The Nature of Sacrifice

Carol Bundy's oddly titled The Nature of Sacrifice is not a philosophical or religious work but a meticulously researched life of Charles Russell Lowell, Jr., who died on October 19, 1864, from wounds suffered while leading his cavalry battalion at the Battle of Cedar Creek in northern Virginia. His death was of course just one of many instances of young lives sacrificed in the American Civil War. He was the twenty-nine-year-old son of a man from a socially prominent New England family who had ignominiously failed in business, with the result that his wife was obliged to open and operate a school to make ends meet.

After graduating from Harvard in 1854, their son Charles sought a career in manufacturing and was working as an ironmaster in a Maryland iron works when the Civil War broke out. The murder, by Baltimore secessionists, of four Massachusetts volunteers en route to Washington to help defend the nation's capitol caused Lowell to volunteer for the Union army. An experienced horseman, he joined the cavalry and rose to the rank of colonel but saw little action until the summer of 1864 when as a brigade commander he proved his mettle. He fell leading his troops at the Battle of Cedar Creek in northern Virginia on October 19, 1864.

The particular strength of Bundy's book is its depiction of the many aspects of war—not just battles but the social and psychological effects on militants and noncombatants alike. The author unflinchingly presents motives noble and petty, acts heroic and treacherous, and consequences productive and devastating. The subject of her biography, who had experienced symptoms of tuberculosis that might have shortened his life in any case, hoped to survive and rejoin his young wife but dutifully plunged forward into danger and death.