The Last Full Measure
July 1863 the Civil War has been fought over the farmlands and seacoasts of the South for better than two years, and is already one of the bloodiest wars in human history.
It is a war that most believed would be decided by one quick fight, one great show of strength by the power of the North. The first major battle, called Bull Run in the North, Manassas in the South, is witnessed by a carefree audience of Washington's elite. Their brightly decorated carriages carry men in fine suits and society matrons in colorful dresses.
They perch on a hillside, enjoying their picnics, anticipating a great show with bands playing merrily while the young men in blue march in glorious parade and sweep aside the ragged band of rebels. What they see is the first great horror, the stunning reality that this is in fact a war, and that men will die. What they still cannot understand is how far this will go, and how many men will die.
In the North, President Lincoln maintains a fragile grip on forces pulling the government in all directions. On one extreme is the pacifist movement, those who believe that the South has made its point, and so, to avoid bloodshed, Washington must simply let them go, that nothing so inconsequential as the Constitution is as important as the loss of life.
On the other extreme are the radical abolitionists, who demand the South be brought down entirely, punished for its way of life, its culture, and that anyone who supports the southern cause should be purged from the land. There is also a great middle ground, men of reason and intellect, who now understand that there is more to this war than the inflammatory issue of slavery, or the argument over the sovereign rights of the individual states. As men continue to volunteer, larger and larger numbers of troops take to the fields, and other causes emerge, each man fighting for his own reason. Some fight for honor and duty, some for money and glory, but nearly all are driven by an amazing courage, and will carry their muskets across the deadly space because they feel it is the right thing to do.
From the North come farmers and fishermen, lumberjacks and shopkeepers, old veterans and young idealists. Some are barely Americans at all, expatriates and immigrants from Europe, led by officers who do not speak English. Some are freedmen, Negroes who volunteer to fight for the preservation of the limited freedoms they have been given, and to spread that freedom into the South.
In the South they are also farmers and fishermen, as well as ranchers, laborers, aristocrats, and young men seeking adventure. They are inspired first by the political rhetoric, the fire-breathing oratory of the radical secessionists. They are told that Lincoln is in league with the devil, and that his election ensures that the South will be held down, oppressed by the powerful interests in the North, that their very way of life is under siege. When the sound of the big guns echo across Charleston harbor, when the first flashes of smoke and fire swallow Fort Sumter, Lincoln orders an army to go south, to put down the rebellion by force. With the invasion comes a new inspiration, and in the South, even men of reason are drawn into the fight, men who were not seduced by mindless rhetoric, who have shunned the self-serving motives of the politicians. There is outrage, and no matter the issues or the politics, many take up arms in response to what they see as the threat to their homes. Even the men who understand and promote the inevitable failure of slavery cannot stand by while their land is invaded. The issue is not to be decided after all by talk or rhetoric, but by the gun.
On both sides are the career soldiers, West Pointers, men with experience from the Mexican War, or the Indian wars of the 1850s. In the North the officers are infected and abused by the disease of politics, and promotion is not always granted by performance or ability. The Federal armies endure a parade of inept or unlucky commanders who cannot fight the rebels until they first master the fight with Washington. Few succeed.
Copyright© 1998 by Jeffrey M. Shaara. All Rights Reserved.
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