This book by Walter Coffey is a chronological history of the Civil War. Each chapter is devoted to one month, beginning with January 1861 and ending with May 1865. The chapters are not broken down by dates but rather by topical paragraphs regarding the most significant events during each month.
Battles and campaigns are covered, of course, but so are political events, economic developments, legislative and executive actions, and issues arising on the home fronts. These entries are succinct and are intended to convey basic information to readers with a casual interest in the war and all of its facets.
Given the book’s apparent audience, there are some concerns. While the author has capably chosen a comprehensive cross-section of important events and developments, “the devil is in the details.”
There are numerous errors. For example, the Confederate forces that captured Harpers Ferry in September 1862 were commanded by Stonewall Jackson, not A.P. Hill; the primary problem caused by Union Maj. General Dan Sickles’ tactical decision at Gettysburg on July 2, 1863, was that it isolated his corps from its supports, rather than isolating the Round Tops;
James Longstreet commanded the Army of Northern Virginia’s First Corps, not its Third Corps, at the Battle of the Wilderness; and the long-held legend that 7,000 Union soldiers became casualties in half an hour during the June 3, 1864, assault at Cold Harbor was debunked some years ago by historian Gordon Rhea.
The author’s introduction regarding the causes of the war also raises questions. Asserting that the “true cause” was not slavery but, instead, “money and politics,” the author focuses on U.S. tariffs and their disproportionate effect on the South.
This approach appears to be straight from dubious theories advanced by economist Thomas J. DiLorenzo. Those theories turn more on opinion and modern political philosophy than they do on historical evidence.
That evidence includes the texts of the seceding states’ secession resolutions. It also includes the writings and speeches of the secession commissioners from the lower South during the winter of 1860-61.
Reading the resolutions and the commissioners’ arguments for disunion to their recalcitrant brethren farther north leaves little doubt that discontent with tariffs and the philosophy of state’s rights took second chair as a basis for secession to fears about Northern intentions towards the South’s “peculiar institution.”
There is no bibliography. Instead the author supplies a list of “recommended reading.” That list contains a random sampling of secondary sources, some popular published primary sources, and a few idiosyncratic books such as two uniformly criticized volumes by DiLorenzo on Abraham Lincoln.
Readers with a thorough grounding can apply their trained eyes to errors of detail and analysis. As noted, however, they do not appear to be the targeted audience. Civil War buffs and serious students are far better served by the “gold standard” for this type of work, which remains E.B. Long’s 1971 The Civil War Day by Day.
Coffey’s book is acceptable for the casual reader who comes to it with some basic background knowledge, especially since it introduces that reader to significant non-military events with which he or she likely is not familiar.