Thursday, June 09, 2011

"Everything you know about the Civil War is wrong. Almost."

Based on Joan Walsh’s outstanding critique at, I purchased the Kindle version of this book today. The prospects of a well researched and thoughtful new “big picture” view of the run up to war and the appalling abandonment of African Americans afterwards – the effects of nativism and religion, religious intolerance, and bigotry – and the drawing of parallels to the political landscape 100 years later, is too intriguing to pass up.

I’ll revisit this subject with my own views once I delve into it, but be sure to read Walsh’s review by clicking HERE.

From the review:
Goldfield's book has been well-reviewed, because if it's sympathetic to Southern whites, it depicts the savagery of slavery and post-war white terrorism with unflinching and gut-wrenching clarity. (Literally. The book's tales of slaves' abuse and Southern white post-war savagery will make you sick.) Still, this Civil War history challenges the absolutism of the "Northerners were heroes, and Southerners were vicious, violent racists" school of history. He exposes and excoriates Southern whites' violence against black people before and after the war. But he also links the war to the pro-business evangelical Protestant crusade to eradicate native American Indians, Mexicans, Irish and German Catholic immigrants, and an emerging class of landless Northern laborers – anyone who stood in the way of their vision of clean, hard-working, business-friendly American progress. 
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Harriet Beecher Stowe moved to former Confederate Florida, became an Episcopalian, wrote a best-selling book about home decorating for women, and never again troubled herself about the (former) slaves. Abolitionist Horace Greeley gave up on Reconstruction and black rights quickly. His New York Tribune, which once crusaded against slavery, began to feature "exposes" of Reconstruction, including tales of black "corruption" and political incompetence. Even the Nation magazine, which we remember as a journal of abolitionism, soured on the experiment with black suffrage.
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For many reasons, Northern Republicans gave up on the early goals of Reconstruction: to grant free blacks civil and economic rights. Goldfield quotes a Northerner observing a general desire to forget the war, and particular "apathy about the Negro"shades of the "compassion fatigue" that would be diagnosed by neoconservatives 100 years later, after the Great Society. The parallels between the backlash against Reconstruction, and the backlash against Lyndon Johnson's civil rights reforms, are unmistakable and chilling.  . . .After each morally overdue reckoning, the parties suffered, and then they changed sides. Republicans were trounced after Reconstruction, as Democrats became the party of the South; 100 years later, Democrats were trounced, and Republicans became the party of the South. The Civil War is still not over.


James F. Epperson said...

I will be very interested in your thoughts. From JW's review/synopsis (I read her, avidly), I thought the book very flawed. Certainly much was lost in the failure of Reconstruction; but the author's apparent thesis that emerging evangelical Protestantism was the driving force behind the Civil War seems a stretch.

dw said...

I am wary of the notion that slavery was on its way out even without the war -- which Goldfield apparently promotes. It was going strong in 1860, and the idea of emancipated compensation was roundly rejected in antebellum years. It was far more deeply ingrained than a mere system of economic labor -- it was the foundation of Southern culture for slave owners and non-owners alike.