By Ken Tucker
Updated September 21, 1990 at 04:00 AM EDT
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The Civil War, as Robert Penn Warren once put it, ”is, for the American imagination, the great single event of our history.” It left more than 600,000 soldiers dead and the economy of the South in ruins. America’s only firsthand experience of ”total war,” it indiscriminately engulfed noncombatants on both sides. Above all, it marked what Abraham Lincoln called ”a new birth of freedom”-a renewed commitment to civil rights that led inexorably to the abolition of slavery.

The Civil War, a companion volume to the PBS series, offers an unusually compelling look at the event. It features dozens of colorful maps and hundreds of photographs, many previously unpublished. The central narrative draws skillfully from letters, diaries, and firsthand accounts of battle. In addition, the volume includes helpful essays by historians, and a number of eye-catching layouts with information about everything from the role of women in the war to the origins of Arlington National Cemetery.

As C. Vann Woodward writes here, the war remains America’s ”Homeric period.” An epic tragedy, it was an event in which many participants were swept along by forces beyond their comprehension or control. Lincoln, after all, did not set out to emancipate America’s slaves. How, then, did a dispute over union end up as ”a struggle over the meaning of freedom in America”?

That is the event’s central mystery, and the historians in these pages are still wrestling with it. The basic cause of the war, Don E. Fehrenbacher argues, can be summed up in a word — slavery — and the coming of war proved unexpectedly disastrous for slaveholders. In the chaos of combat countless slaves stole behind Union lines and by their sheer numbers forced Union officials to confront the question of their legal status.

Issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, President Lincoln magnificently rose to the occasion. Other Union leaders did not. The narrative recounts one especially grisly incident involving a Union general in 1864: Irritated by the runaway slaves trailing his army through the South, he effectively condemned them to death when ”he ran a pontoon bridge across a river, ordered his men across — then snatched up the bridge,” leaving the fugitives to be slaughtered by pursuing Confederate troops.

This image reminds us that the noble act of freeing 4 million black people was unplanned — and to many whites, North and South, unwelcome. This is doubtless why so many older popular accounts evaded the issue of race, and focused instead, in the spirit of Gone With the Wind, on the manifold ways in which the war ”thrust figures of common clay into moments of true grandeur.” Without evading race, this volume communicates the war’s grandeur, and also its enduring tragedy. Strong on imagery and anecdote, it offers a useful and vivid introduction to the harrowing world of America’s Homeric era. B+

The Civil War

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