As new books commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War assail readers like a latter-day Pickett’s Charge, at least one volume deserves to break Union lines as the rebels at Gettysburg could not. Like photographer Mathew Brady, historian David Goldfield has done something in America Aflame (Bloomsbury Press, 632 pages, $35) to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war. If he has not brought the costs and laid them in our dooryards and along our streets, he has done something very like it.
Goldfield’s book is unlike most other Civil War histories. The war itself takes up less than 200 pages. Whole chapters drift by in which readers might forget they are reading a book about the Civil War at all. And yet Goldfield’s depiction of human suffering on the battlefield, in a war whose battles have been described so many times in so many different ways they have lost the power to shock, is almost unbearable. But not quite as unbearable as the darkness in the Southern heart after the war, or the optimism of freed slaves before the ultimate betrayal of Reconstruction.
It is a tale often told, and yet in Goldfield’s retelling the familiar yields new meanings that cut the human heart in new, unscarred places. He more closely captures the essence of Robert E. Lee and the Confederacy in three sentences, for instance, than some historians have done in as many volumes: “Lee was not a tragic figure any more than the Confederacy was a tragic attempt at sovereignty. Tragedy requires unmerited suffering. What we have in Robert E. Lee, and the Confederacy, was a series of bad decisions, some startlingly impulsive, given Lee’s embrace of reason, that led to predictable but not tragic destruction.”
Goldfield places the direct costs of the Civil War to the federal government at $6.7 billion, less than half of which would have been enough to buy freedom for all the slaves and a 40-acre farm for every slave family—without killing a single American soldier. He traces the war’s origins—and the South’s intransigence in defeat—to evangelical Christianity. It’s a fascinating argument, but one that Goldfield takes too far. Yes, evangelicals agitated zealously for and against slavery, but they also laid the groundwork for much of the progressivism of modern American life: social services, public education, women’s suffrage and the civil-rights movement, although the latter would not bear fruit for more than a century.
GO: David Goldfield visits Powell’s Books at Cedar Hills Crossing, 3415 SW Cedar Hills Blvd., Beaverton, 228-4651. 7 pm Thursday, May 12. Free.