Many new Civil War histories are published each year, and most fade quickly into obscurity. This one will endure. In "Nothing but...

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“Nothing but Victory: The Army of the Tennessee, 1861-1865”
by Steven E. Woodworth
Knopf, 738 pp., $40

Many new Civil War histories are published each year, and most fade quickly into obscurity. This one will endure.

In “Nothing but Victory,” Steven E. Woodworth, a history professor at Texas Christian University and author of several previous Civil War books, has fashioned an extraordinarily crisp, rapid-fire account of the battles and campaigns of the Union Army of the Tennessee, the force of Northern troops that fought throughout the Civil War in Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and the Carolinas.

This story has been told before, but Woodworth brings such a fresh, strong perspective that it seems almost as if it were being told here for the first time.

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“This is by no means a headquarters history,” Woodworth says in the introduction. “My goal has been to present a narrative of the army with attention to all levels, from that of the commanding general all the way down to the newest recruit. It was the common soldiers that interested me most, and I have endeavored to convey the flavor of their thoughts, attitudes and actions throughout this account.”

He succeeds admirably. In the course of scouring scores of soldiers’ letters, diaries and memoirs, Woodworth developed an uncanny knack for unearthing just the right quote or personal anecdote to embellish his story. His account fairly crackles with energy and incisive comment.

The story begins with young men leaving the fields, classrooms and shops of the Upper Midwest to answer Abraham Lincoln’s call for volunteers, then traces their life in camp as they learned to become soldiers under an obscure general named Ulysses S. Grant.

Woodworth tells how both soldiers and general grew to become perhaps the republic’s greatest striking force and recounts their many battles and campaigns — Belmont, Forts Henry and Donelson, Shiloh, Corinth, Vicksburg, Mission Ridge, Atlanta, the march across Georgia, and finally the grand victory parade through Washington, D.C.

Woodworth has nothing but praise for Grant: “Grant was far ahead of his opponents in perceiving and assessing the operational situation and determining what to do next — often doing it while his foes were still trying to sort out the results of his previous move, or the one before that. Grant’s edge also was one of confidence and aggressiveness.”

William T. Sherman, who succeeded Grant in command of the Army of the Tennessee, is described as “a splendid defensive tactician, a tower of strength in the midst of intense fighting, a profound thinker about the nature of the war, and a brilliant strategist and logistician.” But Woodworth says he also suffered “exceptional ineptitude on the tactical offensive.”

The real heroes of this book aren’t the generals, however; they are the men in the ranks, whose feelings, foibles and stoic humor he portrays mostly in terse prose but often in their own words.

The book has only one flaw, but it’s a serious one: There are no battlefield maps. Woodworth describes tactical movements and battlefield terrain clearly, but readers nevertheless will get lost unless they have actually walked the battlefields in question.

Other than that, the only thing missing from this brilliant book is the reek of powder smoke.