearly lost); the wild and violent guerrilla war in Missouri; and the dramatic final events of the war, including Lee’s surrender at Appomattox and the murder of Abraham Lincoln.

“A must-read for Civil War enthusiasts” (Publishers Weekly), Hymns of the Republic offers many surprising angles and insights. Robert E. Lee, known as a great general and Southern hero, is presented here as a man dealing with frustration, failure, and loss. Ulysses S. Grant is known for his prowess as a field commander, but in the final year of the war he largely fails at that. His most amazing accomplishments actually began the moment he stopped fighting. William Tecumseh Sherman, Gwynne argues, was a lousy general, but probably the single most brilliant man in the war. We also meet a different Clara Barton, one of the greatest and most compelling characters, who redefined the idea of medical care in wartime. And proper attention is paid to the role played by large numbers of black union soldiers—most of them former slaves.

Popular history at its best, Hymns of the Republic reveals the creation that arose from destruction in this “engrossing…riveting” (Kirkus Reviews, starred review) read.


First published October 29, 2019

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S.C. Gwynne

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 174 reviews
Profile Image for Faith.
1,823 reviews501 followers
February 20, 2020
I liked the fact that this book dealt with a limited time period, however I enjoy political and sociological history more than military history, so I skimmed over some of the descriptions in this book of battle strategy. I was really drawn into the last third of the book describing Sherman’s March, the final battles of the war, Lee’s surrender, Lincoln’s assassination, the collapse of the Confederacy and Barton’s attempt to identify the Union soldiers who died at Andersonville. There were also interesting biographies and character studies of many characters, including Clara Barton, Lee, Sherman and Grant. Although I have read other books about the Civil War I still learned a lot from this book.
Profile Image for KOMET.
1,070 reviews127 followers
November 23, 2019
Two weeks ago (November 8, 2019), I had the opportunity to hear the author, S.C. Gwynne, speak about this book at a local bookstore. While I have at best a layman's interest in the Civil War, I was impressed with Gwynne's presentation, so much so that I put in a request with my neighborhood library to check out a copy of the book.

"HYMNS OF THE REPUBLIC" provides an apt and well-written summation of the final year of the Civil War and how it impacted upon the nation (North and South) militarily, politically, economically, and on a psychological level. Gwynne also brings vividly to life the many personalities (military, civilian, and political) who played key and significant roles in a year - 1864 - that began with the appointment of Ulysses S. Grant (the hero of Vicksburg) as Lieutenant General in charge of the Army of the Potomac by President Lincoln, which initially gave the North much cause for optimism that the war could perhaps be won and thus, ensure Lincoln's re-election later in the year. But despite Grant's initial successes against the Army of Northern Virginia (commanded by Robert E. Lee), the war in the East ground into a virtual stalemate by the summer.

As a result of these setbacks on the battlefield (as evidenced by the Battles of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, and Cold Harbor), Lincoln's re-election prospects dimmed considerably. He felt certain that he was likely to be defeated in November by the Democratic candidate (George McClellan, the erstwhile commander of the Army of the Potomac til Lincoln relieved him of command late in 1862 because of McClellan's failure to mount an effective campaign against the Army of Northern Virginia throughout that year), leading to a likely truce between North and South resulting ultimately in the establishment of the Confederacy as an independent nation. But then the fortunes of war would tilt in the North's favor by the early autumn of 1864.

Gwynne has written a history that reads like a novel comparable in some ways to Thackeray's 'Vanity Fair' with its dramatic sweep. Thanks to him, I learned so much more about why the Civil War continues to resonate in the nation's psyche. After all, it was a conflict that changed us from seeing ourselves as 'the United States are' to 'the United States IS.' That is, as one singular nation of Americans.
Profile Image for Emily.
92 reviews6 followers
July 28, 2020
I have been waiting to write this review since about page 15 - so finally, here we are.

I hated this book. Didn't quite hate it as much as I'd like to - but hated it all the same. This is saying something, since I'll take about any form of well-written Civil War nonfiction, but wow, no thank you.

Gwynne is a good storyteller and has an excellent, interesting writing voice. The good stops there. He is HORRENDOUSLY pro-Southern - not even subtle about it. He'll share something good about Ulysses S Grant, and then go on to criticize his every move, interpret it in the worst light, comment derisively, and call him just about every unflattering name in the book. Ditto to Meade; ditto to Sherman. Every possible horrible action is dragged out, criticized, interpreted in the light of all that is petty, ugly, and stupid. He makes no allowances for human error; makes no allowance for the imperfection that is all war. There IS no right answer in war; to interpret mistake as malice or incompetence is nonsense. In contrast, the South is practically perfect. Grant is criticized, up, down, ridiculed, second-guessed, stupid, bloodthirsty, uncaring, for every slight error he makes. Of course he made mistakes. Every commander does.

But then - come to Robert E Lee, and holy moly, Gwynne sings syrupy paeans. A token note about his slaves; no mention of the horrid punishments he dealt out, just more of the suffering Marble Man. Same to Mosby. Butter just won't melt in his mouth. Any mistakes are cast lightly aside. The same mistakes that would earn Grant & Sherman scathing, dismissive treatment are so casually, unimpactfully mentioned towards Southerners. Henry Wirz, the commandant of Andersonville, is "not a perfect man," and no more is said of him. This from the one man whose crimes were thought bad enough to merit execution (rightly or wrongly). The gap in standards couldn't be more staggering here. The Union war effort is roundly lambasted at every - single - turn. Meanwhile, Nathan Bedford Forrest, he assures us, couldn't have possibly had anything to do with the Fort Pillow massacre. Had their positions been reversed, you bet Gwynne would have had a slew of criticism for that.

I almost couldn't finish this book, which says quite a bit. In fact, I spent nearly the first half hating this book. Gwynne's redeeming quality is his narrative voice, his ability to tell pretty, colorful stories. He does well introducing facts - for example, he does a nice job taking Chamberlain down a peg or twelve. But overall, he is horribly, glibly biased. I don't believe I would read anything more by Gwynne, for all the accolades he's received for other books. Welcome to the Land of the Lost Cause.
Profile Image for Dax.
231 reviews107 followers
February 5, 2020
I was initially disappointed when I heard that Gwynne's latest book would only cover the final year of the Civil War. Gwynne has written some of my favorite nonfiction over the last decade so the thought of him pounding out a doorstopper covering the entirety of the war appealed to me greatly.

Having finished this last night, I understand why he decided to focus on that final year. With 'Hymns of the Republic', we start with the arrival of Grant as the new commander of the Army of the Potomac. With Grant's assumption of power, the dynamics of the war changed dramatically. The casualties climbed exponentially, and the attitude towards the opposing army reached black flag (take no prisoners) levels. It was the bleakest hours of the war- not just for the armies- but for Lincoln himself. And this is what stands out about 'Hymns of the Republic' from other war narratives; it does not solely focus on the military aspect of the war. Gwynne does a wonderful job detailing the political implications of engagements and the deceitful movements of Lincoln's political rivals. This makes for an all encompassing and well rounded understanding of the environment of 1865.

