The Tragic Conflict: The Civil War and Reconstruction

By William B. Hesseltine | Go to book overview

Preface

The Civil War and Reconstruction, asserts William B. Hesseltine, "constitute the central epoch in American history." A full century afterwards, the titanic struggle between the Blue and the Gray has grown rather than diminished in its grip on the popular imagination, and the drama of Reconstruction has lost none of its romantic appeal. In the myths and realities of the old plantation South, of the brothers' war, and of the villainies of Reconstruction there are inexhaustible stores of lore for literature and history. The heroes and villains and their exciting deeds have long since assumed the legendary proportions of an Iliad for Americans.

The Civil War was indeed the last of the romantic wars, but to view it only in terms of Pickett's charge at Gettysburg or Morgan's sweeping cavalry forays is to indulge in escapism and to miss its vital significance for the present generation. It was the first of the modern wars as well, "the first of the industrial wars, the first of the total wars," and it offers serious military lessons. Further, it was, as Hesseltine says, a fiery crucible in which the old nation was melted down, and out of which modern America was poured. Out of this foundry came a new nationalistic United States. Out of it came an end to slavery, but also an unwillingness to grant full equality to the former slaves. Out of it came bitterness and animus so slow to evaporate that they still motivate some men's actions a hundred years later.

If one would understand the United States in the latter half of the twentieth century, one must study the larger aspects of the Civil War and Reconstruction. It is in these dimensions that Hesseltine has assembled this volume. In his lucid introduction -- the distillate of decades of brilliant lecturing -- he sets forth and weighs conflicting theories concerning the causes of the war, its nature, and its effect. These are theories that historians debate vigorously and are likely to continue to debate for generations to come. Hesseltine himself is the originator of one of the most widely accepted of these theories, that Northern businessmen, failing to realize anticipated profits in the South, helped to bring an end to Reconstruction.

The anthology, a fascinating assemblage of contemporary accounts covering economic, social, and intellectual history, as well as military events, should lead readers to a better understanding of that epoch and

-5-

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