Wednesday, March 2, 2011

America’s Great Civil War

Some interesting tid-bits for those of you out there who consider yourselves U.S. Civil War buffs.
by Charlie Leck

This will be a brief blog even though it’s tempting to go into a long dissertation about America’s civil war and its roots.

Last fall I took an extraordinary on-line course from Yale University. I did it because I have an intense interest in that period of America history. Yale makes a great contribution to society by allowing anyone to take these video courses just as if they were a student in the classroom. I personally really appreciate this remarkable gift. So, I approached the class with great commitment and discipline and did all the readings on time, wrote papers and took exceedingly thorough lecture notes. A great advantage in taking a class like this is that you can rewind! Miss a little something – or the professor is going a little too quickly – or you just need time to think about something – and you can hit the pause button and even back-up to go over something again.

David W. Blight, PhD., taught the class I took (Civil War & Reconstruction, History 119). He was remarkably good.

The syllabus was extensive and led me along to some books I would never have otherwise read. I’ll include it at the end of the blog for any of you who might be interested.

The course concentrated heavily on the institution of slavery as the economic engine that drove the South and the expansion of the great Southwest.

Frederick Douglas
The course also led me into a new appreciation for Frederick Douglas and I’ve gone far beyond the course requirements now in reading and learning so very much about his life and contribution to America. He was an extraordinary man.

In this morning’s New York Time there is a very good Opinionator post about Frederick Douglas that is written by Dr. Blight. I really recommend it to you. In two paragraphs buried within this piece, Blight paints a graphic picture of the conundrum the nation faced on the eve of the brutal and divisive war.

“Douglass minced no words in announcing his own definition of the secessionists: They were ‘traitors and rebels’ who had ‘robbed, plundered, insulted, spit upon, and defiled’ the United States government, he angrily wrote in February. ‘Treason’ and ‘Armed Rebellion,’ he complained, were ‘now simply the sovereign right of Secession, and the execution of the Laws is now called ‘Coercion.’’ To Douglass, the secessionists were the mortal enemies of the ‘Government’ (which he began to capitalize), as well as of his cause of abolition. Traitors merited no quarter, and he repeatedly insisted on his own label for their movement – the ‘treasonable, Slaveholding Confederacy.

“But secessionist treason was ‘exceeded’ by Northern acquiescence, Douglass contended, in ‘the sneaking cowardice and pitiful imbecility of the Government [the Buchanan administration], and the Northern people, who are mobbing down freedom of speech, crying ‘no coercion,’ and whining for compromise.’ Douglass had been practicing this kind of rhetoric about slaveholders for years; by 1861, it was as if the secessionists had flipped his switch into overdrive.”

Abraham Lincoln
Douglas had plenty of doubts about Abraham Lincoln on the eve of his inauguration. So many rumors circulated about the in-coming President that Douglas didn’t know which to believe. Of course, we know that Douglas ended up very much in favor of Lincoln’s approach to the war, though somewhat disappointed in the President’s lack of planning for the reconstruction of the South and the introduction of the slaves into citizenship. He did, during the war, pay three personal and friendly visits to the President within the White House.

Blight’s on-line course sent me scurrying to find a host of books about Lincoln that I have consumed joyfully in the last few months.

The New York Times is doing us a great service now by running a massive series on the U.S. Civil War. It is an extraordinary educational opportunity for all of us. The entries are written as if reported from the field by the reporters of the time. Here, for instance, is last October’s entry that carries the dateline Oct 31, 1860. From it, you can be led into all the current dispatches.

The Complete Civil War
The New York Times has also published a very thorough account of the civil war as it was made by its reporters directly from the field – well over 100,000 eye witness accounts and dispatches – that includes a companion DVD. You can find out about the publication here. I’ve ordered mine and can’t wait for its arrival.


As promised, here’s the syllabus from the Yale on-line course I mention above:


This course will explore the causes, course, and consequences of the American Civil War, from the 1840s to 1877. The primary goal of the course is to understand the multiple meanings of a transforming event in American history. Those meanings may be defined in many ways: national, sectional, racial, constitutional, individual, social, intellectual, or moral. We will especially examine four broad themes: the crisis of union and disunion in an expanding republic; slavery, race, and emancipation as national problem, personal experience, and social process; the experience of modern, total war for individuals and society; and the political and social challenges of Reconstruction. The course attempts, in several ways, to understand the interrelationships between regional, national, and African-American history. And finally, we hope to probe the depths of why the Civil War era has a unique hold on the American historical imagination.


Bruce Levine, Half Slave and Half Free: The Roots of the Civil War. Hill and Wang.

David Blight, Why the Civil War Came. New York: Oxford University.

Charles R. Dew, Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War. University of Virginia Press.

Drew G. Faust, Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War. University of North Carolina Press.

E. L. Doctorow, The March. Random House.

Eric Foner, A Short History of Reconstruction, 1863-1877. Harper & Row.

Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, ed. by David W. Blight. Bedford Books.

Gary Gallagher, The Confederate War: How Popular Will, Nationalism, and Military Strategy Could Not Stave Off Defeat.Harvard University Press.

James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom. Oxford University Press.

Louisa May Alcott, Hospital Sketches, ed. by Alice Fahs. Bedford Books.

Michael P. Johnson, ed., Abraham Lincoln, Slavery, and the Civil War. Bedford Books.

Nicholas Lemann, Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War. Farrar Strauss Giroux.

William Gienapp, ed., Civil War and Reconstruction: A Documentary Collection. Norton.

We are using two anthologies of documents (Gienapp and Johnson). Teaching Assistants will have discretion in assigning particular documents for each week's sections, and many such documents will be especially important for use in paper assignments. James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era is provided largely as background reading. For further background reading on the post-war period you may want to consult David W. Blight,Race and Reunion: The Civil War In American Memory.


Films will be scheduled during the course: especially several episodes of the PBS series, "The Civil War." The film, "Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Civil War," will also be assigned. Selections of Civil War era poetry may also be provided at times during the course.


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1 comment:

  1. Do you think the other nations of the world at that time i.e. Europe, Norway, Sweden, etc., thought the U.S. barbaric in the use of slavery? England decried it openly at some point during the height of slave trade to the U.S.