A note on some of the comments here that accuse Gwynne of being a Confederate apologist:

I disagree. He does not shy away from criticizing the performance of Union generals, and it is true that he believes that the Confederates typically performed better on the battlefield with leaders like Lee, Jackson, and Mosby, but he provides evidence and examples of why he feels that way. I see no problem with Gwynne drawing conclusions from materials he has read and research he has conducted on the subject. Sources for those conclusions are provided in the notes and bibliography. This book is not written as a condemnation of the Union Army. It is a well researched and well written account of that final year of the war. He does not shy away from criticizing the Confederates either, particular with Jefferson Davis' delusional leadership and the conditions of Andersonville.

All in all, another excellent effort from Gwynne. If you have not read any of his work, I recommend starting with 'Empires of the Summer Moon'.
6 reviews1 follower
December 23, 2019
I have a lot of problems with the book. Gwynne takes a dim view of virtually every decision Grant makes. For example, Grant made much of the fact that to defeat the Confederacy they had to destroy the opposing armies, not the cities. And Grant at Spotsylvania said he would “fight it out on this line if it takes all summer.” Shortly afterwards he pulls the army out of the line and heads south. Gwynne interprets this as a “whim,” a capricious change in strategy. Grant was going to Richmond after all, he says.

No! Grant was trying to get between Lee and Richmond because that was the only way he could pry Lee out of his trenches. His objective was, and remained till the surrender at Appomattox, the destruction of Lee’s army. Surely Gwynne doesn’t think Grant SHOULD have stayed locked in place at Spotsylvania, pursuing the same brute force tactics that had already failed.

Grant has been called a butcher, and Gwynne seems to accept that analysis. I disagree, as does virtually every biographer of Grant in recent years (William McFeely excepted). Once he entered Virginia, Lee lost control of the narrative. He had to go wherever Grant went. Grant basically put him in a box and kept him there and bled him dry.

It’s unpleasant to think about, but he isn’t unique among US generals. Colin Powell once described his own approach to war as: you find out where your enemy is, and you go there, and you kill him.

But my real problem with the book is that the narrative jumps from Spotsylvania to the Crater. I kept going back and forth, thinking maybe the book was missing a chapter. A few pages after the jump, I found a paragraph summarizing what happened between those points. Left out of any detailed discussion were North Anna, Cold Harbor, and Grant’s brilliant crossing of the James before Lee even knew he had moved. The jump breaks the flow of the narrative, and it baffles me. Why did Gwynne give so little attention to Cold Harbor when it so clearly supports his case that Grant was a bad general? Cold Harbor was the worst mistake of his life, and he admitted it.

I was tempted to give the book two stars for these reasons. But I can’t, because the story that Gwynne DOES tell is brilliantly written and captures the horror of that last year better than anything I’ve read. The book, despite its flaws, is well worth reading by anyone with more than a passing interest in the Civil War. Three stars is kind of a compromise.

Footnote: no, I didn’t read the book in a day. I simply neglected to list it in Goodreads until I’d already finished it. Goodreads automatically provided the start date for me.
Profile Image for Tom Brennan.
Author 4 books58 followers
February 24, 2020
Gwynne is quickly working his way onto a very select list of must-read-everything-he-writes kind of historian. I've read more books than I can count/remember about the Civil War but I found this one passing along aspects I had never considered or heard of, and doing so frequently. His discussion of Lee's physical/emotional struggles the last year of the war was enlightening. His description of the fall of Richmond from the standpoint of the people in Richmond is something I will never forget. His discussion of the interplay between Grant and Sherman and Lincoln made me want to read more about men I've read tens of thousands of pages about already. I don't know where he gets it or how he gets it but get it Gwynne does, and dish it out in spades.

If you see a book with Gwynne's name on the cover do yourself a favor - buy it immediately. It's guaranteed good stuff.
Profile Image for Scott Resnik.
64 reviews
December 18, 2019
Solid survey of the final year of the Civil War. However the author’s extreme Southern bias detracts from narrative.
Profile Image for Michael Beck.
291 reviews23 followers
July 8, 2022
This is an excellent history of the last years of the civil war. It covers the blunders of so many inept Union generals which catalogued the early years of the war, to the rise of General Grant and his strategy to end the war at all costs.
Profile Image for Sean.
320 reviews14 followers
November 7, 2020
A beautifully written account of the last year or so of the American Civil War, with a focus on some of the major personalities and events. Four stars; I found it gripping, though it did touch lightly on some important events or skip over them entirely. Not a military history, though not without a fair amount of military history; Gwynne spends a good deal of time focusing on politics, women (in the form of Clara Barton, who in my mind vies with Lincoln as the most impressive figure in the entire story), and African Americans (slave, free, soldier, and one rather remarkable newspaper correspondent). He seems to enjoy highlighting, or at least pointing out, the flaws of many of the war’s most famous men, like Lincoln, Grant, Sherman, and Lee. I found this aspect refreshing and not overdone.
The book is wall-to-wall with highlightable bits, but some things that caught my attention:

• Lincoln had to walk a fine line when it came to slavery. Though not insensitive to the suffering of slaves, he was no proponent of abolition, not least because he couldn’t afford to be: “The subtext here was fully apparent to people of the time: any move to free slaves or to declare that the war was about abolishing slavery would instantly threaten the loyalty of the “border states.” These were the deeply divided, politically explosive slave states that had not seceded: Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, and Missouri. Lincoln considered them crucial to the Union victory. With their roads, railways, and rivers, the border states were critical as gateways to the deeper South. Their population of 2.6 million white people, half as many as in the entire eleven states of the Confederacy, constituted a deep military recruiting pool that could turn the tide of the war. And the industrial effects of border-state defection were potentially staggering. If Maryland and Delaware alone seceded, the Confederacy’s manufacturing capacity would instantly double. Just how desperate Lincoln was to keep those states in the Union was evident when he suspended habeas corpus—the sacred American right of an arrested person to appear in court and be informed of the charges against him—in Maryland in the war’s first year.”

• By 1864, the material differences between the Union and the Confederate armies had become quite stark: “Lee’s own army lay on the steep, wooded riverbank below him. His men had been there all winter, barricaded into a fortress of earth and timber. Except for a brief and bungled Yankee attempt to cross the river in February, the rebels had mainly been staring at the federal pickets across the Rapidan, waiting for the rains to end and the war to start up again in earnest. Though these soldiers were separated by only a thin ribbon of water, they were in other ways worlds apart. The army in blue on the northern shore was the best-fed, best-trained, best-clothed, and best-equipped fighting force in the history of the world. It was supported by a rapidly industrializing nation with good credit and a ready supply of money. For its troops the preceding months had mostly been snug and happy. “This was the most cheerful winter we had passed in camp,” recalled George T. Stevens, a surgeon with the 77th New York regiment. “One agreeable feature was the great number of ladies, wives of officers, who spent the winter with their husbands. On every fine day… [the] ladies might be seen riding about the camps and over the desolate fields, and their presence added greatly to the brilliancy of the frequent reviews.” The men ate a relatively balanced diet that included pork or beef, dried vegetables and dried apples, onions, potatoes, turnips, cabbage, and pickles, and even soft bread instead of the usual rock-hard biscuits known as hardtack. They had sugar. They had plenty of coffee.”

