RSN Fundraising Banner
FB Share
Email This Page
add comment

Coates writes: "On Monday, the retired four-star general and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly asserted that 'the lack of an ability to compromise led to the Civil War.' This was an incredibly stupid thing to say."

Ta-Nehisi Coates. (photo: Gabriella Demczuk/NYT)
Ta-Nehisi Coates. (photo: Gabriella Demczuk/NYT)

Five Books to Make You Less Stupid About the Civil War

By Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic

04 November 17


n Monday, the retired four-star general and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly asserted that “the lack of an ability to compromise led to the Civil War.” This was an incredibly stupid thing to say. Worse, it built on a long tradition of endorsing stupidity in hopes of making Americans stupid about their own history. Stupid enjoys an unfortunate place in the highest ranks of American government these days. And while one cannot immediately affect this fact, one can choose to not hear stupid things and quietly nod along.

For the past 50 years, some of this country’s most celebrated historians have taken up the task of making Americans less stupid about the Civil War. These historians have been more effective than generally realized. It’s worth remembering that General Kelly’s remarks, which were greeted with mass howls of protests, reflected the way much of this country’s stupid-ass intellectual class once understood the Civil War. I do not contend that this improved history has solved everything. But it is a ray of light cutting through the gloom of stupid. You should run to that light. Embrace it. Bathe in it. Become it.

Okay, maybe that’s too far. Let’s start with just being less stupid.

One quick note: In making this list I’ve tried to think very hard about readability, and to offer books you might actually complete. There are a number of books that I dearly love and have found indispensable that are not on this list. (Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction in America immediately comes to mind.) I mean no slight to any of those volumes. But this is about being less stupid. We’ll get to those other ones when we talk about how to be smart.

1) Battle Cry Of Freedom: Arguably among the greatest single-volume histories in all of American historiography, James McPherson’s synthesis of the Civil War is a stunning achievement. Brisk in pace. A big-ass book that reads like a much slimmer one. The first few hundred pages offer a catalogue of evidence, making it clear not just that the white South went to war for the right to own people, but that it warred for the right to expand the right to own people. Read this book. You will immediately be less stupid than some of the most powerful people in the West Wing.

2) Grant: Another classic in the Ron Chernow oeuvre. Again, eminently readable but thick with import. It does not shy away from Grant’s personal flaws, but shows him to be a man constantly struggling to live up to his own standard of personal and moral courage. It corrects nearly a half-century of stupidity inflicted upon America by the Dunning school of historians, which preferred a portrait of Grant as a bumbling, corrupt butcher of men. Finally, it reframes the Civil War away from the overrated Virginia campaigns and shows us that when the West was won, so was the war. Grant hits like a Mack truck of knowledge. Stupid doesn’t stand a chance.

3) Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee: Elizabeth Pryor’s biography of Lee, through Lee’s own words, helps part with a lot of stupid out there about Lee—chiefly that he was, somehow, “anti-slavery.” It dispenses with the boatload of stupid out there which hails the military genius of Lee while ignoring the world that all of that genius was actually trying to build.

4.) Out of the House of Bondage: A slim volume that dispenses with the notion that there was a such thing as “good,” “domestic,” or “matronly” slavery. The historian Thavolia Glymph focuses on the relationships between black enslaved women and the white women who took them as property. She picks apart the stupid idea that white mistresses were somehow less violent and less exploitative than their male peers. Glymph has no need of Scarlett O’Haras. “Used the rod” is the quote that still sticks with me. An important point here—stupid ideas about ladyhood and the soft feminine hand meant nothing when measured against the fact of a slave society. Slavery was the monster that made monsters of its masters. Compromising with it was morally bankrupt—and stupid.

5.) The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass: The final of three autobiographies written by the famed abolitionist, and my personal favorite. Epic and sweeping in scope. The chapter depicting the bounty of food on which the enslavers feasted while the enslaved nearly starved is just devastating.

So that should get you to unstupid—but don’t stop there. Read Du Bois. Read Grant’s own memoirs. Read Harriet Jacobs. Read Eric Foner. Read Bruce Levine. It’s not that hard, you know. You’ve got nothing to lose, save your own stupid. your social media marketing partner


A note of caution regarding our comment sections:

For months a stream of media reports have warned of coordinated propaganda efforts targeting political websites based in the U.S., particularly in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.

We too were alarmed at the patterns we were, and still are, seeing. It is clear that the provocateurs are far more savvy, disciplined, and purposeful than anything we have ever experienced before.

