HISTORY has never been an equal-opportunity player. For some individuals - and entire generations - the march of history has meant a call to rise to extraordinary greatness: Those who lived in Elizabethan England in 1588 faced that demand, when the Spanish Armada bore down upon them.
In North America, those colonists who lived during the American Revolution were forced to assume unique responsibilities, as did those in the Depression of the 1930s and during World War II in the early 1940s.
In his first-rate and moving account of one group of young men and women of the United States Civil War era, John C. Waugh has chronicled another generation forced to find a larger sense of service to their country and mankind. In ``The Class of 1846: From West Point to Appomattox: Stonewall Jackson, George McClellan and Their Brothers,'' Waugh has vividly reconstructed the stirring, and often tragic, account of perhaps the most illustrious class ever to emerge from the military academy.
The class of 1846 produced more generals than have graduated from any other West Point class. Comrades in arms in the Mexican War of the 1840s and the Indian Wars in the Western US in the 1850s, the class of '46 found itself fragmented into rival factions during the Civil War, when Americans had to choose between their loyalties to the North or the South.
Ten of the 59-member class became Confederate generals; 12 became Union generals. Four of these men were killed during the war. Many survivors carried away physical wounds or inner scars. And yet, thanks to Waugh, the legacy of that class - its sense of duty and honor - rings as clearly now as then.
A Civil War buff and former bureau chief for this newspaper, Waugh has penned a grand account. This is history, but in the form of drama based on a broad array of background materials, including letters and memoirs. If one were to quibble, and this is only a small quibble, it would be that perhaps too much dialogue is reconstructed, too many assumptions are made about the inner motives of participants.
Waugh starts his narrative with West Point before the war; Fort Sumter and the Civil War don't begin until after a third of the way into the book. Most accounts of battle take place in Eastern campaigns, along the Atlantic, where the heaviest and most important fighting occurred.
While detailing 34 members of the class of 1846, Waugh focuses on its most illustrious members, such as Thomas (Stonewall) Jackson, George McClellan, A.P. Hill, and George Pickett. Waugh largely accepts the common historical judgment on these men - that Jackson, for example, was eccentric but a gifted military man; that McClellan was a failure as a general but a good and decent man. Interestingly, the adult men who were to emerge in the 1860s can repeatedly be seen in the character of their youth; Jackson, at West Point, for example, was shy, taciturn, but single-minded - just as he was as a general.
Waugh's graphic account of the mortal wounding of Stonewall Jackson at Chancellorsville, Va., in May 1863 - inadvertently by his own Confederate troops - underscores the horror of warfare; we see Jackson's wife, Anna, and infant daughter race futilely to his side. The wives of the classmen of 1846 were many of the war's hidden victims and truest heroes.
A final point: The book contains two fine collections of old photographs and prints. All told, Waugh's account of the West Point class of 1846 seems likely to become a minor classic.