What This Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, And The Civil War, by Chandra Manning
As a serious student of the issue of slavery , especially with regards to American history, whenever I find a book that deals thoughtfully about this subject with an examination of previously neglected evidence or approaches, that book is one that I wish to read. To a very surprising degree, this short book (about 220 pages of text before a copious about of endnotes) deals with quite a few subjects that I ponder and reflect on, including the prickly and brittle nature of Southern manhood , as well as the division of the United States into different “nations” based in part on their view of government as “them” or “us .” For the most part, as someone who views government as “them” but has a hostile view of aristocratic elites or libertarian excesses, it marks me as someone in the middle or border regions of American political discourse, both during the time of the Civil War and today.
In many ways, this book is a companion volume to a volume I read earlier about secession commisioners and the start of the Civil War which examined the often neglected role of somewhat obscure Southern legislators from seceded states who sought to motivate other states to secede in a domino effect . Both books deal with forgotten archival material and both books very strongly and pointedly seek to show beyond a reasonable doubt that slavery was the sine qua non of the Civil War. It was not political or economic differences that led to the division of the United States except insofar as those differences sprang from the support of or opposition to chattel slavery as it existed in the United States. Likewise, both books also show the emotional appeal against the horrors of exploitation of white women as well as the appeals to manhood made that sought to bolster southern self-dignity through their supposed mastery of other human beings kept in a state of dependency.
In contrast to many books on the issue of slavery and the Civil War, this book does not look thematically but rather chronologically with the intent of showing how different views about slavery and its legitimacy and what would replace it shifted thanks to the effect of warfare in exposing Northerners to its practical operation as well as the lengthy and bloody course of that war. Thorough the use of letters and camp newspapers and editorials and journals, this book shows the shift over time that many soldiers had in their own mindsets that was not shared, by and large, by the population at home, especially in the North. The author, whose book is based on her Ph.D dissertation, is careful to s how that racism and hostility to slavery were both common in Northern soldiers to a greater degree far earlier than was the case among civilian politicians. Part of the devotion of American soldiers to Lincoln was in the moral grandeur of his own opposition to slavery, as opposed to the cowardly moral compromising of many on the home front, including (sadly) many of the family members of soldiers whose lack of experience with how slavery operated made them far less resolute against its evil.
As a work of history, Dr. Manning makes no pretensions for scholarly avoidance of bias. This book has a clear purpose and a clear agenda, but a complicated one that is borne out well by the facts. No dispassionate work on history, this is a passionate appeal to the better angels of our natures, with a sense of regret that the opportunity for moral growth and consistency in social justice concerning African Americans was lost when North and South were reconciled over the backs of sharecroppers, and where the hopes of poor whites in the South (whose defense of slavery often served as a way of providing dignity in a class-conscious society) and blacks were dashed, and remain problematic even to this day. The perspective of this book, being hostile to slavery and injustice, is generally not favorable to the Southern view (as might be imagined), especially in terms of the failure of those who opposed the socialistic depredations of the Confederate government to imagine any sort of alternative to their own squirarchy, but Southerners are given credit at least for recognizing the inseparability of the question of the legitimacy of slavery with the larger questions of civil rights and social order, which Northerners were prone to sweep under the rug as being too difficult to deal with at the time. For those students that share the author’s interest in sound historical analysis, passionately expressed beliefs, and nuanced argument about slavery and its role in shaping the mentality of soldiers, this is a great book that deserves to be read and pondered. This is especially in light of its relevance for contemporary political affairs about such issues as the legitimate role of government and the role of religious beliefs in shaping our political worldviews.
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