Judged solely by its cover, this Prometheus release promised to be an interesting and insightful examination of the critical 1864 presidential election – how it came to unfold the way it did, and the possible ramifications to the nation had Abraham Lincoln lost his bid for re-election. Unfortunately, there is very little new introduced that could not have been gleaned from a general history of the war, and the author’s almost complete reliance on secondary sources (Bruce Catton is cited 43 times, Carl Sandburg 21, and so on), makes for a shallow treatment of a deep subject. Both the seasoned student and the well-read buff are likely to be dissatisfied with what, in the end, amounts to a simple affirmation of what many have long understood to be a Civil War truism—that the ascendancy of Grant and Sherman, and their slow-but-steady battlefield successes, particularly the capture of Atlanta in the run-up to the election—assured the reelection of Lincoln, and ended any hope of an independent Confederacy.
Decided on the Battlefield is not without merit. It is an easy read with a serviceable account of military events. Informed as it is by the popular histories of Catton, Shelby Foote, Doris Kearns Goodwin, et. al., the story is held together by an efficient, quick-moving narrative adorned with some of the literature’s most familiar anecdotes. Most interesting, to me, was the author’s discussion of the main party’s respective national conventions, and for those topics—at least—official proceedings were liberally consulted.
Whatever the book’s shortcomings in the main text, it goes completely off the rails in the Epilogue. To ram home his point about the over-arching importance of Lincoln’s victory, the author devotes 18 pages to a bizarre and thoroughly pointless reverie about how things would have been different had Lincoln gone down to defeat. He doesn’t merely speculate about the Balkanization of North America, but paints an elaborate alternate history up through the Cold War and into the 1980s, even imagining, by name, the presidents of five separate American countries (the U.S., the C.S.A., Texas, Utah, and California, the last governed by President Ronald Reagan). In this fantasy, the C.S.A. (eventually the Confederate Commonwealth after annexing Cuba) did not send troops overseas in WWI, but since Tennessee seceded from the C.S.A. and rejoined the U.S. in 1866, U.S. troops in the First World War do include men from the Volunteer State. Thus, we’re told, Lincoln’s election loss in 1864 would have had no bearing on Tennessean Alvin York winning the Medal of Honor for actions in the Argonne Forest. I’m pretty sure the author didn’t get that last part from Bruce Catton.