As the title indicates, this book views the Civil War from a new perspective. Arenson evaluates what he calls, "the cultural civil war . . . the battle of ideas, clashing moral systems, and competing national visions," by focusing on St. Louis, its leaders, institutions, and values (2). According to the author, the book is a "cultural history of a cultural war, utilizing the interpretive power of events, seemingly outside politics. Pairing battles and triumphant architecture, elections and university origins, it contextualizes the entire era from 1848 to 1877" (2). In his view, the new land acquired as a result of the Mexican War is crucial: "The cultural civil war was the clash among three incompatible regional visions, as leaders from the North, South, and West argued about the definition and importance of Manifest Destiny and slavery politics" (2).
By emphasizing the role of the West in the debate and by seeing developments through the lens of St. Louis, Arenson has constructed "a nuanced, intimate history of the CivilWar era from the heart of the Republic" (3). He draws upon a great variety of sources, including newspapers in English, French, and German; a broad collection of personal papers, diaries, and paintings; architecture; and court cases. He also consults intellectual, urban economic, political, immigrant, railroad, and European histories, as well as biographical and archaeological works. Not only is his perspective on the era refreshing, but his imaginative use of sources also allows him to tease new meaning out of the evidence.
After ten chapters in which Arenson analyzes such topics as Saint Louis' Great Fire of 1849; the failed effort of Thomas Hart Benton to find a Western compromise for conflict between North and South by building a transcontinental railroad; the founding of Washington University, the Mercantile Library, and the construction of the Old Courthouse; the experiences of the Dred Scott family; the significance of German immigration on St. Louis and the Civil War; Reconstruction and the failure of emancipation to resolve racial problems; and Logan Reavis' effort to move the national capital to St. Louis, he concludes that the issue of slavery was implacable: "The cultural civil war was a decades-long struggle beyond any single city, state, or region. Its confrontations, parceled out over three decades, reveal a national convulsion over slavery—one that neither Manifest Destiny nor emancipation could mitigate" (219). The great promise of St. Louis situated "at the junction of the North, South, and West" never realized its potential (221). The entrenched realities of slavery doomed it. [End Page 479]