Author Interview--S. C. Gwynne (Hymns of the Republic)

Niels Eichhorn Discussion

Hello H-CivWar readers,

today we feature S. C. “Sam” Gwynne to talk about his book Hymns of the Republic: The Story of the Final Year of the American Civil War, which just came out with Simon and Schuster.

S. C. Gwynne has a bachelor’s degree in history from Princeton University and a master’s degree in writing from Johns Hopkins University. He was a French teacher and banker before turning to journalism and writing. He was an award-winning writer for Texas Monthly. He is the author of two acclaimed books on American history: Empire of the Summer Moon and Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson. He has also published The Perfect Pass: American Genius and the Reinvention of Football.

To start the interview, Sam, could you elaborate on the goal and argument of the book? How did you come to the subject?

SCG: I had written a biography of Stonewall Jackson (“Rebel Yell” 2014) that covered roughly the first two years of the Civil War until his death in May 1863. I was exploring some subjects in the latter war and was struck by how much more bitter, brutal, and unforgiving the war’s last year was. Those early days seemed indeed like a ‘bandbox” war—young men marching off to glory and triumph while their hometown bands struck up tunes. The last year saw most of the anti-civilian, anti-property war, the growing guerrilla wars, the brutal trench warfare that became common in the Overland Campaign and in Petersburg, and new incitements to hatred and violence such as the entry of 180,000 black soldiers into the Union army. Even a large piece of violence like Second Bull Run seemed innocent compared to what happened later. There was a naivete and a sort ot decency that was missing in the later war. And so the “last year” seemed like a good lens through which to view the war, how it changed, and what its legacies were. I was also surprised to find out that very few works had ever been defined quite that way. Bruce Catton’s Pulitzer winner from 1953, “A Stillness at Appomattox,” dealt with the last year of the war, but from the point of view of the Army of the Potomac. He does not write about Sherman, for example. My book is broader in scope. Sherman is my book’s most prominent character, the poster boy for the extreme war.

That is interesting Sam, because one of my next questions was going to center around Sherman and his Atlanta Campaign. Now, as a Civil War historian, I teach that the western theater is of significant importance, and I was a bit surprised how long it took in the book to get to Sherman's Atlanta campaign. I agree with you that Sherman significantly does alter the dynamics of the war, but could you maybe run us through your organizational thinking a little as to why you start out with so much detail about the Army of the Potomac?

SCG: Good question. I take the western theater quite seriously too, and in fact Sherman gets more space than anyone else in my book. I consider him monumentally important, less as a conventional war-fighter—something he wasn’t very good at—than as a theorist, moralist, ideologue, and explainer. You bring up one of the critical questions of organization in the book. Because I chose to write about the war’s last year, I automatically created a narrative problem. Sherman’s Atlanta campaign and Grant’s Overland campaign are good examples. They are simultaneous occurrences, but I obviously could not deal with them simultaneously. So I covered the Grant-Lee fight first (with short treatment of the opening of the Atlanta campaign), then covered the summer’s politics, then got to Sherman. I decided that, while the fighting between Sherman’s and Johnston’s (and eventually Hood’s) armies was interesting, detailed descriptions of that fighting was not advancing the ball I wanted to advance. I was more interested in the radical changes Sherman brought to the war in his dealings with civilians and his destruction of property, which start with his time as military governor in Memphis, continue through his march across Mississippi in the wake of Vicksburg, and finally reach a conclusion in the fall of Atlanta and its aftermath. I made a lot of decisions like this in writing the book. I felt I had to decide what was important to what I was trying to say and focus on that. I spend very little time on Cold Harbor, for example, focusing really only on Grant’s infamous charge. Cold Harbor is a compelling battle. But rendering it in detail was not advancing my main themes and interests. In sweeping through a year in a country-spanning war, selection is everything. 

A very good point Sam regarding the difficult decisions we have to make writing books. Let me ask a little more about your approach and process here. There is often this perceived divide between the popular published book (especially regarding the sad stories surrounding Doris Kearn Goodwin or Stephen Ambrose's books) and the university press book. I am especially curious about your process of research and writing. I looked through your bibliography and I noticed you had an interesting combination, you have some phenomenal works by George Rable, Gary Gallagher, or Eric Foner as well as Bruce Catton and Shelby Foote and a number of printed primary sources. In short, how did the book come together?

