The Civil War Resonates 150 Years Later

Early last Tuesday morning, booming cannons in Charleston Harbor commemorated what historians regard as the first shots fired in the Civil War, 150 years ago, April 12, 1861. No one was killed in the bombardment of Fort Sumter, but four years of conflict at the cost of more than 600,000 lives would follow, and now is the time for some reflection on the war and its lasting impact on America and its people.

Hundreds if not thousands ofВ  books have been written on the Civil War and its heroic and not-so-heroic participants, and a few published within the last several weeks are particularly relevant today as they focus on the character of the war and its combatants, on the battlefield and at home.

Ulysses S, Grant by Ulysses S. Grant: Book Cover

If you are looking for a project to mark the sesquicentennial year, Ulysses S. Grants two-volume autobiography, Personal Memoirs, published in 1885 by a firm owned by Mark Twain, is surely among this countrys great books, never out of print and in many readers’ minds, bearing Twain’s stylistic imprint. It was written while Grant was dying of cancer, and while Twain himself was working to complete his own masterwork, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Though Twain was 15 years younger than Grant, the two men had much in common, including roots in the frontier, strong ambition and persistent financial difficulties. Both strongly opposed slavery and supported rights and opportunities for black Americans.

Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 1 by Mark Twain: CD Audiobook Cover

If you haven’t already, you may owe it to yourself to read the Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 1, published in its most complete form last November, a century after the writer’s death. It’s a huge book, but you can limit your own attention to Twain’s writings, and use the hundreds of pages of introduction and notes as reference, if you like.

1861 by historian, journalist and travel writer Adam Goodheart, is an epic of courage and heroism beyond the battlefields. Early in that fateful year, a second American revolution unfolded, inspiring a new generation to reject their parents’ faith in compromise and appeasement, to do the unthinkable in the name of an ideal. It set Abraham Lincoln on the path to greatness and millions of slaves on the road to freedom. The book introduces us to a heretofore little-known cast of Civil War heroes—among them an acrobatic militia colonel, an explorer’s wife, an idealistic band of German immigrants, a regiment of New York City firemen, a community of Virginia slaves, and a young college professor who would one day become president. Goodheart takes us from the corridors of the White House to the slums of Manhattan, from the mouth of the Chesapeake to the deserts of Nevada, from Boston Common to Alcatraz Island, vividly evoking the Union at this moment of ultimate crisis and decision.

America Aflame by David Goldfield: Book CoverBattle Cry of Freedom by James M. McPherson: Book Cover

In a spellbinding new history, America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation, historian David Goldfield offers the first major new interpretation of the Civil War era since James M. McPhersons Battle Cry of Freedom. Where past scholars have limned the war as a triumph of freedom, Goldfield sees it as Americas greatest failure: the result of a breakdown caused by the infusion of evangelical religion into the public sphere. As the Second Great Awakening surged through America, political questions became matters of good and evil to be fought to the death. The price of that failure was horrific, but the carnage accomplished what statesmen could not: It made the United States one nation and eliminated slavery as a divisive force in the Union. The victorious North became synonymous with America as a land of innovation and industrialization, whose teeming cities offered squalor and opportunity in equal measure. Religion was supplanted by science and a gospel of progress, and the South was left behind. Goldfields panoramic narrative, sweeping from the 1840s to the end of Reconstruction, is studded with memorable details and luminaries such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, Frederick Douglass, and Walt Whitman. There are lesser known yet equally compelling characters, too, including Carl Schurz-a German immigrant, war hero, and postwar reformer-and Alexander Stephens, the urbane and intellectual vice president of the Confederacy. America Aflame is a vivid portrait of the ”fiery trial” that transformed the country we live in.

The Siege of Washington by John Lockwood: Book Cover

On April 14, 1861, following the surrender of Fort Sumter, Washington was “put into the condition of a siege,” declared Abraham Lincoln. Located 60 miles south of the Mason-Dixon Line, the nations capital was surrounded by the slave states of Maryland and Virginia. With no fortifications and only a handful of trained soldiers, Washington was an ideal target for the Confederacy. The South echoed with cries of ´”On to Washington!” and Jefferson Daviss wife sent out cards inviting her friends to a reception at the White House on May 1. Lincoln issued an emergency proclamation on April 15, calling for 75,000 troops to suppress the rebellion and protect the capital. One question now transfixed the nation: Whose forces would reach Washington first: Northern defenders or Southern attackers? For 12 days, the citys fate hung in the balance. Washington was entirely isolated from the Northwithout trains, telegraph, or mail. Sandbags were stacked around major landmarks, and the unfinished Capitol was transformed into a barracks, with volunteer troops camping out in the House and Senate chambers. Meanwhile, Maryland secessionists blocked the passage of Union reinforcements trying to reach Washington, and a rumored force of 20,000 Confederate soldiers lay in wait just across the Potomac River. Drawing on firsthand accounts, The Siege of Washington tells this story from the perspective of leading officials, residents trapped inside the city, Confederates plotting to seize it, and Union troops racing to save it, capturing with brilliance and immediacy the precarious first days of the Civil War. The authors are John Lockwood, the National Mall Historian, and Charles Lockwood, the author of 10 books. Both men were born and raised in Washington.

Lincoln on the Civil War by Abraham Lincoln: Book Cover

A tiny gem of a book is Lincoln on the Civil War: Selected Speeches, which combines the classic and obscure, the lyrical and historical, and the inspirational and intellectual to present a historical arc marking periods of the Civil War-crisis, outbreak, escalation, victory, and Reconstruction. Addressing the conflicts multiple aspects-the issue of slavery, state versus federal power, the meaning of the Constitution, civic duty, death, and freedom-this elegant keepsake collection will make a wonderful inspirational gift for professed Lincoln fans, Civil War buffs, and lovers of rhetorical genius.

American Oracle by David W. Blight: Book Cover

There is a lot more to come, including American Oracle: The Civil War in the Civil Rights Era , by David Blight, a professor of history at Yale.

Standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963, a century after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, Martin Luther King, Jr., declared, “One hundred years later, the Negro still is not free.” He delivered this speech just three years after the Virginia Civil War Commission published a guide proclaiming that “the Centennial is no time for finding fault or placing blame or fighting the issues all over again.” Blight takes his readers back to the centennial celebration to determine how Americans then made sense of the suffering, loss, and liberation that had wracked the United States a century earlier. Amid cold war politics and civil rights protest, four of America’s most incisive writers explored the gulf between remembrance and reality. Robert Penn Warren, the southern-reared poet-novelist who recanted his support of segregation; Bruce Catton, the journalist and U.S. Navy officer who became a popular Civil War historian; Edmund Wilson, the century’s preeminent literary critic; and James Baldwin, the searing African-American essayist and activist—each exposed America’s triumphalist memory of the war. And each, in his own way, demanded a reckoning with the tragic consequences it spawned. Blight illuminates not only mid-twentieth-century America’s sense of itself but also the dynamic, ever-changing nature of Civil War memory. On the eve of the 150th anniversary of the war, we have an invaluable perspective on how this conflict continues to shape the country’s political debates, national identity, and sense of purpose.

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