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America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation

America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation

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by David Goldfield

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In this spellbinding history, David Goldfield offers the first major new interpretation of the Civil War era since James M. McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom. Where other scholars have seen the conflict as a triumph of freedom, Goldfield paints it as America's greatest failure: a breakdown of society caused by the infusion of evangelical religion into


In this spellbinding history, David Goldfield offers the first major new interpretation of the Civil War era since James M. McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom. Where other scholars have seen the conflict as a triumph of freedom, Goldfield paints it as America's greatest failure: a breakdown of society caused by the infusion of evangelical religion into the world of politics.

The price of that failure was horrific, but the carnage accomplished what statesmen could not: It made the United States one nation and eliminated the divisive force of slavery. The victorious North moved ahead, a land of innovation and industry. Religion was supplanted by a gospel of economic and scientific progress, and the South was left behind. The "fiery trial" of war transformed our country-a conflagration captured in vivid detail in America Aflame.

Editorial Reviews

Andrew Delbanco
America Aflame…is not a book about things that never happened. It is a riveting, often heartbreaking, narrative of things that did. Yet it also compels us to ponder choices not made, roads not taken—always with the implicit question in mind of whether the nation might somehow have spared itself the carnage of the war and, if so, what kind of nation it would have become…[a] masterly synthesis of political, social, economic and religious history…in painfully vivid prose…Most history books try to explain the past. The exceptional ones, of which “America Aflame” is a distinguished example, remind us that the past is ultimately as inscrutable as the future.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
This sweeping, provocative history of America from the 1830s through Reconstruction has two grand themes. One is the importance of evangelical Protestantism, particularly in the North and within the Republican Party, in changing slavery from a political problem to an intractable moral issue that could only be settled by bloodshed. The second is the Civil War's transformation of America into a modern industrial nation with a powerful government and a commercial, scientific outlook, even as the postwar South stagnated in racism and backward-looking religiosity. UNC-Charlotte historian Goldfield (Still Fighting the Civil War) courts controversy by shifting more responsibility for the conflict to an activist North and away from intransigent slaveholders, whom he likens to Indians, Mexicans, and other targets viewed by white evangelical Northerners as "polluting" the spreading western frontier. Still, he presents a superb, stylishly written historical synthesis that insightfully foregrounds ideology, faith, and public mood The book is, the author writes, "neither pro-southern nor pro-northern," but rather "antiwar." Goldfield's narrative of the war proper is especially good, evoking the horror of the fighting and its impact on soldiers and civilians. The result is an ambitious, engrossing interpretation with new things to say about a much-studied conflagration. Color and b&w illus. (Mar.)
From the Publisher
"Not just a reappraisal of the Civil War, but an exemplary cultural study of 19th-century America." ---Kirkus Starred Review
Library Journal
Where historian James M. McPherson (Battle Cry of Freedom) and other Civil War scholars have viewed the Civil War as a struggle and triumph for freedom, Goldfield (Still Fighting the Civil War: The American South and Southern History) regards it as America's preeminent failure, a sectional breakdown with volatile evangelical religion at its core. Northern evangelicals condemned slavery as a sin; their counterparts in the South continued to picture it as providentially ordained. With the prewar passing of congressional giants Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and John C. Calhoun, political issues of a substantive nature blurred into a sectional morality play between good and evil. The war did make the United States one nation again and ended "the peculiar institution," but Goldfield argues that the North's postwar advances in business and science and the South's protracted poverty and resentment transformed the cultural force of religion into a complacent rationalization of the status quo in both sections. VERDICT A provocatively written, scrupulously researched, and well-framed consideration of evangelical religion's questionable role in the antebellum, Civil War, and Reconstruction periods of our history. An important book as the war's sesquicentennial approaches; a must for all libraries.—John Carver Edwards, Univ. of Georgia Libs., Cleveland
Kirkus Reviews

Not just a reappraisal of the Civil War, but an exemplary cultural study of 19th-century America.

