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America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation [Audiobook, CD] [Audio CD]

David Goldfield , David Drummond
4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
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Book Description

28 Mar 2011

In this spellbinding new history, David Goldfield offers the first major new interpretation of the Civil War era since James M. McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom. Where past scholars have limned the war as a triumph of freedom, Goldfield sees it as America's greatest failure: the result of a breakdown caused by the infusion of evangelical religion into the public sphere. As the Second GreatAwakening surged through America, political questions became matters of good and evil to be fought to the death.

The price of that failure was horrific, but the carnage accomplished what statesmen could not: It made the United States one nation and eliminated slavery as a divisive force in the Union. The victorious North became synonymous with America as a land of innovation and industrialization, whose teeming cities offered squalor and opportunity in equal measure. Religion was supplanted by science and a gospel of progress, and the South was left behind.

Goldfield's panoramic narrative, sweeping from the 1840s to the end of Reconstruction, is studded with memorable details and luminaries such as HarrietBeecher Stowe, Frederick Douglass, and Walt Whitman. There are lesser known yet equally compelling characters, too, including Carl Schurz-a German immigrant, warhero, and postwar reformer-and Alexander Stephens, the urbane and intellectual vice president of the Confederacy. America Aflame is a vivid portrait of the "fiery trial"that transformed the country we live in.

David Goldfield is the Robert Lee Bailey Professor of History at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. He is the author of many works on Southern history, including Still Fighting the Civil War; Black, White, and Southern; and Promised Land.

--This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Product details

  • Audio CD
  • Publisher: Tantor Media, Inc; Unabridged library ed edition (28 Mar 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1452631565
  • ISBN-13: 978-1452631561
  • Product Dimensions: 17.2 x 17.9 x 4.5 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)

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Review

Drawing on a wide range of sources as well as contemporary reporting, this deftly written historical analysis takes on a difficult topic with passion, sensitivity and integrity. (Publishers Weekly on Still Fighting the Civil War)

Likely to become a classic to rank with the thematic works of Odum, Cash, and Woodward... Goldfield writes with his usual felicity, the style matching the topic under discussion with an almost faultless appropriateness. (History Magazine on Cotton Fields and Skyscrapers)

Often moving (Publishers Weekly on Black, White, and Southern) --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

Book Description

A powerful, vividly narrated history of the Civil War era, presenting a provocative new take on the causes of America's greatest tragedy. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
By Red on Black TOP 50 REVIEWER VINE VOICE
Format:Hardcover
Many historians including the late great Shelby Foote have observed that the fundamental genius of the American political system of government is to seek compromise. And yet the decision of the framers of the Constitution to "park" the issue of slavery in 1797 left a cancer in the American body politic which turned malignant in the mid part of the 19th century. This excellent new general history by Southern historian David Goldfield concentrates on that failure of compromise and firmly lays the blame for this at the door of the infusion of evangelical religious fervour into politics in making conciliation virtually impossible as the 1850s progressed. This issue is brilliantly studied by Goldfield and whereas most books on the civil war will start with the examination of the Mexican War or Bleeding Kansas, he commences in 1834 by dissecting the burning of the Ursuline convent in Charlestown Massachusetts which had become became an object of vicious scorn for anti-Catholic sentiment in the 1830s. Why is this important? Goldfield shows that religious discord and sectarian conflict which materialised in different forms such as Anti-Catholic, Anti-Jewish and Anti-Black Evangelical Christian ideologues effectively destroyed the search for consensus which underpins the constitution. No where was this polarisation more bellicose or visceral than on the question of slavery. The debate was understandably dominated by concepts of an absolute "right" and "wrong" exemplified by a small band of Evangelical Protestants who led Northern abolitionism and in the South by a deeply embedded racist faith in slavery as a guarantor of a threatened way of life. Read more ›
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
By C. Ball TOP 500 REVIEWER VINE VOICE
Format:Paperback
This book is billed as a major new interpretation of the Civil War, but to be honest I'm not sure how 'new' an interpretation it really is. It focuses more heavily on the evangelical religious impulses interwoven through antebellum America society than perhaps other histories have done, and certainly those religious revivals played a more important role than has hitherto been acknowledged, but I'm not sure that entirely qualifies as a whole new interpretation of the War.