• To anyone sweating the results of the 2020 election, consider the election of 1864. The election of 1860 had given way to what was already the bloodiest episode in American history, and now the war of several years’ duration hung on the outcome of the balloting. “If the Union lost on the battlefield, Lincoln would lose at the polls, and the man who beat him would be a Democrat elected for the specific purpose of ending the war. Both sides saw it that way. In the war’s new logic, deaths on the battlefield meant votes at Northern polling stations. “Every bullet we can send… is the best ballot that can be deposited against [Lincoln’s] election,” wrote the Daily Constitutionalist in Augusta, Georgia, on January 2, 1864. ‘The battlefields of 1864 will hold the polls of this momentous decision.’ “

• With the election looming, Lee and in particular Grant redoubled their efforts to win the war on the battlefield, or at least use the fighting as a lever to push US voters in their preferred direction, toward either a negotiated peace or toward Lincoln: “Thus as Ulysses S. Grant’s enormous army moved out on the early morning of May 4, all bets were on the table. That same day he put virtually every Union soldier in Virginia in motion, a coordinated set of attacks that had no precedent in the war: he sent one army racing up the James River to threaten Richmond, another pushing south through the Shenandoah Valley to threaten Lee’s supply lines; yet another in western Virginia was to hit critical infrastructure that included railroads, salt works, and lead mines. Grant believed that he had less than six months to defeat the South, and he was wasting no time. Lee felt a similar urgency. Though he had no illusions that he could win the larger war, by defeating Grant now he might make it stop, and possibly on terms favorable to the Confederacy. So everything was at risk. There would be no more of the aimless drift that had characterized the early war: battles here and there to no particular end except holding or taking real estate, which turned out to be pointless exercises. The movement of all that glorious flashing steel on May 4 was the beginning of the finish fight. Grant versus Lee. The nation, which understood that, waited breathlessly to see what was going to happen. “These are fearfully critical, anxious days,” wrote Union diarist George Templeton Strong. ‘The destinies of the continent for centuries depend in great measure on what is now being done.’ “

• The fighting at the end of the war looked precious little like the fighting at the beginning; it looked much more like the fighting on the Marne, complete with trenches, mortars, railroad supply-ways, gigantic mine explosions, stormtroop tactics, and pointless frontal assaults. I’ve often wondered how to view the commanders of the First World War for their inability to deal with the conditions they faced; given that they should have been on notice for fifty years, I’m less inclined now to be understanding: “A change in the soldiers’ behavior had also made the fight far more lethal. Entrenchments had become common in the war. In the first two years they had been used mainly when armies were protecting fixed locations. Later armies built fortifications of wood and dirt when they were on active campaign. But in the Wilderness, and in the series of battles that followed it, the practice of digging in during battle became the rule rather than the exception, and the men quickly refined it to an art. They were like fiddler crabs: whenever they stopped somewhere for more than a few moments, they started digging. Later photographs of Saunders’ Field, one of the few cleared areas on the Orange Turnpike, show that Ewell’s breastworks had rifle pits two feet deep fronted by stacked, mud-chinked logs as much as five feet high. The works went up quickly, too. “Within one hour there is a shelter against bullets, high enough to cover a man kneeling,” wrote one of Meade’s staff in a letter home. “… When our line advances, there is the line of the enemy, nothing showing but the bayonets, and the battle flags stuck on top of the works.”

• So how did we get to trenches and mortars from the neatly formed regiments of the early war? Rivers of blood in the face of massive firepower slowly forced commanders to give way, despite their desire for mobility and their poor command and control: “What mainly drove the new mania for entrenchment was the commanding generals’ conclusion that it was a good idea. By the spring of 1864 there was simply too much evidence showing what happened to men when they made frontal assaults against fortified positions. But the top brass on both sides had come to this consensus only gradually. As early as June 1862, Union forces under George McClellan had built strong defensive works on the banks of Beaver Dam Creek, just east of Richmond, and the eleven thousand rebels who foolishly attacked them had been torn to pieces. A few days later Union soldiers firing from behind fieldworks at Gaines’ Mill had once again inflicted terrible damage. But instead of setting the pattern for future battles, generals on both sides took the reverse lesson. Since McClellan ended up losing the Seven Days Battles to Lee—who had not entrenched—fortifications were seen as either dispensable or possibly not even a good idea. Neither side had entrenched at the Second Battle of Bull Run, though Stonewall Jackson, whose troops fought from behind an unfinished railroad cut, had the perfect opportunity. Lee had not fortified at Antietam, even though he had plenty of time, had his back to the Potomac River, and had fought an almost purely defensive battle.”

• Sherman. One of my favorite figures from military history, he was surprisingly poor at fighting for one of America’s most famous fighting men: “The following day his delayed and terribly coordinated attack failed to accomplish anything except to pile up several thousand Union casualties. The general historical consensus is that Sherman’s failure at Missionary Ridge ranks among the worst battle performances of the war. He had virtually nothing to do with the spectacular uphill attack by Union troops under George H. Thomas that won the battle. The country never heard about Sherman’s failure, which was, as one contemporaneous observer put it, “covered over in thick official reports and misleading histories.”18 Grant simply lied about it, saying in his official report that rebel desperation to stop Sherman had weakened their center and allowed Thomas’s success. This was complete nonsense. Sherman played along with his boss’s flawed analysis, consistently misrepresenting the plan of battle for the rest of his life. He later said that Missionary Ridge “was a great victory—the neatest and cleanest battle I was ever in.”19 It was indeed a great victory. He was at least right about that.”

• Sherman, file under ‘war makes for strange bedfellows.’ “Sherman, the man who supposedly had little time or use for black people, issued what is probably the war’s single most radical order, confiscating property from wealthy slaveholders and designating it for settlement by former slaves. Special Field Orders no. 15 declared that the Sea Islands on the coast of South Carolina and Georgia […] would henceforth be reserved for freedmen. This was land distribution straight from the ultra-Radicals’ playbook. Each family could have forty acres; Sherman would also give them army mules. They would be able to rent the land cheaply with options to buy. By June 1865 some forty thousand African Americans would be settled on the land, all administered by a new federal agency called the Freedmen’s Bureau. The taking had been done under Sherman’s “war powers.” Though part of his motivation was clearly the welfare of black people, Special Field Orders no 15’s main attraction was that it partly solved his own nagging administrative problem: What to do with all of those former slaves?”

