Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The American Civil War : A Hands-On History by Christopher J. Olsen

Just to forewarn you all, there will be another book on this same subject coming up soon, both because the subject is an interesting one, and for some of my scholastic goals. So, if oyu don't like Civil War history, just ignore my posts for a bit.

This book is what it sounds like : a history book on the Civil War, but with one interesting addition - each chapter ended with transcriptions of several primary sources that related to the subject of the chapter (the chapter on Gettysburg, for instance, contains a partial transcription of the official report of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, one of the heroes of the Union in the battle). Some of these, of course, made for dry reading, some strike the modern reader as just slightly ridiculous, btu others were very potent reading. Letters, for instance, of Southern women starving in the crumbling South, begging their husbands to come home, letters from Union soldiers with only the weakest handle on basic spelling and grammar, these felt real, and interesting. The narrative itself was well-written and fairly balanced, neither apologizing for the South, nor deifying the North. I learned a number of interesting things, and overall enjoyed the book.

I also learned how many verses of Dixie and the Battle Hymn of the Republic I don't know, or know wrong (the original text of Dixie didn't apparently have all that stuff about the Land of Cotton, blah blah blah, but was a very martial, stirring song, and the lyric in Battle Hymn that talks about the life of Christ ends not with 'As he died to make men holy, let us live to make men free', but with 'As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free' - a stirring, but haunting image, and one that stuck with me through the book. I commented in Facebook (oh, gosh I'm a geek, aren't I?) the other day, that it was very interesting to read about the abolitionists, who we read as inhuman heroes in our school days, and to realize that, from the popular perspective, these people were viewed more or less the same way fundamentalists are viewed today - they were largely the product of the Second Great Awakening, and the greatest of their arguments were just the sort of arguments that liberals hate now - that slavery is wrong because it goes against the laws of God. The comparison between, say, William Lloyd Garrison, and Rick Warren is one I haven't quite worked out in my head. It was, on the same rite, fascinating to read about the Republican party creating the dictums that transformed America from a series of largely Libertarian individually confederated states who, according to Jefferson, even had the right to secede from the Union by popular consent, to the strongly unified central government of the modern United States, and how they got kicked out of the south, afterward, by the traditionalist and conservative Democrats. Ah, how things change...


hamilcar barca said...

that sounds like a great book - how many pages is it?

i can't think of anything that has had more impact on the US than the Civil War. besides freeing the slaves and (as you point out) radically changing our view of States' Rights, it also shifted the economic strength of the country and influenced our politics for 100 years (until the Civil Rigths Act). no other war or event has had such an effect.

Unknown said...

It was only 272 pages and a really fast read. It was an excellent intro or refresher. Not huge, and far more political emphasis than military history. The next book I'm reading is much more comprehensive - well see how it turns out.

hamilcar barca said...

given the book's emphasis on the political aspect, i have to ask a question that i've flip-flopped on over the years.

what was the first-&-foremost issue in the Civil War - slavery or states' rights?