REVIEW – A short history of the American Civil War

2 mins read
Paul Christopher Anderson
Bloomsbury, £13.49 (pbk)
ISBN 978-1780765983

I can recommend this book, but not for the reasons given by the publisher. Part of a large ‘short history’ series that now runs to almost 50 titles, ranging from the Mongols to the Weimar Republic, the clear implication is that this is a handy newcomer’s introduction. It is not.

An introduction has to narrate the basic story, explain the driving forces, and do this in a clear, concise, accessible way. If you want a brilliant primer of this kind on the American Civil War, there is none better than that by Bruce Catton.

First published in the US in 1960, my copy is a Penguin edition that came out in 1966. I got it when I was a kid, it fired my lifelong interest in the war, and it is a book I love and have gone back to many times.

Anderson, an American history professor who has taught about the war for 20 years – ‘a Southerner teaching in South Carolina’, he tells us – has written a different sort of book. The kind of book you might read after reading Catton’s to get an update on recent scholarly debates – to get a feel for the lie of the land, academically speaking, 70 years on.

Let me give an example. Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg gets three or four short sentences, but the debate about its wisdom between Lee and Longstreet, which rumbled on long after the war and has been endlessly discussed by Civil War historians and buffs ever since, gets two pages. The emphasis is on the debate, not the action.

And the prose, I have to say, is not always an easy read. ‘Yet there seems something at least equally strange, something not quite right, with Lee’s self-evident, manifest Id-desire for offensive war running headlong into his more protective personality traits, crenellated as these were within a certain withholding quality, whether called dignity or restraint or reluctance.’

That sentence is too complex, the ideas too compressed, and the result is doubt about what is actually being said. And is psychoanalysis of Lee the key to understanding the battle – at least when it comes to a ‘short history’?

I am being critical, but I do not want to deter readers. I just want to warn that this may not be so much an introduction as an insightful commentary for readers who already know a fair bit about the war.

Particularly useful, to my mind, is the way Anderson takes the basic issue – slavery – and explores the limitations of the emancipation actually achieved at such phenomenal cost in blood (he pushes the death-toll estimate above 800,000).

He talks tellingly about how few Northerners were genuine abolitionists, about how pervasive racism was, about the resurgence of racial oppression in the South after the war, about the rise of the Klan and the failure of Reconstruction, and about a Gone With the Wind myth that poisoned US race relations for a century and, in some sense, is still woven into the fabric of American society.

A real strength of Anderson’s book is the way he situates the Civil War as the central, defining, nation-building event of US history – more important even than the Revolutionary War.

This I agree with. In America’s two-stage ‘bourgeois revolution’, the second stage was paramount, not just because 30 times as many Americans died in the Civil War as in the Revolutionary War – yes, 30 times as many – but because internecine carnage on this scale turns the Civil War into, as Anderson puts it, ‘America’s epic poem’. That’s neat: the Aeneid of America.

Review by Neil Faulkner

This article was published in the April 2020 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.

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