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The American Civil War: A Hands-on History

The American Civil War: A Hands-on History

by Christopher J. Olsen

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Succinct, with a brace of original documents following each chapter, Christopher J. Olsen's The American Civil War is the ideal introduction to American history's most famous, and infamous, chapter. Covering events from 1850 and the mounting political pressures to split the Union into opposing sections, through the four years of bloodshed and waning


Succinct, with a brace of original documents following each chapter, Christopher J. Olsen's The American Civil War is the ideal introduction to American history's most famous, and infamous, chapter. Covering events from 1850 and the mounting political pressures to split the Union into opposing sections, through the four years of bloodshed and waning Confederate fortunes, to Lincoln's assassination and the advent of Reconstruction, The American Civil War covers the entire sectional conflict and at every juncture emphasizes the decisions and circumstances, large and small, that determined the course of events.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In juxtaposing pithy narrative and end-of-chapter references to primary sources, this book offers a glimpse up the author's sleeve, at the process of history writing as well as of history making. Though many details of the Civil War have been omitted in this brief volume, the major characters, events and themes appear, accompanied by excerpts from letters, speeches, newspaper editorials and other supporting material that back Olsen's analysis and add texture. However, avid students of the Civil War will find the treatment superficial and largely familiar. Lincoln's Second Inaugural speech, his Gettysburg address, even Sullivan Ballou's sublimely heartbreaking letter to his wife are all here. There are also a few rarer nuggets: a mock menu highlighting the state of privation in besieged Vicksburg, for example, or the despicable Mississippi "Black Codes" during Reconstruction. Still, Olsen, who teaches history at Indiana State University, has produced a tightly written book ideal for anyone looking for a quick introduction to one of the most important periods in American history. (Aug.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Olsen (history, Indiana State Univ.; Political Culture and Secession in Mississippi: Masculinity, Honor, and the Antiparty Tradition, 1830-1860) provides a good overview of the Civil War era, with an emphasis on the secession crisis and the conflict but little on the aftermath. The book promises more than it delivers in terms of getting inside the minds and hearts of the people, for it largely focuses on political leaders and generals and follows the trunk line of historical narrative on politics, policy, and battles. Olsen sometimes overstates popular belief, but he knows the recent literature on the period and synthesizes it well to give readers a useful index of current arguments on a host of issues, ranging over the causes of the war and the nature of "modern" warfare to the impact of war on civilians and the meaning of emancipation. Excerpts from select historical documents conclude each chapter. The book works best as a primer for college students and general readers wanting an introduction to the war years. Recommended for college and large public libraries.-Randall M. Miller, St. Joseph's Univ., Philadelphia Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A solid introduction to the Civil War, with related historical documents and private letters appended to each chapter. Olsen (History/Indiana State Univ.) begins with the war's roots in conflicts during the early years of the republic. Slavery was already an issue at the Constitutional Convention, where the South won several key concessions, including the infamous clause that allowed a slave to be counted as three-fifths of a person when determining congressional representation. Sectional divisions sharpened as the two regions diverged economically, with New England heavily industrial, the Deep South dependent on agriculture. But the race issue was not clear-cut; many northerners fought to prohibit slavery in new territories in hopes of making them exclusively white enclaves. Olsen details the political maneuvers of the prewar years, the rise of the Republican Party and the South's ultimate decision to secede. He covers the major battles in broad strokes, usually not paying close attention to the actions of smaller units. But Olsen does give full coverage to such characteristic details as the mislaid set of orders that betrayed Lee's plans for his first Northern campaign, allowing McClellan to bring him to battle at Antietam. Nor does the author neglect famous commanders' idiosyncrasies, such as Andrew Jackson's insistence on eating foods he disliked as punishment for his sins. Those unfamiliar with the period will find the various documents Olsen presents particularly useful. These range from Jefferson's 1799 "Kentucky Resolution," which laid out the basis for states' rights, to news articles on the attack on Fort Sumter and harrowing postwar testimony at trials of Ku Klux Klansmen.Lincoln's speeches from various periods show his evolving understanding of the crisis and changing views on slavery. Breaks little new ground and is unlikely to surprise knowledgeable readers, but gets the basic points across clearly and effectively.
From the Publisher

“A solid introduction to the Civil War.” —Kirkus Reviews

“A trenchant survey history.” —Booklist

“The book works best as a primer for college students and general readers wanting an introduction.” —Library Journal