Goldfield (History/Univ. of North Carolina, Charlotte;Still Fighting the Civil War, 2002, etc.)does not necessarily set out to tell a new story—"in this book, the outcome of the conflict will be the same as it is in every other book on the war. That goes for the battles, too." Instead, the author offers an intriguing new perspective on what he convincingly argues to be not only the defining event of 1800s America, but the defining event of our nation's entire political and cultural history.For Goldfield, evangelical politics drives nearly every facet of the historical machinations of the period. Throughout the narrative, evangelicalism informs the debates around abolition, the Antebellum cultural conflicts born of large-scale immigration, territorial expansion and the rural religious fervor that led to the first cannon blasts at Fort Sumter. The author's examination of the intensity of individual religious thought and religiously informed social activity in the camps provides readers a new comprehension of this extraordinary war. Although Goldfield is not the first to consider religion as a leading element in the Civil War, he elevates its influence by exploring the permeation of nearly every facet of American cultural life by religious thought. His unrelenting attention to so many of America's early cultural crannies—literary, technological, even geographical—often overlooked by past histories creates an authoritative depth to his argument.

For many writers, trading in such detail might complicate the otherwise simple arguments. However, because Goldfield writes with such veteran grace, he effectively demonstrates the complexity of the Civil War, with divisions that still reverberate in our modern political discourse.

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Bloomsbury USA
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6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.80(d)

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How The Civil War Created a Nation


Copyright © 2011 David Goldfield
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-59691-702-6


A Nation Reborn

Can anyone say anything new about the Civil War? In this book, the outcome of the conflict will be the same as in every other book on the war. That goes for the battles, too. My main concerns are how we got into the war, how the war transformed the men who fought, and how America came out of the war. These are also the itineraries of countless other authors. I hope, however, that my treatment of the war's origins, the conflict itself, and its aftermath will enable readers to view the Civil War from a new perspective. After the Revolutionary War, the Civil War is the defining event of American history. The Civil War not only tells us a great deal about Americans at that time, but it offers numerous insights into our nation today.

The Civil War was both the completion of the American Revolution and the beginning of a modern nation. The war proved America's resilience. If nothing else, holding a presidential election in the midst of the Civil War, as the Union did in 1864, was a testament to that strength. The war also transformed America in ways prefigured in the antebellum years but recognizable only after the nation went through the fire.

The Civil War is also America's greatest failure. The political system could not contain the passions stoked by the infusion of evangelical Christianity into the political process. Westward expansion, sectarian conflict, and above all slavery assumed moral dimensions that confounded political solutions. Violence became an acceptable alternative because it worked. It put the Catholics in their proper place and away from Protestant girls. It worked against the Native Americans and against the Mexicans. And it worked against the slaveholders. Antebellum America was a turbulent place—in cities, on the frontier, and at the ballot box. The violence took its toll. Gradually, the bonds of Union fell away: the national church polities, the national political parties, and the moderate politicians disappeared.

War was not inevitable. But the prevailing political culture made it difficult to solve issues peaceably. The failure is evident in the deaths of over 620,000 young men, the misery of their families and friends left to mourn their loss, the destruction of homes and personal property, the uprooting of households, and the scenes of war haunting those who managed to live through it. Without gainsaying the individual heroism of those who fought and died, it would have been a greater tribute to our nation had they lived.

The idea that a bumbling generation of politicians—the mediocrities who came after such giants as Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and John C. Calhoun—led the nation into civil war is not a new idea. The concept dates as far back as the late nineteenth century. Avery Craven was perhaps its most gifted advocate. That might account for my attraction to the thesis, as I served as Professor Craven's graduate assistant at the University of Maryland in the late 1960s. Professor Craven had retired but had come to Maryland on a one-year appointment. He was eighty-four at the time, and his mind was still razor sharp.

My initial encounter with him did not go well. One of my professors invited me over to dinner in order to meet the legend I would be assisting that coming term. I was very excited about the prospect of working with such a great historian, whose graceful writing I had always admired, and doubly grateful because this would be a difficult semester for me, as I was studying for my comprehensive examinations. If you have ever been through that process you know that your brain is so cluttered with names of books and historians that only a periodic flushing allows you to keep your sanity. The purge takes numerous forms, one of which is to verbally disgorge at a breathless pace everything you know about a given school of historical thought to friends and family members. It accounted for the fact that my colleagues tended to avoid conversations with me on anything related to history. I also did not get invited to many parties that term.

