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A People's History of the Civil War: Struggles for the Meaning of Freedom

by David Williams

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For a long time, the American Civil War became a war of valiant white Southerners fighting for "their way of life". History was re-written to be not about slavery or profits, but about "state's rights" against the government. Such figures like Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Jefferson Davis became heroes in the post-war South, while the people who fought the war were largely white-washed. Movies like "Gone With the Wind" or "Birth of a Nation" romanticize slavery and the ruling planter class. More importantly, dissenters against the war, especially in the South, were nearly written out of history. Only in the last 50 years has the swing back to the war being about slavery and a rich man's war, where nearly a million people lost their lives.

"A People's History of the Civil War: Struggles for the Meaning of Freedom" does a superb job of explaining why the Civil War happened, as well as the struggles of all people, not just the politicians or generals during the war, and the major reasons for the defeat of the South beyond just plain military reasons. To every war, there is multiple reasons. The Southern Plantation owning class feared race war if their African slaves ever became free, then poor whites and poor blacks might unite against them. Throughout the 1850s and especially in the months prior to the start of the war, numerous bouts of paranoia of abolitionist plots to spark slave revolts appear in Southern Press (which the militant John Brown used to fan the fears of the planters.) The planters believed that their control of the South would be safer in a Slaveholder's republic than compromise with Northern industrialists. In the North, wealthy industrials and emerging capitalists feared losing access to cheap Southern cotton and agriculture, and therefore pressed their government not to let the Southern states leave. In that, they had a stake in continuing the slave system. Copperheads and pacifists throughout the North opposed the war, but were routinely shut down by Lincoln's government, who suspended habeas corpus.

Williams explores the hidden history behind the war which has seemingly been erased from history, such as the incredible amount of dissent against the war on both sides, but especially in the South where whole regions were strongly pro-union (especially poor white farmers who hated the ruling plantation owner class), in parts of the South like East Tennessee, West Virginia, North Alabama, West North Carolina, North Louisiana.) Nearly 500,000 Southerners ended up fighting for the union side, both in the US Armies and as guerrillas struggling against the Confederates. It is noted that the Confederates were both fighting the union armies and anti-planter guerillas, destroying the notion that the American Civil War was a regional war and not a true civil war.

The role of women deviates as well, exploring how Southern women actually helped end the war. In the South, most men were away in armies, leaving women behind to tend the crops and other such work by themselves. They felt the starvation of the war first hand, as the Plantations of the South, a supposed breadbasket, continued to produce cash crops such as cotton and tobacco instead of food like corn and wheat. The first to demand bread from the government were women, and Williams documents several big bread riots in the South by women. He also documents several cases of female spies and nurses, women who dressed as men to serve in the armies, and women openingly telling men to desert the war effort.

There are also chapters of the struggles of the soldiers themselves, who deserted on mass near the end of the war in the South, Blacks who refused to work and fled for the union lines whenever they could get a chance (despite the very cool reception Union soldiers, generals, and politicians gave them), and Indians who continued to fight the centuries old war against white people theft of their land. I fully recommend it for anyone looking to get a sense of how the war actually effected people, and why the ruling classes still came out on top after the war's end, even if chattel slavery was abolished as a result of the war.
  jgeneric | Nov 23, 2007 |
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"A People's History of the Civil War is "bottom up" history, illustrated with little-known anecdotes and first-person testimony. David Williams brings to life the brutal, mundane experiences of the war - such as the mutilated bodies which, in the words of one soldier, lay "thick as autumn leaves" over the fields after every major battle - and the harsh realities of battlefield medicine and wartime rations. At the same time, he gives us a moving and intimate glimpse into the personal acts of bravery and human kindness that helped to elevate a terrible fight into a sometimes-noble cause."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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