Sunday, January 6, 2013

A Cavalcade of Reviews of Recent Civil War Books, Written by a Europeanist

Now that I am no longer an academic historian, I feel free to indulge myself in scholarly interests outside of my field of expertise (modern Germany).  I also primarily teach American history at my high school, and so feel an obligation to advance my knowledge of the field.  These impulses have dovetailed this year into a major binge of Civil War book reading.  With the current sesquecentennial, there have been a lot of new books on the topic published, so I figured this was a perfect time to explore the subject.

Like a lot of young male history buffs, I was really into the Civil War in my early teen years.  However, I only really understood the wonky battle side of things, and little regarding social or political history.  Recently the focus of my interests has reversed itself, and I am deeply obsessed with the political and social aspects of the war.  In retrospect, it appears to be the truest revolution in America's history.  Reading the current literature has only reinforced that perception.  Enough with all that, here are the reviews.

Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals
I felt a little guilty reading this book, considering Goodwin's disreputable past and allegations of plagiarism.  I also tend to think presidential history is one of the least innovative fields, yet somehow it is these historians who are always the talking heads on television.  My obsession with the political nature of the Civil War got so intense, however, that I just had to read this book.  Goodwin's thesis that Lincoln succeeded by putting together a disparate cabinet of men opposed to him, and then getting them to work together, is not totally proven.  At times the cabinet is incredibly fractious, and some members, like Salmon P. Chase, actively conspired against Lincoln.  By the time his presidency ended, Lincoln's cabinet only retained the loyalists, and the true rivals had resigned.  All that said, Goodwin writes well, and provides a fascinating window into the day-to-day political machinations that surrounded Lincoln.  While this book is a tad hagiographic, it does a fine job of showing how the rail splitter was not some aw-shucks country hick, but a master politician.  Lincoln was very skilled at reading the political winds and getting what he wanted out of his subordinates.

Adam Goodheart, 1861
This book looks at the beginning of the Civil War through a series of mostly fascinating episodes.  This work is what quality popular history ought to be: informed by primary research and engaging, but not oversimplified.  It's a kind of episodic look at the beginning of the war, mostly in terms of events in the North.  Goodheart uncovers some interesting stories, including German-American militias taking over St. Louis for the Union and the story behind the Zouaves  He writes exceptionally well and certainly shined a light on several fascinating aspects of the time that I did not know about before.  This is the perfect book for a long journey.

Richard Slotkin, The Long Road to Antietam
I've long liked Slotkin's work on the mythology of violence in American history, and was a little surprised to see that he's been writing a lot about the Civil War recently.  I wanted to read it partly because of his reputation, but also because it promised to be a history of the political revolution wrought by the war.  I already knew that Lincoln used the Union victory at Antietam as his moment to announce the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.  What really floored me, however, was Slotkin's look into the relationship between Lincoln and McClellan.  The latter was a Democrat who was opposed to emancipation, and was in correspondance with Lincoln's political enemies while still the leader of the Army of the Potomac.  Slotkin very persuasively argues that McClellan had designs on making himself the unquestioned Commander in Chief, and that many close to him wished that he would live up to his nickname of Little Napoleon by using his loyal army to make himself dictator.  Slotkin thus interprets McClellan's unwillingness to push hard at Antietam coming from a desire to preserve "his army" for his own purposes.  The main fault of this book is that when it comes to the battle, it switches from a fascinating story of power politics to an often tedious battlefield account overstuffed with troop movements.  While the sections on the preparation for battle take way too long to unfold, his evocation of the fighting itself is quite moving.

Amanda Foreman, A World on Fire
Man oh man was this book a disappointment.  It received every accolade you could throw at it when it came out, and even made the Times' 10 Best list last year.  The good reviews, as well as its angle on the Civil War, intrigued me.  Foreman takes as her subject the British involvement with the Civil War.  I was excited by the international perspective on the conflict, since it came at a particularly tumultuous time in world history when several other nations were unifying, engaging in civil war, or undergoing major social changes akin to emancipation in America.  In case you aren't convinced: the 1860s was the time of the Taiping Rebellion in China, the unification of Italy and Germany, the revolution against French rule in Mexico, the Meiji Restoration in Japan, the Paraguayan War, and the end of serfdom in Russia.

