on April 7, 2011
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. (Anyone see a connection with another American era? Hmmmm ... like maybe the 1980s when evangelical Christians and the GOP formed an alliance under Ronald Reagan?) Northern evangelicals were concerned about the spread of immigrants, espcially the Irish and the Catholic religion they brought with them. They also encouraged the nation to push Native Americans off land they saw as America's "manifest destiny" to fill from coast to coast. This influence by evangelicals resulted (shades of modern America again!) in a political system in which the reasonable middle ground fell away, leaving only the extreme voices of the pro- and anti-slavery politicians.
America Aflame is one of those rare Civil War histories that isn't content to limit itself of discussions of slavery and states' rights or descriptions of battles and military strategy. But in reading it I felt I was given a much bigger canvass on which to view the war, it causes and the aftermath. Yet, for its scope, the book is immensely readable. Usually it would take me two weeks to wade through a book such as this. I made it through Goldfield's book in four days. I found the book so compelling that I did not want to put it down and read far longer into the night than I intended. As Goldfield tells it, the Civil War was indeed the point at which the American Revolution ended and a modern American truly began.
on August 8, 2014
This is an interesting and unique book. Goldfield's approach to the Civil War era focuses on the causes of war and the role of evangelical Christianity in American society. He argues that the war was not what William Seward termed an "irrepressible conflict," but that it could have been avoided. This is dabbling some in alternate history, which can be a fun exercise for some, but most often is pure speculation. Goldfield is clearly well-versed in the causes of the war his anti-war approach tries to suggest that a nonviolent solution was possible. I don't buy it, but kudos to Goldfield for doing the mental exercise.
This book is well-written and has a good narrative. It focuses on a few key players (political and civilian) and so the reader experiences this era through them. This is a good approach and makes for good story telling, but also good continuity.
So, why only two stars? This book has had heaps of praise from other reviewers and even from critical reviews. There have been a couple criticism of his thesis, which is to be expected. My biggest complaint is in Goldfield's spotty scholarship. For a historian of Goldfield's stature, it is inexcusable to be sloppy with sources, quotes, and research. There are several instances throughout the book where Goldfield's quotations are simply misquoted. Some interesting stories are simplified to the point of actually being wrong. Some of the most famous Lincoln and Grant quotation from the war appear to have been written from off the top of his head as best he could remember them. The sentiment remains the same, but the wording is wrong. Is this really a big deal? Well...yeah, for a historian, it is. This is sloppy scholarship. Just because you are very familiar with a quotation or a story doesn't mean you don't need to look it up and make sure you got it exactly right. Especially if you are using quotation marks. If you want to paraphrase history, go for it, but leave the quotation marks out. This probably seems like I'm making a mountain out of a mole hill, but I became so frustrated with repeated factual errors and misquotations that I began to doubt more and more of the information in the book.
This is a massive book. Perhaps Goldfield should have simply argued his thesis instead of writing a narrative history of the era. I give a big word of caution to those who are only casually familiar with the Civil War era. It is a good read, but be sure to follow it up with something more authoritative. Anything by James McPherson, Bruce Catton, Gary Gallagher, or Eric Foner is a good place to start.
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. Certainly some politicians like Alexander Stephens and Stephen Douglas cautiously searched for a compromise solutions but the gulf of political polarization was seismic and epitomised by the great abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison's symbolic burning of the constitution and its slavery compromise as a "covenant with death, an agreement with hell,". Equally in 1856 when Preston Smith Brooks a Senator from South Carolina beat Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner unconscious with a cane on the house floor because of one his abolitionist speeches The Richmond Enquirer crowed: "We consider the act good in conception, better in execution, and best of all in consequences. These vulgar abolitionists in the Senate must be lashed into submission."
Goldfield's thesis is controversial and revisionist. It is also on occasions far too neat and precise. It was Abraham Lincoln after all who tried to navigate a way through this and his first inauguration speech in 1861 was a delicate attempt to address the "apprehension of the Southern states" where Lincoln assured his intention not to interfere in slavery "in the states where it exists". Yet a moral issue like slavery could not be negotiated away or be subject to shady political deals. Was a compromise possible? In truth the answer was certainly not. The tragedy of this of course was that the number of American dead in the Civil War exceeded in combination all those who died from the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, Mexican War, Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, and Korea combined. Provocatively Goldfield calculates that the Civil War cost around $6.7 billion in 1860s currency. He then asserts that if "the government had purchased the freedom of four million slaves and granted a 40-acre farm to each slave family, the total cost would have been $3.1 billion, leaving $3.6 billion for reparations to make up for a century of lost wages. And not a single life would have been lost."