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The American Civil War

A Hands-on History

By Christopher J. Olsen

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2006 Christopher J. Olsen
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-70731-6


Political Sectionalism Before 1850

When the majority of white Southerners opted to secede from the Union in 1860 and 1861 it signaled a failure of the American political system and its renowned ability to compromise difficult problems. For most of the antebellum period, nearly all politicians tried to avoid a national discussion of slavery or slavery expansion, believing such a debate would be too divisive for the country. At times, though, the questions were unavoidable, and threatened to destroy the Union. In turn, Northerners and Southerners negotiated a series of compromises, a practice that stretched back to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and that over the decades engaged the efforts of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Henry Clay, Andrew Jackson, John C. Calhoun, Daniel Webster, Stephen A. Douglas, Jefferson Davis, and others. These well-known figures effected compromises at the national level, but the debate over slavery eventually reached into America's communities and entered the conversations and feelings of ordinary folks, too. Most men and women across the country ultimately took positions on the growing sectional divide, and those individual choices determined the coming of the Civil War.

What provoked these moments of national crisis? First, it is important to acknowledge that the vast majority of white Americans considered the practice of slavery a very different political or legal issue from slavery's expansion into territories where it nominally existed or did not exist. There was widespread agreement that slavery in the individual states was a local issue to be decided by residents of those states. In other words, even if the national government—that is, the majority of the voting public acting through Congress—wanted to abolish slavery, it could not, because abolition was not permitted under the Constitution. But the expansion of slavery was something else. Territories were governed directly by Congress, and therefore the issue of whether or not slavery would be allowed to expand was a matter for the national government in Washington.

Even before the Constitution was written, in fact, slavery in the West was an issue for the national government. America's earliest governing body, the Confederation Congress (constituted under the Articles of Confederation), approved the Northwest Ordinance in 1787, barring slavery from the Northwest Territory. In 1784 the Congress had considered a proposal from Thomas Jefferson (as part of his ordinance to grant early statehood) that would have prohibited slavery in all western lands, including the Southwest. When the antislavery provision failed by one vote, Jefferson famously lamented that "the fate of millions unborn" hung "on the tongue of one man, and heaven was silent in that awful moment." In the mid-1780s, Jefferson, like many of the Founding Fathers, was in the flush of revolutionary rhetoric about equality and liberty, and whatever antislavery impulses he had ever felt were at their most intense.

The expansion of slavery caused heated division for a variety of reasons. For some it was a matter of morality—slavery was wrong and therefore should be limited as a first step toward abolition; others saw it as an economic matter, part of the competition for good land and resources; many Northern whites wanted to restrict slavery in the hope of creating an "all-white" society in the West. All of these factors, and others, helped to energize Northerners and Southerners and made the question of slavery expansion an explosive national issue. Ultimately, the compromises effected in Congress between the North and South involved basic questions of political power in the national government—votes in the House and the Senate, votes in the Electoral College, votes to help decide the makeup of the Supreme Court. Thus—and this is the critical point—for the large majority of all whites, whether or not slavery expanded to the West involved a series of questions unrelated to the fate of black people. In short, the expansion of slavery was a vital and urgent issue for whites, even while most of them did not care whether or not slavery itself continued in the South. This explains why the Civil War was "somehow" about slavery, as Abraham Lincoln said, even though the vast majority of whites had no interest in abolition—and neither cared nor probably even thought much about slaves.

In the Constitutional Convention of 1787, delegates from Northern and Southern states discovered that two issues related to slavery divided them. First was the question of counting slaves for representation and taxation. Most Southerners wanted to count slaves as people when it came to proportional representation in the House of Representatives and Electoral College, but not when figuring each state's tax liability. Most Northerners wanted it the other way around. In the end, it was primarily a matter of finding an acceptable ratio that counted slaves as a portion of a person, for both representation and taxation, with delegates finally settling on 5:3—each slave would count as three-fifths of a person. The question of slavery's legitimacy was not part of the discussion, which was strictly a political debate.

