• Fateful Lightning

  • A New History of the Civil War and Reconstruction 
  • By: Allen C. Guelzo
  • Narrated by: Brian Holsopple
  • Length: 26 hrs and 19 mins
  • Unabridged Audiobook
  • Categories: History, Military
  • 4.5 out of 5 stars (151 ratings)
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Publisher's Summary

The Civil War is the greatest trauma ever experienced by the American nation, a four-year paroxysm of violence that left in its wake more than 600,000 dead, more than 2 million refugees, and the destruction (in modern dollars) of more than $700 billion in property. The war also sparked some of the most heroic moments in American history and enshrined a galaxy of American heroes. Above all, it permanently ended the practice of slavery and proved, in an age of resurgent monarchies, that a liberal democracy could survive the most frightful of challenges.

In Fateful Lightning, two-time Lincoln Prize-winning historian Allen C. Guelzo offers a marvelous portrait of the Civil War and its era, covering not only the major figures and epic battles, but also politics, religion, gender, race, diplomacy, and technology. And unlike other surveys of the Civil War era, it extends the reader's vista to include the postwar Reconstruction period and discusses the modern-day legacy of the Civil War in American literature and popular culture. Guelzo also puts the conflict in a global perspective, underscoring Americans' acute sense of the vulnerability of their republic in a world of monarchies. He examines the strategy, the tactics, and especially the logistics of the Civil War and brings the most recent historical thinking to bear on emancipation, the presidency and the war powers, the blockade and international law, and the role of intellectuals, North and South.

Written by a leading authority on our nation's most searing crisis, Fateful Lightning offers a vivid and original account of an event whose echoes continue with Americans to this day.

©2012 Oxford University Press (P)2013 Audible, Inc.

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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

The worst part of this book is it's title

So right off the bat let me say this is an excellent general overview of the Civil War - but not of Reconstruction. The book is around 20 hours long and he don't even get to Reconstruction until the last hour and a half. So know that coming in and you shouldn't be disappointed.

OK now for the review.

At this point I've read and listened to probably more than a hundred of Civil War books, this would rank near the top of them. This would be a great book for someone that doesn't know much about the Civil War as it is not a military history of the war and it's not in great depth, instead it more or less is a narrative that provides atmosphere and gives you all the fundamentals you need to understand what happened and why. At the same time I still found it interesting as a refresher since it's easy to listen to and well structured. There wasn't a lot of new material in there but the other does a good job of keeping the story moving and not going back over the same material you've read in other history books 100 times. He does bring new narratives to the story, personal accounts and such that I have not heard before and that helps great for the Civil War buff.

Another review said that the book has a southern bias and that's ridiculous, I've read enough Civil War material to know what is biased and what isn't, this clearly falls into the non-biased category.

The reader does an excellent job as well.

So in closing I'd highly recommend this book to people who want to begin to have an understanding of the Civil War and want it in an interesting and easy to read (listen to) format. If you're just starting out this book should be interesting to you and hopefully will work as a bridge to get you into more in-depth reading (listening) later.

Also I very much believe anyone already interested in the Civil War that might want a refresher or just wants a good narrative of the war will enjoy this as well.

I do NOT recommend this for anyone that want's an understanding of Reconstruction as it's breezed through way to quickly to be of any use. If you can get past that this is very very much a 5-star book.

18 people found this helpful

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A New History

I read a very good book by this author about the battle of Gettysburg last year and was looking forward to this volume. I was somewhat disappointed at first but as I got a better idea what the author wrote instead of what I expected I enjoyed the book and learned a great deal.
I was expecting a narrative survey history of the era similar to Battle Cry of Freedom. Instead I learned that what is "new" about this book is the author's approach to the history of the era. This book contains a more diversified discussion of various topics written with a broad brush emphasizing social and cultural issues over the military history of the war. The military history of the war is most often seen as a result of the political and social events and not so much the cause of them. When I say broad brush I mean that the author wrote about what he felt was important without feeling compelled to make sure that he provided all of the details of a particular subject. Several times he mentioned Robert E. Lee riding his horse without ever telling the reader that the horse was named Traveler. Most books I have read included that information either because the author was showing off or they felt that those types of details were necessary for a thorough historical record. For this book that was an insignificant detail.
Instead of those types of details the author has several discussions on different aspects of the role of women in the history of the Civil War era. He goes far and wide to include women of all walks of life and their participation in different events. I cannot recall another history of this era that mentioned the Seneca Falls convention and its importance. I was not aware that because of his support of women's rights the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison lost control of the American Anti-Slavery Society. This happened in 1840 and is part of a lengthy discussion of the political changes that led up to secession. Guelzo describes in some detail the problems that confronted women when all of the men left home to go to war. Many women joined the work force or had to learn how to manage a 50 acre farm with all of the physical labor that was required.
The political events in the South are given equal time with those of the North which means they receive greater attention than is usual. One of the ongoing themes is the changes that took place in the Confederate government in its fight to survive. The Southerners began by founding a nation and then turned to creating a nation-state whose principles were in many ways contradictory to the state's right ideals they began with. The South began military conscription before the North did and like the North suspended the writ of habeas corpus to deal with internal dissension. The Southern Vice-President was highly critical of the government and spent the last years of the war out of Richmond living in his home in Georgia. Most significant was the enlistment of slaves as soldiers by the Southern army in the last months of the war.
The author provides some insightful criticisms of mistakes made by the South in their handling of the war. The informal embargo on the sale of cotton at the beginning of the war deprived the South of the wealth from their prime economic asset when it was critically needed to build up their army. Their attempt to finance the war by printing money led to inflation which destroyed the economy. At one point in the book the author worked the name of Immanuel Kant into a discussion of the effect of the ideas of the Enlightenment and the Romantic movement on the culture of the South. The discussion focused on the unrealistic and self destructive qualities of Southern political ideology.
The emphasis in this book is not on narrative history but analysis of the people and events which provides some new insights. This is not a book written for someone interested in details about the military or political history of this era. The author has turned away from the standard chronological narrative. He sought new understandings and explanations for what happened and why during this portion of the continuing American revolution. I feel he has made a valuable contribution to a "new" history of of the subject. ( )

11 people found this helpful

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    3 out of 5 stars
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History of the Civil War but not Reconstruction

Would you recommend this book to a friend? Why or why not?

