This post is part of a series in which I’m dedicating a month to learning about periods in history this year. The full schedule can be found here. This is month four/five. (tl;dr at the bottom of this post)
I took some extra time for the Civil War. That was partially because I wanted to read more books, and partially because this was a time period on which I feel especially ignorant. It’s also one that seems – still – to come up in policy and arguments today. My understanding of the Civil War before this month was North (good) versus South (bad), pro- versus anti-slavery. Ugh. No. After getting suggestions from all of you, I found that most of them corresponded to Ta-Nehisi Coates’s suggestions of books to make you less stupid about the Civil War. I read those five first. Let’s begin.
I started with Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, by James M. McPherson. Really good straight up history book. My only complaint about it, if there is a complaint to be made, is that it’s almost too big. It covers so much. You feel like this could be a textbook in a semester-long course, not just something you try and read in a week. That’s not a problem with the book, so much as it’s a problem with my ambition. I think someday I’d like to go back and read it again now that I feel like I know more about the period in general. If I had to point to some highlights, I found it fascinating how long problems had been brewing under the surface in the United States before things broke down in 1860-61. I mean, long before The Mexican War there were issues with slavery and how the different states were handling the problem. And while we’re on the subject, The Mexican War was crazy enough, not just because all the major players from the Civil War were “on the same team” for that one. McPherson does a fantastic job in the run-up to the war, laying out the rationale for the war in the South not being only about a right to own slaves, but also for the necessity of new states to get to own slaves, too. Still, this book felt more like I was absorbing facts than attaining a greater understanding of the time period.
That changed with The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, by Frederick Douglass. My god. This can be a hard book to read, at times, and if it were fiction, I am sure it would have been toned down, because no editor would have believed it. The depictions of slavery, and what it was like to be in it, are simple and brutal. I just can’t fathom how people lived like that, but there you go. The man himself is astounding as well. To come through what he did, to be as generous and thoughtful as he was – I just don’t know what muscle to flex. If there was one book to read to make yourself less dumb about slavery – this is it. The chapter where he meets with some of his previous owners after slavery is abolished floored me. I don’t know if I have the capacity to be that forgiving.
In a similar vein, Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household, by Thavolia Glymph, will definitely make you less dumb about how Southern households functioned. Douglass’ book focused on the slavery of the fields, of labor. This book focuses on the slavery in the house, specifically the ways in which the white women who “ran” plantation houses dealt with the more domestic slaves who did the work. Don’t kid yourself that such slaves had it “easier” or that there were more “loving” relationships between the women of the south and their slaves. Life was brutal in slavery, period. It was telling how much trouble white households had adjusting to the reconstruction period after losing “help” around the house. It was also fascinating to watch freed slaves figure out that they needed to be hired for “jobs” rather than as “help”, because it was in the nature of post-slave owners to think you could still buy a person as opposed to employing them for a job.
I can also recommend Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters, by Elizabeth Brown Pryor. Anyone who wants to argue that Lee was somehow against slavery should read this book. As the title suggests, you get a lot of actual writing from the man himself. You get to hear from him in his own voice. A lot of the arguments around Lee today seem to center on the fact that he was a “man of his time”. That’s hard to swallow. There were a LOT of radical abolitionists in Lee’s time, and most of the “civilized” world was anti-slavery. I can’t put this better than the author, though, who smacks down the argument that he’s great because greatness dwelled within:
[G]reatness must embody a farsightedness that reaches beyond the complacency of one’s narrow experience. It must rise above convention, and clearly advance a larger set of truths than those commonly held. It is hard to see such transcendent importance in Lee because his actions were tied to questionable mores, which were already largely rejected in his day, and were neither morally defensible nor sustainable over time. The tragedy is that he allowed his essentially noble spirit to founder in the ignobility of his era’s easy assumptions. Even had he won the war, and helped to carve out a new nation with a unique political structure, its foundation inevitable would have collapsed under the global condemnation of human slavery – which Lee himself admitted.