• File under "no, they didn't." I'm not sure where Gwynne gets this from, but no one in the Confederacy had access to the recipe for Greek Fire because to this day we still don't have it (though we can make an educated guess about what it contained). Does he mean that they referred to it as Greek Fire? Maybe, and that'd be fine, but he's not clear on this point. I'm sure the agents distributed incendiaries of some sort, but it certainly wasn't Greek Fire. Gwynne notes: "Rebel agents distributed canisters of “Greek fire,” a type of chemical-based incendiary weapon first used by the Byzantine Empire in 672."

• On a personal note, General Hartranft. When I was young, my grandfather died and my grandmother sooner or later began to date a wonderful man named Richard. He used to tell me stories about his time in India during the war, and talk with me about history, travel, archaeology, and all of the things I was interested in. In this vein, he told me about a semi-obscure sect of German protestants that had moved to Pennsylvania in the early 18th century, the Schwenkfelders. His family, the Hartranfts, were descended from Schwenkfelders; one of them fought in the Civil War and later became governor of Pennsylvania – General John Hartranft. I’m not personally related to the man, but whenever I read about him I feel a certain affection for him as though I were. This passage describes Hartranft’s improbable bottling up of a Rebel breakout attempt at Petersburg:

“THE SUN WAS WELL UP in the sky now, giving Union gunners clear targets. General Gordon’s rebel divisions pushed forward anyway, beyond Fort Stedman and the two batteries they had seized and into the unarmored zones behind Union lines. They were advancing toward the Union supply depot. They might have gotten there, too, except for a quick-thinking Union brigadier general named John Hartranft, a soldier’s soldier who had led a famous charge at Antietam in 1862. Now, as he found his superior officer already packed and preparing to move to the rear, Hartranft took charge. He threw the 200th Pennsylvania Regiment at the oncoming rebels. The fight was unfair: a regiment against several divisions. The men of the 200th were badly shot up. They fell back, regrouped, tried again, were again swept by Confederate fire, then retreated again. But they had bought Hartranft time—which he used to build, in short order, a defensive battle line more than a mile long with several thousand more federal troops. By 7:30 a.m. he had effectively boxed in the entire rebel advance. Because their reinforcements never arrived, the Confederates never had enough men to bust through Hartranft’s brilliantly organized secondary defenses. Just before 8:00 a.m. he launched his counterassault, and soon federal lines were closing on Fort Stedman from three sides. “The whole field was blue with them,” recalled a Georgia captain.”
Profile Image for Casey Wheeler.
881 reviews35 followers
July 28, 2019
As with other books that I have read by the author this one is well written and researched. He takes a very different viewpoint from others that I have read about this same time period during the American Civil War. He chooses to basically state that the well known leaders of the year Grant, Lee, Sherman and Lincoln were all seriously flawed and nowhere near the heroes that they have been presented by others. A reader must remember that this is the author's opinion and reality is most likely somewhere between his opinion and others.

I recommend this book for those looking for an alternative view of the last year of the American Civil War.

I received a free Kindle copy of this book courtesy of NetGalley and the publisher with the understanding that I would post a review on Net Galley, Goodreads, Amazon and my nonfiction book review blog. I also posted it to my Facebook  page.
Profile Image for Chris.
140 reviews4 followers
January 16, 2020
I’m a big fan of Erik Larson, but S.C. Gwynne has joined him atop my leaderboard. His work is a perfect balance of narrative history & character sketches of the players that made that history. You really feel as though you have met these figures. Loved this work and look forward to what comes next. Would love to see Mr. Gwynne write about the period of reconstruction. Perhaps the last page is teasing that? Still relevant to discussions and problems we are tackling today in my opinion.
Profile Image for Socraticgadfly.
964 reviews321 followers
June 10, 2020
Kind of typical Gwynne book. Highly uneven. Not as bad as Rebel Yell, but not good.

In the first 30 pages, he has:
1. Twisted Lincoln’s slave-related actions of the first two years out of context, including trying to make him into an abolitionist at the start of the war;
2. Absolved, or at least partially absolved, Forrest of Fort Pillow, when the truth is that, by the laws of war, Forrest, as commander of troops in the field, was responsible for the massacre by failure to prevent it even if he didn’t order it. (To the degree Gwynne does acknowledge any blame for Forrest, it’s in a footnote.
3. Absolved Forrest of Fort Pillow again by assuming that his original surrender offer to the Union garrison included black troops that Forrest may not have been aware were part of the garrison, or even if he were aware, assuming that they were covered under “troops”

Gwynne in the next 100 pages then pens great psychological vignettes of Grant and Lee. On Lee, I wonder if he stayed in the military to stay away from his wife, after reading this.

And then? Errors. No, Arlington is not part of DC and never was. The Treasury, under Chase or whomever, might have been the top Cabinet job for higher-dollar patronage, but the Post Office was for everyday job patronage. Errors of interpretation like the latter? OK, that's more on the author. But, bad copy editing lets in the former.

That said, he mentions General and Congresscritter Frank Blair attacking Chase on the floor of the House, but fails to mention his brother, Monty Blair, was .... Postmaster General!

Speaking of that, he never covers some of Lincoln's larger political moves involving his Cabinet. Like booting Monty as part of a quid pro quo for Fremont ending his campaign.

Then, more great stuff, on Sherman. Not so much the psychological profile, unlike with Grant and Lee, but a straightforward note that he wasn’t that good of a field commander. He’s totally right that Thomas’ corps, not Sherman’s, won Missionary Ridge.

That said, we next get back to questionableness. Although the battles of Franklin and Nashville weren’t important strategically, and Wilson’s ride through Alabama might be too overlooked elsewhere, to not give the Nashville campaign more than a paragraph is criminal. Maybe more criminal, given that Gwynne does cover infighting between generals at times, is not looking at how much Grant through Thomas under the bus as part of running Sherman up the flagpole.

Then, it’s back to good stuff. The Petersburg-to-Appomattox chapters, though much shorter than, say, “Nine Days to Appomattox,” has a couple of great vignettes, above all the picture of Meade’s attempt at glory-hogging.

Had Gwynne not opened with Fort Pillow AND with his particular take on it, I might have given this a fourth star. But, the way he did begin left too much of a bad taste in my mouth. And, thinking more about how much he overlooked on the Cabinet tussles and other things, I dropped it another star because at 4 1/3 stars average rating, it's overrated.
Profile Image for Christina Dudley.
Author 16 books117 followers
November 1, 2019
Another wonderful book from S. C. Gwynne. I knew, from reading EMPIRE OF THE SUMMER MOON 3x that Gwynne is a great storyteller, insightful and even-handed and humorous, even, and these qualities showed up again. (Lincoln's description of Genl Phil Sheridan had me giggling.) If you find all things Civil War fascinating, which I pretty much do, this is more than a worthwhile read.

As the subtitle makes clear, the book covers roughly the last 14 months of the war, kicking off with Grant's arrival in Washington, D.C., to take charge of the Union armies, and ending with Clara Barton touring the graves of the former Andersonville prisoner-of-war camp. Of course it covers territory familiar from countless other Civil War histories and biographies, but Gwynne usually always brings some little perspective or tidbit I hadn't heard of before, like why the Wilderness was such a wilderness--second-growth mess after iron production operations had chopped down and used all the old-growth forest. And it's always fun to beat up on George McLellan, Copperhead Democrats, and political infighting.

