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Marching as to war: an outpouring of new books addresses the divisions during and long after the Civil War.

IN THE CURRENT EXHIBIT "NEW YORK DIVIDED: SLAVERY AND THE Civil War," at the New-York Historical Society (November 2006-September 2007), the curators explore the state's "seemingly contradictory role as both a major center of the nation's abolitionist movement and a virtual 'Capital of the South,' with important commercial and political ties to Southern slavery."

At the beginning of the Civil War, in 1861, many states denied blacks--those flee and those still enslaved--the opportunity to prove their mettle in the battle. "Nonetheless," according to the "New York Divided" exhibit, "More than seventy percent of the eligible black men in the northern states, aged 18 to 45, joined the Union forces ... and Black service in the war had contributed to victory." When you consider that more than a half million slaves came within Union lines and 200,000 African Americans fought in the Civil War, this should dispel the widely held notion that blacks were bystanders in the struggle for their emancipation. It has been estimated that some 40,000 black soldiers died during the war, and without their "last full measure of devotion," many experts contend the North would not have prevailed.

The contribution of blacks in several facets of the Civil War is just one topic discussed in the growing compendium of books on the subject. And at least 15 new titles add immeasurably to material available on this formative era of American history. There are--as one might suspect--a number of common themes in the books; and one thread that links the books is division. Almost without exception there is some divisive element, some opposing force that binds this research that ultimately addresses the most obvious divide: the battle between the North and the South, between the Union and the Confederacy.

Division is evident in a few titles, particularly Invisible Southerners: Ethnicity in the Civil War by Anne J. Bailey (University of Georgia Press, 2006); Lincoln and Davis, Two Opposite Sides: What Drove the Opposing Leaders of the Civil War by Dr. William O. Lawton (Beckham Publications Group, 2005); and The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (University of North Carolina Press, 2006), Mark A. Noll's book. The three ethnic groups under Bailey's gaze are the Germans, Native Americans and African Americans. When discussing African Americans as possible troops during the war, she notes the chasm that separated those who favored the participation of "sable" forces and those who vehemently opposed it, especially when this meant arming the troops, something the Southern generals relented to only in the final desperate days of the conflict.

In just under 65 pages, Lawton examines the difference between two Kentuckians--Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis. One of the most interesting observations is that at one time they were on the same side in the Black Hawk War of the 1830s. A generation later, their differences would be hostile and widely known.

Like Lawton's book, Noll's book is comparatively short, but he grapples convincingly with one of the oldest arguments among theologians: their interpretation of what the Bible has to say about slavery. Even some of the commentators summoned by Noll found it difficult to fully support the North, though they agreed that slavery was an evil.

The Battles Had Just Begun

Even ten years after the war, forces were bitterly divided on how to handle issues directly related to the emancipation of the former captives. This is a problem at the crux of Nicholas Lemann's Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006), which appeared on several best-seller lists. What he deems the last battle of the Civil War was but one encounter fueling the ongoing struggle for civil rights.

One issue that Bailey touches on is given thorough analysis by Bruce Levine in Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves During the Civil War (Oxford University Press, 2005). Again, the Confederate generals are seen as conflicted about whether to enlist blacks, fearing that to arm them might backfire. By the time they finally agreed to muster a few with arms, it was too late. President Lincoln was also perplexed on this matter, feeling that to call on black troops would admit a weakness in the Union forces. Only after they had won a major battle at Antietam did he relent.

Another common theme among the authors is the Fort Pillow Massacre of 1864. After Union troops were surrounded by the enemy, they surrendered. Under a white flag of truce, they were subsequently massacred by Confederate troops under the leadership of Nathan Bedford Forrest. John Cimprich's Fort Pillow: A Civil War Massacre, and Public Memory (Louisiana State University Press, 2005) and Andrew Ward's River Run Red: The Fort Pillow Massacre in the American Civil War (Viking, 2005) are equally rewarding in their discussion of this infamous incident, though Ward's lengthy book weighs in most considerably and includes details of Commander Forrest's life after the war and his founding of the Ku Klux Klan.

The KKK, its origins and early years of terrorism, is the main concern of Kwando Mbiassi Kinshasa in his book Black Resistance to the Ku Klux Klan in the Wake of Civil War (McFarland, 2006), and among the enlightening things he summons are some of the actual words of Forrest. During one speech, Forrest appeals to the former slaves, reminding them of how charitable and supportive the slaveholders had been to their well-being.

