For many years, one of the most popular undergraduate seminars
at University of Wisconsin-Madison was "The Civil War Through
Biography." Students who were lucky enough to get into this
class (after enduring repeated turndowns and endless waiting lists)
studied the War Between the States through the eyes of the Americans
whose lives were touched by the conflict. The class was an innovative
and enjoyable way to look at the war.
Author Robert Wooster offers a similar perspective in The Civil War 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential People in the War Between the States. Here Wooster offers 100 brief biographical sketches of the men and women who most influenced the events of the Civil War. He even goes so far as ranking these people in order of their importance in the war experience.
In his introduction, Wooster sets out the ground rules for his system of ranking. Acknowledging that there are inherent problems in ranking people from entirely different spheres of influence, the author none-the-less takes into account domestic, diplomatic and military affairs.
To begin with, Wooster defines the term "war" broadly. His interpretation encompasses events and situations that led up to the conflict as well as the repercussions and consequences that resulted from it. Since the war was primarily a military contest, fully one half of the names on the list are those who served in the military. And, due to the fact that the North had twice a many citizens and was the eventual victor in the war, the resulting list contains twice as many Northerners as Southerners.
One has to admit that even the conceptualization of a list that ranks these influential people is a daring task. My first impression of Wooster undertaking such a project was that he would be offering himself up as historical cannon fodder to a host of historians who will no doubt disagree with his choices. And there are multiple opportunities with which one could disagree. Readers can take issue not only with who is included or excluded from the list, but also with the order in which they are ranked.
Author Wooster plainly admits that the process was not an easy one. The first one-third of the list, he claims, was easy. The following two-thirds considerably less so. In fact, that portion of the rankings changed several times during his revision of the manuscript.
In addition, inclusion on the list is more of a recognition of a true influence on the war era as a whole rather than a reflection of abilities. For instance, Col. Elmer Ellsworth, the first general officer killed in the conflict, is commonly held in very high regard as a leader of men. However, his early death, though widely regarded as a great calamity, resulted in very little impact on the war itself, and thus Ellsworth is not included on the list.
The resulting book is a compilation of the brief biographies of these 100 influential individuals. The author does not engage in justifying the ranking of the 100. Rather, his biographical narrative and reporting of the important contributions made by the person in question speaks for their respective positions on the list.
Taken at face valueone historian's opinion of the 100 most influential people caught up in the Civil Warthe book is enjoyable. Half the fun of reading it was disagreeing with the author; not only on the ranking of the individuals, but also in the outright inclusion or exclusion of certain personalities.
The Civil War 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential People in the War Between the States is an enjoyable read. You may not agree with the conclusions drawn by the author, but that, it turns out, is what makes the book so engaging.