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From the New York Times bestselling, celebrated, and award-winning author of Empire of the Summer Moon and Rebel Yell comes the spellbinding, epic account of the dramatic conclusion of the Civil War.
The fourth and final year of the Civil War offers one of that era’s most compelling narratives, defining the nation and one of history’s great turning points. Now, S.C. Gwynne’s Hymns of the Republic addresses the time Ulysses S. Grant arrives to take command of all Union armies in March 1864 to the surrender of Robert E. Lee at Appomattox a year later. Gwynne breathes new life into the epic battle between Lee and Grant; the advent of 180,000 black soldiers in the Union army; William Tecumseh Sherman’s March to the Sea; the rise of Clara Barton; the election of 1864 (which Lincoln nearly lost); the wild and violent guerrilla war in Missouri; and the dramatic final events of the war, including the surrender at Appomattox and the murder of Abraham Lincoln.
Hymns of the Republic offers angles and insights on the war that will surprise many readers. Robert E. Lee, known as a great general and southern hero, is presented here as a man dealing with frustration, failure, and loss. Ulysses S. Grant is known for his prowess as a field commander, but in the final year of the war he largely fails at that. His most amazing accomplishments actually began the moment he stopped fighting. William Tecumseh Sherman, Gwynne argues, was a lousy general, but probably the single most brilliant man in the war. We also meet a different Clara Barton, one of the greatest and most compelling characters, who redefined the idea of medical care in wartime. And proper attention is paid to the role played by large numbers of black union soldiers—most of them former slaves. They changed the war and forced the South to come up with a plan to use its own black soldiers.
Popular history at its best, from Pulitzer Prize finalist S.C. Gwynne, Hymns of the Republic reveals the creation that arose from destruction in this thrilling read.
The first history books I loved were the Cornelius Ryan works about World War II: The Longest Day and A Bridge Too Far. I also loved the Bruce Catton books about the Civil War, starting with A Stillness at Appomattox and This Hallowed Ground. Note the war theme. These books taught me what history could do. I had two great professors at Princeton—Stephen Cohen (Soviet history) and Robert Darnton (history of the French revolution)—who really inspired me.
The title is a play on “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” that Bible-based, blood-drenched, sword-themed song of divine triumph that the northern soldiers liked to sing. I meant to suggest other “hymns,” in a more metaphorical sense, that were sung by the various constituencies of the war. (Black soldiers actually had their own battle hymn!)
A few years ago I wrote a biography of Stonewall Jackson, entitled Rebel Yell, that ended with his death in May 1863 and thus covered roughly the first two years of the war. When I was researching the last year of the conflict, I was struck by how much more violent, desperate, brutal, and vengeful the war had become. This was the product of many things, including the progressive destruction of southern property, southern industry, and southern wealth; the staggering body counts from the Grant-Lee fight in Virginia; the anti-civilian warfare of William T. Sherman and Phil Sheridan; the rise of the prisoner of war camps; the rise of a bitter guerrilla war; and the presence of 180,000 black soldiers in the northern army, which drove Confederate soldiers to unprecedented acts of violence. I wanted to try to convey how deeply the war had changed, and the final year gave me a mechanism by which to do that.
For this book I did about a year of background reading, then proceeded to research and write each chapter as I went along. I always travel to the places I am writing about. The research/writing ratio was probably 60-40.
Characters are always the drivers of compelling narratives. So I start with interesting characters and do as much reading as I can in their memoirs, letters, and other documents, as well as other primary sources of the era. With a character like Grant, about whom much has been written, I just try to look for a particular angle that other historians haver not pursued. The difference lies less in the facts themselves than in how I analyze those facts.
That is a very hard question. Assuming that the war had to happen, I guess that the single worst piece of news for the nation, and for its future, was the assassination of Lincoln. So I would save Lincoln.
Again, tough question! You can pick up virtually any major newspaper these days and immediately grasp the fact that the United States of America has not solved its problems with race. One can argue that it hasn’t even come to terms with them. Our nation has always been deeply divided. More than twenty percent of the residents of the American colonies were loyal to the English king. I grew up in the 1960s, a time when the nation was badly split over the Vietnam War. There were race riots in the streets, riots at the Democratic convention. In 2019 we are deeply divided. The Civil War was the worst split of all. 750,000 men died because Americans could not agree on questions related to race and the future of the country. I actually take a positive lesson from this. I think you can read about the war and understand 1) that we are by nature divided, sometimes violently; and 2) that in spite of these problems we always manage to muddle through. Democracy is messy, and often violent, but the republic stands.
