A&E Latest

Two faces of war: America 1861, Spain 1812

Two faces of war: America 1861, Spain 1812

Anyone interested in the history of our country will benefit by reading “The Dogs of War: 1861” (Oxford University Press, 2011, 128 pages).

Here lifelong Civil War historian Emory Thomas, professor emeritus at the University of Georgia, examines the principal figures and events of a year which included the formal creation of the Confederate States of America, the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln, the bombardment and surrender of Fort Sumter, and the Battle of Bull Run.

Though I’ve read a good amount of Civil War history over my lifetime, ranging from Shelby Foote’s “The Civil War” to Michael Shaara’s novel about Gettysburg, “The Killer Angels,” Thomas’s look at this year that forever changed American history brought some surprises. I wasn’t aware, for example, of the extent to which Abraham Lincoln had so grossly underestimated the support of average Southerners for the cause of succession, believing as he did well in into the spring of 1861 that he might somehow convince them to remain with the Union.

Those who have seen “Gone with the Wind” will remember the scene near the beginning of that film when a group of Southern hotheads at a party boldly declare how they’ll easily send the Yankees running and win the day in a war. Thomas references this moment when discussing the naivete of most Southerners and Northerners regarding war. Many believed right up to the fall of Fort Sumter that there would be no war, that reason would prevail, just as many also thought that if fighting occurred, the war would be brief. And as in “Gone with the Wind,” Southerners in particular believed that one of their own could whip half-a-dozen Yankees or more.

“To understand why the American Civil War happened,” writes Thomas, “we’re forced to resort to descriptors such as ‘rash,’ ‘imprudent,’ ‘heedless,’ and ‘foolish.’ Within the rhetoric of the martial moment was an astonishing amount of downright stupidity.” As Thomas asks in his Preface, “What were they thinking?” and then concludes that no one was thinking very well. “I contend here,” he says of his book, “that the Civil War happened because nearly no one had a clue about what they were doing.” 

Near the end of “The Dogs of War,” Thomas remarks of that spring of 1861, “the actors seemed to sleepwalk through the plot of a melodrama.” Of our current age, he then notes “I believe that the American Civil War offers insight and enlightenment about the human condition to inform the present. Those dogs of war, once loosed, seldom go where we want them to go. Once slipped, they run wild.”

Related Items

Right now, those dogs have war have slipped and turned vicious in several places around the world. The wise among us, especially those who are our leaders, will do well to keep their wits about them and exert caution before joining that baying pack of canines.


In “Sharpe’s Command” (Harper, 2024, 320 pages), Bernard Cornwell takes us across the Atlantic to Spain and the Napoleonic Wars. French forces from the north and the south are aiming to join together at the Almaraz Bridge, which will spell disaster for the British forces and their Spanish allies.

Enter Maj. Richard Sharpe and his green-jacketed sharpshooters, who are sent to reconnoiter the bridge and the French fortresses in the area. Though under orders not to engage the enemy, Sharpe and his men meet with a Spanish guerilla leader, El Héroe, supposedly an English ally. As the story continues, however, we discover that “The Hero” in fact sells his services for gold to both the French and the English. Moreover, Sharpe quickly finds it impossible to avoid battle with the French, and plans swiftly and drastically change.

Throughout this novel of battle and maneuver, its gravity broken by the rough humor of the English troops and by the love between Sharpe and Teresa, the guerilla leader whose skills with the knife have won her the title “The Needle,” Cornwell teaches us a good deal about early 19th century warfare. Lt. Love, the young artillery officer who accompanies Sharpe, turns out to be a walking encyclopedia regarding the different types of cannons and their uses, the commanders in this series of skirmishes and battles remind us of the vital role of terrain in soldiering, and Sharpe himself shows us the dangers of the escalade, the taking of a fortress by soldiers climbing up ladders and over the walls.

As in his other Richard Sharpe novels, Cornwell also gives us a lesson in history. Behind the drama of the book is the very real story of this British victory and its part in Arthur Wellington’s Peninsular Campaign, which Cornwell illuminates with both maps and a “Historical Note” at the novel’s end.

Sharpe fans will find “Sharpe’s Command” up to snuff with the other novels in this series, with Sharpe’s old comrades in arms, like rifleman Daniel Hagman, Maj. Hogan and the Irishman Sgt. Harper, very much present. Meanwhile, newcomers may take delight and relief in exchanging the problems and mores of our present age for those of another place and time.


(Jeff Minick reviews books and has written four of his own: two novels, “Amanda Bell” and “Dust On Their Wings,” and two works of nonfiction, “Learning As I Go” and “Movies Make the Man.” This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Smokey Mountain News Logo
Go to top
Payment Information


At our inception 20 years ago, we chose to be different. Unlike other news organizations, we made the decision to provide in-depth, regional reporting free to anyone who wanted access to it. We don’t plan to change that model. Support from our readers will help us maintain and strengthen the editorial independence that is crucial to our mission to help make Western North Carolina a better place to call home. If you are able, please support The Smoky Mountain News.

The Smoky Mountain News is a wholly private corporation. Reader contributions support the journalistic mission of SMN to remain independent. Your support of SMN does not constitute a charitable donation. If you have a question about contributing to SMN, please contact us.