Academic journal article Parameters

A Peoples' Contest: What Caused the Civil War? How Was It Fought? Should It Have Been Fought?

Academic journal article Parameters

A Peoples' Contest: What Caused the Civil War? How Was It Fought? Should It Have Been Fought?

Article excerpt

The Dogs of Wan 1861

by Emory M. Thomas

New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2011

128 pages



Of Duty Well and Faithfully Done: A History of the Regular Army in the Civil War

by Clayton R. Newell and Charles R. Shrader

Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska

Press, 2011

424 pages



A World on Fire: Britain's Crucial Role in the American Civil War

by Amanda Foreman

New York: RandomHouse, Inc., 2011

958 pages



America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation

by David Goldfield

New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2011

640 pages



1861: The Civil War Awakening

by Adam Goodheart

New York: Alfred A. Knoph, 2011

460 pages



The Civil War fascinates Americans and understandably so; it remains the pivotal event in our history. Shortly after it ended, a retired Harvard professor marveled that the war marked a "great gulf between what has happened before in our century and what has happened since, or what is likely to happen hereafter." (1) By far our bloodiest conflict--640,000 dead, North and South--it settled the two fundamental issues that had bedeviled the republic since its founding: the nature of the union and the existence of slavery. Before 1865, people often rendered "United States" as a plural noun. Afterward, it became singular. The United States is (not are) "one nation indivisible," not a confederation of sovereign states. And the war destroyed the peculiar institution.

Yet Walt Whitman, that most authentically American of our poets, famously observed "the real war will never get in the books." (2) Perhaps not, but that hasn't deterred authors from trying. More has been written about the Civil War than any other episode in our national saga--by some reckonings well over 70,000 books, plus countless articles and manuscript collections. (3) Since we are currently commemorating the Civil War sesquicentennial, that steady stream of publications threatens to turn into a flood. This essay examines five recent titles that collectively illuminate important questions regarding the causes, conduct, and consequences of this American epic.

An Irrepressible Conflict ... or An Unnecessary One?

William H. Seward, a prominent Republican politician and future Secretary of State, memorably warned of "an irrepressible conflict" between the nation's free and slave-holding sections in an 1858 speech. (4) Certainly, by the end of the 1850s many of his contemporaries above and below the Mason-Dixon Line similarly exhibited an almost fatalistic sense about the "impending crisis" as calamitous events unfolded in fearfully rapid succession: Bleeding Kansas, the Dred Scott decision, and John Brown's raid among them? Most people today, if they bother to think about it, exercise a sort of twenty-twenty hindsight that also regards the Civil War as the all but inevitable sequel to this crisis.

Yet two very different books, Emory Thomas's The Dogs of War: 1861 and David Goldfield's America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation, take a contrary view. As his title indicates, Thomas focuses on a single year, while Goldfield's narrative spans from the 1830s to the nation's centennial in 1876. But both see the Civil War as far from inevitable, let alone even necessary or justified to resolve the great questions that ultimately tore the union apart. Rather, they depict it as the product of ignorance and folly on both sides. Essentially, each offers an update on the now largely discredited mid-twentieth century "repressible conflict" thesis. Advanced by some historians, it held that the Civil War was brought on by a "blundering generation" of politicians who--unlike their immediate predecessors such as Henry Clay and Daniel Webster--let resolvable issues spin out of control. …

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