Books Suggest That Lessons of the Civil War Remain Relevant

By Owchar, Nick | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, April 1, 2011 | Go to article overview

Books Suggest That Lessons of the Civil War Remain Relevant


Owchar, Nick, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


Can anything new be said about the American Civil War?

Although the causes and campaigns have all been examined by ranks of historians, many books are coming this spring for the 150th anniversary of the war's start on April 12, 1861, when Confederate guns fired on Fort Sumter. More than 100 books -- new works and reissues, visual guides and comprehensive histories -- offer unexpected angles and fresh interpretations of the battles and key figures we thought we knew.

The lessons of the Civil War, these books suggest, remain relevant.

"The political process was so polarized that democratic compromise was almost impossible. Is our politics less polarizing today? Not really," explains David Goldfield, author of a monumental new appraisal of the war, "America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation" (Bloomsbury Press). "Can we learn from this? I hope so."

A history professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Goldfield said two questions have hovered during his 30- year academic career: Why wasn't there a better way? How did we get to the point of solving disputes by war? He found his answer, and a fresh angle for his book, in examining how evangelical Christianity drove a wedge between Southern and Northern interests.

"It intruded into the political process so that there was no middle ground. There was only good and evil," he says. "Self- righteousness doesn't make for good public policy. It poisons the process. That's the theme that frames my book, from the war's start to its aftermath."

Other new full-scale histories include Louis P. Masur's "The Civil War: A Concise History" (Oxford University Press), "The Great Struggle: America's Civil War" by Steven E. Woodworth (Rowman & Littlefield), Amanda Foreman's "A World on Fire: Britain's Crucial Role in the American Civil War" (Random House) and Adam Goodheart's "1861: The Civil War Awakening" (Alfred A. Knopf), which, though tied to the war's first year, shows how American identity would be remade during this agonizing chapter in the nation's history. Jeffry D. Wert narrows his focus to a group that struck fear in Union hearts, the Army of Northern Virginia, in "A Glorious Army: Robert E. Lee's Triumph, 1862-1863" (Simon & Schuster).

Nothing speaks more dramatically of the horrors of slavery than the sight of jagged whip scars on the back of a slave named Peter, whose 1863 photograph is included among many in "Discovering the Civil War" (Foundation for the National Archives/Giles). This coffee table-size book draws from "one of the richest reservoirs of records in our holdings," writes David S. Ferriero, archivist of the United States. …

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