cover image The Whirlwind of War: Voices of the Storm, 1861-1865

The Whirlwind of War: Voices of the Storm, 1861-1865

Stephen B. Oates. HarperCollins, $35 (864pp) ISBN 978-0-06-017580-1

As he did in The Approaching Fury, Oates, an established scholar of the Civil War era and veteran of 16 books, here tells the conflict's story through reconstructed first-person narratives, in this case writing in the voices and from the viewpoints of 10 well-known figures: Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis; Robert E. Lee, Ulysses. S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman; Stephen A. Douglass; behind-the-scenes Confederate politico and socialite Mary Boykin Chesnut; Union battlefield nurse Cornelia Hancock and sanitation promoter Mary Livermore; and John Wilkes Booth. The result is a tour de force of shifting yet integrated interior monologues that come together in witnessing some of the war's major set pieces. Bull Run, Gettysburg and the March to the Sea; the Emancipation Proclamation, the burning of Atlanta, the assassination of Lincoln--all have their place in this re-creation. Oates deserves praise for the care and sophistication with which he integrates material from his subjects' speeches and writings, as well as the memories and observations of other participants, with his own literary constructions. Unfortunately, too many of his characters sound essentially the same. (The occasional inclusion of colloquial contractions in Grant's dialogue or the salting of Sherman's texts with obscenities and racial epithets helps little). The format renders it difficult to evaluate the merits of such controversial interpretations as the assertion that Lincoln's assassination was instigated by the Confederate secret service, while the extensive footnotes cannot resolve the confusion the text creates between the perceived realities of Oates's various protagonists and his own analyses of data and events. Ultimately, Oates's conceptual virtuosity too often obscures the intellectual limitations of his ambitious, praiseworthy effort. (May)