One more thing about the book stuck with me. Marriage sort of sucked back then:
Women of this time were far from giddy about the prospect of marriage, and more likely than men to view the transition with foreboding. Concerned about separation from their families and the gamble they were making on their future, many young women were inclined to prolong the engagement period… For women, marriage could also mean the loss of personal liberty and the beginning of an existence in which a man’s wished shaped her fate… Added to this was the loss of virginity, a pivotal event for most young women, and the very real fear of mortality during childbirth. In light of these factors, marriage for many girls denoted separation and death as much as it did union and fresh life.
I’m sure there are many who still feel the same way, but it was still brutal.
Next, I read Grant, by Ron Chernow. Let me tell you, Grant doesn’t get enough credit in the pantheon of great presidents. Even before he took on that role, he absolutely kicked butt in the West. I was brought up on Eastern Civil War battles, but a lot of pivotal stuff happened elsewhere. Grant made that happen. He’s most famous today because he eventually took over the Eastern front and finally moved the army into gear. He also seemed a master of logistics and in army management, not just in strategy.
Yeah, the man had problems with alcohol, but he also struggled to better himself. He was clearly brilliant. He trusted too much in men who didn’t deserve it, both during his presidency – leading to scandals – and after – leading to financial ruin. But he also led the country with a pretty clear moral compass through an incredibly difficult time. I loved the part of the book after his presidency the most when he and his wife Julia (also amazing, by the way) toured the world. The leaders of pretty much every country received him like royalty (which made me cry at times). And, when faced with his own mortality from cancer, the man sat down and wrote 300,000 plus words that made Mark Twain (who published his memoirs) declare Grant an unrivaled literary genius. His book sold a ridiculous number of copies and set up his wife for life, and that’s likely all he wanted at the end. Someday I will have to go read that.
People will always love Hamilton, because you know – Broadway – but this book is better.
Finally, I read Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, by Doris Kearns Goodwin, and I’m going to spend a bit of time on this one, because it is even better than everyone says. First, let me just praise the framing of this book. Goodwin starts by bringing us up to speed on Lincoln and his chief rivals for the 1860 Republican nomination: William H. Seward, Salmon P. Chase, and Edward Bates. You also get to meet some others, like Edwin Stanton, who messes with Lincoln as a lawyer. I thought I knew a decent amount about Lincoln, but I was pretty ignorant about the others (except knowing that Seward was responsible for the purchase of Alaska). But they’re pivotal to understanding the time, and they were very important gears in his administration.
These men were aghast that Lincoln won the Presidential nomination. Like Obama beating Clinton in 2007, the establishment was not prepared. One of the things I didn’t get about the time was that while the Republicans were the “anti-slavery” party in history, they still had a pretty wide spread of politics. The more conservative of them were “ok” with slavery as long as it stayed in the South, or even in their own houses, but they didn’t want it to spread. The more radical thought it an abomination. Lincoln straddled the middle, but if anything seemed a bit more on the conservative side in his public persona. Chase and Bates were pretty radical.
Seward was more conservative. He was not an abolitionist, at least not at the start. His wife, Frances, however, was. She was also a boss. She took him to task:
Nor did she spare him whenever she detected a blatantly conciliatory tone in his speeches or writings. While she conceded that “worldly wisdom certainly does impel a person to ‘swim with the tide’ – and if they can judge unerringly which way the tide runs, may bring them to port,” she continued to argue for “a more elevated course” that would “reconcile one to struggling against the current if necessary.”
Later, she goes after him – in writing – for a speech he delivered as secession was becoming all too real:
“Eloquent as your speech was it fails to meet the entire approval of those who love you best,” she began. “You are in danger of taking the path which led Daniel Webster to an unhonored grave ten years ago. Compromises based on the idea that the preservation of the Union is more important than the liberty of nearly 4,000,000 human beings cannot be right. The alteration of the Constitution to perpetuate slavery – the enforcement of a law to recapture a poor, suffering fugitive… these compromises cannot be approved by God or supported by good men…
“No one can dread war more than I do,” she continued; “for 16 years I have prayed earnestly that our son might be spared the misfortune of raising his hand against his fellow man – yet I could not to day assent to the perpetuation or extenuation of slavery to prevent war. I say this in no spirit of unkindness… but I must obey the admonitions of conscience which impel me to warn you of your dangers.”
