Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Civil War and Reconstruction - JG Randall and David Donald

Oh, my friends. My dear, dear friends. Let me begin this review with the quiet voice of reason. I think studying American History is a wonderful idea. We can learn a lot from American History. I believe, as well, that our traditional, elementary school black-and-white evaluations of the 'good guys' and 'bad guys' of American History are probably a weakness our country needs to overcome. That being said, Friends: please, NEVER, EVER dress your son (or daughter for that matter) as Robert E. Lee for Halloween. I respect Civil War reenactors, and I do not think that everyone who wears a grey uniform to their Gettysburg club has ethical issues, not at all. Fine hobby. But please. Look at this kid. He's like - ten years old, maybe? Yeah, maybe 10, maybe younger. And he's about to walk around a crowded city street, asking people for candy with the Stars and Bars on his forehead. I'm so, so sorry, kid. I am.

This books was... very thorough. REAL thorough. IT had some fascinating detail, and went deep enough to offer some balance on the issues you always wondered about (which is not to say the authors don't have an agenda to push, they do, and they aren't too shy about it). In answer to Mr. Barca's earlier question about whether the Civil War was caused by States Rights disagreements or Slavery, well, the respected authors maintain the war was caused by the face that all the people with power in the North and South were blind extremists, and the rest of us were dumb enough to elect them. IT was a very discouraging book. I didn't feel any better after I read it, I didn't feel like 'well, the war was painful, but out of this cauldron of sorrow was born the America that was to be'. No, it felt like out of this cauldron was born some halfway aborted attempts at equality, and a whole lot of hatred, corruption, bigotry, and out and out incompetence, that, to be fair, pretty much ruled the nation for the next 50 years or so (I mean, you don't spend a long time thinking about the great historical heroism of Rutherford B Hayes on President's Day).

That isn't to imply the book is bad. It's well written - slightly dated sounding now, the edition I had (blacks are called Negroes, and the writing seems to assume they won't be reading the book, for instance). It gives some brave defense of people you normally don't want to like - Jefferson Davis for instance - and people you had no idea even mattered - Charles Francis Adams. The book simply confirmed for me what I've long suspected about historians - a historian, as their knowledge increases, pretty much has to become an ideologue (Howard Zinn, comes to mind), or a grouch. When it comes right down to it, Abraham Lincoln creeped toward despotism, FDR slept around, etc., etc. I'm avoiding reading a biography of Mother Teresa, Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Jr., or Albert Schweitzer, just because the Civil War has temporarily destroyed my faith in humanity.

You can all help restore it by pledging never to dress your children as Robert E. Lee for Halloween. Even if he was a pretty interesting guy, and a lot nicer than, say, General Butler for the Union. What jerk, that guy was...

PS - Mr. Barca - my personal opinion is that blaming the Civil War on States Rights is like blaming World War I on Archduke Ferdinand sewing himself into his uniform to make the buttons lay flat.


Amanda said...

On the one hand, I will certainly never dress any of our boys up at Robert E. Lee for Halloween. On the other, you have to admit that would be a SCARY costume, and Halloween IS all about being scary...

L said...

The civil war, in general, has destroyed your faith in humanity, or this book on the civil war destroyed it? Do you agree with their assessment then?
Why are historians grouchy? Perhaps it's because they know more truths than we do. The stuff that the history books forgot, or deleted on purpose.

Unknown said...

Well... I wouldn't say Igareed with the author 100%, but I certainly won't deny many of the underlying facts of the case. So, yes, the book has temporarily dented my faith in humanity, but not because it was poorly written, just because it was so thorough. That's the thing, evil, human evil, is usually not exciting and sexy the way it is on TV. It's boring and mundane, guys marching through the south cheerfully pillaging Georgia plantations, Senators contradicting themselves for political expediency, the men running Andersonville letting the prisoners starve to death, because they were starving to near death. It's all ugly and flat and numeric. AS it, probably should be. I wonder sometimes if the Civil War is the first modern war just beause it's the first one that we have so many records of, that we have photographs of the dead on the fields, and congressional depositions on battlefield medicine, etc, etc.

As for historians, you hit the nail on the head. In elementary school, when you learn the civil war, you learn that Abraham Lincoln fought the south to free all the slaves, and the North won, and they fought at Gettysburg, and they wore these really natty grey and blue uniforms. It's not JUST that we sugarcoat our history, it's - again, the real evil and banality of our past is a thorough sort of evil, a heavy feeling you get from a preponderance of facts.Slavery is just such a huge evil, and one that's easy for us to grok. It certainly was evil, and I'm glad teh Civil War went the way it did. Just too bad it had to go the way it did and leave the government to act afterward the way it did in order to end the way it did.

hamilcar barca said...

Jason, your comment hits on one of my "defining moments" in 5th grade.

the teacher was monotoning the history lesson. 1.) The Civil War started in 1861. 2.) it was fought to free the slaves. 3.) Lincoln the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. 4.) it freed the slaves in all the secessionist states.

But not in the "Border states" and not in the North. which got me to thinking - if the Civil War is all about slavery, why did it take Lincoln two years to free the slaves, and why didn't he free them in the whole USA? it seems hypocritical to only free them in the South.

that's when my impressionable brain realized - just because something's written in a textbook, and just because the teacher states something as a fact; doesn't mean it's necessarily so.