This fall, Washington is a war capital again. To be sure, we do not hear the tramp of soldiers' boots down Constitution Ave., and no one is building breastworks overlooking the Potomac, but the turbulent atmosphere still brings to mind another war that consumed the nation at home and posed stubbornly complicated questions for its leaders: the American Civil War. Today's wartime Washington also recalls the uncertainties and unpredictabilities -- as well as the hazards and the opportunities -- of sustained conflict, which three long years into our Civil War had become so grimly apparent.

By May of 1864, as the Civil War was grinding implacably on, few moments in the conflict had been filled with such promise and peril. There was promise, because the recently named general-in-chief of the Northern armies, the hero of Fort Donelson and Vicksburg and now the whole Union, Ulysses S. Grant, was maneuvering his mighty war machine against an increasingly outnumbered (two to one), half-starved and seemingly demoralized rebel army. He meant to deliver a knockout blow.

But peril seemed to be the potent watchword, for the Union forces as well. Grant would now be up against the vaunted Southern commander Robert E. Lee, who had outwitted and outmaneuvered every Union general -- five all told -- who had faced him. Northern support for the conflict was also hanging by a slender thread: Abraham Lincoln was under assault for gross mismanagement of a war that had dragged on too long; for an "unconstitutional"emancipation policy to free the slaves; and for widespread abuse of authority -- political arrests, conscription and suspension of habeas corpus.

And the embattled Lincoln knew the potential frailty of the Union cause: If he lost the upcoming election, as he feared, the war could well be over, with a negotiated peace. Finally, there was the peril the North already knew too well: The Union and Confederate armies were preparing to join battle once more in the same steamy tangle of woods -- the Wilderness -- that had produced a stunning Confederate victory the year before, at Chancellorsville.

War at the Turning Point

The six-week military campaign that began that May, energetically recounted in historian Mark Grimsley's And Keep Moving On: The Virginia Campaign, May-June 1864 (Univ. of Nebraska, $45), became a legendary duel. By focusing on the Wilderness, Grimsley also takes us into a moment when the Civil War battlefield -- if not combat itself -- was transformed. What transpired over these six weeks was unlike the rest of the war: virtually non-stop savage fighting across hundreds of miles, with Grant on the offensive and Lee on the defensive, which produced some of the war's bloodiest battles and left both armies "shadows of their former selves." On the second night alone, brushfires erupted, consuming some 200 men alive. The incessant moans of the dying sounded among flaming pines, and the gamy scent of charred flesh filled the air. In just two days, Grant lost an astonishing 17,500 men.

Undaunted, Grant kept coming, confident and aggressive as ever. "Lee's army is really whipped," he boomed. The New York Times agreed: "Lee's army is being defeated, demolished, crushed, annihilated," and, it insisted, this was not "fancy, but joyous fact."

The fighting continued. On June 3, a mere nine and a half miles from Richmond, Grant decided to hurl 60,000 men across a seven-mile front to finish Lee, once and for all, at a crossroads called Cold Harbor. It was an unmitigated bloodbath. With astonishing speed -- under an hour -- Grant may have lost 7,000 men, some three times more than Gen. Pickett's casualties at Gettysburg the year before. The plainspoken Grant engaged in uncharacteristic spin control, wiring home with gross understatement: "Our loss was not severe."

The rest of the Union knew better. Grant had sacrificed 56,000 men in these six weeks alone -- about as many as the United States would lose during the entire Vietnam war (a figure that Grimsley rightly calls "staggering"). The country cried out for Grant's head, Northern morale plummeted, and the peace movement gained steam -- even Lincoln declared that "the heavens are hung in black." A chastened Grant privately wrote to his wife, "The world has never seen so bloody or so protracted a battle."

But publicly, Grant would not yield; nor would Lincoln. Memorably, Grant told Lincoln, "I propose to fight it out -- if it takes all summer." Actually, it took all year. Soon, Grant and Lee settled down to a siege, around Petersburg and Richmond. It lasted nine months -- Lee's lines were not broken until April 2, 1865, and this finally signaled the beginning of the end.

Lee in Twilight

The last days of Lee's army, culminating in the surrender at Appomattox, are the subject of William Marvel's Lee's Last Retreat: The Flight to Appomatox (Univ. of North Carolina, $29.95). The story of Lee's final days of command is an inordinately powerful one, filled with pathos and high drama: the poignant, frenzied fall of Richmond; Lee's defiant efforts to head south and reunify with Gen. Joe Johnston while fervently proclaiming, "We must all determine to die at our posts"; his tattered army's forced march in a labored, hurried retreat, fraught with heartbreaking mistakes, remarkable stoicism and near split-second decisions that produced cataclysmic results. The culmination was, ultimately, not some bloody conflagration (as feared) but instead Lee's dignified surrender to Grant at Appomattox on April 9, accompanied by Grant's masterful handling of his fallen foe, which set the tone for the rest of the war and the peace to come.