The "Ifs" and "buts" of this book make for an absorbing tour de force of scholarship when equally combined with a very solid narrative about the course of the civil war. In particular Goldfield's scrutiny of the inherent weaknesses of the Reconstruction or as some southerners saw it "the redemption" with the restoration of white supremacy is brilliantly done. More than anything else Goldfield's book is a warning about the toxic mix of religion and politics which the framers of the constitution sought to avoid but which consistently rears it ugly head in US politics often with the worse of consequences (there are some chilling similarities with the present). If you are a civil war "buff" seek out "America Aflame" for a refreshing, controversial and panoramic study of the defining event of American History.
on April 2, 2013
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.
on March 14, 2012
It was an excellent read for me. It greatly expanded my understanding of the years surrounding the Civil War, and it helped connect that time with what I have see in my own lifetime. The candid descriptions, observations and conclusions were generally excellent, although the text was sometimes difficult to read.
Mostly, the book made me more resigned to the perpetual conflict, self interest and corruption that surround us today, particularly the lack of consideration and compassion between people. I'm less inclined to be intensely reactionary to injustices in the world, although I will continue to make an effort to improve things here and there for my own self respect. I'm just not going to let things get to me so badly nor expect the world to steadily improve. A positive move today can be quickly reversed in a year or two.
Some things in particular that I noted in the book:
1. The heavy anti-Catholic sentiment.
2. The amount of street violence that occurred outside the war for various reasons.
3. The extent of anti-black sentiment in the north. Northerners wanted to end slavery but were not eager to integrate themselves.
4. The inconsistency of being concerned about slavery while Native Americans were being wiped out.
5. How easily Northerners quit worrying about southern blacks after the war as the economy boomed.
6. How the government can get cozy with corporations, like what we have today.
A minor negative comment on the book: The figures inserted in the text were often too small to discern details.
Goldfields' book is a different look at the Civil War and it's causes, that looks at the period more from a social, political and religious stand point while he covers the military aspects in more of a summary fashion, covering the strategic points well but not the tactical. If you have a desire to get a feel on the pulse on the country particularly well before the war, this book may be of particular interest to you but not for detailed analysis of the battlefield. Goldfield presents the pulse of a country much more complicated than merely north than south or just an issue of slavery. He presents a country with conflicts of religion, discrimination against a mass of immigration, the evolution of political parties, the settling of the west, the modernization of the country such as railroads and the ever lurking issue of slavery. The book is full of fascinating quotes Senator Hammond of South Carolina who stated in 1859 that in the congress "every one carries a gun and a knife, and those that do not, carry two guns". The author has a rather adroit way of describing situations and individuals. He describes the western battle of Glorietta Pass as an insignificant battle and campaign only given attention in Civil War books to satisfy the southwest and California that they were a part of the "great drama". He describes Albert Sidney Johnson as "Six feet tall, dark and handsome, Johnson seemed born to command". in contrast, "Grant Seemed suited for the leather business." His description of Stonewall is economical and perhaps too sharp for some but Goldfield describes him as "The sickly, nearsighted, partially deaf professor from VMI found his calling in combat". He of courses recognizes Jackson's abilities. There are short comings in his brief descriptions of battles, such as his references to the three battles prior to the finale at Malvern Hill as minor in the 7 Days Campaign not recognizing the Battle of Glendale just previous as a huge effort by the Confederates to cut the Union army off from the James. But this is a book that will give you contact with the Stowe Family, John Brown, Clay, Calhoun, Webster and an interesting appreciation for Alexander Stephens. A refreshing book that is very satisfying with a post war look at reconstruction and the difficulties of assimilation across the country,
on April 1, 2013
This is a very different type of Civil War book. Rather than battles or politics, it takes a long look at the reasons that things turned out the way they did, about the evolution of American society and institutions, of the feelings of the people of the period. The breadth of the portrait, in time covered but also the lives lived, is astonishingly dense.
On one level, it is a splendid introduction for the general reader. Starting in the 1830s, it goes all the way to the end - the definitive failure - of Reconstruction in 1876. The bulk of the events in the book are, of course, during the Civil War itself, but Goldfield also covers the end of the Indian Wars, the establishment of modernism as industrialization accelerated, and the way that American institutions took the form that have more or less lasted to the present day. This is presented as a narrative, stories following the lifetimes of many interesting characters (e.g. Walt Whitman, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Frederick Douglass, and Jefferson Davis), but with plenty of analyses seamlessly woven in. Whether you know the events and concepts or not, the tableau that Goldfield paints is an extraordinary pleasure to read, vivid, and written with an elegant precision that is absolutely masterful.
On a deeper level, he has a number of points that he wants to make. This is where the book gets original, even hard hitting in its unflinching interpretations. Because he is arguing against what can only be called myths, there are many who will vehemently disagree with his take.
