America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation

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America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation * David Goldfield * New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2011 * 640 pp. * $35.00

In his latest book, the prolific and versatile David Goldfield offers a new synthesis - of what used to be termed the "middle period" of American history. This work is divided roughly into thirds dealing with the sectional conflict, the Civil War, and Reconstruction. America Aflame immediately invites comparison with classic works ranging from James Ford Rhodes to James McPherson, and there is of course much familiar material in these pages, but Goldfield offers his own take on the period as well as on specific events and people.

The book describes the Civil War as "America's greatest failure" (p. 1). To Goldfield's way of thinking, much of the anguish and suffering grew out of the fact that the powerful influence of evangelistic religion - especially its self-righteous and moralistic rhetoric - limited the options of political leaders. The nation thus fell into the abyss of a war that at times defied human comprehension and quickly spun out of human control. One unanticipated result - and an important theme in this book - is that science replaced evangelical religion as a driving force in public life, at least in the North.

In dealing with the prewar period, Goldfield gives considerable attention to the connections between antislavery, anti-Catholicism, and evangelicals. So, too, talk of Manifest Destiny and expanding democracy all carried moral overtones, though this emphasis at times ignores the importance of partisanship and party factions - especially for the Republicans. In these pages, the Civil War itself becomes a holy crusade not only for the politicians and preachers but also for the soldiers, and the author should have paid a bit more attention to the mundane aspects of motivation and morale. The recurring appearance of central characters, such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, Alexander H. Stephens, Frederick Douglass, and Walt Whitman, reinforces the book's themes and adds to its narrative power. …