Goldfield's central thesis is that the rise of evangelical religion and its intrusion into politics is largely what led to the schism between North and South. When both sides believe their culture, way of life and beliefs to be not just preferable, not just right, but divinely sanctified, compromise is inevitably all but impossible. To the North, slavery was not just wrong, but evil. To the South, their way of life, slavery and all, was a divine blessing and the slave's role part of the natural order ordained by God. Once God starts to be invoked, conflict is usually inevitable, as the stakes become so much greater than simple politics or economics. In support of this argument, Goldfield connects the evangelical impulses to the strong anti-Catholicism of the time that infused other major political issues of the day such as anti-immigration and nativism.

It's a fine theory, and one I can well believe. He writes well in support of it, and this is an excellent examination of antebellum America from the 1830s onwards, quite apart from this new angle in the causes of the conflict.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars feedback from present recipient 21 Aug 2013
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I gave this as a present to a family member who is now living in the States, and who told me (after quite a while as it is a very long book) that he had enjoyed reading this - it had improved his knowledge of the history of the US enormously, being much more revealing than many standard histories he'd come across.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
By rob crawford TOP 1000 REVIEWER
Format:Paperback
This is a very different type of Civil War book. Rather than battles or politics, it takes a long look at the reasons that things turned out the way they did, about the evolution of American society and institutions, of the feelings of the people of the period. The breadth of the portrait, in time covered but also the lives lived, is astonishingly dense.

On one level, it is a splendid introduction for the general reader. Starting in the 1830s, it goes all the way to the end - the definitive failure - of Reconstruction in 1876. The bulk of the events in the book are, of course, during the Civil War itself, but Goldfield also covers the end of the Indian Wars, the establishment of modernism as industrialization accelerated, and the way that American institutions took the form that have more or less lasted to the present day. This is presented as a narrative, stories following the lifetimes of many interesting characters (e.g. Walt Whitman, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Frederick Douglass, and Jefferson Davis), but with plenty of analyses seamlessly woven in. Whether you know the events and concepts or not, the tableau that Goldfield paints is an extraordinary pleasure to read, vivid, and written with an elegant precision that is absolutely masterful.

On a deeper level, he has a number of points that he wants to make. This is where the book gets original, even hard hitting in its unflinching interpretations. Because he is arguing against what can only be called myths, there are many who will vehemently disagree with his take.

First, he looks at the causes of the Civil War. On the one hand, he argues that the question of slavery was indeed the principal reason that North opposed South and vice versa.
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Amazon.com: 4.4 out of 5 stars  50 reviews
120 of 134 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The end point of the American Revolution and the start of modern America 7 April 2011
By W. V. Buckley - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Civil War history used to be so simple. As grade schoolers we were taught that the war started in 1861 when the Confederates bombarded Ft. Sumter, was fought over the issue of slavery, and ended when Robert E. Lee surrendered at the Appomattox Courthouse in 1865. But it seems the Civil War has become a moving target for historians. Some say it began with John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry. Others cite the violence of "Bleeding Kansas." Or maybe it was the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin and the rise of the abolitionist movement. Even the ending of the conflict has become hard to define. Did it end with Reconstruction? Did it end with the granting of Civil Rights to blacks. Are we still, in some ways, fighting the Civil War.

David Goldfield, an historian at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, plunges headlong into the fray with America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation. Be forewarned: this is not one of those dry recitations of battles and generals and numbers of casualties. Goldfield makes history come alive when he goes beyond the usual "this is what happened" version of history. By delving into the social history of the United States, he also builds a compelling case for "this is why it happened." And, in what will no doubt draw ire from traditional historians, he ponders "what might have happened." While not quite entering the territory of alternative history, Goldfield proposes that the death and destruction of the Civil War might have been avoided while the result would have been the same: the end of slavery.

Goldfield sees the ominous roots of the Civil War in the Second Great Awakening in the decades before the conflict broke out. Here, for the first time in the fledgling nation's history, evangelical religion became entwined with politics. (Anyone see a connection with another American era? Hmmmm ... like maybe the 1980s when evangelical Christians and the GOP formed an alliance under Ronald Reagan?) Northern evangelicals were concerned about the spread of immigrants, espcially the Irish and the Catholic religion they brought with them. They also encouraged the nation to push Native Americans off land they saw as America's "manifest destiny" to fill from coast to coast. This influence by evangelicals resulted (shades of modern America again!) in a political system in which the reasonable middle ground fell away, leaving only the extreme voices of the pro- and anti-slavery politicians.

