With some 50,000 books published on the American Civil War – and many more in the pipeline this year as 2011 marks the 150th anniversary of the war’s beginning – you can be forgiven for asking, “Another?” But David Goldfield’s America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation is a riveting, comprehensive, and delightful piece of historical writing.
Goldfield, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, has written or edited 16 books, and he is a wonderful storyteller with a facile, compact prose style that transforms complex historical ingredients into a savory meal. While not skimping on the details, he doesn’t allow the reader to get lost in them, either. Did you know that in November 1864, President Lincoln attended the theater in Washington and was so taken with the performance of an actor that he invited the thespian to the White House? John Wilkes Booth demurred.
Another telling factoid: After the Civil War, the organization of Union veterans barred from membership all Irish-Americans. Such un-American attitudes didn’t bode well for the postwar fate of African-Americans.
Indeed, Goldfield makes the argument that many Americans of that era were antagonistic toward other groups whom they viewed as a menace to the nation’s progress. There were the Mexicans, defeated in 1848 by a bevy of US generals who would square off against one another 13 years later. (When Grant and Lee met at Appomattox in 1865, they reminisced about their Mexican War service before getting down to brass tacks.)
And, of course, there were the Roman Catholics, who harbored an alien religion, and myriad Indian nations, who made their home where the buffalo roamed.
Antipathy toward slaveholders wasn’t so much moral fervor – abolitionists were a distinct, and at times detested, minority in the North – as it was a question of who would populate the new Western lands: free white Americans or Southerners with slaves in tow? In the eyes of Northerners, slave labor was the only thing worse than low-wage immigrants, and it was the expansion of slavery into the territories that concerned Northerners more than the fact that slavery existed.
Southerners, on the other hand, realized that without new slave states, they would be increasingly marginalized politically.
Goldfield doesn’t really break new ground. He agrees with his mentor, Avery Craven of the University of Maryland, that also-ran politicians – such as President James Buchanan, who followed giants like Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and John C. Calhoun – were not up to the challenge of avoiding a bloody civil war. He also blames the infusion of evangelical religious fervor into politics as a key factor in making compromise virtually impossible as the 1850s progressed.
The incivility in Washington during the 1850s, highlighted by an incident in which one senator viciously assaulted another with a cane, makes our modern pols look like pikers.
The book’s one flaw is that Goldfield asserts that the tragedy of the Civil War was avoidable, and that slavery, its expansion, and its very existence, could have been solved without resort to violence. He never explains how this might have occurred, other than to assert that more adept politicians would have found a way.
Elsewhere, Goldfield maintains that Americans were used to using violence to get their way – against Mexico, against Indians, and against immigrants and labor unions. They did so because it worked.
That violence was not a good strategy for the South is evident in the postwar statistics Goldfield cites: Two-thirds of the South’s wealth disappeared (it would take six decades to bring it back to what it was in 1860); a quarter of its men between the ages of 20 and 40 died; and in the greatest internal migration in our history, more than 28 million Southerners, black and white, fled the defeated, stagnating Confederate states in the decades following the war.
What, then, did this imperfect war fought by imperfect men for imperfect ends finally signify? Goldfield sums it up nicely: “America’s second century would become more inclusive, and it would do so primarily because the Union victory had saved the ideals of the first century.”
David Holahan is a freelance writer in East Haddam, Conn.