Thank you to the publisher for the chance to review this book. (Note, at location 3760, "Union soldiers" should be "rebel soldiers." And, at location 4111, "subordination" should be "insubordination.")
Profile Image for Jerome Otte.
1,740 reviews
January 13, 2020
An accessible and compelling work.

There’s not much new material, and Gwynne seems to have relied mostly on secondary sources. The narrative mostly focuses on the eastern theater (especially Virginia), opening with the Overland Campaign and ending at Appomattox. He ably covers a broad range of subjects, such as trench warfare, the horrors of Civil War medical practices, the experience of civilians, the politics of slavery, policies toward the border states, the evolution of “hard war,” the impact of emancipation, and the importance of black troops. Gwynne’s writing is vivid and graphic. He does a good job describing how events on the battlefield influenced events elsewhere. His coverage of the people is mostly evenhanded and he succeeds at bringing them to life.

The narrative is clear and well-organized, but some readers may find the book too brief for such a big subject, or that the coverage of battles is too cursory. Gwynne also writes of Grant being a “butcher” during the Overland Campaign, although recent scholarship has challenged this (he never accuses Lee of being a butcher) He is also critical of Sheridan’s destructive policies in the Shenandoah, but never connects it to the strategy Sheridan had in mind. Some readers may find that too much of the book focuses on Virginia.

Still, a well-written and well-researched work.
Profile Image for Brian Willis.
574 reviews30 followers
December 13, 2020
"In some important ways the North bore even more responsibility for slavery than the South" (318 footnote). Then, a couple of sentences about mercantile profiting off of slave labor.

SERIOUSLY? The equivalent of "there were fine people on both sides."

While well researched with a sure syntactical style that makes this book a good read, dozens of judgements like these mar this book on the final year of the war (ie Spring 1864-Spring 1865).

Gwynne focuses on stories of atrocity. We get it. "War is cruelty" as Sherman said. And yes, those stories are pitiful for the victims. But of course, when your objective is to pummel your opponent and WIN, the moral judgements of Gwynne are intrusive. Were they supposed to be nice? Most obvious is the bio chapter on Grant. Basically, repetition over and over that he was a pre-war failure and - oh - did you know that he was an alcoholic? FIVE pages on that iteration despite a complete lack of evidence that it was an extraordinary issue. Despite the consensus among historians that his "problem" was sporadic and that Grant was a functional General that won the Civil War and served two terms as President with no anecdotal evidence from world leaders on his post-Presidency tour that he ever over imbibed to the point of embarrassment, Gwynne revives this chestnut to make the point throughout this book that the Yankees were bad boys too. Sherman was cruel, Lee can be forgiven for his allegiance to the South and refusal to free his slaves, and "oh, poor Lee" because his property was confiscated by the Union when he was in open rebellion against them, poor Southern civilians when the same destruction of an invaded land is COMMON STRATEGY THROUGHOUT HISTORY (see ancient Greek history, Julius Caesar, hell - 1945 Germany during World War II), but because this book focuses on the victors victorious, during their triumph, they become the bad guys simply to be contrarian.

Don't get me wrong. This is a good book. Not a great one. But I have serious objections from a number of evaluations from Gwynne about how awful the "Yankees" were. This is the final year of a war that had already seen TWO major and repulsed invasions of the North by the Rebels, but we are supposed to be critical of the Union that they pursued an end to that war after years of setbacks? So many moments like that throughout this book.

Nonetheless, strategy and the overall narrative are well covered, as are the absolute brutality of the war. This final year most certainly presaged the trench warfare of World War I. I just would have liked to see more far ranging primary documents and a more understanding and humane depiction of Mary Lincoln's mental illness rather than dismissing her as "difficult" and depressed. Unnecessary side swipes with a lack of understanding for Mary and Grant. We also don't get much of a diverse perspective for civilians and slaves other than a generalized depiction of how they must have felt according to the author.

Perhaps the author had drawn too close to his previous Civil War subject, Stonewall Jackson, when he decided to write this book?
Profile Image for Tyler Raymond.
5 reviews
December 10, 2020
This was a fascinating book. As someone who thought they knew a lot about the Vivian war given my education and military background this was very eye opening. I really liked that it focused on a specific point in the war. It shed light on confederate and Union generals and their varying approaches to the war and I think the author did a great job of keeping it factual and “a” political. It was a difficult read at times but definitely kept my interest. Would recommend and truly a must read by Americans to understand this critical time in our nations history.
Profile Image for Stan  Prager.
118 reviews9 followers
March 16, 2021
Review of: Hymns of the Republic: The Story of the Final Year of the American Civil War,
by S.C. Gwynne
by Stan Prager (3-16-21)

