"The past is never dead. It's not even past," wrote William Faulkner. Here, Drew Gilpin Faust, a leading historian of the American Civil War and former President of Harvard, recommends the best books to read about the conflict between North and South that tore the United States apart from 1861 till 1865 – and beyond.
To set the scene for our discussion of books about the American Civil War, please tell me about your book, This Republic of Suffering, which illuminates the toll of the war.
The American Civil War was fought, from 1861 through 1865, over sectional issues between North and South, including questions of slavery and the power of the central government to enforce its will within the United States. Southern States maintained that they had the right to perpetuate slavery not only within their own borders, but in the expanding nation. As new territories came into American national control, in the aftermath of a war with Mexico in the 1840s, the question of the place of slavery in the nation and the exercise of federal power to determine that place forced a confrontation between the Northern States, which after the American Revolution had gradually abolished slavery within their own borders, and the Southern States, where slavery was a fundamental economic force. That caused a confrontation that led to a conflagration unexpected in its dimensions.
I wrote Republic of Suffering after working on the Civil War for decades. As I completed a book about Southern women, I recognized that they were saying something to me that I hadn’t seen made clear before—that the Civil War death toll transformed those who survived. The most distinctive and widespread experience of the Civil War was the loss of loved ones. During the Civil War there had been a transformation in how death was treated. In that sense, the Civil War was a pivotal moment in not just our national history, but in human history.
Modern demographic analyses estimate that about 750,000 people died during the Civil War, in connection with military activity. That is aside from the civilian deaths, which we have no way of estimating. Those 750,000 deaths were two and a half per cent of the population during that period. A similar percentage of the United States population today translates into more than 7 million people. If we think about what the loss of 7 million people would mean in the United States, we can see—as we’re seeing unfold before our eyes with coronavirus—the way widespread death takes an enormous toll on the citizenry, even those who aren’t the bereaved. The scale of death raised questions about government policies, approaches to medicine and the social structures of late nineteenth century America.
That book and its impact are critiqued in one of the books I did recommend, which is David Blight’s Race and Reunion. As he points out, after the war a battle over the memory of the war began. The South portrayed its efforts as militarily astute and admirable. The notion that slavery was a cause of the war disappears from Southern writing. Slave plantations are portrayed as honorable and idyllic, without any hint of the horrors of slavery.
“The most distinctive and widespread experience of the Civil War was the loss of loved ones”
The Lost Cause was part of a movement by the defeated to recast the meaning of the war. It was an effective effort. As David Blight points out in Race and Reunion, the Civil War’s emancipationist legacy—as a victory for human possibility, black citizenship and equal justice before the law—becomes eroded by the efforts of Pollard and others in the South who conveyed a reconciliationist message— emphasizing the bravery of both sides and marginalizing the promises to freedman which were part of the purpose of the Northern war effort and the post-Civil War amendments. The guarantee of black male suffrage under the 15th Amendment and the 14th Amendment guarantees of citizenship were further marginalized by Supreme Court decisions made after the emergence of the ‘lost cause’ view.
Turning to your other recommendations, you chose a biography of the 16th President of the United States, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery by Eric Foner.
It’s a brilliant book by one of the most brilliant historians writing about nineteenth century America. The Fiery Trial is a study of a subject that has been much debated over recent years, which is how fervently Abraham Lincoln opposed slavery and how he came to the determination to end slavery, after a life of not being so forward-leaning on the question. The Fiery Trial is an excellent overview of how slavery came to end and Lincoln’s role in ending it. It’s also a fascinating study of the challenges of political leadership, of the compromises Lincoln has to make and the moments he can seize the initiative to drive what Foner defines as Lincoln’s long-held vision of ending slavery.
Foner is perhaps preeminent among the group of historians who revised the way the Civil War and Reconstruction was perceived in the wake of the civil rights movement. How was the way we see the Civil War shifted in the 1960s?
Since the days of Pollard and The Lost Cause, slavery had been portrayed as “a benevolent institution.” That was overturned in the civil rights era of the 1960s. Historians laid bare the cruelty and brutality of slavery. From the civil rights era on, there was also much more emphasis on African Americans as agents of their own destiny, who contested and sought escape from slavery. There was also a return to the recognition of slavery as the major cause of the Civil War.
Foner also helped reconfigure our understanding of Reconstruction. Reconstruction had been interpreted for many years as a terrible period during which incompetent ex-slaves were put into office and together with white Northerners exploited oppressed Southern society. The revised version of Reconstruction acknowledged that the 14th and 15th Amendments guaranteed African American men the rights of citizenship and the vote, and that their efforts to secure education and protection from the rampant violence directed at former slaves by whites were entirely appropriate.
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So, Foner and others overturned the notion of Reconstruction, recasting Reconstruction as a time of enormous possibility, during which we could have solved some of the racial dilemmas that still plague the USA today. But the national will for intervention in the South eroded, so the white South once again took control. Through violence, intimidation, imprisonment and economic exploitation, Southerners created a white supremacist system that persisted well into the twentieth century and continues to shape our lives today.