First, he looks at the causes of the Civil War. On the one hand, he argues that the question of slavery was indeed the principal reason that North opposed South and vice versa. This was the case, he argues, because of the importance of slavery to the society of the South. Not only did it allow slaveowners to create a kind of stagnant, pseudo-aristocratic lifestyle in spite of the industrial revolution underway, but even poor whites had a class to look down upon and humiliate as inferiors. If slavery ended as an institution, the balance of this society as it was would die. Interestingly, this is the precise line of argument that Southerners have sought to demolish or suppress through a political and academic machine for the last 150 years, arguing that it was states' rights, that they were victims of Northern aggression, etc.
On the other hand, Goldfield goes into great detail about the impact of the Second Great Awakening, the extraordinary upsurge of evangelical protestantism from the early 1830s. This was the time that Mormonisn, Seventh Day Adventism, and hundreds of other denominations were established, espousing absolute certainly in their views and the ability to personally discern the intent of God. This reinforced America's sense of its uniqueness and mission as the only democratic nation in existence and as the place that God had chosen for paradise. Taken together, this fatally hardened the views of both North and South, he argues, with each church asserting that it represented the absolute just cause - and guaranteed quick success in war.
Second, the reason that the North was so fanatically devoted to maintaining the Union was the fear of anarchy and disintegration: observers had closely followed events in Europe, starting with the "terror" of the French Revolution but focusing on the contemporary crises as embodied in the apparently failed revolutions of 1848. They worried that "too much democracy" would lead to chaos and dissipate energies in petty disputes and wars. According to this logic, the breakup of the Union was only the beginning of a slide to anarchy, whereby other states would break off and the result would be tiny states incessantly warring on each other. The Union, and the democratic experiment it represented, had to go on in their view.
Third, the Civil War accelerated a number of economic and technological trends underway. In many ways, it was the culmination of the modernism that began with the French Revolution and steam-powered industrialization: societies were no longer static and cyclical, based on rigid class privileges and incontrovertible limits, but opening up in completely unpredictable ways. America was linking itself with rail roads, enabling commerce to develop but also the use of industrial organization to wage war: it was the first truly modern war, revealing America even then as a great power that would surpass the older colonial powers in Europe. This was, he argues, the pragmatic ideology - with its profound belief in progress and science - that took the place of the ideological absolutism of the 1830s Evangelical movements, particularly once the soldiers realized that God's will did not extend to the battlefield but led instead to unimaginable carnage. Replacing faith alone, the vocabulary of science gained a permanent place in the American political discourse.
Fourth, he believes, the failure of Reconstruction was entirely due to the reprise of power by the same people who held office and property in the South before the Civil War. The principal mechanism to accomplish this was the complete political disenfranchisement of blacks, who had gained some role in Reconstruction. According to Goldfield, there was no northern misrule, no humiliation of whites (beyond losing the war), and no unusual corruption in a very corrupt age. It was less about the rights of whites than about their psychological need to dominate the former slaves, essentially keeping them down with cruelty and violence. The Ku Klux Klan was America's first terrorist organization and was completely effective in its aims.
Fifth, the result was that the South, however exotic and charming it appeared from the outside, remained a backward region for the next century, lacking a competitive labor force due to cheap black labor without protection by law, based on political oppression, and supported by a sense of victimhood and self-righteous religious fervor, psychologically stunted and full of willful delusion. Meanwhile, the North progressed with explosive dynamism, fulfilling its promise to lead the world alongside the European powers. With its ideology of progress and fascination with science, the North developed world-class educational institutions and research universities and served as the base of industrial investment.
My criticisms of the book are few. I still cannot quite get my head around the failure of Reconstruction, however much this book helped to clarify matters such as power relations and the mentality of the South. The last 3rd of the book seemed to wander a bit to me, lacking the tightness of focus of the earlier portions that covered the march to war.
This is very powerful stuff, bound for controversy. Though a Northerner, I grew up with close family in the South, so I have a particular affection for the region as well as some understanding of the underside. In my opinion, much of what Goldfield argues is correct. What is truly great about this book is how Goldfield ties it all together. It is compulsively readable and every page fascinates and stimulates the reader to search for more. This is one of the best history books I have read in years. Recommended with the greatest enthusiasm.
on May 2, 2011
This book, for one thing. David Goldfield looks under the cushions and into the corners of our history to put the Civil War and its bitter aftermath into perspective. In the process, Goldfield challenges a number of perceptions about the war: first, that it couldn't be avoided; second that religion played a major role in bringing us together after the war; and, third; that we emerged from Reconstruction as a unified nation.