The other issue at the Constitutional Convention, which had far more potential to divide the new nation, was the international slave trade from Africa. The trade was still legal, although abolitionists in Great Britain were already turning public opinion against the practice as unchristian and immoral. Most of the constitutional delegates also opposed the overseas trade, including many slaveowners such as Virginia's George Mason, who spoke passionately against it. The trade was easier to attack than slavery itself: the death rate was appallingly high; often mothers and children were separated; slaves were torn from their families and culture. On the other hand, most whites believed that slavery itself "uplifted" black men and women by bringing them in contact with Christianity and "civilization." If they survived the trade and made it to the United States, the argument ran, slaves were infinitely better off than they would have been in Africa. However, many Southerners considered opposition to the international trade a slippery slope, and any discussion that included words such as immoral in the same sentence as slavery made them uncomfortable. Representatives from Georgia and South Carolina insisted that the international trade remain open for economic reasons: their economies were just beginning to take off, and the planters in those states believed they needed a reliable, fresh supply of workers straight from the Old World. They even threatened to leave the new country if the international slave trade was disallowed. True to form, the Founders compromised: the overseas trade could not be banned in fewer than twenty years (in 1808, Congress did outlaw it). In those two decades, planters from the Deep South imported tens of thousands of men and women from Africa.

These compromises largely removed the issue of slavery from national politics for more than three decades. In that time, free and slave states were added to the Union in nearly matched pairs: Indiana (1816) and Mississippi (1817), and Illinois (1818) and Alabama (1819), for instance. In 1819, however, the population of Missouri Territory exceeded sixty thousand, the minimum required for statehood. The land was part of the Louisiana Purchase, in which slavery was legal under French and Spanish laws, and many Southerners had settled there after coming down the Ohio River Valley and through St. Louis. In 1819, slaves constituted about one-sixth of the territory's population. While considering legislation to allow Missourians to write a constitution, an obscure New York congressman, James Tallmadge, offered an amendment that provided for gradual emancipation of all enslaved residents of Missouri in about thirty years. To the surprise and horror of most white Southerners, Tallmadge's amendment passed the Northern-dominated House of Representatives, after several vitriolic debates. Gradual emancipation, though, was defeated in the Senate, where Southerners had parity with the North. The debate over Missouri's application and Tallmadge's amendment sharpened sectional differences and revealed an undercurrent of moral opposition to the spread of slavery. The aging Thomas Jefferson declared the controversy a "fire bell in the night" that "filled me with terror."

The crisis lasted nearly two years as Northern and Southern politicians searched for common ground. Southerners asserted their constitutional argument for the legality of slavery in all U.S. territories, which was based on the Fifth Amendment. The territories, they maintained, were the common possession of all American citizens, and slaves were property like any other kind of property. Therefore, if the federal government denied planters the right to own slaves in any territory, then it was a violation of their due process rights under the Constitution. This argument remained the cornerstone of the "Southern position" on slavery in the territories for the rest of the antebellum years—during which time more and more Northerners expressed a strong desire that slavery not spread beyond its present borders. The reasons for this ranged from political jealousy to hatred of Southern planters to moral antipathy for the South's "peculiar institution." Some Northerners argued that as the free states now enjoyed a much greater, and fast-growing, population, they should also have a majority of votes in the Senate. To Southerners this idea was particularly threatening, since the debate over Tallmadge's amendment underscored how important their equality in the Senate was, and how much power they had lost in the House of Representatives. In 1820, just over 40 percent of congressmen came from slave-owning states. Much more offensive to Southerners were comments such as those from New York's Rufus King, who declared slavery against the "laws of God." Lastly, others suggested that slavery violated the provision that each state have a republican form of government. Men from Virginia and the rest of the South—like all nineteenth-century Americans obsessed with their revolutionary heritage—were livid.

After months of deadlock, the young Speaker of the House, Kentucky's Henry Clay, helped win approval of compromise legislation that admitted Missouri to the Union and solved the question of slavery in the remainder of the Louisiana Purchase territory. Often called "Handsome Harry" or "Harry of the West," Clay was known for his love of bourbon, cigars, and poker. He ran for president and lost—three times—but he helped engineer three major sectional agreements to earn his most lasting moniker, "The Great Compromiser." To solve the deadlock, Maine (formerly a part of Massachusetts) was admitted as a free state, paired with pro-slavery Missouri. Of more immediate consequence was an agreement to limit slavery in the remaining Louisiana Purchase to lands south of a line drawn from the southern border of Missouri: latitude 36°30' north (see map on p. 54). The Missouri Compromise, then, resolved the question of slavery in the territories so long as no new land was added to the country (which did not occur until 1848). The 36°30' line became a nearly sacred piece of text to many Americans, who considered it almost equivalent to a constitutional amendment.