America Aflame is one of those rare Civil War histories that isn't content to limit itself of discussions of slavery and states' rights or descriptions of battles and military strategy. But in reading it I felt I was given a much bigger canvass on which to view the war, it causes and the aftermath. Yet, for its scope, the book is immensely readable. Usually it would take me two weeks to wade through a book such as this. I made it through Goldfield's book in four days. I found the book so compelling that I did not want to put it down and read far longer into the night than I intended. As Goldfield tells it, the Civil War was indeed the point at which the American Revolution ended and a modern American truly began.
25 of 28 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "America Aflame" - The failure of political compromise and its consequences 28 Dec 2011
By Red on Black - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Many historians including the late great Shelby Foote have observed that the fundamental genius of the American political system of government is to seek compromise. And yet the decision of the framers of the Constitution to "park" the issue of slavery in 1797 left a cancer in the American body politic which turned malignant in the mid part of the 19th century. This excellent new general history by Southern historian David Goldfield concentrates on that failure of compromise and firmly lays the blame for this at the door of the infusion of evangelical religious fervour into politics in making conciliation virtually impossible as the 1850s progressed. This issue is brilliantly studied by Goldfield and whereas most books on the civil war will start with the examination of the Mexican War or Bleeding Kansas, he commences in 1834 by dissecting the burning of the Ursuline convent in Charlestown Massachusetts which had become became an object of vicious scorn for anti-Catholic sentiment in the 1830s. Why is this important? Goldfield shows that religious discord and sectarian conflict which materialised in different forms such as Anti-Catholic, Anti-Jewish and Anti-Black Evangelical Christian ideologues effectively destroyed the search for consensus which underpins the constitution. No where was this polarisation more bellicose or visceral than on the question of slavery. The debate was understandably dominated by concepts of an absolute "right" and "wrong" exemplified by a small band of Evangelical Protestants who led Northern abolitionism and in the South by a deeply embedded racist faith in slavery as a guarantor of a threatened way of life. Certainly some politicians like Alexander Stephens and Stephen Douglas cautiously searched for a compromise solutions but the gulf of political polarization was seismic and epitomised by the great abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison's symbolic burning of the constitution and its slavery compromise as a "covenant with death, an agreement with hell,". Equally in 1856 when Preston Smith Brooks a Senator from South Carolina beat Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner unconscious with a cane on the house floor because of one his abolitionist speeches The Richmond Enquirer crowed: "We consider the act good in conception, better in execution, and best of all in consequences. These vulgar abolitionists in the Senate must be lashed into submission."

Goldfield's thesis is controversial and revisionist. It is also on occasions far too neat and precise. It was Abraham Lincoln after all who tried to navigate a way through this and his first inauguration speech in 1861 was a delicate attempt to address the "apprehension of the Southern states" where Lincoln assured his intention not to interfere in slavery "in the states where it exists". Yet a moral issue like slavery could not be negotiated away or be subject to shady political deals. Was a compromise possible? In truth the answer was certainly not. The tragedy of this of course was that the number of American dead in the Civil War exceeded in combination all those who died from the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, Mexican War, Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, and Korea combined. Provocatively Goldfield calculates that the Civil War cost around $6.7 billion in 1860s currency. He then asserts that if "the government had purchased the freedom of four million slaves and granted a 40-acre farm to each slave family, the total cost would have been $3.1 billion, leaving $3.6 billion for reparations to make up for a century of lost wages. And not a single life would have been lost."

The "Ifs" and "buts" of this book make for an absorbing tour de force of scholarship when equally combined with a very solid narrative about the course of the civil war. In particular Goldfield's scrutiny of the inherent weaknesses of the Reconstruction or as some southerners saw it "the redemption" with the restoration of white supremacy is brilliantly done. More than anything else Goldfield's book is a warning about the toxic mix of religion and politics which the framers of the constitution sought to avoid but which consistently rears it ugly head in US politics often with the worse of consequences (there are some chilling similarities with the present). If you are a civil war "buff" seek out "America Aflame" for a refreshing, controversial and panoramic study of the defining event of American History.
35 of 43 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Civil War 150 Years Later. So What's to Celebrate? 2 May 2011
By David R. Anderson - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This book, for one thing. David Goldfield looks under the cushions and into the corners of our history to put the Civil War and its bitter aftermath into perspective. In the process, Goldfield challenges a number of perceptions about the war: first, that it couldn't be avoided; second that religion played a major role in bringing us together after the war; and, third; that we emerged from Reconstruction as a unified nation.