While other books are commendable in their chosen objectives, two deserve more than passing praise. Given the number of books, it was not possible to examine them all in full detail, and my plan to skim them was sabotaged by Uncommon Valor: A Story of Race, Patriotism, and the Glory in the Final Battles of the Civil War by Melvin Claxton and Mark Puls (Wiley, 2005) and A People's History of the Civil War: Struggles to Expand America's Freedom, 1861-1865 by David Williams (The New Press, 2005).

Not only are Claxton and Puls superb writers, they have selected some astonishing orations; and while I had read of Robert Brown Elliott's prowess, they present several pages of his defense of the Civil Rights Bill of 1874, though their main goal is to showcase the critical battle at New Market Heights in Virginia.

Williams's book is clearly the most comprehensive of those assembled here, and for this reason, and even more so because of its emulation of historian Howard Zinn's similar efforts, it comes highly recommended.

This is a marvelous collection of books, and taken together, they fill just about every conceivable niche and sinecure related to that Great War.

In the Pages of History Following are recent releases on the Civil War, some discussed in Herb Boyd's roundup:

African American Southerners in Slavery, Civil War and Reconstruction by Claude H. Nolen McFarland, November 2005 $35, ISBN 0-786-42451-6

Black Resistance to the Ku Klux Klan in the Wake of the Civil War by Kwando Mbiassi Kinshasa McFarland, October 2006 $45, ISBN 0-786-42467-2

The Civil War as a Theological Crisis by Mark A. Null University of North Carolina Press April 2006, $29.95, ISBN 0-807-83012-7

The Colors of Courage--Gettysburg's Forgotten History--Immigrants, Women, and African Americans in the Civil War's Defining Battle by Margaret S. Creighton Basic Books, December 2004 $26, ISBN 0-465-01456-9

Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arms Slaves During the Civil War by Bruce Levine Oxford University Press, November 2005 $28, ISBN 0-195-14762-6

Fort Pillow: A Civil War Massacre and Public Memory by John Cimprich Louisiana State Press, October 2005 $29.95, ISBN 0-807-13110-5

Honor in Command: Lt. Freeman S. Bowley's Civil War Service in the 30th United States Colored Infantry Edited by Keith Wilson University Press of Florida November 2006 $39.95, ISBN 0-813-02998-8

Honoring the Civil War Dead: Commemoration and the Problem of Reconciliation by John R. Neff University of Kansas Press, April 2005 $34.95, ISBN 0-700-61366-8

Invisible Southerners: Ethnicity in the Civil War by Anne J. Bailey University of Georgia Press, May 2006 $24.95, ISBN 0-820-32757-3

Lincoln and Davis, Two Opposite Sides: What Drove the Opposing Leaders of the Civil War by Dr. William O. Lawton Beckham Publications Group, 2005 $10.95, ISBN 0-931-76166-2

Moses Trinidad: Buffalo Soldier by Michael Walter Tudda Infinity Publishing, November 2005 $17.95, ISBN 0-741-42840-7

A People's History of the Civil War: Struggles to Expand America's Freedom, 1861-1865 by David Williams The New Press, November 2005 $29.95, ISBN 1-595-58018-2

Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War by Nicholas Lemann Farrar, Straus and Giroux September 2006 $24, ISBN 0-374-24855-9

The Rescue of Joshua Glover: A Fugitive Slave, the Constitution, and the Coming of the Civil War by H. Robert Baker Ohio University Press, December 2006 $38.95, ISBN 0-821-41728-1

River Run Red: The Fort Pillow Massacre in the American Civil War by Andrew Ward Viking, September 2005 $29.95, ISBN 0-670-03440-1

Uncommon Valor-A Story of Race, Patriotism, and Glory in the Final Battles of the Civil War by Melvin Claxton and Mark Puls Wiley, December 2005 $24.95, ISBN 0-471-46823-1

What This Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery and the Civil War by Chandra Manning Knopf, April 2007 $26.95, ISBN 0-307-26482-4

Herb Boyd is a frequent contributor to Black Issues Book Review.
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Author:Boyd, Herb
Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2007
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