Like I said – a boss. Every time she made an appearance in the book I got excited.
Anyway, Lincoln took these “rivals” and made them all cabinet members. None was more powerful than Seward, who became Secretary of State. Then Lincoln went on to balance them, befriend them, win them over. And then he did the same to the rest of the country. You almost get the sense he did this retail, one American at a time. If there’s any flaw in this book, it’s in the fact that it makes Lincoln out to be a perfect man. He might have been. He seemed almost unflappable. He also seemed to be the greatest politician ever to have lived. He knew exactly how far he could push people. He knew how to win everyone over.
I think it’s important to point out that today, he likely would have been decried as “weak” and “compromising” by progressives. He straddled and gave in again, and again, and again. Yet – he somehow achieved what everyone wanted. They never understood how he got there, and told him he was wrong the whole way, but what he accomplished was unbelievable. He also seemed a genius, a gifted writer, and a literal strongman. I would give anything to know how much of that was true.
One other thing that struck me throughout the book was how many Americans today misunderstand the framing of the war. I hear people all the time argue about whether the war was about “slavery” or “states’ rights”. There was a debate back then, but it seemed to take place entirely in the North. The South – that was about slavery. As historians better than me have pointed out, it’s right there in the secession documents. But in the North, there were plenty of conservatives who did not want slavery to end. Lincoln recognized this, and knew he had to keep the slave-owning border states in The Union, so he allowed and fostered the belief that this was all about “preserving the Union”, which totally pissed off the abolitionists who wanted him to admit the war was about slavery. But he fought tooth and nail to never, ever let the war be about slavery, for fear that would splinter the North.
The Emancipation Proclamation just freed states in the South. Not in the North. Slavery was still totally legal there. In fact, he did it that way because it was politically palatable to the North to screw the South, and only the South, that way. It was also justifiable under law, because it was couched as necessary to war strategy and permissible under his powers as Commander in Chief. Lincoln was obsessed with legality of his actions and believed he couldn’t end slavery in the Union because the Constitution protected it. That’s why he was so obsessed with passing the Thirteenth Amendment before the war ended, to free the slaves in the North. And, also, because he feared the Emancipation Proclamation could be reversed in the South once the war ended.
He got it all accomplished. He made Steward his best friend. He won over Stanton, his War Secretary, like a brother. He dealt with the loss of sons, was unfathomably kind, and forgiving to a fault. He made Frederick Douglass love him. He freed the slaves and changed the moral center of the country almost by sheer will alone. Without reading this book, I don’t know how to make it clear how much of a task this was.
My wife, Aimee, is tired of listening to me talk about Lincoln, I’m sure. But I can’t get him out of my head. There is no politician alive, and none that I can think of, who could have done what he did. And before you tell me that things are too partisan now for a politician like that to succeed, he did this as half the country seceded and the rest were all screaming at each other.
More than 600,000 Americans died in the Civil War. That’s about equal to all the Americans who have died in every other war the US has fought combined.
It was hard to read about Lincoln’s assassination so many times. I didn’t know that Seward was also almost assassinated that night. In fact, many in the Seward family were almost killed that night. The shock was so great, that Frances died not soon after, and the fact that’s not in every history book pisses me off. They almost got Vice President Johnson, too, but the guy assigned to him bailed at the last minute.
Johnson’s Presidency was a mess, and he was way too conservative, which screwed up Reconstruction. Grant, as noted before, fixed some of it, but we’re left with the lingering effects of all of that all the way through today. Don’t kid yourself. Slavery was a wound from which we won’t soon recover.
I have a much greater understanding of the time, of slavery, of the players, and the war, and of how we as a people dealt with it. I definitely think I’m much less stupid about the Civil War than I was. This was time exceedingly well spent.
tl;dr: You can’t make me choose. All six books were amazing for different reasons. I’d say The Life and Times of Frederick Douglas because it will make you less stupid about slavery and Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln because it will make you less stupid about the politics of the war. But you should make the time to read all of them.