While Foreman writes exceptionally well, her volumnious history often drifts away from her ostensible topic and gets bogged down in detailed explanations of specific battles.  There is too much going on here, and too many distractions from what was supposed to make this work unique.  Even worse, the politics of the book are awful.  Her view of the war could have come straight out of Gone With the Wind, with slavery sidelined and much ink spilled over murderous Yankees wreaking havoc on poor Southern families.  Foreman admits she has mostly put slavery aside, but claims that this is okay, since plenty of other people have written about it.  She also buries any notion that Great Britain was an empire whose actions a few years earlier in 1857 suppressing revolts in India make Sherman's March look like a walk in the park.  (Sherman was not having rebels blown to bits point blank with cannons, for example.)  I am still amazed that so many reviewers had so many good words to say about this book.  Yes, it does a persuasive job of showing an alarmingly high level of Confederate sympathy in Britain, and its does offer rich and engaging portraits of figures like Lord Palmerston and William Seward.  However, this book is all frippery and glittering surface used in the service of a sweeping and romantic story that simply ignores the main reason for the whole conflict in the first place.  I tried to enjoy the stories and the characters, but the politics of this book made it a frustrating read.

Stephanie McCurry, Confederate Reckoning
I really learned a lot from this book, which takes the Confederacy seriously as an experiment in statecraft and as the attempt to make particular social model a reality.  McCurry argues that the Confederacy sought a system dominated by slavery, white supremacy, patriarchy, and the rule of a small class of planter elites.  What makes this book great is that McCurry takes the next step, and analyzes how many people in the South, especially slaves and white women, resisted a system that was so obviously detrimental to them.  While the scale of resistance is asserted more at times that proved, I came away persuaded of her basic thesis.  Beyond that, instead of the old bs about the Civil War being a conflict of "brother against brother," it was really a war between two contrasting political economies.  The South lost in large part because so many of its people did not buy into the Confederacy's social vision.  However, the Confederacy's alchemy of white supremacy, patriarchy, and elite economic rule still seems to excite many on the far Right in this country.

Eric Foner, This Fiery Trial
I'd been wanting to read this book since I heard Foner give a keynote address at a conference a couple of years ago when he presented some of his research from this book about Lincoln's views on slavery.  I'd long known that Lincoln's words and policies on slavery had changed and vacillated to a great extent.  Foner does a fantastic job of explaining the reasons for this, as well as grounding Lincoln's views on slavery in his political context.  In Foner's rendering, Lincoln comes across as a truly political animal in ways that the usual hagiographic explanations totally miss.  While he personally disliked slavery, he did not move against it until the political winds blew in that direction and the slaves themselves had greatly undermined the institution.  Lincoln was not out front on the slavery question, but neither did he resist emancipation when the opportunity presented itself.  Foner essentially shows Lincoln to be a moderate Republican of his time in regards to slavery.  This is a great book, not least because Foner avoids both the hero-worshipping of other books on Lincoln, as well as tiresome revisionist scolding.  Reading this book I came away seeing Lincoln as fundamentally a politician at heart, and in a strange way, that demystification has given me a greater appreciation of what he managed to accomplish, even if he often did not act up to the heroic standards that we assume he embodied.  Most jarring in this regard was the revelation of Lincoln's support of the colonization of former slaves, which persisted even after he came around on emancipation.


Brian I said...

Thanks for these great insights. Now I know that I need to read Foner's book.

McCurry's book is, indeed, brilliant. I also highly recommend Chandra Manning's _What This Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War_ (2007)

Tim Lacy said...

Here's another suggestion---one on my reading list having been highly rec'd: Gettysburg: A Meditation on War and Values by Kent Gramm (Amazon link: I plan on reading this within the next six months or so. - TL