The Longest Night by David J. Eicher aspires to become the standard reference in its field, and it very nearly succeeds. It is strictly a military history of the Civil War, which means it eschews all the political and social context setting that takes up so much space in James M. McPherson's heralded Battle Cry of Freedom (still the best single volume on the war) and focuses almost exclusively on the actual campaigns and combat. Eicher challenges a line of historians that includes Bruce Catton and Shelby Foote, whose own books on the war are classics. He is not quite as good a writer as either of these two, but he does bring something to the subject that Catton and Foote do not: An entire generation's worth of new scholarship. As Eicher himself points out, a big chunk of his sources only became available in the 1990s. This is not to suggest that he offers a dramatic reinterpretation. On certain fundamental topics he has familiar opinions: "I am convinced that the Confederate States of America could not have emerged victorious in the Civil War." Eicher can write with occasional verve, too. Of an obscure operation in New Mexico, he deadpans, "Though [Major General Harry Hopkins] Sibley's strategic goals were fuzzy, his military successes on the surface seemed pleasing, particularly to a commander who experienced much of his campaign under the influence of liquor."
Yet the real strength of The Longest Night is its intricate detail. Although few readers probably want to know how many different types of bronze smoothbore mortars were used in battle (11, according to Eicher), other facts and figures are fresh and fascinating: "Of the 246,712 wounded treated in Federal hospitals during the war, 922 causes were reported as traceable to wounds from edged weapons of any kind [i.e., swords, knives, and bayonets]. Most of those resulted from personal arguments or use by camp guards rather than by fighting on the field." The bulk of the book is chronological retelling of the war, starting with Fort Sumter and ending with the death of President Lincoln and the various Confederate surrenders. It is a strong entry on a subject that continues to fascinate readers everywhere. --John Miller