Thursday, March 24, 2016

Book Review: The American Civil War: A History of the Civil War Era

Five stars out of Five.

Required reading.

In this concise and tightly written book, history professors Gary Gallagher and Joan Waugh cover the essential events surrounding one of the formative eras in American history. This could function as a text for an introductory college course, an advanced high school program, or as an overview for anyone interested in the Civil War.

Beginning with the lead up to the insurrection, covering the major battles and interaction of the principal characters and finishing with Reconstruction and major themes that persist today, The American War is a short but remarkably detailed history.  

Some things I learned that I had not realized: Lincoln won the election of 1860 from among four candidates and a profoundly divided electorate. Disappointed with the outcome of the election, seven states in the Deep South had seceded before Lincoln even took office in March 1861. Maj Gen George McClellan, Lincoln’s first commander, was actually opposed to the abolition of slavery and eventually ran against Lincoln for the presidency in 1864.  When tallying up property wealth, Mississippi and South Carolina were counted as the wealthiest states because of the value of their slaves. The South truly expected support from Britain because of their reliance on cheap cotton. Lincoln hated slavery but supported segregation and, to the castigation of black abolitionists Frederick Douglass and Robert Purvis, Lincoln proposed setting up Central American colonies for former slaves.

This book, however, is much more than disparate facts.  The authors are professors with a deep understanding of the nuance of many of decisions and circumstances of this often confusing era.  The value of this tome is the narrative that is carefully crafted to give the reader an understanding of why things happened instead of just a laundry list of events.  Just enough detail is provided regarding the way of life in the North and South, highlighting the differences in industrial versus agrarian cultures.

In a mere 250 pages, one comes away with a sense of the inevitability of the Civil War, and also a better understanding that we are still fighting many of the same demons today. The book is extremely well-written, with maps and grayscale pictures complementing the text.  While it lacks endnotes or footnotes, there is a prodigious bibliography in the back for readers to pursue topics in more detail.  

The American War is highly recommended and I’d go so far as to say that it should be required reading for every American, easily read in a few days.. It’s short, accessible and thoughtful.   [Disclosure: the book was provided to me for the purpose of writing a review.]

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