What This Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War Hardcover – Deckle Edge, Apr 3 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. For this impressively researched Civil War social history, Georgetown assistant history professor Manning visited more than two dozen states to comb though archives and libraries for primary source material, mostly diaries and letters of men who fought on both sides in the Civil War, along with more than 100 regimental newspapers. The result is an engagingly written, convincingly argued social history with a point—that those who did the fighting in the Union and Confederate armies "plainly identified slavery as the root of the Civil War." Manning backs up her contention with hundreds of first-person testimonies written at the time, rather than often-unreliable after-the-fact memoirs. While most Civil War narratives lean heavily on officers, Easterners and men who fought in Virginia, Manning casts a much broader net. She includes immigrants, African-Americans and western fighters, in order, she says, "to approximate cross sections of the actual Union and Confederate ranks." Based on the author's dissertation, the book is free of academese and appeals to a general audience, though Manning's harsh condemnation of white Southerners' feelings about slavery and her unstinting praise of Union soldiers' "commitment to emancipation" take a step beyond scholarly objectivity. Photos. (Apr.)
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Manning's subject--slavery as the prime cause of the Civil War--is hardly unusual, but what makes this study unique, provocative, and immensely valuable is her approach. She utilizes the letters, diaries, and regimental newspapers, all written during the war, to glean the attitudes, hopes, and even the fears of soldiers toward the institution of slavery and emancipation. Unlike many previous works on the subject, Manning ignores the writings of elites and emphasizes the opinions of common soldiers, North and South, white and black. Some of her conclusions are striking and likely to generate intense debate. Although acknowledging that many Union soldiers enlisted to preserve the Union rather than to fight slavery, she asserts that both slavery and emancipation were constant topics of discussion as early as 1861. She disputes that nonslaveholding Confederate soldiers (who were the overwhelming majority) fought primarily to defend hearth and home from Yankee invaders. Rather, she maintains that the defense of slavery was intimately tied to their sense of manhood, honor, and their place in the Southern social structures. A well-argued examination. Jay Freeman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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Manning's book is the beginning of the end for other causal explanations because she relies on the testimonies that should bear the most weight, i.e., the wartime letters home of the men in blue and gray who fought at Gettysburg, Vicksburg, the Wilderness, Cold Harbor, Shiloh and all the other horrific battles of the war.
Her research is pretty amazing and should first be assessed by looking at her list of Primary Sources in the back of the book which is organized by state. She traveled to every state that was involved in the Civil War and roamed through 45 local libraries and historical societies. She went through larger collections like those of Military History Institute of the U.S. Army and the Library of Congress. She read published collections of Civil War letters and innumerable state documents relating to the War.
Her focus was on the enlisted man and on letters actually written during the war rather than memoirs that were written in the postwar years. She gathered biographical data of the various correspondents whose letters she collected and noted their place of origin, their occupation, educational attainments, etc. She then selected 477 Confederate soldiers and 657 Union soldiers to focus on because their collected backgrounds were representative of the armies as a whole.
She also uncovered some 100+ regimental papers (largely published by enlisted men) and used them as well. She then organized this body of material by date. Not surprisingly, she found that opinions shifted with the fortunes of the war.
Finally, for any one opinion to be considered dominant, it had to be expressed by at least a three to one ratio (p.11). By the way, all this is explained in the first twenty pages, so any reviewer who claims she used a different research strategy or that she can't back up any of her claims with "facts" hasn't read the book.
Her presentation of what she learned is very well written and easy to follow. She largely organized her presentation around the timeline of the war. She then covers what was being discussed in the letters of the Confederate Army and the Union Army both white and black.
I think she has three hermeneutics that she deploys on the material. First is the vast ornate interplay of slavery and racism within American culture at the time. Manning is very clear about the racist attitudes of many of the Union soldiers throughout the war and is clear about the way the black soldiers were mistreated, especially initially, by the higher command of that Army. But she believes that their letters show that during the course of the War, that enlisted white Union soldiers went through several shifts in their attitudes toward slavery and toward black Americans. Those shifts she sees as largely progressive and in advance of the chain of command and Northern public opinion as a whole. The War radicalized the soldiers. Most of them had never seen Southern slave society at work and they didn't much cotton to it. Their own racism took longer to be impacted. But for many Union soldiers, watching black Americans in battle was a revelation and a catalyst to personal change. There was backsliding during changes in the momentum of the War, there was frustration by the white soldiers at how much they were sacrificing and some of the soldiers left their service as racist as they entered it. But Manning is clear that there was a enormous change in the opinion of the white enlisted man as a whole and in the higher command. At the end of the war, the black Union soldier received equal pay and could become an officer. This was unthinkable four years earlier.
Manning's other two hermeneutics are more controversial and are probably the source of most of the resistance to her reading of the evidence. Manning feels that she can discern differences in the patriotism of the Confederate soldier and that of the Union soldier. It is her claim that the average Southerner regarded government as justifiable only to the extent it served his needs and that of his family. To the extent that that government began to impinge on his paternal control of his own life and his family was to the extent that the Southerner rejected government. By the way, she sees a related dynamic in the ways that the North and the South responded to the Second Great Awakening and its aftermath in antebellum America. That religious movement created organized reform movements in the North that focused on societal issues (among others, abolition). In the South, the emphasis was on the personal reform of the individual.