Some years ago, I had the pleasure to stay in a historic cabin on a property in Spotsylvania that still hosts extant Civil War trenches. Those who imagine great armies clad in blue and grey massed against each other with pennants aloft on open fields would not be wrong for the first years of the struggle, but those trenches better reflect the reality of the war as it ground to its slow, bloody conclusion in its final year. Those last months contained some of the greatest drama and most intense suffering of the entire conflict, yet often receive far less attention than deserved. A welcome redress to this neglect is Hymns of the Republic: The Story of the Final Year of the American Civil War, by journalist and historian S.C. Gwynne, that neatly marries literature to history and resurrects for us the kind of stirring narratives that once dominated the field.
Looking back, for all too many Civil War buffs it might seem that a certain Fourth of July in 1863—when in the east a battered Lee retreated from Gettysburg on the same day that Vicksburg fell in the west—marked the beginning of the end for the Confederacy. But experts know that assessment is overdrawn. Certainly, the south had sustained severe body blows on both fronts, but the war yet remained undecided. Like the colonists four score and seven years prior to that day, these rebels did not need to “win” the war, only to avoid losing it. As it was, a full ninety-two weeks—nearly two years—lay ahead until Appomattox, some six hundred forty-six days of bloodshed and uncertainty for both sides, most of what truly mattered compressed into the last twelve months of the war. And, tragically, those trenches played a starring role.
Hymns of the Republic opens in March 1864, when Ulysses Grant—architect of the fall of Vicksburg that was by far the more significant victory on that Independence Day 1863—was brought east and given command of all Union Armies. In the three years since Fort Sumter, the war had not gone well in the east, largely as the result of a series of less-than-competent northern generals who had squandered opportunities and been repeatedly driven to defeat or denied outright victory by the wily tactician, Robert E. Lee. The seat of the Confederacy at Richmond—only a tantalizing ninety-five miles from Washington—lay unmolested, while European powers toyed with the notion of granting them recognition. The strategic narrative in the west was largely reversed, marked by a series of dramatic Union victories crafted by skilled generals, crowned by Grant’s brilliant campaign that saw Vicksburg fall and the Confederacy virtually cut in half. But all eyes had been on the east, to Lincoln’s great frustration. Now events in the west were largely settled, and Lincoln brought Grant east, confident that he had finally found his general who would defeat Lee and end the war. But while Lincoln’s instincts proved sound in the long term, misplaced optimism for an early close to the conflict soon evaporated. More than a year of blood and tears lay ahead.
Much of the battle tactics are a familiar story—Grant Takes Command was the exact title of a Bruce Catton classic—but Gwynne updates the narrative with the benefit of the latest scholarship that not only looks beyond the stereotypes of Grant and Lee, but the very dynamics of more traditional treatments focused solely upon battles and leaders. Most prominently, he resurrects the African Americans that until somewhat recently were for too long conspicuously absent from much Civil War history, buried beneath layers of propaganda spun by unreconstructed Confederates who fashioned an alternate history of the war—the “Lost Cause” myth—that for too long dominated Civil War studies and still stubbornly persists both in right-wing politics and the curricula of some southern school systems to this day. In the process, Gwynne restores the role of African Americans as central players to the struggle who have long been erased from the history books.
Erased. Remarkably, most Americans rarely thought of blacks at all in the context of the war until the film Glory (1989) and Ken Burns’ docuseries The Civil War (1990) came along. And there are still books—Joseph Wheelan’s Their Last Full Measure: The Final Days of the Civil War, published in 2015, springs to mind—that demote these keys actors to bit parts. Yet, without enslaved African Americans there would have never been a Civil War. The centrality of slavery to secession has been just as incontrovertibly asserted by the scholarly consensus as it has been vehemently resisted by Lost Cause proponents who would strike out that uncomfortable reference and replace it with the euphemistic “States’ Rights,” neatly obscuring the fact that southern states seceded to champion and perpetuate the right to own dark-complected human beings as chattel property. Social media is replete with concocted fantasies of legions of “Black Confederates,” but the reality is that about a half million African Americans fled to Union lines, and so many enlisted to make war on their former masters that by the end of the war fully ten percent of the Union army was comprised of United States Colored Troops (USCT). Blacks knew what the war was about, and ultimately proved a force to be reckoned with that drove Union victory, even as a deeply racist north often proved less than grateful for their service.
Borrowing a page from the latest scholarship, Gwynne points to the prominence of African Americans throughout the war, but especially in its final months—marked both by remarkable heroism and a trail of tragedy. His story of the final year of the conflict commences with the massacre at Fort Pillow in April 1864 of hundreds of surrendering federal troops—the bulk of whom were uniformed blacks—by Confederates under the command of Nathan Bedford Forrest. The author gives Forrest a bit of a pass here—while the general was himself not on the field, he later bragged about the carnage—but Gwynne rightly puts focus on the long-term consequences, which were manifold.
The Civil War was the rare conflict in history not marred by wide scale atrocities—except towards African Americans. Lee’s allegedly “gallant” forces in the Gettysburg campaign kidnapped blacks they encountered to send south into slavery, and while Fort Pillow might have been the most significant open slaughter of black soldiers by southerners, it was hardly the exception. Confederates were enraged to see blacks garbed in uniform and sporting a rifle, and thus they were frequently murdered once disarmed rather than taken prisoner like their white counterparts. Something like a replay of Fort Pillow occurred at the Battle of the Crater during the siege of Petersburg, although the circumstances were more ambiguous, as the blacks gunned down in what rebels termed a “turkey shoot” were not begging for their lives as at Pillow. This was not far removed from official policy, of course: the Confederate government threatened to execute or sell into slavery captured black soldiers, and refused to consider them for prisoner exchange. This was a critical factor that led to the breakdown of the parole and exchange processes that had served as guiding principles throughout much of the war. The result bred conditions on both sides that led to the horrors of overcrowding and deplorable conditions in places like Georgia’s Andersonville and Camp Douglas in Chicago.
Meanwhile, Grant was hardly disappointed with the collapse of prisoner exchange. To his mind, anything that denied the south men or materiel would hasten the end of the war, which was his single-minded pursuit. Grant has long been subjected to calumnies that branded him “Grant the Butcher” because he seemed to throw lives away in hopeless attempts to dislodge a heavily fortified enemy. The most infamous example of this was Cold Harbor, which saw massive Union casualties. But Lee’s tactical victory there—it was to be his last of the war—further depleted his rapidly diminishing supply of men and arms which simply could not be replaced. Grant had a strategic vision that set him apart from the rest. That Lee pushed on as the odds shrunk for any outcome other than ultimate defeat came to beget what Gwynne terms “the Lee paradox: the more the Confederates prolonged the war, the more the Confederacy was destroyed.” [p252] And that destruction was no unintended consequence, but a deliberate component of Grant’s grand strategy to prevent food, munitions, pack animals, and slave labor from supporting the enemy’s war effort. Gwynne finds fault with Sherman’s generalship, but his “march to the sea” certainly achieved what had been intended. And while a northern public divided between those who would make peace with the rebels and those impatient with both Grant and Lincoln for an elusive victory, it was Sherman who delivered Atlanta and ensured the reelection of the president, something much in doubt even in Lincoln’s own mind.
There is far more contained within the covers of this fine work than any review could properly summarize. Much to his credit, the author does not neglect those often marginalized by history, devoting a well-deserved chapter to Clara Barton entitled “Battlefield Angel.” And the very last paragraph of the final chapter settles upon Juneteenth, when—far removed from the now quiet battlefields—the last of the enslaved finally learned they were free. Thus, the narrative ends as it has begun, with African Americans in the central role in the struggle too often denied to them in other accounts. For those well-read in the most recent scholarship, there is little new in Hymns of the Republic, but the general audience will find much to surprise them, if only because a good deal of this material has long been overlooked. Perhaps Gwynne’s greatest achievement is in distilling a grand story from the latest historiography and presenting it as the kind of exciting read Civil War literature is meant to be. I highly recommend it.

I reviewed Their Last Full Measure: The Final Days of the Civil War, by Joseph Wheelan, here: https://regarp.com/2015/07/13/review-...

The definitive study of the massacre at Fort Pillow is River Run Red: The Fort Pillow Massacre in the American Civil War, by Andrew Ward, which I reviewed here: https://regarp.com/2015/02/02/review-...

My latest review & podcast ... Review of: Hymns of the Republic: The Story of the Final Year of the American Civil War, by S.C. Gwynne https://regarp.com/2021/03/16/review-...

Podcast only … https://www.podbean.com/eu/pb-37w9t-f...
Profile Image for Kayla.
100 reviews3 followers
October 28, 2019
With thanks to Net Galley and the publisher for allowing me to read this ARC!

Those readers who gravitate toward Civil War history always welcome the sight of a new book about the era – but may also approach said book with considerable wariness, wondering what can be left to say. Happily, S.C. Gwynne’s Hymns of the Republic not only creates new connections between familiar episodes of the struggle but creates them in beautiful and accessible language. Students, especially, will benefit from the sense of excitement that infuses the prose the makes one eagerly turn pages. Short chapters further contribute to making the complex material easy to navigate; the armies of Meade and Grant might get lost in the Wilderness, but the readers of this text will not!

