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Monday, February 20, 2012

Touched with Fire: Five Presidents and the Civil War Battles That Made Them by James M. Perry


  A unique biographical collection - a new angle on the Civil War

Published by PublicAffairs in 2003

I am a big fan of Civil War histories. I have more than 75 fiction and non-fiction Civil War books on my bookshelf (mostly non-fiction) so I am hardly a newbie to this area. When I comment that this is a new angle, I an really saying something.

It's not that James M. Perry has uncovered new documents or new information, but he has re-shuffled the "same old" information into a new pattern. In this case, he has focused on the five Presidents that fought in the Civil War (Grant, Hayes, Garfield, Harrison and McKinley). Perry includes a modest pre-war biography of each of the men and then goes into greater detail on their war experiences. The level of detail is neither skimpy nor excessive - he strikes a nice balance.

As a group, they all had many things in common. To a man, they all became competent officers of brevet Major or higher, they all had extensive combat experience in the Western theater (although Hayes and his men were transferred to the Eastern theater) and they were all Republican (Perry does point out that the Democrats did run Civil War veterans, but none were successful).

Union Major General James A. Garfield (1831-1881)
Mercifully, Perry does not cover the entire career of U.S. Grant since his Civil War biography would essentially be a re-telling of the war itself and his war biography would dwarf those of the other four combined. Instead, he begins with Grant at Forts Henry and Donelson and only chooses to include him again when he interacts in the lives of the other four. The other four are hardly a homogeneous group, despite all being Republicans. Their temperaments range from stoic and quiet to loud and openly scheming. Their ages range from 18 to 38 and previous military experience range from a West Point education to none at all.

Perry includes a chapter at the end telling the post-war political history of each of the five men which is also a basic history of Gilded Age politics. Perry points out the powerful influence that Civil War veterans groups such as the Grand Army of the Republic had.

Interesting. Easily accessible. Worth the read by Civil War buffs and devotees of the Presidency.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on November 16, 2007.

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