So, I welcomed the dinner invitation. As we sat around the dinner table, I chatted with Professor Craven and his wife, Georgia. "I understand you are studying for your comprehensives," he announced suddenly. I could feel the sweat bead on my forehead. Without waiting for my response, he asked me what book I had read that had changed my view of a person or an era. Relieved that he had not requested a recitation on some obscure historical theory, I searched my cluttered mental file for an intelligent response. It would have been too precious to have cited one of Professor Craven's books, and besides, his work affirmed my views, which he already knew. Instead, I told him that C. Vann Woodward's Tom Watson, Agrarian Rebel (1938) profoundly altered my perception of both the Populist movement in the South and Tom Watson. I went on for the next ten minutes or so regaling the Cravens and the other guests about how Woodward accounted for the remarkable and sad transformation of the Georgia Populist from a champion of the poor, regardless of color, to a raving anti-Catholic, anti-Jewish, and anti-black demagogue.

When I had finished my speech, for that's what it was, the room was funeral-parlor quiet. My host nervously shuffled his knife and fork. Had I said something wrong? He cleared his throat and said, "David, perhaps Georgia here can provide another perspective on Tom Watson, as she is his granddaughter." It was one of those moments when you hope for a diversionary earthquake or a sudden gust of wind at, say, 150 miles an hour that peels off the roof. Georgia graciously waved it off, noting that her grandfather could be difficult at times. We all laughed, and that seemed to break the tension. We raised our wineglasses and toasted the new term.

Professor Craven was wonderful to work for, and he and his wife, even after my gaffe, were extremely kind to me. What struck me most about him during our association was how much he hated war, the Civil War in particular. Some historians have associated Craven with a pro-southern analysis of the war's origins, and some might identify my narrative as compatible with that interpretation. My book is neither pro-southern nor pro-northern. It is anti-war, particularly the Civil War. More than bumbling politicians, however, I cite the invasion of evangelical Christianity into the political debate as an especially toxic factor in limiting the options of political leaders. Evangelicals never comprised a majority of the population, but their organization, wealth, use of technology and the media, and access to politicians, especially in the Republican Party, enabled them to infiltrate and influence the political process.

Evangelical Christianity polarized political debate. It is a perspective that Professor Craven did not discuss much, nor did most of the historians of his generation. But evangelical Christianity's influence was everywhere in the political arena, in discussions about the West, about Roman Catholics, and especially about slavery. What was troubling about this religious immersion was the blindness of its self-righteousness, its certitude, and its lack of humility to understand that those who disagree are not mortal sinners and those who subscribe to your views are not saints.

It is good, of course, to be righteous against slavery. I am not arguing that the death and destruction of the Civil War outweighed the good of abolition—rather, that there may have been other means to achieve that noble end. In fact, the United States was the only country to require a civil war in order to abolish slavery. The elevation of political issues into moral causes poisoned the democratic process. Just as evangelicals did not distinguish between the Catholic Church and Catholic immigrants, so they did not separate the sin of slavery from the slaveholder. In a crusade, the enemy is the infidel, and eventually both sides viewed the other as apostates to God and the Constitution.

I tell this story mainly through the lives of the second post-Revolutionary generation that came of age in the 1830s. Though the cast of characters is large, I focus especially on Harriet Beecher Stowe, Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, Alexander Stephens, and Walt Whitman. I do not claim that these individuals are surrogates for all Americans. I have selected them because they are interesting and have important things to say about events, many of which they influenced. Their stories inform the book's major episodes.

These individuals, and other Americans of that generation, were intensely aware of the Revolutionary legacy. They understood that the balance between individual liberty and collective stability was delicate and to err too far in either direction risked chaos or despotism. The one would invariably lead to the other. America was still an experiment, a lonely outpost of democratic government in a world dominated by autocracy and littered with failed attempts at self-government.

The greatest dangers lurked at home. The advance of the Roman Catholic Church in the form of more than a million immigrants menaced both individual liberty and the republican experiment. Slaveholders, as despotic as the Roman hierarchy, threatened to pollute the golden West with their black bondsmen and obstruct the national government with their selfish priorities. Alien cultures and nations intruded on the edges of settlement—Native Americans and Mexicans foremost—thwarting national destiny. These were the fears of white Protestant Americans, especially in the North.

