Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Fateful Lightning

Fateful Lightning: A New History of the Civil War and Reconstruction
by Allen C. GuelzoFateful Lightning

To understand the US, I firmly believe you need to understand the Civil War. Not in some crass “the tea party are neo-confederates” way, but to get a sense of the diverse principles and impulses which work in the glorious, chaotic and utterly human society that is America.

This is a fantastic single volume history, that not only tells the story in a smooth, well written fashion, but also tries to convey both the scope of scholarly debate on the big historical questions, as well as providing as up to date an assessment of what actually happened and why.

In this day and age when the story of democracy seems a little grubby, full of decaying institutions and declining participation, the US civil war is an vitally important story. It offers many insights for understanding how and why democracies can and do fail. And the fundamental, historic importance of ensuring that democracy by and for the people shall endure on this earth.

Guelzo seeks to provide an broad brush overview of the war, the major characters and the major issues still debated by scholars. This is naturally a big picture history, with the main focus on the national politics and militaries, but he also has chapters that take in the wider view, showing how the war affected women, slaves, free blacks and worked at the level of class, ideology and culture. These chapters feel like natural extensions of the large story, given their place but never assumed to be more significant than the overall story. Likewise while there’s a degree of Lincoln adoration, old Abe doesn’t dominate too strongly as some histories like to portray.

There are reportedly over 50’000 books on the American Civil War. In preparing for this book, I feel Professor Guelzo may have almost read all of them. You could easily read this one and never have to read another. Though I suspect most will want more, and this book helpfully provides further reading lists on key topics as well as extensive (though not obtrusive) footnotes. The only section that felt a little short was the Reconstruction, a period I don’t know as well, and still feel there is much to learn about. I’d have liked more on it, but at 535 pages, it’s probably long enough as is.

After reading this and watching through Ken Burns’ Civil War Doco, I’ve also ordered Shelby Foote’s three volume history of the civil war. And while i’m normally not one for drawn out discussions of military tactics and battle stories, I’m also looking into some of his recommendations for books that cover the tactical and especially strategic campaigns in greater depth.

This is single volume history as it should be. Comprehensive enough you feel you don’t need to read anything else, but wide enough in scope and enticing in discussion to awake you to dozens of new books and hundreds of pleasant hours of study and entertainment ahead.

Highly recommended.

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