The leaders of the Confederacy took slavery as the region's inalienable right both on religious grounds and on economic grounds. But it turns out that the Union could have compensated southern slaveholders in full for their slaves for half of what the war cost. That would have spared our young country the enormous loss of life, the widespread destruction of huge areas of the south and its cities, and provided a less hostile environment for the integration of the country's blacks into the mainstream of American life. After citing examples of countries which successfully took this approach to emancipation, Goldfield deals with the reasons it didn't work here.
Organized religion fanned the flames of war on both sides. Southern clergy proclaimed biblical authority for slavery and for subjugation of the south's blacks after the war. In the north, many churches opposed slavery before and during the war, then turned their backs on the south's blacks at a time when they most needed their help.
The Union victory in the Civil War did not lead to a nation united in any except the most technical sense. As the book makes clear, after Appomattox the victorious north turned its attention to westward expansion, industrial and scientific achievements, the subjugation of the Native Americans, and quickly abandoned as divisive and ill-conceived the plan for reconstruction. The south was left to its own devices to establish de facto slavery more out of hubris than self-interest. Goldfield addresses but can not answer how things might have turned out if President Lincoln had lived to guide the reunification. He does make clear that Andrew Johnson and later U.S. Grant failed to make good on Lincoln's vision for the postwar nation. Pursuit of the almighty dollar too quickly became the be all and end all of northern attention. The blacks the Union had had fought and died to emancipate were left to sink or swim in the hostile waters of the Jim Crow south.
We are still not fully out from under the racial prejudice that fueled the Civil War and its aftermath. But, as Goldfield makes clear, we are much closer to being a fully realized democracy today than at any time covered in this remarkable history. As we mark the 150th anniversary of the fall of Fort Sumter, it is appropriate to take stock of where we've been since and what remains undone. This book makes an ideal starting place for that inquiry.
on December 27, 2013
Why David Goldfield has not won a Pulitzer Prize for this work is beyond me. Coming off the heels of completing David McCullough’s “1776”, which, though highly readable never drew me into the history as Goldfield’s book did on the Civil War, and did win a Pulitzer, this is a surprising contradiction.
“America Aflame” takes the reader on a whirlwind tour-de-force of the events from around 1840 through 1876 that encompass the build-up to the ‘War Between the States”, the conflict itself, and the period of Reconstruction after. In prose more akin to a fast-paced, exciting novel David Goldfield provides the reader with a sweeping panorama of the history from as many vantage points as it takes to immerse the reader with a feeling of being alongside the events as they happened. And in addition, in a unique way of presenting these events, David Goldfield intertwines the perspectives of several leading personages of the eras such as Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, to provide personal perspectives of the historical times that all of them were caught up in.
Though a monumental work to read, this is not your typical story of this conflict and does not end a on a very positive note. The subtitle, “How the Civil War Created a Nation”, does not infer that things ended well. In fact, they turn out quite the opposite placing this writing as a foundational understanding why the United States is in the state of decline as it is today.
As David Goldfield deftly points out throughout the book, though the United States became a true nation after the Civil War, it did so with many seeds of its own self-destruction left intact. While America soared to heights of material prosperity and creative genius during and after the war, it never resolved and reconciled the terrible inequities and prejudices that it fostered from the nation’s inception. And it is this dichotomy in this history that makes this piece of writing not only superior in elegance as to the book’s subject matter but a stark warning that the American future has never been freed of its dark past.
The current issues we are facing today from massive political and business corruption to terrible increasing inequalities between the wealthy and less wealthy to disparities between sociological groups who have equal standing with each other can all be viewed as mere continuums or further outgrowths of events that surrounded the period of time this book describes.
David Goldfield, indirectly as well as directly, presents a sobering corroboration of those historians who have found the United States to be nothing more than an economic entity which has had little regard for the many peoples that initially populated our native lands, the Africans that were brought here in chains, and the successive waves of immigrants who came to build better lives for themselves. And it is this failure of such reconciliation in the war’s aftermath that find the deaths of over 620,000 Union and Confederate soldiers to have been a monumental waste of life as it is with any violent conflict.
David Goldfield’s work is not only a historical masterpiece but a sociological study in-depth of American inter-relational failures among its diverse populations and the people who climbed on their backs to the top of the economic hill to lay waste to their aspirations and dreams in horrible extremes of exploitation and subjugation.
As the reader comes to understand, any romantic notions of this time that may still yet be harbored are based completely on myth and fantasy…
on March 6, 2013
I studied American history in my Junior year in High School, but unfortunately my family moved that year and I had to transfer from one school to another and I think I missed out a bit. I find history, particularly American History, very interesting and of course the period covered in this book takes in a lot of events. I've learned a lot from it, and I regret that I waited this long to delve into it, but of course this book hadn't been written until fairly recently. I've read books on the Civil War, etc., but this book covers around 50 years of our history, including the period leading up to it, and its causes, as well as the period following it. I recommend it highly.