The Civil War, 150 years later
The war that interests Americans most profoundly, the war with which they identify most intimately, even personally, is the Civil War. Thousands of books have responded to that abiding interest. Armed with these four new releases, readers can march confidently into the sesquicentennial, the four-year-long 150th anniversary of the war.
A MORAL AWAKENING
Since many books on the Civil War are so similar, books that provide fresh perspectives are always welcome, especially during the anniversary now under way. The freshest of the four books in hand is America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation by David Goldfield. The list of his previous books is impressive—seven major books and eight edited works on race and religion in the rural and urban South, past and present. Now he poses a crucial question for the Civil War sesquicentennial: “Can anyone say anything new about the Civil War?”
Goldfield’s unique argument, brilliantly executed in a distinctive style, is that one effect of the Second Great Awakening was to create a religious fervor that enflamed secular debate over slavery and economic forces from the 1830s to the end of Reconstruction. Contrasting concepts of good and evil across the nation led to the failure of the American experiment, and religious and political bombast lit the fuse at Fort Sumter. Out of the human carnage and destruction of the war that ended slavery evolved the great Northern industrial success and the still-lingering religion of the Lost Cause that kept the South in relative ignorance and poverty until the late 1960s.
A TURNING POINT
Readers will find another fresh take in 1861: The Civil War Awakening by Adam Goodheart. Plenty of historians have focused, with various emphases, upon the fateful year of 1861, but Goodheart wants us to know about some little-known actors in the dramatic effort to remake the country. He shows us a nation that had strayed from the vision of the Revolution into a country where democratic morality and liberty would prevail, with a cast of characters that includes an acrobatic militia colonel, an explorer’s wife, a regiment of New York City firemen, a close-knit band of German immigrants and a young college professor, James J. Garfield, destined to become our second assassinated president.
Goodheart's initial inspiration was the discovery in 2008 of a huge trove of family papers in the attic of a ruined plantation house in Maryland—13 generations, 300 years of American history. While his narrative will appeal to the broadest audience, scholars would do well to delve into this excellent, well-researched and convincingly argued study of those months in which forces tending toward either war or peace clashed in a final battle in which war prevailed. But ultimately, the winner was the conviction of many kinds of people that a second American revolution demanded the freeing of the slaves.
AT WAR WITH LINCOLN
Coming out of the bicentennial of his birth in 2009, it is altogether fitting that books on Lincoln, who remains the major Civil War figure, remain at the forefront of our consciousness. Although many books have collected Lincoln’s speeches and writings, Harold Holzer’s claim for Lincoln on War is that it is the first book to collect the president’s writings on the Civil War. In fact, he creates a very useful context for the Civil War pieces by including writings from Lincoln’s earlier life as well. The speeches, letters, memoranda, orders, telegrams and casual remarks are in chronological order, and Holzer, major-domo of the Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, comments upon and interprets each entry. The collection “embraces the soaring, practical, comic, distraught, and hectoring,” with topics including tactics, military strategy, the responsibilities of overseeing an army and even Lincoln’s interest in military technology.
In his introduction, Holzer notes that “Abraham Lincoln’s official White House portrait still dominates the State Dining Room.” And so, one hopes, his words still ring in the ears of the presidents and statesmen and women who dine there, such as this famous line: “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.”
PICTURING THE CIVIL WAR
Not so well remembered is the statement by Robert E. Lee emblazoned on the back of The Civil War: A Visual History: “I wish that I owned every slave in the South. I would free them all to avoid this war.”
The Smithsonian has dared to add yet another lavishly illustrated picture book to the hundreds already on coffee tables and shelves—and it is one of the finest in every respect, especially the vivid page designs. Many of the best photographs, newspaper cartoons, maps, drawings and paintings are seldom seen in other books, so that for the general reader the images taken together will provide a fresh impression of every aspect of the war and Reconstruction, including the role of black soldiers, spies, politics and the home front. New photographs show galleries of uniforms, flags, pistols, artillery and other artifacts of the time, such as medical instruments. Two-page spreads provide timelines for each year, and the text that weaves in and out among the well-designed pages gives an excellent gallery of people and a summary of the war.
The first three books mentioned here may inspire readers to meditate on the war and its legacy, while the Smithsonian’s visual history may stimulate the commemoration impulse. Living in a time of civil wars that affect us all, we do well to experience our own in books such as these, especially during this major anniversary. As Shelby Foote said, the Civil War is “the crossroads of our being.”