- The New York Times: Disunion: Modern Historians Revisit and Reconsider the Civil War from Lincoln’s Election to the Emancipation Proclamation ed. by Ted Widmer
In late 1862, Lincoln has promised to free the South’s slaves on New Year’s Day, as a war tactic; “We had about played our last card,” he tells a muralist (334). But the Great Emancipator is first the Great Executioner: He orders the December 26 hanging of thirty-eight Dakota Sioux for a murderous Minnesota uprising. Convicted in trials as brief as five minutes each, in a language many of them did not know, the condemned men sing and clasp each other’s manacled hands as the trap is sprung and the white crowd cheers. Lincoln takes political heat for sparing hundreds more.
This is one of many interwoven surprises in Disunion, composed of 106 essays by major scholars and others that historian Ted Widmer and editors Clay Risen and George Kalogerakis selected from more than 400 published on the New York Times’ award-winning blog to mark the Civil War’s 150th anniversary. It is history not presented as the twelve-course meals of major, footnoted works, but instead served tapas-style. Taken together, the essays celebrate the groundbreaking scholarship of recent decades, in which historians have challenged previous teachings about [End Page 478] the war, especially regarding race, gender, and slavery. Disunion invites a wider readership to ponder those findings and hunger for the twelve-course meals.
Marginalized groups and forgotten individuals leap to the fore. Steven Hahn shows that slaves saw promise in the new president and spread the word (via “the grapevine telegraph,” as Booker T. Washington wrote) so that when Lincoln issued his proclamation, his “political sensibilities had finally caught up to theirs” (66). An essay by Widmer contemplates how Sarah Bush Lincoln, an illiterate widow, surrounded her nine-year-old stepson with books such as Robinson Crusoe and Pilgrim’s Progress, helping “a small motherless boy … become Abraham Lincoln” (52). Carla Peterson uses her own ancestor’s memoir to reveal “Dr. Smith’s back room” in Manhattan, where James McCune Smith, Henry Highland Garnet, and other black abolitionists strategized.
Disunion reminds us how well Civil War Americans expressed themselves. In his introduction, Widmer quotes Edmund Wilson’s question: was there another crisis “in which so many people were so articulate?” (x). Maybe not. Frederick Douglass quipped that secessionists preferred “to be a large piece of nothing, to being any longer a small piece of something” (30). Wendell Phillips lamented Lincoln’s tiptoe approach to emancipation, saying he had to be “frightened or bullied into the right policy. … He’s a Spaniel by nature” (384). In New Orleans, a black man assured a Union officer that if freedmen are armed, “you’ll soon see that we not only know how to shoot, but who to shoot” (301).
The collection is also a kind of Civil War edition of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! We learn of a mania so public that wire services declared, “GENERAL WILLIAM T. SHERMAN INSANE” (219). We meet women who faked their way into combat, such as Jennie Hodgers, who enlisted as a man, took part in forty battles, and was not revealed as female until a half-century later—in an automobile accident (342). There are essays on railroads, tents, maps, mascots, mines, hot-air balloons, and divorce law. Why the Confederate flag’s design? It replaced an earlier version’s upright Christian cross, to avoid “religious objection … from the Jews” (168). Speaking of which: Jonathan Sarna’s chilling essay tells of Ulysses Grant’s 1862 order to have “Jews, as a class … expelled” from occupied territory under his command (428). Grant believed Jewish merchants had talked his father into a crooked cotton-dealing scheme.
Must-read-aloud revelations and contemporary echoes abound. Brooks Brothers profited by gluing together army uniforms that dissolved “in...