The Whirlwind of War: Voices of the Storm, 1861-1865

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9780060175801: The Whirlwind of War: Voices of the Storm, 1861-1865

The Whirlwind of War is the second book in prize-winning historian and biographer Stephen B. Oates' extraordinary Voices of the Storm trilogy, which began with The Approaching Fury, Oates' compelling narrative about the 40 tumultuous years that led to "America's Armageddon."

An intensely dramatic and intimate portrayal of the people, events, influences and consequences of the American Civil War, The Whirlwind of War builds on the great themes and follows many of the important figures that were introduced in The Approaching Fury.

Oates brings his moving narrative of the complex, bloody and destructive war to vivid and memorable life by writing in the first person, impersonating the voices and assuming the viewpoints of several of the principal figures: the rival presidents, Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis; the rival generals, Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman; the great black abolitionist, editor and orator, Frederick Douglass; the young Union battlefield nurse, Cornelia Hancock; the brilliant head of the Chicago Sanitary Commission and cocreator of the northern Sanitary Fair, Mary Livermore; the Confederate socialite and political insider, Mary Boykin Chesnut; the assassin, John Wilkes Booth; and the greatest poet of the era, Walt Whitman, who speaks in the coda about the meaning of war and Lincoln's death.

As the book moves through the war years, the interconnecting dramatic monologues lend passion and a strong sense of immediacy and freshness to the story. The protagonist in one monologue becomes the antagonist in another. Each speaker takes his or her turn onstage, serving as narrator for critical events in which he or she was the major instigator and participant or eyewitness.

Often revisionist but always persuasive, Oates brings powerful new insights, facts and conclusions to his narrative. For example, drawing on his own research and that of modern technical scholarship on the assassination, Oates convincingly describes Booth as a Confederate agent, working with the approval and support of the highest authorities in Richmond, probably Jefferson Davis himself, and explains how his plots to abduct and then to assassinate Lincoln were part of several schemes to be executed by rebel secret service men.

Oates also portrays Sherman, Lee, Jefferson Davis, Lincoln and Mary Lincoln in new and in-depth ways. Thus they are seen in a more realistic light, rather than how they have become positively or negatively mythologized over the years.

Exciting, powerful, highly revealing and driven by character and narrative, The Whirlwind of War makes a significant contribution to American and Civil War literature, and its people and voices will linger long in our memory.

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Review:

The middle book in an anticipated trilogy, The Whirlwind of War is a unique study of the Civil War. Oates recounts the great struggle through a series of first-person monologues told in the voices of prominent figures such as Abraham Lincoln, Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, William Tecumseh Sherman, Mary Boykin Chestnut, Ulysses S. Grant, Frederick Douglass, John Wilkes Booth, and others. This original narrative technique brings a kind of freshness to an old and familiar story. It seems as if the characters speak directly to the reader; and Oates, an accomplished historian and biographer, is scrupulous about sticking as close to the historical record as he can. The book's one weakness is that it doesn't deliver a totally comprehensive telling of the Civil War despite its length of more than 700 pages. But the flip side is its strength: the way it helps readers understand the motives, perceptions, and behavior of the Civil War's most important actors. Sometimes it seems like there are too many books written on the Civil War. Oates nonetheless provides a welcome contribution to the field. --John Miller

About the Author:

Stephen B. Oates is the author of sixteen books, including The Approaching Fury; With Malice Toward None: A Life of Abraham Lincoln and Let the Trumpet Sound: A Life of Martin Luther King, Jr., the latter two books winning, respectively, the Christopher Award and the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Book Award. They have been translated into several languages.

Oates was a consultant and "talking head" in Ken Burns's Civil War series on PBS, and is a recipient of the Nevins-Freeman Award of the Chicago Civil War Round Table for lifetime achievement in the field of Civil War studies. A teacher at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, he is now writing the concluding book of the Voices of Storm trilogy, about the years of Reconstruction, 1865-1877.

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