The Civil War is a large topic, and it’s brought forth not only libraries of books but also books and accounts that are large. Bruce Catton’s Centennial History of the Civil War (1961) is three volumes; James McPherson’s Pultizer Prize-winning Battle Cry of Freedom is one volume, but nearly 1,000 pages including notes and bibliography.
Historian Louis Masur went in the opposite direction, with The Civil War: A Concise History (2011). It’s 94 pages, or 118 if you include the notes, bibliography and index. It’s as concise as its title and length indicate, but it does an excellent job of explaining the war’s origins, contributing factors and causes, outbreak and major battles, and what happened after.
He cites both long-term and short-term origins and causes. With all of today’s emphasis on slavery (and Masur sees slavery as a major cause), we tend to forget that a number of other factors contributed to the growing sectional feelings in the states. It was the New England states in the 1810s that first raised the specter of secession. What fueled sectional antagonism was the constant political battles over manufacturing tariffs, which the industrializing Northern states wanted and the agricultural Southern states resisted.
Westward expansion, too, played a significant role, as the country argued about slavery and its extension. The Mexican-American War brought a huge block of territory to the United States, and the new states being carved from the Louisiana Purchase were a combination of slave and free.
Masur covers how the war started, the major battles, and how the tide almost inevitable shifted toward a Union victory – although it was far from certain through the war’s first three years. He also summarizes the Reconstruction period, which would lead to citizens of both former adversaries attempting to interpret and control the past – and the present.
Masur is Distinguished Professor of American Studies and History at Rutgers University. He is also the author of several historical works, including 1831: Year of Eclipse, Lincoln’s Last Speech, Lincoln’s Hundred Days, Autumn Glory: Baseball’s First World Series, Rites of Execution, and The Soiling of Old Glory: The Photograph That Shocked America. He’s also the author of Runaway Dream: Born to Run and Bruce Springsteen’s American Vision.
The Civil War is an excellent overview and introduction to a period whose impact is still profoundly felt today.
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