Ordeal by Fire By Fletcher Pratt (1935)

SUBTITLED "An Informal History of the Civil War" and written for "the man-in-the street," Fletcher Pratt's Ordeal by Fire is a masterpiece of colorful compression. I first read it in high school, a Christmas-vacation assignment from my American history teacher. It took me a while to find the book's pulse -- all those battles and maps to sort out -- but when I did it was throbbing with martial energy. Fletcher Pratt wrote history with an eye for what Evan Connell calls "the luminous detail" and what I call a genius for pungent expression.

The chapter titles alone are exercises in vividness; "Seven Times Against the City" (on Grant's early failures to take Vicksburg); "The Dithyramb of Shiva" (a think piece on the Confederacy's Achilles heel -- its people's resistance to organization); "The Absolute Masterpiece" (Lee's generalship at Chancellorsville); "The Ghost of 1812" (Admiral David Farragut's vital contributions to the Union cause); "The Feud of the Titans" (the climactic series of battles between armies led by Grant and Lee).

Here, chosen from dozens of equally worthy examples, is an instance of Pratt's ability to paint a memorable scene. Lincoln's first inaugural day "dawned raw and melancholy, with low-hung clouds and a fine powder of rain. The procession . . . was neither long nor brilliant; the foreign embassies shaved their attendance to a bare representation, fearing trouble, and the crowds along the sidewalks were somber. Patrols of cavalry were stationed in the cross-streets as the presidential carriage passed, exhibiting menacing bright weapons. The windows of the Capitol were occupied by sharpshooters, and just visible on the crest of the hill opposite was the muted gleam of a battery of artillery, ready for anything."

What as a test-taking sophomore I found particularly helpful about Ordeal by Fire was Pratt's willingness to pass judgment, notably on matters of military strategy. He made it easy to remember the Battle of Chickamauga by playing up "the famous muddled order" that caused a Federal division to pull back out of line, leaving a gaping hole into which the astonished Confederates rushed. He embellished his Chancellorsville title by ranking that battle as "the truest, most splendid victory Robert Lee ever won, against all odds and a commander who had half shut a trap round his army -- an absolute masterpiece, beyond which no further art is possible." He capped his account of Ambrose Burnside's moronic uphill attack of fortified Confederate positions at Fredericksburg with the terse understatement, "It was not till night that he began to weep."

Indeed, I still find Pratt's knack for pithy summation a help in understanding the war. For ready reference I turn to him ahead of Allan Nevins or Bruce Catton or Shelby Foote.

Especially for someone first getting acquainted with the Civil War, Ordeal by Fire is invaluable as a storehouse of drama and pageantry. All the great moments are there -- from the first disaster at Bull Run to Pickett's Charge -- and all the stirring phrases. There is Confederate cavalryman Nathan Bedford Forrest saying, ungrammatically but immortally, "I git there fustest with the mostest." There is Lincoln responding to rumors about Grant's drinking. "What brand does he drink? I'd like to send a barrel of it to the other generals." Lincoln again, in his high style, celebrating the fall of Vicksburg (which Grant took at last): "The Father of Waters once more unvexed to the sea." There is Farragut, answering an aide's complaint that Mobile Bay is humming with torpedoes: "Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!" And Grant informing Lincoln of his plans for action at Spotsylvania: "I propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer."

One of the war's most affecting incidents occurred during that very battle, when Lee, determined to recapture the crucial Bloody Angle, decided to "lead a countercharge in person . . . 'General Lee to the rear!' {the Confederate soldiers} cried. 'We must take that angle,' he replied and rode on, statuesque and terrible. 'General Lee to the rear!' They held him back by main force -- 'We'll take it for you,' and swarmed past him to the front, disorderly and fanatic, with tears in their eyes, prayers and curses on their lips." But the Civil War did not invariably provide the chapter-endings of a saga. "It was the most ferocious fighting of the war," but the angle stayed under Federal control.

Pratt (1897-1956) was a Buffalo-born newspaperman-turned-historian whose specialties included the Civil War and the U.S. Navy. He wrote more than 50 books, among them some science fiction novels. One of his last volumes was a biography of Edwin Stanton, the Union secretary of war and a primordial Lincoln skeptic. Early in Ordeal by Fire Pratt had summed up the initial popular assessment of Lincoln, who was considered to be a "low, cunning clown." At the end he calls upon Stanton to deliver the revised judgment.

In the room across the street from Ford's Theater, "the breathing ceased quietly. Stanton turned and faced the assemblage, and his voice sounded deep and ominous in that enormous silence:

" 'Now he belongs to the ages.' "

Dennis Drabelle is a Washington critic and writer.

Note on Availability

"Ordeal by Fire" is out of print. There have been two editions: the first, published in 1935 by Harrison Smith and Robert Haas, and a revised one, published in 1948 by William Sloane Associates. The second is the one to look for in second-hand and military bookstores: its maps are many and excellent, while those in the first edition are few and poor.