What This Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War by Chandra Manning

It’s been a while since I’ve written a book review, so I thought it was about time for another. This book review is about What This Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery and the Civil War, Chandra Manning’s first book, published about five years ago. The thesis of this work is that “what this cruel war was over” was slavery. While this truth should hopefully no longer be a surprise to many, the approach that she uses is fairly novel. She tries to get into the minds of the soldiers fighting the Civil War, both those from the North and from the South, through using the letters and diaries of those men, as well as a large number of regimental newspapers, to show that the enlisted men viewed slavery as a central cause of the Civil War. In total, a very large number of sources were used, as shown by how many pages are taken up by notes and a list of primary sources. The methodology that she uses to derive conclusions from this vast array of material is described at the start of the book. The book then proceeds in roughly chronological order, discussing general trends with extensive quoting from soldiers’ letters.

The fact that this book is primarily based around the perspective of the enlisted men, a perspective that is not well-represented in the history books, makes the book quite interesting as a whole. The direct quotes from soldiers’ letters bring the war to life, especially as many of them are replete with spelling and grammar mistakes (particularly noticeable in letters to and from Confederates; these would have made a good argument for public schools in the South)

For Union soldiers, while Manning shows that many of them enlisted primarily to preserve the Union and not necessarily to free the slaves, slavery and emancipation were definitely on the soldiers’ minds from the earliest days of the war. Many of the soldiers initially had mixed feelings about this topic, but as the war proceeds, with a few reverses here and there, support for emancipation and for civil rights for those so freed increase significantly among the enlisted men (with some exceptions; Manning quotes a few soldiers from Kentucky who are very unhappy about the idea of emancipation).

The book provides some useful insights into why Confederate soldiers, most of whom wouldn’t have been slaveholders themselves, fought to preserve slavery, many of them feeling that defeat would result in the collapse of the whole social structure of the South, a highly undesirable outcome for them. Yet, many Confederate soldiers were conflicted. They weren’t the ones who wanted to rebel in the first place, nor were they the ones benefitting from it; meanwhile, some of them felt that those who had caused the war were not doing their part to uphold the Southern way of life. These conflicts sapped some Confederate soldiers’ interest in fighting the Union.

Even though the events in the book are 150 years old, I feel that the book still speaks to the modern reader in several ways, some of which Manning sums up near the end of the book. These dramatic changes in the attitudes of Union soldiers show that people can change for the better under the right circumstances. Even with all this promise, however, the task of reconstructing the nation into one where “all men are created equal” was not finished, nor is it complete today. Yet, the selections of letters still paint a picture of hopefulness even to the modern reader.

The 25 Best Books About Abraham Lincoln

There are a lot of books that have been written about Abraham Lincoln. In 2012 Ford’s Theater Centre for Education and Leadership in Washington constructed a 34-foot pillar of unique titles about Lincoln; over 15,000 unique books were included. Hundreds of new ones come out every year. Which ones are the best? The AbeBooks blog offers their suggestions as to the top 25.  Check it out!

Civil War articles in May 2012 National Geographic Magazine

This month’s (May 2012) issue of National Geographic magazine contains an interesting articles on Civil War battlefield art and old-school photography of Civil War re-enactments. The magazine also features a nice poster. One side details the movements of the Pennsylvania Campaign in 1863, which culminated in the Battle of Gettysburg, with an emphasis on the movements of one Union (83rd Pennsylvania) and one Confederate (5th Virginia) regiment. The other side of the poster, “Civil War to Civil Rights”, details the progress of black civil rights in America. Definitely worth having a look at.

Battle Hymns: The Power and Popularity of Music in the Civil War

Battle Hymns: The Power and Popularity of Music in the Civil War is a recently-released book, written by Christian McWhirter. It discusses music during the Civil War.

One of the things that surprised me in the book was how ubiquitous music was during the Civil War. In our day and age, with recorded music available on demand, we don’t sing for other people often, and hearing other people singing live and in person isn’t something that happens constantly. This wasn’t the case during the American Civil War, when songs were used to entertain guests, get a political message across, communicate news and ideas, set the rhythm of military and domestic life, and on and on.

The book does a pretty good job of covering all of the major classes of Civil War music, including patriotic Union songs, Confederate anthems, music at home, and music in the army. There is also an excellent chapter on the music of African Americans. Enslaved blacks would have to mask their aspirations in music that was essentially in code, but as they acquired their freedom, they became able to express themselves more freely in their music, and their new musical voice helped whites to see that blacks were not greatly inferior. Music after the war is also discussed. While the popular songs of the time are all well-documented, the book goes one step deeper than most works about Civil War music and looks at the impact of these songs and to popular culture.

The book reads as if it were quite authoritative and appears to have been exhaustively researched; nearly 100 pages of the book (which is about 300 pages long excluding the index) consist of notes and bibliography. All in all, a good book for those interested in the music of the time.