Top positive review
Warning: Civil War History Gateway...as Kind of Blue:Jazz, Red Wing:Real Boots...
Reviewed in the United States on November 19, 2020
Five stars! Despite its awful title!
I should have known I’d love this book; many years ago, I read Brands’s fine Franklin biography, subtitled interestingly enough, “The First American.” Drawn from author’s definition of an American as the Gatsby-like, Bob Dylanesque, product of “creative” autobiography, molecular striving, and a touch of hedonism, Franklin made a well reasoned first entry.
But THIS book!
I have to admit upfront that the American Civil War is one of my educational blindspots. Of course, I have a gauzy understanding of the major players, battles, and “plot.” I also have to admit that this abecedarian understanding is partially my own doing.
An ignorant Yank through and through, growing up in Philadelphia, it was the Revolution, the framing, the towering geniuses of Enlightenment thought. The Civil version, felt like something distant and provincial, weirdly re-enacted, and laboriously detailed with place names and generals.
Well. I’ve lived in Maryland, just outside of DC, for the last 20 years, and the whole thing is much closer—closer because its fundamental arguments are still being re-enacted. Our it-can’t-be-soon-enough outgoing president, is the avatar par excellence of the war’s fundamental threats. He is the most recent and frightening version, but unfortunately, taking a look at the National popular vote results, he won’t be the last.
Brands’s approach, telling the story of two very distinct approaches to the war’s beginnings and reasons is compelling, the two men who represent those approaches, fascinating.
While the book sags a bit with the obligatory “born ins” and “raised amongs,” Brands quickly brings us into the center of Kansas, site of human and philosophical firecrackers on the cusp of becoming infernos.
Even if I didn’t, you know the rest. The import is all in the telling, the whys and hows, the incarnation of giant names into small and flawed and gifted and needy human beings.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Frederick Douglass could have easily been included as a third character study here. He looms large in both the fore and backgrounds, and had I NOT just read Blight’s magisterial biography on Douglass, I’d be demanding much more here.
Me being me, having become too tolerant to my OCD medications, I’m already well down the road to where this is headed.
On my desk as I speak:
Battle Cry of Freedom
The Fiery Trial
This Republic of Suffering
Race and Reunion
Confederates in the Attic
Silence at Appomattox
Shelby Foote’s three volume narrative history.
Any top recommendations are appreciated.
It’ll take a while. It always does, and it’s always worth it.
Let me end with this because my northeastern upbringing compels me—and I may regret it: I have NO desire to visit a battlefield, Civil War related or otherwise. I’m happy to hear from those with a penchant for military history and tactics about why I SHOULD. It seems like sightseeing at a crime scene. Yes, there are differences. Mainly that both parties in this “crime” were willing participants. To me, that makes such a trip more surreal and voyeuristic not less.