The leaders of the Confederacy took slavery as the region's inalienable right both on religious grounds and on economic grounds. But it turns out that the Union could have compensated southern slaveholders in full for their slaves for half of what the war cost. That would have spared our young country the enormous loss of life, the widespread destruction of huge areas of the south and its cities, and provided a less hostile environment for the integration of the country's blacks into the mainstream of American life. After citing examples of countries which successfully took this approach to emancipation, Goldfield deals with the reasons it didn't work here.

Organized religion fanned the flames of war on both sides. Southern clergy proclaimed biblical authority for slavery and for subjugation of the south's blacks after the war. In the north, many churches opposed slavery before and during the war, then turned their backs on the south's blacks at a time when they most needed their help.

The Union victory in the Civil War did not lead to a nation united in any except the most technical sense. As the book makes clear, after Appomattox the victorious north turned its attention to westward expansion, industrial and scientific achievements, the subjugation of the Native Americans, and quickly abandoned as divisive and ill-conceived the plan for reconstruction. The south was left to its own devices to establish de facto slavery more out of hubris than self-interest. Goldfield addresses but can not answer how things might have turned out if President Lincoln had lived to guide the reunification. He does make clear that Andrew Johnson and later U.S. Grant failed to make good on Lincoln's vision for the postwar nation. Pursuit of the almighty dollar too quickly became the be all and end all of northern attention. The blacks the Union had had fought and died to emancipate were left to sink or swim in the hostile waters of the Jim Crow south.

We are still not fully out from under the racial prejudice that fueled the Civil War and its aftermath. But, as Goldfield makes clear, we are much closer to being a fully realized democracy today than at any time covered in this remarkable history. As we mark the 150th anniversary of the fall of Fort Sumter, it is appropriate to take stock of where we've been since and what remains undone. This book makes an ideal starting place for that inquiry.
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent, candid description of the decades surrounding the Civil War 14 Mar 2012
By Roy F. Johnson - Published on Amazon.com
It was an excellent read for me. It greatly expanded my understanding of the years surrounding the Civil War, and it helped connect that time with what I have see in my own lifetime. The candid descriptions, observations and conclusions were generally excellent, although the text was sometimes difficult to read.

Mostly, the book made me more resigned to the perpetual conflict, self interest and corruption that surround us today, particularly the lack of consideration and compassion between people. I'm less inclined to be intensely reactionary to injustices in the world, although I will continue to make an effort to improve things here and there for my own self respect. I'm just not going to let things get to me so badly nor expect the world to steadily improve. A positive move today can be quickly reversed in a year or two.

Some things in particular that I noted in the book:

1. The heavy anti-Catholic sentiment.
2. The amount of street violence that occurred outside the war for various reasons.
3. The extent of anti-black sentiment in the north. Northerners wanted to end slavery but were not eager to integrate themselves.
4. The inconsistency of being concerned about slavery while Native Americans were being wiped out.
5. How easily Northerners quit worrying about southern blacks after the war as the economy boomed.
6. How the government can get cozy with corporations, like what we have today.

A minor negative comment on the book: The figures inserted in the text were often too small to discern details.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars causes, conduct, and aftermath of the defining American crisis 1 April 2013
By Robert J. Crawford - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This is a very different type of Civil War book. Rather than battles or politics, it takes a long look at the reasons that things turned out the way they did, about the evolution of American society and institutions, of the feelings of the people of the period. The breadth of the portrait, in time covered but also the lives lived, is astonishingly dense.

On one level, it is a splendid introduction for the general reader. Starting in the 1830s, it goes all the way to the end - the definitive failure - of Reconstruction in 1876. The bulk of the events in the book are, of course, during the Civil War itself, but Goldfield also covers the end of the Indian Wars, the establishment of modernism as industrialization accelerated, and the way that American institutions took the form that have more or less lasted to the present day. This is presented as a narrative, stories following the lifetimes of many interesting characters (e.g. Walt Whitman, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Frederick Douglass, and Jefferson Davis), but with plenty of analyses seamlessly woven in. Whether you know the events and concepts or not, the tableau that Goldfield paints is an extraordinary pleasure to read, vivid, and written with an elegant precision that is absolutely masterful.