The book opens with the destruction of the Ursuline convent in Charlestown, Massachusetts, by a Protestant mob in August 1834. The episode exposed the deep and growing resentment against the Catholic Church and its adherents, particularly among Protestant workingmen. It also highlighted the tolerance for violence as a tactic to intimidate or eliminate groups or institutions perceived as threats to prevailing religious and political ideals. The passions that fueled the convent fire would nearly immolate the nation in a ruinous civil war.

The anti-Catholic and anti-slavery movements shared some of the same personnel, rhetoric, and tactics. Lyman Beecher, a New England evangelical minister, moved his family to Cincinnati to save the West from the Catholic Church. His daughters Harriet and Catharine and his son Henry Ward would become prominent in the anti-slavery movement. Aided by technological innovations in printing, both anti-Catholic and anti-slavery advocates saturated the country with their literature. They employed similar apocalyptic rhetoric to energize faithful followers to action against both of these threats to the nation and God.

Both the anti-Catholic and anti-slavery movements flourished during a national religious revival known as the Second Great Awakening. The Awakening saved souls and spawned numerous reform movements but also indulged in bigotry and self-righteousness. In the North, it veered toward a general reform of society as a prelude for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. Evangelical Protestantism in the South was more concerned with individual conversion, and its adherents looked with alarm on the mixture of religion and politics brewing toxic potions in the North. Nor did southerners join with northern evangelicals in the excoriation of their Catholic and immigrant populations.

For all of its concern about reforming society, the northern version of evangelical Christianity only rarely promoted the notion of racial equality. The expansion of white male suffrage occurred alongside the spread of evangelical Protestantism. Restrictions against free blacks in the North increased as well. A few states banned free blacks from entering altogether. That white and black liberty moved in opposite directions seemed to affirm the belief of white southerners that the existence of slavery for blacks guaranteed freedom for whites.

The energy unleashed by the Second Great Awakening affected America's westward movement, which began in earnest after 1840. The West encapsulated antebellum Americans' hopes and anxieties. It held a special place in American culture as a region of renewal. It was our geographic version of religious rebirth. The West was the place Americans could start over and the nation could fulfill its destiny as a democratic, Protestant beacon to inspire other peoples and nations. By conquering a continent with their people and ideals, Americans would conquer the world. John L. O'Sullivan, a Harvard-educated journalist, gave a name to this vision: "manifest destiny."

Fulfilling that destiny meant removing (or eliminating) those who stood in the way. The Mexican War was not a religious war; it was a conflict over territory. Even so, the Catholicism of the Mexicans was not a minor detail. Nor was the evangelical certitude that the conflict was justified as part of God's plan. The beginning of the Plains Indian Wars in 1854, which would flare sporadically over the next two decades, was not a religious controversy either. It, too, was a territorial conflict, but Americans also justified it in religious terms, denigrating the pagan "savages" who were poor stewards of God's creation and standing in the way of America's divine mission.

The religious fervor entered political campaigns with unprecedented vigor beginning with the 1844 presidential race. From then on, political parties paraded their religious bona fides and attacked opponents as infidels. The campaigns themselves came to resemble religious revivals as much as political exercises. Religion was not only an issue itself, it permeated other issues of the day, especially slavery.

Given the importance of both evangelical religion and the West during the 1840s, the exclusion of slaveholders from that promised land, first broached by David Wilmot, a Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania in 1846, was guaranteed to raise howls in the South. And it did. The issue of slavery had already unraveled the evangelical family by sundering the Methodists and Baptists along sectional lines. Now the disintegration of the nation no longer seemed far-fetched.

Decent men attempted to resolve the slavery controversy so the nation could get on with the business of economic expansion and promoting individual opportunity. America was at the beginning of a major economic transformation. Commerce, steam technology, the migration of Americans westward, immigration, and urbanization were all breaking down the isolation of the family farm and small town. People and goods were on the move, connecting with each other and with neighboring communities. Advances in printing technology created an explosion of newspapers, tracts, magazines, and dime novels devoured by a population high in literacy. The nation of the 1840s was very different from the thirteen states that hugged the Atlantic coast and formed a "more perfect Union" led by men of property and education. Would America survive? Would the Revolutionary legacy remain secure? The anxieties raised by these questions moved men to push for compromise.