But Marvel will have little of this. Declaring the whole Civil War to be a target of "mythmaking," he says that no episode is so "particularly afflicted" as this one. Thus, he decries the notion of Lee's "infallibility" and his lethal mistake of not shoring up the Genito Bridge along the Appomattox River. He asserts that Lee's troops were "more numerous and far less faithful" than other chroniclers have claimed. He says the intermingling of armies at Appomattox is "shamelessly overblown." He writes that the recollections of the much-lionized Union general Joshua Chamberlain are "highly suspect" and that Chamberlain is guilty of "fabricating" the renowned exchange of salutes, "honor answering honor," at the Appomattox surrender. And . . . well, one gets the picture.

The fact is that for some years diligent Civil War historians have carefully factored such nuances into their stories, and in this sense, Marvel is often as not toppling straw men. Still, he offers thought-provoking analyses and insights that will likely stir debate -- and perhaps spur some further adjustments.

As it was, one of the most momentous debates at the end of the war occurred in the early morning hours of April 9 itself, when Lee weighed the option of allowing his men to scatter into the hills and wage a guerrilla war -- Confederate President Jefferson Davis's preference -- or ordering them to surrender (about which Lee said: "I would rather die a thousand deaths"). The first scenario could have led to America's becoming like the war-torn Balkans or Northern Ireland or, just as ominous, the Middle East today, cleaving this nation for generations, if not all time; the second was the one necessary to heal the country.

Anarchy and Union

Two new books give a sense of what sort of America would have emerged from either side of Lee's fateful decision -- and how much was riding on that choice for the nation. In T. J. Stiles's elegantly rendered and compelling Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War (Knopf, $27.50), we watch the border state of Missouri descend into a bloody, anarchical, full-scale guerrilla war in the middle of the Civil War. A collective sociopathy reigned, and the fabric of society was soon shredded: It became a war without fronts, without boundaries and without formal organization, pitting neighbor against neighbor.

Missouri also witnessed the debut of a 16-year-old Confederate bushwhacker named Jesse James, who rode with Bloody Bill Anderson, one of the deadliest guerrillas in the state. Stiles shows just how James developed his taste for blood. During a raid known as the Centralia massacre, one Union officer under siege by the guerrillas cried out: "I always spare prisoners." A guerrilla shot back: "I never do." They didn't. "Drunk on blood," the guerrillas scalped their victims, sliced off their ears, severed their noses, sawed off heads (and switched their bodies), and even cut off a penis and stuffed it in a dead man's mouth. News of these and other massacres shocked the civilized world.

James, legendary, enigmatic and infamous, survived only to age 34. Had he lived a century later, Stiles writes, he would have been a "terrorist." In Stiles's rendering, this notorious rebel is less a Wild West bandit or frontier Robin Hood than a "foulmouthed killer" and a resurgent ex-Confederate who never shed his hatred for the North or accepted the peace of Appomattox.

If James represented one face of a post-Appomattox America -- anarchy, death and destruction -- there is another face: of reconciliation, progress and integration. This outcome is neatly outlined in John Waugh's vivid and touching Surviving the Confederacy (Harcourt Brace, $28), an account of Roger and Sarah Pryor. Roger was a fierce secessionist, influential newspaper editor, confidant of presidents and a Democratic Congressman. He went on, over the war's course, to be a Confederate Congressman, rebel general and prisoner of war. Sarah, his wife, was a cultured socialite and devoted mate.

Together, they were devout Southerners navigating the horrors of war. Yet at war's end, Roger left his Southern roots and moved to New York City, where after initially struggling, he eventually became a successful lawyer and judge. Soon, the Pryors were again mingling in the highest social circles. Roger befriended the likes of Bill Sherman, Grover Cleveland, Mark Twain and Ulysses S. Grant, and, before he died in 1919 at the age of 90, had become "an ardent and eloquent Unionist," as well as a reborn "firebrand" -- for reconciliation.

If, in 1864, such a transformation seemed impossible, it is a credit to men on all sides that it was not so after 1865. One of Lee's last words to his men after Appomattox was for them to become "loyal citizens" of the United States. It is the country's good fortune that this sentiment became the touchstone for postwar America -- and not the examples of Jesse James or Missouri. *

Jay Winik is the author of "April 1865: The Month That Saved America," which will be a feature documentary on the History Channel next spring.