This is a well written history of the Civil War. It contains a good overview of the events and a general analysis of the events. However it doesn't really provide any "new" insights as the title suggests and it does not cover Reconstruction at all. If you're looking for a thoughtful and reasonably engaging retelling of the story of the Civil War this is a fine choice. But if you are looking for a new perspective on the events of the Civil War or if you are interested in Reconstruction history you will be disappointed.

What other book might you compare Fateful Lightning to and why?

Shelby Foote's "The Civil War" remains probably the best choice for a solid narrative history of the Civil War which is also an engaging military history. It lacks meaningful analysis, but as the name states, it is intended as a narrative and Foote writes the story in a way that engages the readers and makes you feel as if you understand the characters and events. Foote's perspective is slightly skewed towards retelling events from the Southern point of view, but is a very fair and balanced book.

Bruce Catton's "The Centennial History of the Civil War" is also a solid narrative history of the Civil War. It contains a traditional analysis of the events and is very well written.

James McPherson's "Battle Cry of Freedom" is another narrative history of the Civil War, but is outstanding for its coverage of the events that lead to the Civil War and their analysis. McPherson also does an excellent job of telling how African Americans played their role in the Civil War.

Any additional comments?

The lack of meaningful content of the Reconstruction was disappointing, the name of the book is a bit misleading. But it is a good history of the Civil War.

8 people found this helpful

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guelzo the academic

so guelzo is a good writer and outstanding researcher. he demonstrated that with gettysburg. (srsly. if youve done the foote-mcpherson-catton-shaara reading and think there's not much new to know about gettysburg,, guelzo's book will prove that assumption wrong.) but with this fateful lightning he indulges in that unfortunate trait of academics: imposing the values of 2018 onto 1865. one particular anecdote illustrates his devotion to current dogma: he notes natural law as a compelling reason for freeing slaves while simultaneously dismissing the roles women held of supporting their men from time immemorial... seemingly another application of natural law. well which is it? is natural law good when it comes to freeing slaves but bad when it comes to maintaining gender roles evolved over millenia? does this inconsistent application of principle even occur to the academic as needing a rationalization?
lookit, if you cant get enough civil war and want to learn more about the mechanics leading to the heroic wheel left at the emmitsburg pike on day two by longstreet's corps, pick up guelzo's gettysburg. seriously. if you want an understanding about the time and place of 1860s USA without doctrinaire thought imposition... this aint the book.

2 people found this helpful

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Absolute Excellence

Allen Guelzo has written an exceptional one volume popular history. I learned a lot of new, very interesting facts from this book. It’s essential reading/listening for anyone with an interest in the Civil War.
I was very sad to finish this book.

Initially I was bothered by the narrator, but now I honestly can’t remember why. Brian Holsopple was equally excellent as the narrator.
My highest recommendations!

1 person found this helpful

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  • JJ
  • 01-15-15

Great overview of the Civil War

Read this to complement the material used in a college class. It's a broad summary of the war, it's antecedents, important events, and figures, as well as the reconstruction period that followed it.

1 person found this helpful

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More interesting than I thought.

I have read and listened to quite a number of books on the life of Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War. I wanted to know more about reconstruction. In my opinion this book tended to strike an amenable balance. Professor Guelzo is very engaging in his writing style and the narrator was very good. Obviously it is a large although not comprehensive recounting of the Civil War and its parts and people. I believe Professor Guelzo got it right. Just the perfect balance of essential facts as well as their various and sundry implications. I highly recommend this work. Keep going Professor Guelzo we are looking forward to your next work.

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Excellent and well balanced summary of the war

Excellent and well balanced summary of the war. Narrated very ably and easy to listen to.

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Good History but Liberal Apologetics

Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by the fairhandedness in assessing the South’s situation in David M. Potter’s “The Impending Crisis” and Margaret L. Coit’s “John C. Calhoun,” but this one was kinda shitlib tier. Grasping the trite truisms of neoliberal capitalism throughout, Guelzo did little to give credit to the idea that the South was at all acting rationally. Given the fact that its economy has never recovered, and remains among the poorest regions of the US, those fears seem vindicated. But, in the lines of Jacobinite political metaphysics, the strength of the ideal of immediate abolition whatever its practical consequences shrouds Guelzo’s assessment.

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The horses mouth

I think that’s appropriate! How much better can u get than an expert like this giving an overview of the civil war. I read Dr. Guelzo’s book on Gettysburg, also listened to it in my car while traveling to Gettysburg last month. Incredible book. This book really takes u behind the scenes including politics, society, religious issues etc. I wanted an overview that didn’t focus on battle plans and casualties. This is more behind the scenes. Highly recommend if u want some understanding of our civil war.

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  • Minimus1992
  • 10-07-19

Disappointing on Reconstruction era

While the author is exceptionally effective at describing in great detail the years of the early Republic and the circumstances that led to civil war, as well as providing a comprehensive account of the war itself, the chapters on Reconstruction felt rushed. In what claims to be a history of the civil war AND reconstruction, far too little of the book deals with the reconstruction period.