Letters penned by military leaders (and included in The Civil War: The First Year) often reveal more than the writer intended. In an exclusive interview (PDF) for The Library of America Simpson reflects on how the dispatches selected for the book reflect the quite disparate personalities of the war’s commanders:
LOA: The contributions from the generals display a range of writing styles. Would it be fair to characterize Robert E. Lee as having the more eloquent and elegant style, followed by Grant’s crisp and straightforward dispatches, to the choppier and more colloquial styles of McClellan and Sherman?
Simpson: Lee always seemed to be writing as if someone was looking over his shoulder. He was always thinking about how he might appear to others. Sherman wrote as he thought, quickly, rarely pausing or reflecting on how his words sounded or even what he was saying. Sometimes his letters read as if he was blowing off immense amounts of steam lest he otherwise explode. Grant’s prose at its best is simple and direct, breaking things down to their essentials, a quality of mind that helps explain why he excelled at mathematics. He could explain a problem, consider what might happen, and offer a solution. Unfortunately for McClellan, he shared his emotions and his inner thoughts in letters to his wife, much like Sherman, and so the impression of him that we have is shaped by reading thoughts we might ourselves think but never share in any writing that we thought would be seen by others. See in particular the August 16, 1861, letter in which he observes “the Presdt is an idiot, the old General [Winfield Scott] in his dotage.”Also of interest:
- The January issue of the Library of America's e-newsletter features additional information about The Civil War, along with other recent news and offers.
- On The New York Times's Disunion blog Harold Holzer, editor of The Lincoln Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Legacy from 1860 to Now, describes the struggles of Thomas Dow Jones to create a bust of President-elect Abraham Lincoln
- The American Civil War blog posts the address Jefferson Davis delivered 150 years ago today when he resigned from the Senate