It was a war that shaped America more than any other in our history since the Revolutionary War, and its effects were perhaps even more far reaching. More lives were lost and more domestic property destroyed than in any other conflict in which this country has been involved. More, in fact, than in all other past struggles combined.
Much has been written about the Civil War since its conclusion nearly a century and a half ago; those five bloody years have proven a seemingly inexhaustible source and inspiration for films, novels, documentaries, and works of history. We are drawn to the period, and return to it ceaselessly, for we have come to acknowledge the war as the crucible in which the nation's identity was forged by fire, defining what the country was and what it would become. Harpers Ferry, Fort Sumter, Bull Run, Antietam, Gettysburg, Appomattox, Ford's Theatre--far more than names or places, they are epic moments in a drama of courage, sacrifice, and profound change.
But what was it like to have been there? To have watched John Brown hang and Pickett charge and Lee surrender and Abraham Lincoln assassinated? The Most Fearful Ordeal contains The New York Times's original coverage of these and other crucial events of the Civil War, offering today's reader history as it was first being transmitted, via the newly invented telegraph, by reporters and other eyewitnesses on the scene. Here are the accounts that people at the time would have read as these events were unfolding. Indeed, the coverage provided by The Times and other newspapers was their only connection to what was happening. Every word was pored over, every article read again and again. "The American flag has given place to the Palmetto of South Carolina"---so begins, with ominous solemnity, the coverage of the bombardment of Fort Sumter in April 1861. As Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., declared that August, when his son and namesake, the future Supreme Court justice, prepared to depart for Virginia, "We must have something to eat and the papers to read."
Here are the legendary figures and events as they first appeared in print, giving readers history's first draft: urgent, alive, reporting the passions and tensions of the moment, raw and unpolished. Often the words and events that have endured the longest in our national memory (such as Lincoln's Gettysburg Address) received only brief note, and occasionally there are 0mistakes in initial assumptions (believing that Bull Run was a major Union victory rather than a catastrophic defeat).
With introduction and notes by Pulitzer Prize--winning Civil War historian James McPherson that puts each major event and dispatch into historical context, The Most Fearful Ordeal is enhanced by period photographs and maps that explain the strategies behind the major battles. Most of all, it brings to life the fearful days, and makes the Civil War a vivid presence in this new century.