The Compromise of 1850 represented a last heroic attempt by the first post-Revolutionary generation to save the Union for the second generation. Despite the best efforts of Kentucky's Henry Clay and Massachusetts senator Daniel Webster, the compromise quieted controversy only momentarily. The Fugitive Slave Law provision of the compromise drove a wider wedge between North and South. The law motivated Harriet Beecher Stowe to write Uncle Tom's Cabin, awakened northerners to the possibility of a Slave Power conspiracy to restrict the rights not only of slaves but also of white men, and left many southerners wondering whether mere laws could protect them and their property.

Defending his opposition to the fugitive slave provision of the compromise, Senator William H. Seward of New York declared, "There is a higher law than the Constitution." In a nation of laws, when political leaders advocate working outside those boundaries, especially invoking the deity as an authority, trouble can only follow. Abraham Lincoln urged, "Let every American, every lover of liberty ... swear by the blood of the Revolution never to violate in the least particular the laws of the country, and never to tolerate their violation by others.... Reverence for the laws [should be] the political religion of the nation." He said that in 1838.

While disputes over laws inevitably arise in a republic, the Constitution has designated the judicial branch of government to adjudicate those conflicts. As for interpreting God, according to evangelical doctrine that is the individual's right and responsibility. The danger is that such a religious standard applied to politics makes each person a law unto himself.

Moderates still controlled the political apparatus in the early 1850s. The second generation was then more aware of the fragility of their experiment than at any other previous time in their memory. The European revolutions of 1848, greeted with great rejoicing in America, collapsed. The restored regimes were, in some cases, worse than those that provoked the rebellions in the first place. Americans interpreted the failed revolutions in three ways. First, the excess of the democratic forces contributed to their downfall. Second, despotism, not democracy, inevitably emerges from chaos. Finally, democratic institutions are fragile plants. They require constant nurturing, and even then their survival is not certain. America was a lonely outpost in an undemocratic world.


Excerpted from AMERICA AFLAME by DAVID GOLDFIELD Copyright © 2011 by David Goldfield. Excerpted by permission of BLOOMSBURY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

David Goldfield is the Robert Lee Bailey Professor of History at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, and the author of books including America Aflame and Still Fighting the Civil War.

David Drummond has narrated over seventy audiobooks for Tantor, in genres ranging from current political commentary to historical nonfiction, from fantasy to military, and from thrillers to humor. He has garnered multiple AudioFile Earphones Awards as well as an Audie Award nomination. Visit him at drummondvoice.com.

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America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation 3.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 13 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Wish I'd saved my money. The book has glaring factual errors; he has Jefferson Davis captured in north Florida, 2 months after the surrender (page 374), repeats the battlefield myth that Patrick Cleburne had 49 bullet wounds, etc The main thing I took away from this book is that the author doesn't like religion..
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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vickijo45 More than 1 year ago
Like millions of other Americans, I got “hooked” on Ken Burns’ series, “The Civil War,” in 1990. In it, Shelby Foote suggests that this conflict defined us as a nation. "America Aflame” confirms this with a microscopic look at what the South called “The War of Northern Aggression." The reading gave me more clarity on why so Mid-Westerners and Southerners are uncompromising in their devotion to Christian faith and “traditional American values.” Family, faith, country, land, and the right of the individual to determine his or her own destiny are themes that are clearly heard in this Presidential election year just as they were heard in 1861. "America Aflame,” helped me understand much more fully and compassionately the Conservative and Libertarian hunger in America today and why it is so uncompromising. The issue of who is going to live and thrive in this country – particularly in the Southwest – is the same one that quarrelsome abolitionists and slave holders contended with in 1848 when Grant and Lee fought in the Mexican War. “America Aflame” illustrates clearly that the political conflict even today is the same as it was then – it’s about one group against another, “liberals and progressives” against “conservatives," States’ rights versus the central government, vying over borders, property rights, individual rights and immigration. That’s what divided America in 1861 and it’s what’s dividing America today. As Edmund Burke said, "Those who don't know history are destined to repeat it.”
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Thomas Brogan More than 1 year ago
The list price of the print version is $35.00
dougcanread More than 1 year ago
A nook book version more expensive than the hardcover version - I don't think so. Shame on you Barnes and Noble!!