On a deeper level, he has a number of points that he wants to make. This is where the book gets original, even hard hitting in its unflinching interpretations. Because he is arguing against what can only be called myths, there are many who will vehemently disagree with his take.

First, he looks at the causes of the Civil War. On the one hand, he argues that the question of slavery was indeed the principal reason that North opposed South and vice versa. This was the case, he argues, because of the importance of slavery to the society of the South. Not only did it allow slaveowners to create a kind of stagnant, pseudo-aristocratic lifestyle in spite of the industrial revolution underway, but even poor whites had a class to look down upon and humiliate as inferiors. If slavery ended as an institution, the balance of this society as it was would die. Interestingly, this is the precise line of argument that Southerners have sought to demolish or suppress through a political and academic machine for the last 150 years, arguing that it was states' rights, that they were victims of Northern aggression, etc.

On the other hand, Goldfield goes into great detail about the impact of the Second Great Awakening, the extraordinary upsurge of evangelical protestantism from the early 1830s. This was the time that Mormonisn, Seventh Day Adventism, and hundreds of other denominations were established, espousing absolute certainly in their views and the ability to personally discern the intent of God. This reinforced America's sense of its uniqueness and mission as the only democratic nation in existence and as the place that God had chosen for paradise. Taken together, this fatally hardened the views of both North and South, he argues, with each church asserting that it represented the absolute just cause - and guaranteed quick success in war.

Second, the reason that the North was so fanatically devoted to maintaining the Union was the fear of anarchy and disintegration: observers had closely followed events in Europe, starting with the "terror" of the French Revolution but focusing on the contemporary crises as embodied in the apparently failed revolutions of 1848. They worried that "too much democracy" would lead to chaos and dissipate energies in petty disputes and wars. According to this logic, the breakup of the Union was only the beginning of a slide to anarchy, whereby other states would break off and the result would be tiny states incessantly warring on each other. The Union, and the democratic experiment it represented, had to go on in their view.

Third, the Civil War accelerated a number of economic and technological trends underway. In many ways, it was the culmination of the modernism that began with the French Revolution and steam-powered industrialization: societies were no longer static and cyclical, based on rigid class privileges and incontrovertible limits, but opening up in completely unpredictable ways. America was linking itself with rail roads, enabling commerce to develop but also the use of industrial organization to wage war: it was the first truly modern war, revealing America even then as a great power that would surpass the older colonial powers in Europe. This was, he argues, the pragmatic ideology - with its profound belief in progress and science - that took the place of the ideological absolutism of the 1830s Evangelical movements, particularly once the soldiers realized that God's will did not extend to the battlefield but led instead to unimaginable carnage. Replacing faith alone, the vocabulary of science gained a permanent place in the American political discourse.

Fourth, he believes, the failure of Reconstruction was entirely due to the reprise of power by the same people who held office and property in the South before the Civil War. The principal mechanism to accomplish this was the complete political disenfranchisement of blacks, who had gained some role in Reconstruction. According to Goldfield, there was no northern misrule, no humiliation of whites (beyond losing the war), and no unusual corruption in a very corrupt age. It was less about the rights of whites than about their psychological need to dominate the former slaves, essentially keeping them down with cruelty and violence. The Ku Klux Klan was America's first terrorist organization and was completely effective in its aims.

Fifth, the result was that the South, however exotic and charming it appeared from the outside, remained a backward region for the next century, lacking a competitive labor force due to cheap black labor without protection by law, based on political oppression, and supported by a sense of victimhood and self-righteous religious fervor, psychologically stunted and full of willful delusion. Meanwhile, the North progressed with explosive dynamism, fulfilling its promise to lead the world alongside the European powers. With its ideology of progress and fascination with science, the North developed world-class educational institutions and research universities and served as the base of industrial investment.

My criticisms of the book are few. I still cannot quite get my head around the failure of Reconstruction, however much this book helped to clarify matters such as power relations and the mentality of the South. The last 3rd of the book seemed to wander a bit to me, lacking the tightness of focus of the earlier portions that covered the march to war.

This is very powerful stuff, bound for controversy. Though a Northerner, I grew up with close family in the South, so I have a particular affection for the region as well as some understanding of the underside. In my opinion, much of what Goldfield argues is correct. What is truly great about this book is how Goldfield ties it all together. It is compulsively readable and every page fascinates and stimulates the reader to search for more. This is one of the best history books I have read in years. Recommended with the greatest enthusiasm.
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