Creating suspense in recounting familiar events marks real talent in a historian; Gwynne does just this, covering in detail events of the Civil War’s final year and giving his readers a real sense of wonder, even thrill. In vivid, bloody prose, he lays out the landscapes of the war’s culminating battles, not sparing the reader the gut punch of inhuman horror such slaughter creates ... A bibliography will aid readers in further research.
Gwynne incisively examines the final year of the Civil War and the crucial role Grant and his chief lieutenants played in ending the war ... Gwynne provides a brief but telling biographical sketch of Grant ... S. C. Gwynne’s narrative of the events and personalities of the war’s last year is comparable to Jay Winik’s brilliant April 1865: The Month That Saved America, and even rivals the vivid description of these events by Shelby Foote, whose three-volume masterpiece remains the standard against which all Civil War books should be judged.
The difficulty with vignettes is that, while Mr. Gwynne is a vivid miniaturist whose chapters could easily stand alone as their own short stories, it is easy to lose a sense of the overall arc of that desperate last war year and to miss the logic of dwelling on one thing and not another ... the battles that followed at the North Anna and at Cold Harbor are skimmed by in a sentence and a couple of paragraphs, respectively—despite the North Anna being one of Lee’s finest strokes of tactical genius and Cold Harbor being one of the most brutal and resultless battles of the war ... It’s not even clear what the book’s title means, since there are no hymns in it, and Julia Ward Howe’s famous lyrics are never drawn upon for their resonance with the title ... The same lack of coherence vexes Mr. Gwynne’s character portraits. Although he is frankly skeptical of what he deems Civil War mythology, his treatment of Grant pushes forward some of the weariest clichés ... Mr. Gwynne is at his most unpersuasive when he repeats the canard—beloved of both early 20th-century Progressives and modern neo-Confederates—that the war saw 'the rapid growth of a large, industrialized Northern nation' and the creation of 'a highly centralized federal government' ... Read as a rollicking series of short essays, Hymns of the Republic is both sympathetic and evocative. But good history requires more than that, including a deep dive into the sources, an immersion in the thought patterns of the past, and a sense of balance between the need for comprehensiveness and the sharp point of a story. Despite its literary virtues, Hymns of the Republic has none of these.