Stephen Cushman, "The Generals' Civil War: What Their Memoirs Can Teach Us Today" (UNC Press, 2021)

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In the decades following the American Civil War, several of the generals who had laid down their swords picked up their pens and published accounts of their service in the conflict. In The Generals’ Civil War: What Their Memoirs Can Teach Us Today (University of North Carolina Press, 2021), Stephen Cushman analyzes a half-dozen of these works to discern the perspectives they provided on the era and the insights they offered about their authors. The publication of the service memoirs proliferated during the Gilded Age, thanks to the increases in literacy and the market for books that this created. Beginning in the 1870s several generals took advantage of the opportunity created by this emergence to recount for profit their time in uniform and justify the decisions they made.

As Cushman details, several of these books, such as those of the Confederate general Joseph E. Johnston and Union commander William T. Sherman, contained contrasting views of similar events that, when read together, reflect the process of postwar reconciliation between the former foes. For others, such as Richard Taylor and George McClellan, their accounts served as an opportunity to present themselves as wagers of a more gentlemanly and “humane” war than that subsequently conducted by Sherman and Ulysses Grant. Grant’s own memoir proved the greatest successes of the genre, a testament both to his wartime stature and the skills as a writer he developed over the course of his life. The success of Grant’s posthumously published book was such that it overshadowed the subsequent release of both McClellan’s and Philip Sheridan’s memoirs, both of which proved a disappointment for their publisher, Charles L. Webster and Company. Cushman shows how the firm’s founder, Mark Twain, exerted an outsized influence on the genre, not only as a publisher but more famously as the editor of Grant’s memoirs and as a writer about the war in his own right.

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