When the Southern states succeeded, they created a new national government to which the white Southern man had few if any attachments. As the War went on, the Confederate government had to behave in ways that didn't fit in with Southern ideas on government. To that extent, the Confederate soldier felt less loyalty to that government. The difference with the Northern white soldier should be clear. Billy Yank had a history with his government. He regarded that government as part of his larger society that provided services and to which he owed allegiance.
This difference cuts across her third hermeneutic which deals with the nature of Southern versus Northern manhood. Manning feels that for the enlisted white Confederate, slavery created a social structure which gave him the space to express that paternalistic manhood. His service on slave patrols, his ability to discipline slaves who were not respectful and other rights that the poor white non-slaveholding man had compared with a slave gave him a sense of equality with the upper Southern masters. Obviously, this is the most controversial portion of Manning's reading of the Southern men's letters but she uses it to explain a lot.
Another aspect of Manning's version of Southern manhood was rooted in fear and violence. The South had been traumatized by actual and possible slave rebellions. In some parts of the South, the slaves outnumbered the whites. Race war seemed a real possibility if the slaves were ever to be successfully armed and encouraged. The War and the Union Army did just that. The Southern soldier believed that he was fighting for the physical safety of his own family and for his own farm. Manning feels he fought to preserve the world he knew and wherein he had his place.
This reading is how Manning confronts one of the common arguments against slavery being the main cause of the war. The fact is that the vast majority of Southern white men did not own slaves. Why would all these men choose to fight and die over something they had no stake in? Manning's answer is that the Southern man fought for the world he knew and loved and wanted to leave to his children. The Confederate soldier knew that world was built on slave labor.
As I implied earlier, I found Manning's book to be utterly convincing. I would offer one more reason for reading her book. She uses an enormous amount of quotes. I detest the way the way we men talk about violence among ourselves- the fight stories, the "then I said" type stories that are told to maintain whatever it is they maintain. But I find the letters that are written home by American soldiers in war to be a unique and compelling literary genre. They are often poorly spelled and grammar is frequently taken to the woodshed but they are frequently funny and have a bedrock humanity which is enormously appealing. Reading some of Manning's quotes will make you wish you knew the men writing and could converse with them. Just another reason to read this very strong contribution to American history.
Living in the South especially, and currently living in Georgia, I've seen the general public inundated with such propaganda that the American Civil War was over "states' rights" and/or "Northern economic interests", etc...
But this book clears up the rhetoric and explains why both sides fought, using extensive research on original soldiers' letters and diaries.
Of special note is that the book is extremely well written, with excellent usage of the English language throughout, as well as focused and logical arguments to support the author's facts.
In summary, this is one of the top 5 books I've read on the American Civil War.
(just a lagniappe...the author - Chandra Manning, a professor at Georgetown University - is originally from Ireland.)
Personally, I found the incredible degree of dissent within both the Union and Confederate camps to be most interesting. Some idealistic Union soldiers protested slavery to assure liberty and freedom for all, while other soldiers kept rigidly racist views of slaves but still demanded an end to slavery because they felt slavery would inevitably lead to more clashes between the North and South. Southern soldiers, frustrated by the growing power of the Confederate government to seize their family's assets for the war effort, often questioned their own motivation for defending a government as invasive as the North. Still, fearful of a world in which former slaves might come to own their land and intermarry with white women, Southern soldiers persisted on in battle for the Confederacy. Even yet, some Confederate soldiers thought serving in the war might be a foot in the door to someday owning slaves.
Of particular interest to the reader will be letters from African-American Union soldiers who labored in battle not only to end slavery but to earn equal pay and respect from the army. Despite their additional hardships, these soldiers came to be known as some of the bravest and most dedicated soldiers on the battlefield. Letters reveal that white soldiers often came away so impressed that many began to reconsider their previously held racist ideologies.
An enjoyable read! Guaranteed to change the national conversation about the Civil War and the end of slavery.
This brilliant, magnificently thorough book is an examination of the thoughts and attitudes of the enlisted soldiers of the Civil War, Union and Confederate, black and white, as represented in their letters, diaries, essays, newsletters, and other writings. Manning investigates their opinions on the causes and purposes of the war and slavery, which are one in the same. She brilliantly delves into how those opinions, thoughts, and attitudes were formed by the differing societies of the North and the South (particularly their religious beliefs, their societal demands, and class and gender roles), how this civil war would form a new definition of the United States.
The Civil War, in four horrific years, absolutely revolutionized thought and society in the United States. Our country fought it's most bloody, most horrific war, not only amongst itself, but due to racism. It is a shocking horror that racism can not only be that entrenched, but that motivating of a force. A force that can cause a Civil War between the ideals of equality and freedom and the personal desires for safety, success, and preservation of loved ones. This is a Civil War that rages in every person, in every society.
I have never read any Civil War (and, perhaps any historical nonfiction) book this engaging and fascinating. Every page is underlined and starred; the back cover is filled with notes. Everyone I know has gotten an ear-full of this book. Not only is this book everything that anyone interested in the Civil War could desire, with its brilliant and fascinating information and exploration of the psychology and sociology of the time (with its wonderful focus on the enlisted soldier), but it is something every American should read to understand how our society should work and how it once horrifically failed. Furthermore, it is a book that every human should read. Our country went through a Civil War that stands for the Civil War within every human being: that between the desires for the personal freedoms to provide for the self and family, and the desire to fight for greater ideals for a better society, the civil war between the personal and the societal. Grade: A++
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