Next, Stephanie McCurry’s Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South.
This is such an original book. It offers a fresh perspective on the Confederacy by looking beyond the elected representatives and other traditional foci of political history. Stephanie points out that there were 12 million individuals in the Confederate States and only 2 million of them were consulted about secession, through elections or representation. Another 10 million Southerners, including women and enslaved people, were not consulted.
In the war on the horizon, the South was overmatched, in resources and population, so it needed to mobilize its entire population. Women and enslaved people, who had never before been offered any participatory role in society, had leverage because their labor and loyalty were essential to the Confederate cause. Stephanie points out that white women, defining themselves as ‘soldiers’ wives,’ asserted claims on the state, the right to be consulted and provided help in feeding their families. Similarly, the enslaved population was able to assert more power over their lives because their labor was more necessary than ever. So, the Confederate South compromised some of the assumptions about female dependence and black suppression, which had been defining principles before the war.
The book is done brilliantly, with extensive research and insight into the experiences of these two populations. When I taught this book in a spring seminar, the students felt these stories opened a new window into Civil War.
Southern secessionists were “attempting to escape history,” according to McCurry. Was the attempt to establish a proslavery republic of white men really an anachronistic endeavor even at the time?
In many ways, the Confederacy was a last gasp, an effort to sustain an institution that was eroding in the rest of the world. But it was a last gasp effort infused with confidence. Clearly, many Southerners believed that their ‘way of life’ could be sustained if they seceded.
William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom is on your list. What does Faulkner’s most challenging work tell us about the construction of the Confederacy?
It’s an emotionally powerful book about race in the South. The other books that I’ve recommended are straightforward. William Faulkner is something else. Faulkner gives you nightmares, he gets inside your psyche and presents the terrors of the South. And he does it in such an interesting way.
Absalom, Absalom, in its own right, is a representation of how history works. The narrators keep going back to try to find out what really happened during the Civil War period. They go through a historical process of excavating the past and coming to terms with terrible truths.
“To move forward, we must understand our history and combat its capacity to drag us down”
Why did their ancestors do what they did? Why does the South continue to be haunted by the Civil War? Faulkner explores many different explanations, but finally comes down to race.
Absalom, Absalom is quite old. It was written in the 1930s, much earlier than the other books I recommended. And yet the notion that we must come to terms with our racial sins is extraordinarily timely.
Faulkner’s main character, Thomas Sutpen, seems driven by a consciousness of class and caste that comes from the fact that he’s an Appalachian transplant seeking some sort of legitimacy in Southern society. What role did class play in the creation of Confederate nationalism, an issue that you explore in your book, The Creation of Confederate Nationalism?
Faulkner’s representation of Wash Jones, Thomas Sutpen, the Coldfields, the Compsons and the Snopes family offers enormous insight into class divisions in the South. (By the way, Stephanie McCurry’s first book, Masters of Small Worlds, regarding white yeoman farmers of low country, South Carolina, addresses this really forcefully as well.) The extent to which white solidarity across class lines is sustained, despite the way the Southern system worked to the disadvantage of impoverished whites, is fascinating. The notion that whiteness was a privilege was powerful enough to ensure unity under the Confederacy. Race and class both contributed to the power dynamics that operated in Southern society and national society too.
The 18th President of the United States is the author of your next suggestion. Please tell me about the Annotated Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant.
As I thought about how to reduce the hundreds and hundreds of Civil War books to just five, I got some categories in my head. One was something about the Confederacy. One was something about Lincoln. One was a work of fiction. And then I thought I should include a book about the military experience of the war, which historiography has not focused on as much in the last decade or two, as we’ve explored the previously neglected social and cultural dimensions of the Civil War. So, I thought, of course I have to choose the Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant.
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This extraordinary book, one of the most accomplished literary achievements of American letters, is written by the former Union general and president. It gives tremendous insight into how someone at the heart of the war effort thought about day-to-day decisions. He was known as an effective general in part because he could write a straightforward order that those around him could easily understand and execute. That is certainly borne out in this volume. Grant writes in such a manner that you feel like you’re standing beside him.
You recommend the edition edited by Elizabeth Samet. Why?
The annotations in this edition are almost like a textbook, they go into great depth about the history of the war. The editor, Elizabeth Samet, teaches literature at West Point. So, she’s both a literature person and a person steeped in military culture. That background enabled her to gain insights into the memoir, which she makes accessible in the annotation.
Final question: In This Republic of Suffering and in Mothers of Invention you explore how the convulsions of the Civil War changed America and how “the tenacious hold of traditionalism” led to the recrudescence of racial and other hierarchies. We are currently living through a convulsive time, with COVID and protests against recalcitrant racial injustice. Please illuminate how the tenacity of traditionalism leads to retrogression after progress.
It’s a timely question. When I was writing these books, I was more hopeful than I am now that we had moved far forward as a country. But there’s always the potential for pullback. That is why we should never be complacent. We need to recognize that even when we think we’ve transcended history, we remain in the grip of history. To move forward, we must understand our history and combat its capacity to drag us down.
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