Civil War Reading

The Civil War wasn’t very civil. There were more American casualties than all the rest of our wars combined. It was ugly and brutal and lasted far longer than any had anticipated.

On summer vacation I read “Battle Cry of Freedom” by James McPherson. It won a Pulitzer Prize so I figured I should give it a try. And why, by the way, have my books been skipped over in this Pulitzer Prize thing? But I digress.
The book is less than 900 pages. Long, but much shorter than some others including Shelby Foote’s trilogy. It is well documented and well written. The well written part is really helpful, especially when there are 900 pages involved.

I note a couple of things that I learned or of which I was reminded.

-Racism was far deeper than much of what is labelled as such today. Many whites thought of blacks as inherently inferior and saw slavery as a means of “protecting” the race from their deficiencies. Maybe we should reserve the word “racist” for something more than disagreements on taxes or minimum wages. While racists attitudes were entrenched in much of Southern society, Northern society had plenty. Much of the Democrat party of the North was firmly planted in such views.

-Changing views were evident throughout the war. Death and dismemberment can lead to changed thinking. Lincoln moved a long way from his early views to reach the Emancipation Proclamation. Perhaps more surprising than his early views that the war was only about preserving the Union with or without slavery was his later view that emancipation of slaves was central to the war effort- and to justice before God.

-Those wishing to abolish slavery were often seen as the bad guys by politicians on both sides. That might not be surprising for politicians of the South who saw slavery as essential to their way of life. But politicians of the North often saw abolitionists as inflexible and demanding. Principles are often sacrificed on the altar of politics. That abolitionists were vilified seems strange today. I hope it seems strange to future generations that those who were pro-life were vilified.

-Much got done in the rest of the country. Without the South, Democrats of the North had little clout in congress. Republicans were able to push through many things that had long been points of contention or which were forced to work through compromises. States were added to the Union- all of them free states. The transcontinental railroad was approved and would change the country dramatically. The war effort took up most of the oxygen in the room, but many significant things happened in the country as the party in power flexed.

-Discourse was rude. Leaders and politicians of the day used the most flowery language to say mean and cruel things. Lincoln was called nasty things even by those in the North who disagreed with him. Politicians cut each other to pieces with prose that was beautiful outside the content. People spoke in superlatives. Everything was the greatest or the worst. Newspapers were bitterly partisan. Southern newspaper editors spoke of confederate president Jefferson Davis in ways that would have sounded uncharitable from Northern editors.

I was reminded while reading that God is still Lord. He is bigger than all of our national problems and stronger than all of our spiritual blindness. He can change hearts and lives even in the midst of storms. What must have seemed like the end of all things to our countrymen in those days was really a new beginning. America discovered again the value of freedom. We began to believe that all men are created equal and that all men have inalienable rights.

Our country is not where it needs to be today. But God is exactly where He needs to be. Let’s trust Him and His ways as we face the future.

2 responses to “Civil War Reading

  1. Interesting. I may put that book on my reading list. I have thought of reading Shelby Foote’s trilogy, but haven’t carved out the time yet. I recently read a biography of Mark Twain and two books on the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, so I’ve been reading a lot in 19th century American history. You are certainly right that racism ran much deeper and cruel and mean things were said with superlative words. It was a very different way of thinking than today’s world.

  2. Bob,
    Foote is worthy of some time carving!

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