S.C. Gwynne is the author of Hymns of the Republic: The Story of the Final Year of the American Civil War and the New York Times bestsellers Rebel Yell and Empire of the Summer Moon, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. He spent most of his career as a journalist, including stints with Time as bureau chief, national correspondent, and senior editor, and with Texas Monthly as executive editor. He lives in Austin, Texas, with his wife. For more information, please visit https://scgwynne.com
It takes courage to write a memoir. Sort of like going to confession if you are Catholic. If you want absolution, you must admit to all the stupid things you’ve done. Similarly, if you want to sell your story, you must bare your moments of weakness to readers. The difference is that, in a memoir, you also get to tell about your triumphs and how you won in the end. Your life events need to span the full gamut of what life has thrown at you and resonate in the readers’ hearts and minds, and this means going deep into your soul to create the story, your story.
For me, Flying Alone was not going to be a memoir, even though all the events and characters are real. It was going to be a novel. Actually, it was to be a memoir masquerading as a novel, complete with names changed to protect the innocent and not so innocent. This way, I could fully reveal the events without having to own up to them. Those years in the 1980s when I was climbing and clawing my way up the aviation ladder were filled with risk, dangerous situations and some bad decisions. When I lost my FAA medical certificate in 1990 with the diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, my aviation career ended and I knew I had to write about it. Even though I wasn’t ready to expose some of it, I still pushed those thoughts aside and wrote… and wrote. The memories were fresh, and I could record them in the greatest detail. After completing the writing, I put it in a box and set it aside knowing that someday there would be a time to revisit it. Well, the time passed until about two years ago, when I finally knew I was ready.
I read it all the way through for the first time in so very long, reliving the experiences with all the edge-of-my-seat terror and suspense as when it actually happened.
Even though it was intended to be a novel, written in the third-person to shield myself from what readers might think of my escapades, there was no doubt only halfway through rereading it that it was, in fact, a memoir of a very turbulent time in my life. This posed the greatest difficulty in the editing process—telling it as my personal story in the first person, i.e., baring myself to readers and owning the truth. I had to make peace with all that had happened back then and, ultimately, I shared everything and could forgive myself for old mistakes and regrets.
At times, the distance of thirty years made it seem unreal, but that separation also helped me to look at those years with the objective compassion that comes with maturity. I remember and love the people who played important roles during that time, from Rod, my employer, mentor and flight examiner, to Melanie, my student, friend and cheerleader, and Peter, my dear friend and fellow risk taker who paid the highest price.
Flying Alone is the result of the cathartic process called memoir writing. But not only is this process cleansing and peace-making, it serves another important purpose—that is, recording history. Whether my history is important or not is not the point. Rather, the point is it is the history of a time and a small slice of life at that time.
In sharing my story, my hopes are for a variety of reactions from a variety of people. For other women, I hope they can see how it is possible to emerge from life situations and decisions that make you feel as desperate as an airplane in an uncontrollable spin. My relationship with Steve was just that, and even though recovery was never a guarantee, persistence allowed it to happen.
I equally hope that young women aspiring to careers in aviation and other male-dominated professions will understand that it can be done successfully. Certainly, the circumstances are much more forgiving today than they were in the 1980s, but there still remain obstacles. I hope the ultimate message received is never to give up even when it just doesn’t seem worth the effort anymore. Don’t plant the seeds for later regrets.
Of course, I also want to share it with pilots of all types so they can see my side of the world of civil aviation and perhaps derive amusement, stir their own memories or, in the case of student pilots, learn what not to do. An early reviewer of my book summed it up in this way: “… [Beth’s] book will warm the hearts of grizzled pilots like me or anyone seeking insight into the challenges and rewards of flying.”
As I look back, despite the fact that quite a bit of courage is needed to write a memoir, the memoir is in fact a reward earned for simply living life. Taking the time to look back on years past and contemplate the events that have shaped and changed you as well as others is an act of accepting yourself, but writing about these events to share with others is the reward.
Beth Ruggiero York is the author of Flying Alone: A Memoir. She is a former airline pilot for Trans World Airlines. She entered the world of civil aviation in 1984 shortly after graduating from college and, for the next five years, climbed the ladder to her ultimate goal of flying for a major airline. Beth originally wrote Flying Alone in the early 1990s, shortly after her career as a pilot ended and the memories were fresh. She is now a Chinese translator and a professional photography instructor for Arizona Highways PhotoScapes. She has published a popular instructional book on night photography, Fun in the Dark: A Guide to Successful Night Photography, which has worldwide sales, and she has co-written a book entitled, Everglades National Park: A Photographic Destination. Beth and her husband live in Fountain Hills, AZ. For more information, please visit https://bethruggieroyork.com and follow Beth on Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram.
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