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America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation Hardcover – March 15, 2011

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. This sweeping, provocative history of America from the 1830s through Reconstruction has two grand themes. One is the importance of evangelical Protestantism, particularly in the North and within the Republican Party, in changing slavery from a political problem to an intractable moral issue that could only be settled by bloodshed. The second is the Civil War's transformation of America into a modern industrial nation with a powerful government and a commercial, scientific outlook, even as the postwar South stagnated in racism and backward-looking religiosity. UNC-Charlotte historian Goldfield (Still Fighting the Civil War) courts controversy by shifting more responsibility for the conflict to an activist North and away from intransigent slaveholders, whom he likens to Indians, Mexicans, and other targets viewed by white evangelical Northerners as "polluting" the spreading western frontier. Still, he presents a superb, stylishly written historical synthesis that insightfully foregrounds ideology, faith, and public mood The book is, the author writes, "neither pro-southern nor pro-northern," but rather "antiwar." Goldfield's narrative of the war proper is especially good, evoking the horror of the fighting and its impact on soldiers and civilians. The result is an ambitious, engrossing interpretation with new things to say about a much-studied conflagration. Color and b&w illus. (Mar.)
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From Booklist

A specialist in southern history, Goldfield assesses Civil War causes and consequences chronologically from 1834 to the termination of Reconstruction. Why begin in 1834? That year a Boston mob destroyed a Catholic convent; for Goldfield, that event is symbolic of a toxic factor in the period’s politics, evangelical Protestantism. Arguing that it promoted eschatological mentalities on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line, Goldfield, as his narrative navigates the 1850s, personifies evangelicals’ influence in Uncle Tom’s Cabin author Harriet Beecher Stowe and in southern preachers who sermonized on God’s sanction for southern rights, slavery included. The overtly religious aren’t the sole culprits in Goldfield’s interpretation. He critiques the increasing inflexibility of such politicians as former Whigs Abraham Lincoln and Alexander Stephens. Frederick Douglass and Walt Whitman stroll through Goldfield’s pages as eyewitnesses while he considers that the South’s fear for slavery’s future and for its exclusion from industrialization and westward expansion underlay variously argued causes of the war. But it is his emphasis on the religious angle that readers may find distinctive among Civil War overviews. --Gilbert Taylor

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 640 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury Press (March 15, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1596917024
  • ISBN-13: 978-1596917026
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 2.1 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.9 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (60 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #842,130 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

David Goldfield was born in Memphis and grew up in Brooklyn, a combination that has left him with a cracker edginess that an education at the University of Maryland did not soften. He did learn how to write, though -- sixteen books on Southern and American (they're different) history. He is the Robert Lee Bailey Professor at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. Goldfield also consults for museums and historic sites, gives programs on American culture for the U.S. State Department in various countries, and serves as an expert witness in voting rights and death penalty cases. He likes to talk. His most recent book is America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation, published in 2011, and he is currently working on a book, "The Gifted Generation," about life in post-World War II America. In the interstices of teaching, talking, writing, and researching, he enjoys the music of Buddy Holly and Gustav Mahler (though not at the same time), reading Southern novels, jogging (though he still calls it running), and baseball.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

123 of 139 people found the following review helpful By W. V. Buckley on April 7, 2011
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Civil War history used to be so simple. As grade schoolers we were taught that the war started in 1861 when the Confederates bombarded Ft. Sumter, was fought over the issue of slavery, and ended when Robert E. Lee surrendered at the Appomattox Courthouse in 1865. But it seems the Civil War has become a moving target for historians. Some say it began with John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry. Others cite the violence of "Bleeding Kansas." Or maybe it was the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin and the rise of the abolitionist movement. Even the ending of the conflict has become hard to define. Did it end with Reconstruction? Did it end with the granting of Civil Rights to blacks. Are we still, in some ways, fighting the Civil War.

David Goldfield, an historian at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, plunges headlong into the fray with America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation. Be forewarned: this is not one of those dry recitations of battles and generals and numbers of casualties. Goldfield makes history come alive when he goes beyond the usual "this is what happened" version of history. By delving into the social history of the United States, he also builds a compelling case for "this is why it happened." And, in what will no doubt draw ire from traditional historians, he ponders "what might have happened." While not quite entering the territory of alternative history, Goldfield proposes that the death and destruction of the Civil War might have been avoided while the result would have been the same: the end of slavery.

Goldfield sees the ominous roots of the Civil War in the Second Great Awakening in the decades before the conflict broke out. Here, for the first time in the fledgling nation's history, evangelical religion became entwined with politics.
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25 of 29 people found the following review helpful By Red on Black TOP 500 REVIEWER on December 28, 2011
Format: Hardcover
Many historians including the late great Shelby Foote have observed that the fundamental genius of the American political system of government is to seek compromise. And yet the decision of the framers of the Constitution to "park" the issue of slavery in 1797 left a cancer in the American body politic which turned malignant in the mid part of the 19th century. This excellent new general history by Southern historian David Goldfield concentrates on that failure of compromise and firmly lays the blame for this at the door of the infusion of evangelical religious fervour into politics in making conciliation virtually impossible as the 1850s progressed. This issue is brilliantly studied by Goldfield and whereas most books on the civil war will start with the examination of the Mexican War or Bleeding Kansas, he commences in 1834 by dissecting the burning of the Ursuline convent in Charlestown Massachusetts which had become became an object of vicious scorn for anti-Catholic sentiment in the 1830s. Why is this important? Goldfield shows that religious discord and sectarian conflict which materialised in different forms such as Anti-Catholic, Anti-Jewish and Anti-Black Evangelical Christian ideologues effectively destroyed the search for consensus which underpins the constitution. No where was this polarisation more bellicose or visceral than on the question of slavery. The debate was understandably dominated by concepts of an absolute "right" and "wrong" exemplified by a small band of Evangelical Protestants who led Northern abolitionism and in the South by a deeply embedded racist faith in slavery as a guarantor of a threatened way of life.Read more ›
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17 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Roger Yepsen on April 2, 2013
Format: Paperback
I've been on a Civil War jag, caught up in this fascinating time in our nation's history and questioning along the way if this violent resolution of our internal problems had to be. Goldfield thinks not, and I sought out his book hoping that he would build a convincing case. I was disappointed in his handling of both the war itself and his position. He is at times glib:

--"Historians debate whether Lincoln was a religious man. He was. His religion was America . . . "
--"In a brief but moving religious ceremony attended by the elders following a tradition as old as the wind that blew across the Plains . . . "

The are curious gaps in his accounts. He describes the terrific bombardment of Fort Sumter ("nearly five thousand artillery shells") but doesn't explain how it was that not one Federal soldier within that fort was killed by the attack. His treatment of the three-day battle at Gettysburg, considered the war's turning point, is covered in just two pages. Without maps, it's not possible to make sense of the ebb and flow of that epic event.

Goldfield invests more print and creativity in lurid scenes of battlefield gore, some mined from period accounts and others his own imagining:

-- " . . .Those yet barely alive, breathing in spurts, a forthy saliva dripping creamily from their mouths down to their ears, strings of matter from their brains swaying in the breeze."

This is gratuitous stuff because it is dropped in here and there to enliven the text. If disembowelment were unique to the Civil War, then such descriptions might deserve the prominence Goldfield gives them. But wars, all wars, are hell, and these passages trivialize the issues, and the sacrifices, that are the real story of the Civil War.

The author makes better use of personal vignettes, taken from diaries and letters. Still, of the dozen books on the war I've read to date, this is the only one I can't recommend.
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