Civil War Reading

Today let me recommend two good books about a pivotal event in US history, the American Civil War. Both of these books are rather hefty volumes (totalling over 1600 pages between them) which makes the ongoing winter evenings a perfect time to tackle them.

The first title I would like to recommend is Battle Cry of Freedom: The American Civil War by James M. McPherson.

Battle Cry of FreedomAs history books go this is definitely one of the best I have ever read. McPherson, a professor of American history at Princeton University, managed to pull quite a feat by squeezing a detailed history of the conflict into a single (albeit, at 860 pages, quite heavy) volume. The book actually covers the period from the 1846-1848 war with Mexico which in many ways led to the Civil War nearly 20 years later. The first few chapters brilliantly describe socio-economic and political differences which led to the South’s secession and ultimately the war. It also explains in quite a lot of detail the complicated political machinations, initially to avoid the war (there was even a proposal of war with Britain to unite the country around the common cause) and later to mobilise public opinion, both north and south, for the war. There is also of course the story of the rise of Abraham Lincoln and of the bloody conflict in Kansas before the actual war even started.

After that the bulk of the book contains a detailed military history of the war. McPherson’s descriptions of the battles are so vivid that you can almost smell the gunpowder and hear the shots. But, among all the detailed descriptions, he still doesn’t lose the wider picture of the changing strategic objectives of the war nor of the complicated politics, both north and south. He also explains quite eloquently how the superior economic power of the north ultimately led to its victory.

Apart from being a great and detailed history of this important conflict it is also a damn good and easy to read book. Initially I reached for it because I wanted to deepen my knowledge of the Civil War, especially after my recent trip to the Deep South where most of it was fought. I was ready to take it slowly but as I progressed through the bulky volume I just couldn’t stop reading. At times it almost read like a good novel as McPherson uses a narrative style throughout the book. Unlike many historical accounts, it definitely isn’t a dry book.

So, if you are looking for something more than a basic history of the American Civil War, but don’t want to commit to some multi-volume series, this is the perfect book for you. But even if you are not particularly interested in this conflict and just want some vivid military history for the long winter evenings, go for it too.

The second title I would like to recommend is A World on Fire: An Epic History of Two Nations Divided by Amanda Foreman.

A World on FireNow, this is a very different book (apart from the size, as it is also over 800 pages long). It focuses on the British-American relationship during the conflict. At the centre of the book are four main characters: Lord Lyons, the British Ambassador in Washington; William Seward, the US Secretary of State; Charles Francis Adams, the U.S. ambassador in London; and the Foreign Secretary Lord John Russell. Through their eyes Foreman describes the complicated diplomatic dance which at times brought both countries close to declaring war on each other, but ultimately avoided an open conflict. What makes this book particularly interesting is the wealth of the source materials, like letters and journals, which the author quotes frequently. Apart from the correspondence of the four main characters of the book she also quotes journalists, war correspondents, soldiers on both sides (from military commanders to conscripted privates) as well as ordinary people caught in the conflict. These many quotations make this book much slower to read than the previous one but also make it very colourful and “tasty”, if I can call it that way. Some of the most interesting quotes come from the staunchly pro-southern correspondent of The Times, Sir William Howard Russell. She also describes how the war games were played in Britain too. From the Confederacy’s secret ship-building programme, through the Union’s countermeasures (including a spy ring in Liverpool), to the propagandists’ efforts to influence British public opinion.

I found the last aspect the most interesting one. Through a careful and clever campaign run by an efficient network of emissaries, the South managed to convinced a big chunk of British public opinion (as well as most of the press and aristocracy) that they were fighting a just war for independence and freedom from the oppressive regime in the North. I found it astonishing how the British public, which held quite strong antislavery views, fell for it. What’s even more interesting is the story of how the British government and top politicians resisted the pressure of public opinion to join the war on the South’s side or at least to officially recognize the Confederacy as a state (which would inevitable lead to a war with the Union). I wonder if such restraint would be possible in modern politics dominated by constant chasing of public opinion polls?

I absolutely enjoyed this book. Yes, with frequent quotes in often quite old fashioned English, it was a much harder read than McPherson’s book but on the other hand all those details and quotes allowed me to completely lose myself in the story. I guess it also helps that I have a particular interest in the history of British-American connections.

So, two very different books, broadly about the same subject, both well worth a read and both quite sizeable. As I mentioned already, start with McPherson’s history of the war. Then if you still have time, will and looking for something quirky and different reach for A World of Fire too.

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