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I read a very good book by this author about the battle of Gettysburg last year and was looking forward to this volume. I was somewhat disappointed at first but as I got a better idea what the author wrote instead of what I expected I enjoyed the book and learned a great deal.
I was expecting a narrative survey history of the era similar to Battle Cry of Freedom. Instead I learned that what is "new" about this book is the author's approach to the history of the era. This book contains a more diversified discussion of various topics written with a broad brush emphasizing social and cultural issues over the military history of the war. The military history of the war is most often seen as a result of the political and social events and not so much the cause of them. When I say broad brush I mean that the author wrote about what he felt was important without feeling compelled to make sure that he provided all of the details of a particular subject. Several times he mentioned Robert E. Lee riding his horse without ever telling the reader that the horse was named Traveler. Most books I have read included that information either because the author was showing off or they felt that those types of details were necessary for a thorough historical record. For this book that was an insignificant detail.
Instead of those types of details the author has several discussions on different aspects of the role of women in the history of the Civil War era. He goes far and wide to include women of all walks of life and their participation in different events. I cannot recall another history of this era that mentioned the Seneca Falls convention and its importance. I was not aware that because of his support of women's rights the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison lost control of the American Anti-Slavery Society. This happened in 1840 and is part of a lengthy discussion of the political changes that led up to secession. Guelzo describes in some detail the problems that confronted women when all of the men left home to go to war. Many women joined the work force or had to learn how to manage a 50 acre farm with all of the physical labor that was required.
The political events in the South are given equal time with those of the North which means they receive greater attention than is usual. One of the ongoing themes is the changes that took place in the Confederate government in its fight to survive. The Southerners began by founding a nation and then turned to creating a nation-state whose principles were in many ways contradictory to the state's right ideals they began with. The South began military conscription before the North did and like the North suspended the writ of habeas corpus to deal with internal dissension. The Southern Vice-President was highly critical of the government and spent the last years of the war out of Richmond living in his home in Georgia. Most significant was the enlistment of slaves as soldiers by the Southern army in the last months of the war.
The author provides some insightful criticisms of mistakes made by the South in their handling of the war. The informal embargo on the sale of cotton at the beginning of the war deprived the South of the wealth from their prime economic asset when it was critically needed to build up their army. Their attempt to finance the war by printing money led to inflation which destroyed the economy. At one point in the book the author worked the name of Immanuel Kant into a discussion of the effect of the ideas of the Enlightenment and the Romantic movement on the culture of the South. The discussion focused on the unrealistic and self destructive qualities of Southern political ideology.
The emphasis in this book is not on narrative history but analysis of the people and events which provides some new insights. This is not a book written for someone interested in details about the military or political history of this era. The author has turned away from the standard chronological narrative. He sought new understandings and explanations for what happened and why during this portion of the continuing American revolution. I feel he has made a valuable contribution to a "new" history of of the subject. ( )
7 of 7 people found this review helpful
So right off the bat let me say this is an excellent general overview of the Civil War - but not of Reconstruction. The book is around 20 hours long and he don't even get to Reconstruction until the last hour and a half. So know that coming in and you shouldn't be disappointed.
OK now for the review.
At this point I've read and listened to probably more than a hundred of Civil War books, this would rank near the top of them. This would be a great book for someone that doesn't know much about the Civil War as it is not a military history of the war and it's not in great depth, instead it more or less is a narrative that provides atmosphere and gives you all the fundamentals you need to understand what happened and why. At the same time I still found it interesting as a refresher since it's easy to listen to and well structured. There wasn't a lot of new material in there but the other does a good job of keeping the story moving and not going back over the same material you've read in other history books 100 times. He does bring new narratives to the story, personal accounts and such that I have not heard before and that helps great for the Civil War buff.
Another review said that the book has a southern bias and that's ridiculous, I've read enough Civil War material to know what is biased and what isn't, this clearly falls into the non-biased category.
The reader does an excellent job as well.
So in closing I'd highly recommend this book to people who want to begin to have an understanding of the Civil War and want it in an interesting and easy to read (listen to) format. If you're just starting out this book should be interesting to you and hopefully will work as a bridge to get you into more in-depth reading (listening) later.
Also I very much believe anyone already interested in the Civil War that might want a refresher or just wants a good narrative of the war will enjoy this as well.
I do NOT recommend this for anyone that want's an understanding of Reconstruction as it's breezed through way to quickly to be of any use. If you can get past that this is very very much a 5-star book.
6 of 6 people found this review helpful