Another constitutional crisis that contained sectional undertones occurred in South Carolina between 1828 and 1833, although neither slavery nor slavery's expansion was the immediate issue. In 1828, Congress passed a new protective tariff with higher rates on many items. It was designed to boost domestic manufacturing, although it hurt American export farmers, who had difficulty selling to European buyers. Perhaps hardest pressed were South Carolina's cotton planters, struggling with depleted soil, falling yields, and competition from fresh land to the West. In response, a small faction of the state's planter-politicians decided to challenge the tariff by testing a political/constitutional theory: states' rights. This idea went back at least to 1798–1799, when Thomas Jefferson and James Madison penned (anonymously) the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions. These statements of principle—carrying no legal authority—declared that states were ultimately superior to the federal government, and therefore the final interpreters of the Constitution. This was before the principle of judicial review was established, giving that power to the Supreme Court. If the federal government acted in a "despotic" manner, then a state had the right, indeed the duty, to intercede on behalf of its citizens and "nullify" the federal measure. It was the first time a state had ever tested the theory.

The tariff was the immediate cause of the Nullification Crisis, as it became known, but many South Carolina politicians clearly had slavery in mind. They conceived of states' rights as their "ace in the hole," a last-ditch measure that might be used to protect slavery from a federal government they saw as increasingly threatening, and in the future apt to be dominated by Yankees. Using the constitutional ratification process as a model, John C. Calhoun (the vice president at the time, who wrote anonymously) laid out the process for nullification in the "South Carolina Exposition and Protest." It called for a special election for delegates to a state convention that would consider nullification. Calhoun maintained that nullification should be an extreme measure, not undertaken lightly, and should therefore be lengthy and relatively difficult. On November 24, 1832, a special convention of South Carolina delegates voted to nullify the federal tariff rates of 1828, which they declared were "unauthorized by the Constitution of the United States, and violate the true meaning and intent thereof, and are null, void, and no law, nor binding upon this State." As a final threat, the convention delegates vowed to secede should the federal government attempt to enforce the tariff with military coercion. Secession—the voluntary withdrawal of one state from the Union—was the logical end to states' rights logic.

Nullification, of course, challenged federal authority and, in particular, President Andrew Jackson, who'd won reelection in 1832 and was a hero to Southerners—he received over three-fourths of the vote in the slave states. With Jackson a native of South Carolina, a wealthy slaveowner, and often a champion of state power, many Southerners expected he would sympathize with the nullifiers. They were wrong. The chief executive of the country is supposed to enforce federal law, and Jackson intended to do just that. On December 10, 1832, he issued his "Nullification Proclamation," in which he labeled South Carolina's action an "impractical absurdity," the "essence of anarchy," and secession itself "treason." Finally, Jackson asked for, and Congress approved, the Force Bill, granting him the authority to invade South Carolina and collect the tariff if necessary. The governor of South Carolina responded by raising a volunteer army; military conflict seemed a real possibility. Unfortunately for the South Carolinians, however, no other state nullified the tariff, even though many Southerners expressed a general sympathy for the principle of states' rights. At this point Henry Clay again stepped in and proposed compromise legislation that would gradually lower tariff rates (something Jackson had urged repeatedly). This gave the nullifiers a way out. The South Carolina convention delegates reconvened, repealed the Ordinance of Nullification, but, as if to "prove" their point, also nullified the Force Bill. Jackson chose not to respond to this last peevish action.

What lessons could be taken from the Nullification Crisis? First, many Southerners concluded that states' rights worked. South Carolinians nullified the tariff and, basically, got what they wanted: lower rates. Furthermore, others contended that threatening to secede had forced the federal government to compromise. On the other hand, a Southern, slave-owning president had called nullification "absurd" and vowed to invade South Carolina; and no other state had offered South Carolina more than sympathy. In the end, the crisis prompted many Southerners to see states' rights, nullification, and even secession as viable options in the quest to protect slavery. It also created a core of committed "nullifiers" in every state: men such as John Quitman in Mississippi and future president John Tyler in Virginia. In the following decades many of these men became leaders in the movement for secession, working to convince the majority of Southerners that states' rights would provide the last line of defense in the developing battle with Northerners over the future place of slavery in the United States.


Excerpted from The American Civil War by Christopher J. Olsen. Copyright © 2006 Christopher J. Olsen. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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

Christopher J. Olsen is an assistant professor of history at Indiana State University and the author of Political Culture and Secession in Mississippi: Masculinity, Honor, and the Antiparty Tradition, 1830–1860.

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