The author also makes these distant events modern and exciting in a way that seems to pay tribute to the Civil War fiction of Ralph Peters. The reader is thrust into combat, forced to face down “horrors of spurting blood, spilling intestines, and exploding heads,” – an image not often conveyed by the staunch stateliness of the memorials in our parks and on our battlefields. Imagery is the great strength of this work; by layering sensory details (the nickering of horses, violets blooming on the roadsides, bloodied puddles), the author transports the reader to the scene – whether that scene is Lee surveying Federal troops from a mountaintop, the wounded left in warehouses as a new route is dictated for ambulances, African Americans fleeing the slaughter at Fort Pillow.

The end of the war turns is full of amazing stories – and lessons. Gwynne examines a shift in the treatment of civilians during wartime, the changing goals of the war (now fought for Union and to abolish slavery), fears about alienating border slaves and freedmen flooding Northern labor markets, the grim mathematics of casualties, and how the Emancipation Proclamation helped to deprive the South of manpower. Grant’s reputation is bolstered as readers learn that he was valued for his stick-to-itiveness and resolution to move forward. Other chapters address the importance and deadliness of trenches, battlefield theology, the legend and psychology of Lee, and “spiritual casualties” – men who no longer wanted to fight. The trials facing black soldiers, especially, are thoughtfully illuminated. These issues unfold against the backdrop of well-known battles and make them seem real and immediate in a way that other accounts that I have read have not. Also made real and brought to life are Lincoln’s fears regarding reelection, guerilla warfare, Sherman’s theorizing, and the radical shift in the North from despair to hope. Most amazing of all is the fact that some well-loved stories turn out to be just that – and, yet, we have appreciated them and retold them over the years. The way we recount the Civil War may well tell us something about ourselves as a nation. With tellers as gifted as Gwynne, the story is likely to be spun out for a good long while yet!
Profile Image for Geoffrey.
521 reviews47 followers
October 6, 2019
(Note: I received an ARC of this book courtesy of NetGalley)

Admittedly it is difficult to divorce S.C. Gwynne’s newest book from his previous best-selling work. “Empire of the Summer Moon”, which introduced a wide audience to Quannah Parker and the impressive Comanche Empire, was always going to be a difficult act to follow, and Gwynne makes things even more challenging by picking a topic that already has such an extensive amount written upon it. With all that being said, “Hymns of the Republic” overall is still a solid epic narrative of an incredibly critical year in America’s history, and offers its readers much in the way of thoughtful new perspectives.
Profile Image for Gregory Jones.
Author 4 books9 followers
March 6, 2020
I picked up this book because I had read Gwynne's work on the Comanche Empire and wanted to see what he had to say about the Civil War. This was, in a word, superb. Gwynne writes with clarity and precision that is quite rare in Civil War historiography. His use of anecdotes is sparing enough to keep the prose interesting, while his incisive commentary cuts right to the heart and meaning of these iconic moments.

Far too often with books like this, the reader either ends up skimming the surface of a complex issue or miring in the muck of something too complicated to slog through in a single volume. Gwynne has struck the delicate balance with this book in a way that very few historians are skillful enough to accomplish. If Gwynne had decided upon a career as a history professor rather than a journalist, his writing would make for lively, frenetic, and engaging lectures.

I found a lot to like in the book from both military and cultural historical perspectives. It balances the "great man" arch with Grant, Lincoln, and Sherman well with the "boots on the ground" look at several moments in 1864 and 1865. What I found most impressive, though, was the way that Gwynne included historical characters like Clara Barton and the hundreds of thousands of African American soldiers who participated in the war in a way that didn't feel forced or contrived. It was genuine, paying homage to the people who helped to turn the tide of the war.

If I ever have an opportunity to teach a Civil War seminar again, I will definitely assign this book. The use of high-quality scholarly support for his claims while maintaining a bright and moving prose makes this one of the finest history books (not just Civil War) that I have read in the past few years. I highly recommend it and will be advising others to read, utilize, and enjoy this formative book.
Profile Image for Kathy.
18 reviews
January 6, 2020
I've read well over a hundred books about the Civil War -- and yet I learned new facts and gained a whole slew of new insights from this one.

Although it is billed as a book about the last year of our four-year Civil War, Gwynne seamlessly weaves in enough background about the years leading up to that final year that even those who don't know a lot about the Civil War will not find it hard to follow. Indeed, the book reads like a novel and was so hard to put down that I read it in one weekend.

I was particularly struck by Gwynne's evocation of the hopelessness that Northerners felt in the summer of 1864, and how truly precarious were Lincoln's chances of re-election that fall... and thus, how close the Union came to losing the war, since Lincoln's opponent intended to appease the Confederacy in order to end the war. It was a dicier situation than most Americans now realize, and history would have been very different indeed had not Gen. Wm. T. Sherman taken Atlanta... in the nick of time.

Gwynne also excels in his vivid portrayals of the experiences of soldiers who were wounded in battle and/or taken prisoner. Their suffering is unimaginable for us, but Gwynne makes it more imaginable. It will break your heart.

But this book will also inspire and uplift you. You'll grasp new dimensions of famous figures -- the stubbornness of Clara Barton; General Sherman's dazzling way with words. You'll get a feel for how fragile was the hinge on which Union victory often depended; often all that stood between victory and the permanent splitting of our country was quick thinking and bold action by some heroic individual we've never heard of. You'll marvel at the dedication of black Union soldiers despite ongoing abuse by their own fellow soldiers.

The book's shortcomings are few. There were some embarrassing errors that a decent copy-editor should have caught. Gwynne is, I believe, unfair to Ulysses Grant. But these were minor flaws in an otherwise brilliant book.

You couldn't make up a story as glorious and as tragic, as full of paradox and urgency, as the story of our own country during its greatest trial. S.C. Gwynne tells it as the thrilling narrative that it is.
Profile Image for Casey.
441 reviews
February 13, 2020
A good book, providing a social and political history of the final year of the Civil War, from the start of Grant’s Overland Campaign to the capture of Jeff Davis. The book is not a military history, individual tactical actions are barely discussed. However, the author goes to great lengths to explain the “why” for many of the critical decisions made in that crucial year. The overriding cultural and political themes so important to the war’s story, but usually treated as side-bars in most histories, have center stage.
In depth profiles of major decision makers help provide background, giving the actions triggered by their decisions more context. Major topics include Grant’s theory of attrition, Sherman’s push for a total war against the population, Lincoln’s political balancing before and after the 1864 election, Jeff Davis’ struggle to find a balanced strategy between conventional and guerrilla warfare, and Lee’s inability to understand the larger strategic picture. The development of an efficient Union war machine after years of ineptitude and the degradation of Confederate war functions play a major role throughout the book. This is a well written book whose story easily flows. Highly recommended for those wanting to know more about the cultural and political framework behind the end of the Civil War and the birth of many of the post-war myths.
Profile Image for Paul Hosse.
3 reviews
November 20, 2019
There are lot of books available about the American Civil War, and it's little wonder. It was the bloodiest chapter in American History. More Americans died between 1861 and 1865 than in any war before or since. Interest in the Civil War has never waned. Its repercussions are still felt to this day, some 155 years after the cannons and rifles fell silent.

