Title Reviewed:
An American Iliad: The Story of the Civil War

Author Reviewed:
Charles P. Roland

John K. Stevens


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 88, Issue 3, pp 250-251

Article Type:
Book Review

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An American Iliad: The Story of the Civil War. By Charles P. Roland. (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1991. Pp. xii, 289. Maps, illustrations, sources, index. $30.00.)

Charles P. Roland's area of expertise, before his retirement from the University of Kentucky, was not the Civil War at all, but southern history. His interest in military history derives from experience as a combat infantry captain and association with the United States Army Military History Institute as well as teaching stints at the War College and at West Point. That he was reared thirty miles from the battlefield at Shiloh and was graduate assistant to Professor Bell I. Wiley at Louisiana State University drew him under the spell of the Civil War. Roland's The Confederacy, written thirty years ago, is still widely used in Civil War courses.

The present volume has much to recommend it. Its brevity (less than three hundred pages) will attract general readers, and this same feature makes it useful in university-level courses where collateral readings are heavily used. But those whose knowledge of the period is extensive will also enjoy this volume. The balanced judgments, the pace of the book, its clear and compact style, and the unusually well done maps combine to lace together the experience of the war years.

Roland contrasts the North and South in the chapters on government and administration. He suggests that the ultimate success of the Union cause is largely traceable to Abraham Lincoln's greater resourcefulness in handling the political, legal, and personality problems that swirled about both presidents. Moreover, readers are reminded that the North enjoyed the skilled and devoted service of figures such as Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton and Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs, as well as the unflagging zeal of governors such as Oliver P. Morton of Indiana and Richard Yates of Illinois. Of great importance is the fact that the Union could draw upon the financial ingenuity resulting from the collusion of Jay Cooke and Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase, along with a far deeper and better balanced economy.

Evidently Roland is not convinced that Jefferson Davis's haughty and clangorous temperament was ideally suited to the needs of a people's war. He discusses Davis's lamentable tendency to thrust unpopular favorites upon the people and the army. In general, the Confederate president's handling of his political, military, and journalistic colleagues was of a significantly lower order than Lincoln's; and Davis's quarrels with his adversaries paralyzed the Confederacy.

Though Roland's treatment of the Civil War period is comprehensive, his handling of military matters may be the strongest feature of the book. His evaluation of leadership and discussion of battles are gratifyingly clear. There are no significant departures from accepted interpretations, but this work does not set itself forward as a revisionist effort.

The book is very well indexed and includes an extensive and annotated bibliography. In the latter it might have been useful to have captioned the entries in bold type at the head of each topic, but this is of minor importance. General readers, knowledgeable students, and people with responsibility for teaching this material will find this book interesting and useful.

JOHN K. STEVENS is associate professor of history, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. He is currently working on a book about the siege of the Union army at Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 1863.

Published by theĀ Indiana University Department of History.