SCG: The general impression that popular historians are writing about the war with Allan Nevins, Douglas Southall Freeman, and James McPherson spread in from of them, while university historians are digging deep into archives is not without merit. I can’t tell you how many “popular” hack jobs I have read. Though journalists have plenty of experience in information-gathering, they often go for narrative over research, and, while I personally love a good story, this can get in the way of good history. (Note: Goodwin and Ambrose have different problems, which I won’t address here. Both have done good work too, and unfortunately these issues attach themselves to the general idea of people writing history bestsellers for large audiences.) There are many brilliant academic historians of the war—Drew Faust, Jim McPherson, and Gary Gallagher come to mind—and many brilliant non-academics, whose lists include Bruce Catton, Margaret Leech, John C. Waugh, and Peter Cozzens. 
My approach—and I will let readers decide if it is any good—is basically three-fold. Because Civil War history is such a mind-bogglingly dense field, I start with the basic historiography. Who wrote what, when. What are the most influential books on the subject. There is no way you can’t do this, even though it amounted, in this case, to a year of reading. Understanding and then accommodating all of these secondary sources—and still saying something original—is one of the real challenges in my writing. (To put it more bluntly: it’s a bitch.)  I also background myself as best I can with general reading in the field. And then I proceed to the most important part—to me anyway—the actual words of the people I am writing about, expressed in memoirs, official proceedings, letters, field dispatches and battle reports, and in contemporaneous works by others about them. My understanding of Abraham Lincoln or Clara Barton or Thomas Morris Chester comes primarily from reading their words. You will note my liberal use of fairly large text blocks in the book. I want readers to have the benefit of that longish quote from Ben Butler or Henry Halleck or Jeff Davis. My books are all blends of primary and secondary sources, preferably with a clear edge to the primaries. The goal is to digest all that research, then write something that will seem fresh and insightful to readers. Again, my readers will be the judge of whether I succeeded or not, but that was certainly the goal.
I feel that what is missing these days from Civil War history is not data or raw research—we are swimming in an ocean of it, more so than ever with all of these collections coming online—but analysis and interpretation. There is a lot of obsessive description of trees and increasingly rare glimpses of the forest. Making sense of this information, sorting it out for readers, and putting it in the context of a strong narrative, is my main purpose. “Hymns” is an attempt not only to say what happened in the war, but to try to suggest what it all means.

Great answer! You mention a couple of individuals in your answer that play significant roles in the book. Do you think that personalizing your story with individuals like Clara Barton makes the narrative more relatable? Which of the people you included did you feel was the most interesting on a personal level?

SCG: I always personalize my narratives. I always let characters carry the story. Whenever I feel I am straying from an interesting story about a human being, I pull myself back, find a good person to write about, then move forward again with the narrative. Fortunately, such people are not hard to find. The Civil War is loaded with them. My book’s narrative is carried, at various points, by Clara Barton, black journalist T. M. Chester, John S. Mosby, Salmon P. Chase, Ben Butler, Gouverneur Warren, and Franz Sigel, in addition to Lee, Grant, Lincoln, Hood, Sherman, Davis and the usual suspects. You could look at “Hymns of the Republic” as a sort of relay race, in which each character hands the baton to the next as we move through the war. Using characters as structural devices not only makes it easier for the historian to organize material. It also produces interesting, human-centered prose that readers like to read. Everyone loves a good character. 

Now, to answer your question! Clara Barton was a revelation for me. I simply didn’t know very much about her. She reinvented battlefield medicine at a time when she was literally the only woman at the front. Her exploits at Antietam, among other battles, are among the most heroic of the war. As a character in my book, she “carries” the narrative of the war’s worst medical disaster, which took place at Wilderness/Spotsylvania. 

She does offer an opportunity to move away from the romanticism of the battlefield to its stark realities. Before moving to conclude and think about the impact you hope your book might have, one more light-hearted questions, when do you think LSU will finally name a building after Sherman?

SCG: That’s very funny. I always tell people that you can win some money in a bar with the question: “Who was the founding president of LSU.” One of war’s great ironies. (Of course it wasn’t LSU by name at that point.)

Very true. To close, Sam, what do you hope the impact of your book will be?

SCG: I hope my book brings more understanding of how and why the war turned so brutal in its final phase. There is a desperation and bitterness to it that you don’t find in the early war and that echoes very loudly today. I would like to think I have made a complex subject more understandable for readers than it was before. I love and have practiced “explanatory journalism” and I like the idea of history that explains events clearly without getting lost down the various thematic rabbit holes that present themselves at every turn. I think the most surprising thing about the book, for most readers, anyway, is the story of black soldiers in the Union army. They made up 10 percent of it, as you know, and changed all the ground rules. Most people don’t know this, and don’t know anything about the war experience of those soldiers.

Sam, thank you for this conversation and for taking the time to share some aspects of your book with us here on H-CivWar.