It is also clear that we still have elements of the same activity in our article discussion forums at this time.

We have hosted and encouraged reader expression since the turn of the century. The comments of our readers are the most vibrant, best-used interactive feature at Reader Supported News. Accordingly, we are strongly resistant to interrupting those services.

It is, however, important to note that in all likelihood hardened operatives are attempting to shape the dialog our community seeks to engage in.

Adapt and overcome.

Marc Ash
Founder, Reader Supported News

+45 # Caliban 2017-11-04 19:05
Fascinating list: Time to get out the library card or the Amazon card or both.
+8 # RLF 2017-11-05 04:47
Me too!
+29 # vilstef 2017-11-04 23:14
An excellent list! And for those who aren't adverse to a bit of clear the air of the revisionism history, look up the Secession papers of the various southern states. They all state clearly and unequivocally that slavery was the driving force of secession. States Rights get some mentions, but it isn't always very high on the list.
+2 # laborequalswealth 2017-11-06 10:08
Yes! Excellent advice. I've read the article of Secession and they would make your brain explode. Rarely have people exposed their vileness so freely and completely in writing.
+12 # backwards_cinderella 2017-11-05 03:12
Scarlett O'Hara was the epitome of the exploitative female & was supposed to be show that the Southern femininity was not the way it was promoted. & not just Scarlett. Many of the book's characters are supposed to show how the myth of Southern femininity was just that. Of course, if you have only seen the movie & not read the book (& read it critically & carefully), you would have never gotten that point. Margaret Mitchell was not glorifying the "glorious cause", she was criticizing it & making fun of it. But people rarely pick up on that. If they read the book at all, they read it just as a "historical romance" & miss all the political & feminist points Mitchell was trying to make.
+2 # Glen 2017-11-05 08:08
I'd be interested in a book(s) concerning the Knights of the Golden Circle. More research is being done on that organization and there is information in Wikipedia. Those buried mason jars filled with money were apparently increased by Jesse James, also.
+1 # tedrey 2017-11-05 09:05
These may be excellent books but do they really bear on the *causes* of the civil war, in the way that Charles and Mary Beard's "Rise of the American Republic" (and its critics) do?

I submit that while the root cause of the civil war was slavery, it was not the admitted inhumanity of slavery that ignited the conflict, but the incompatibility of the slavery interest on the one hand and the industrial and farming interests on the other hand. Each interest wanted to amass power and profit by using western land in its own way. Neither cared an iota about the enslaved Negroes as people. And neither would compromise on that point. (And sometimes one shouldn't, another question.)

(The emancipationist s did care about the slaves, bless them, but had little influence on their own.)
+7 # Timshel 2017-11-05 10:27
Very interesting article and I think what Kelly said was atrocious. The war was about whether you could own other human beings. In the meantime, the repeated insults have a flavor of Trumpian discourse.
+8 # sweetbabbalou 2017-11-05 11:13
Thank you for the list. I will get over to the library today. Those who most need to read these books will not - it takes integrity, effort and open-mindedness to get unstupid and I fear they often lack these attributes as they cling to stupidity and howl with the mobs.
+11 # fosterfell6 2017-11-05 11:21
In his personal memoir Grant devotes a section to the question of what started the war. He answers unequivocally: Slavery.
+7 # bardphile 2017-11-05 12:50
The writing of Grant's memoirs in an inspiring story in itself. He was racing the clock of his own cancer to give his beloved wife Julia something to live on. The man has been underestimated- -as a general, as a President, and as a human being.
+2 # arquebus 2017-11-05 15:12
+6 # Buddha 2017-11-06 09:39
I particularly admired Mike Ditka's riff claiming that African-America ns haven't been oppressed in America for over 100 years. You just got to be amazed at that level of willfully-stupi d of a certain half of white Americans.
+5 # they said what? 2017-11-06 15:12
Thank you for this excellent list.

Also of interest (not directly about the Civil War) might be Frederick Law Olmsted's 3 books about his travels in the slaveholding South. His observations about the economy, the culture or lack thereof, morality and other things are fascinating, including his discussion of the moral degradation of everyone involved in slavery, including slaveholders. The sons had nothing to do and were drunkards, the fathers and sons raped the slave women, and mothers and wives were jealous of the men's infidelities and took it out on the slave women.

You can read about these books

THE NEW STREAMLINED RSN LOGIN PROCESS: Register once, then login and you are ready to comment. All you need is a Username and a Password of your choosing and you are free to comment whenever you like! Welcome to the Reader Supported News community.