It is a curious paradox of Civil War literature that although many subjects have been studied exhaustively, big themes are sometimes neglected. On first glance, David J. Eicher's "The Longest Night" seems to belong to this tedious category. Eicher has written a straightforward narrative that places events in their correct sequence. Chapters with unambiguous headings such as "Grant Moves Into the Wilderness" also include the details of other events (for example, William Tecumseh Sherman's advance on Atlanta in the spring of 1864), and Eicher focuses on every important battle and skirmish, suggesting that here, indeed, is another lackluster chronicle of the American War Between the States.
But on closer scrutiny, "The Longest Night" reveals something altogether more impressive: a command of the subject, including major themes, and a wealth of facts and figures. An associate editor of North and South magazine, Eicher displays a gift for writing about battles, which he outlines elegantly and clearly, and he also has succeeded in dispensing with sectional bias. A pro-Northern interpretation is advanced by Bruce Catton in his three-volume centennial history and elsewhere, while Southern partiality is evident in Shelby Foote's "The Civil War: A Narrative."
"I have attempted a different kind of work," Eicher explains. He has written a narrative "that describes the strategy and tactics of the battles on land, sea, and river, with the focus on military operations throughout." Drawing on sources not used by Catton and Foote, he stresses that he has "endeavored to make a story without embellishment."
Eicher estimates that there were about 8,700 notable battles and skirmishes, including the frequently overlooked clashes in the Trans-Mississippi theater. In these years, whatever their background, most American generals thought in terms of fighting single decisive battles, not protracted campaigns. It is one of the neglected aspects of the Civil War that historians have not adequately explained this fascination, which is partly based on a legacy of nationalism that had aroused the United States in the first half of the 19th century (even while secessionist sentiment was stirring).
George Washington's victories at Trenton and Yorktown, plus those of Horatio Gates at Saratoga, Andrew Jackson at New Orleans and Winfield Scott's string of successes in the Mexican War (1846-48) became nationalistic symbols. They were romanticized, sometimes overpraised, and they conveyed the impression that victory was a relatively easy thing for any determined leader. The role of economic warfare, or the incremental action of attrition (wearing away slowly at the enemy's strength), coupled with less glamorous action such as guerrilla warfare, was ignored by most who desired high command. Many an ambitious general, striking a Napoleonic pose for the camera, encouraged by florid newspaper stories, saw himself the emperor's successor as a military genius.
The main dilemma facing Civil War commanders, however, was the discrepancy between this aspiration to match (if not exceed) Napoleon's lightning campaigns and the actual result: a long list of frustrating, incomplete successes. They chose to ignore the fact that none of Napoleon's great victories, even Austerlitz (1805), was decisive in bringing the Napoleonic Wars to a conclusion in France's favor.
Eicher rightly points out that one of the greatest challenges posed by the Civil War was coming to terms with its massive escalation. In a passage redolent of post-Vietnam America, Eicher writes that in 1861, "virtually no one could see the grim horror of the magnitude of the death and waste to come. For all Americans, whether they knew it or not, it was the start of their longest night." Such language is permeated by the imagery of darkness (which, via Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" metamorphosed into "Apocalypse Now," has become a synonym for Vietnam). It would have been alien to the post-World War II generation of Civil War historians (such as T. Harry Williams, Catton and Kenneth P. Williams), who thought of the war in more positive terms.
Yet a reluctance to comprehend the magnitude of the struggle was evident in 1861. Some conservative leaders could not believe that the South was in earnest in its desire to leave the Union. Once passions cooled, they hoped, Unionist sentiment would surely revive. In any case, doubts were expressed that any army could subdue an area as large as the Confederacy, which is why they pursued military strategies that would take time to work. These included a naval blockade and the aged general-in-chief Winfield Scott's "Anaconda Plan," designed to strangle the Confederacy in the Mississippi Valley by a systematic occupation of key points.