A few of these book have become classics. "Hymns of the Republic: The Story of the Final Year of the American Civil War" by S.C. Gwynne is destined to become another. Mr. Gwynne has done more than just recite the traumatic events of the war's final year. He transports his readers back in time. He has put flesh to bone with the skill of a surgeon and brought these men and women whose actions defined an era back to life.

Through Mr. Gwynne's remarkable talent, he has allowed us to see into the minds of not just men like Lincoln, Davis, Grant, Lee, Sherman or Jackson, but of other significant individuals such as Clara Barton, Fredrick Douglas and understand their decisions from their eyes. Gwynne strips away the halos and horns; removes the illustrious from their pedestals and shows us the souls of the men and women who lived through this remarkable and terrible time in American history, and in doing so plows ground often left bare to reveal remarkable treasures long forgotten.

Through the author we relive the great battles; to see how they unfolded and what impacted each calculation. Gwynne exposes the fleeting strokes of genius and nagging doubts which tormented the men whose decisions would affect thousands of lives, adding drama to each page as it's turned. In addition, Mr. Gwynne's "Hymns of the Republic" moves beyond that to provide us with glimpses into the lives of the ordinary soldier and the average civilian who often paid the price, sometimes the ultimate price, of war.

Of particular note is the amount of attention Mr. Gwynne gives to the life of the common slave, be it the ordinary man or woman tolling side by side with their master on small farms throughout the rural South or on the large plantations. Great emphasis , often missing from similar books, is placed on those few willing to take charge of their destiny; of how their escape from bondage to take up arms in the Union Army to occasionally find that life was little better than it had been under their old masters. Prejudice, hatred and bigotry were traits not confined to the South.

It is said that to forget history is to repeat history. America today is more divided than at any other time since the decade preceding the war. It's critical for us to understand how and why this war took in order to avoid repeating its costly mistakes. Anyone with an interest in history, the Civil War, or the lives of those who lived it will thoroughly enjoy "Hymns of the Republic: The Story of the Final Year of the American Civil War" by S.C. Gwynne. This is a must buy! 325 pages.
Profile Image for Bjoy Davidson.
161 reviews
September 18, 2020
I would have to call this book "an achievement". I certainly learned more about the Civil War than I had ever thought I could; it had previously been a jumble of dates and names and places I couldn't relate to. Now I have property and a cabin just a few miles from Appommatox Court House and have visited the graves of soldiers on both sides of the terrible conflict, walked up the hill that Lee rode up to meet Grant as the surrender was unfolding. This book brought it together for me in a very coherant and understandable way. What a stupendous horror that seems to never really disappear from the American psyche, especially in the South. Some chapters are stronger than others but I would encourage the reader to stick with it.
Profile Image for Dave.
668 reviews18 followers
November 16, 2020
"Hymns of the Republic" is my third book by S.C. Gwynne. This one, like the previous two ("Empire of the Summer Moon" and "Rebel Yell") is superb, 5 stars (plus). He has the ability to bring history and historical figures to life.
As the book jacket describes, "Hymns of the Republic is the story of the last brutal year of the tragedy of the Civil War. Even if you, as I, have read quite a bit on the subject, this book is well worth your time. Seeing well-known events like the Siege of Petersburg, VA through Gwynne's eyes is seeing it in a fresh way. I finished the book with a deeper understanding of the key figures and events of the end of the Civil War. Highly recommended!
I listened to the audiobook version as read by Robert Petkoff. It's very well done.
Profile Image for Kara.
73 reviews
July 24, 2020
I absolutely loved reading this book. SC Gwynne’s voice is excellent: straightforward, capturing the spirit and character of key individuals with a spot on, sardonic analysis. Beyond that, this book is deeply researched, allowing Gwynn to bring pivotal moment of decision and battles to life for the reader. He reveals the brutal, slogging, harsh final year of this war, when all pretense of glory and valor was swept aside in an effort to ensure Lincoln remained in the White House and that this conflict would end. Particularly compelling is all of the information Gwynne writes about related to African American soldiers. It is all illuminating, and he is convincing in arguing that their presence and numbers confirmed a Union victory. Anyone who reads this will find themselves thinking of life today and of how much at the heart of this book is still with us.
24 reviews1 follower
December 21, 2020
S.C. Gwyne is undoubtedly knowledgeable about the Civil War. However, the book’s goals seemed to split between informing of the history and making an argument. It is clear that the author has a pro-Confederate view. His strategy is not necessarily to defend the Confederacy rather than to subtly criticize the Union, it’s motivations, and it’s heroes. His overall theme that the North was just as culpable for the War as the South reveals his goals. His repeated (proud?) assertions that the South was a verified nation on equal standing as the US only supports this intent. However, most troubling was his eagerness to give thrift to the distasteful views of the Confederate mind. The retelling was a little too quick to repeat some of the ugly and racist insults of the Confederates, a bit too expansive when doing so, and perhaps found the opportunities to repeat them a few times too often to justify any informational purpose. While certainly an interesting period in the history of the War, this felt a little bit like a partisan effort disguised as a history of the final year of the war.
Profile Image for Mark Miano.
Author 3 books14 followers
December 2, 2019
I’m a big fan of S.C. Gwynne’s nonfiction. EMPIRE OF THE SUMMER is an epic retelling of the forty year conflict between Comanche Indians and whites for control of the American West, told partly through the story of the abduction of Cynthia Ann Parker. REBEL YELL is the biography of Confederate general Stonewall Jackson, and perhaps my all time favorite book about the U.S. Civil War. I love the way Gwynne inhabits his characters in these books, bringing them to life on the page the way few historians are able to do. I tore through both of these books as fast as possible, completely engrossed in the stories.

Perhaps it’s my admiration for Gwynne’s past work that leads me to give HYMNS OF THE REPUBLIC: THE STORY OF THE FINAL YEAR OF THE AMERICAN CIVIL WAR such a lackluster review of three stars.

Part of the problem is the decision to write only about the final year of the war with single chapters devoted to the perspectives of such titanic figures as Grant, Lee, Lincoln, and Davis, as well as “lesser known” leaders like John Mosby, Philip Sheridan, William Sherman, and Clara Barton. While many of these chapters are solid, the jumping around of perspective causes one to lose the main organizational structure of the book: the final year of the war. I also think there’s just not that much more that can be rehashed about the Civil War.

While Gwynne is a strong writer, there isn’t a lot of new information that I gained by reading this. I would make exceptions to this statement for the excellent chapters devoted to Clara Barton and John Mosby - I would love to see him tackle biographies of both individuals.
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