Thursday, June 16, 2011

Final Thoughts on "America Aflame"

I have finally finished David Goldfield's critically acclaimed new book America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation. Be prepared to spend some time on this book if you read it because the text runs over 500 pages, but it is a fairly quick read and won't feel like a 500 page book. The book is very nearly equally divided into three parts. The first third of the book deals with the causes of the war beginning in the 1840s. Goldfield covers all of the issues and crises, all the while using them to support his interpretation of events. Without going into great detail I will mention that Goldfield's basic interpretation relates everything to evangelical Christianity and explains how all the events leading up to the war and during the war itself were influenced by the religious climate of the time period, and how that religious climate changed during the war until American religion was a totally different thing by the end of the conflict. In all instances, his interpretation is well supported and argued.

The second third of the book deals with the war itself, but don't expect any in-depth analysis of battles. Military history is definitely not Goldfield's interest and that may be the weakest part of the book. However, that really isn't a weakness necessarily because his focus in not specifically on the battles; rather he uses the battles to illustrate certain points that he wants to emphasize. Without going into a lot of strict military history he manages to navigate through the war very well.

The final third of the book focuses on Reconstruction and the Gilded Age. This is an area of history that I have always had very little interest in, but Goldfield really makes most of this interesting, even to me. He concludes the book at the 1876 national centennial. He expertly summarizes all the phases of Reconstruction and gives an excellent overview of how America changed between 1865 and 1876. Of the 22 chapters in the book there were only three that I found a bit difficult to get through and two of those were in this last third of the book.

In the end, I think this is an excellent book that should be widely read. It really puts the Civil War era in a different light than most of us are used to looking at it. I don't think everyone is going to agree with all of Goldfield's points, and some probably won't like his overall interpretation, but I think it will give anyone cause to think about things a little differently than they might have otherwise. It is extremely well-written and easy to read. Goldfield's writing is really at its best in this book. Whether you like his interpretation or not, I highly recommend this book.


Scamp said...

How does the author relate Union Christianity and religion to the fact that their army committed sinful atrocities against civilians.

Such as waging war against non-combatants, murder, kidnapping women, rape, burning down innocent peoples houses, barns, crops, towns, and entire cities, indiscriminately bombarding areas full of civilians, women and children... Etc?

Andrew Duppstadt said...

"He (God) gives both North and South this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came." - A. Lincoln from his second inaugural address

"Evangelical religion had not prevented America from going to war; to the contrary, it fueled the passions for a dramatic solution to transcendent moral questions. Evangelical religion did not prepare either side for the carnage, and its explanations seemed less relevant as the war continued." - the author

I would ask you how does one relate Confederate Christianity and religion to the sinful atrocities committed at Andersonville?

What I'm getting at is that the author does not attempt to relate Christianity or religion on either side to specific events, but rather tries to show how religion and religious thinking was changed throughout this period of history. Both sides felt God was on their side until the actual shooting began; then both sides began questioning their faith, but in different ways. By the end of the war evangelical religion gave way to a different kind of faith.