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Civil War History 51.3 (2005) 317-324

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A Book for Every Perspective:

Current Civil War and Reconstruction Textbooks

James M. McPherson, Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction, 3d ed. (Boston: McGraw Hill, 2001), 661 pp.
David Herbert Donald, Jean H. Baker, and Michael F. Holt. The Civil War and Reconstruction (New York: Norton, 2001), 781 pp.
Michael Fellman, Lesley J. Gordon, and Daniel E. Sutherland. This Terrible War: The Civil War and Its Aftermath (New York: Longman, 2003), 496 pp.
Robert Cook. Civil War America: Making a Nation, 1848–1877 (London: Longman, 2003), 382 pp.

In the last twenty-five years, historians of all stripes have opened up new ways of understanding the traumatic middle decades of nineteenth-century America. This explosion of research and writing must please everyone except those unfortunate souls who have to synthesize the ever-expanding body of knowledge into concise, readable textbooks. The challenge for textbook writers tackling the Civil War and Reconstruction period is not simply sifting through the new information that keeps appearing but also accommodating new interpretations and blending these into a story that holds students' attention. The ready availability of well-written monographs and inexpensive primary sources complicates the assignment still more.

Most difficult of all, the high quality of research being done on the period demands that scholars consider more themes in more complex detail. A [End Page 317] focused analytical approach permits the clearest explanation of the central issues of the period—emancipation, race relations, centralization, nationalism, and hard war, to name a few—but by divorcing these elements from a chronological narrative, readers lose the sense of change over time that made these such important issues in the first place. Finding the proper balance between chronological narrative and thematic analysis is the key challenge in writing Civil War and Reconstruction textbooks today.

Most of the textbooks available for use in the classroom combine these approaches, by employing a chronological narrative to structure the text and including more analytical thematic sections to deal with important issues such as slavery and emancipation. Most use a variety of visual displays, including maps, graphs, images, and illustrations, to convey information along with text. All the texts in this review give attention to the battlefront and the homefront. They all address the constellation of issues upon which current historians focus: the reality and influence of sectional difference, slavery and race relations, the Northern policy of hard war, the reasons for Northern victory, the nature of Reconstruction, and explanations for its failure.

Even with these similarities, current textbooks diverge significantly in their interpretations of the antebellum, war, and postwar periods and the ways in which they convey those interpretations. James McPherson's Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction describes a seemingly inevitable clash between a modernizing, urban-industrial North and a hierarchical, slave-based South in primarily ideological terms. David Donald, Jean Baker, and Michael Holt, in The Civil War and Reconstruction, focus more on the political machinations that produced the war and were produced by it. Michael Fellman, Lesley Gordon, and Daniel Sutherland's This Terrible War: The Civil War and Its Aftermath characterizes the period as one of great change that ultimately failed to solve America's deepest social problem: the hostility of white people toward black people. Robert Cook's Civil War America: Making a Nation, 1848–1877 also balances the accomplishments and failures of the period, although the book's format differs significantly from the other texts under consideration.1

A central problem that all the books confront immediately is whether to characterize the antebellum North and South as mostly distinct or mostly similar places. None deny that individuals in 1861, and frequently earlier, [End Page 318] understood profound differences between the two sections, but Fellman's and Donald's texts go to greater lengths to show the contingency of events that led to the war. As befits an argument that emphasizes the North's engagement with the key elements of modernity, McPherson's text portrays stark differences between...


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