The American Civil War (1861-65) was the bloodiest war of the nineteenth century and its impact continues to be felt today. It, and its origins have been studied more intensively than any other period in American history, yet it remains profoundly controversial. Brian Holden Reid's formidable volume is a major contribution to this ongoing historical debate. Based on a wealth of primary research, it examines every aspect of the origins of the conflict and addresses key questions such as was it an avoidable tragedy, or a necessary catharsis for a divided nation? How far was slavery the central issue? Why should the conflict have errupted into violence and why did it not escalate into world war?
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This impressive volume - one of the most eagerly awaited additions to a famous series - treats with appropriate amplitude and authority the origins of one of the most terrible conflicts of modern times. The American Civil War was the bloodiest war of the nineteenth century. In its mingling of ideology and self-interest, and in the destructiveness of its weaponry, the extent of its casualties, the degree to which resources on both sides had to be mobilised for the war effort, and, not least, in the way the realities of warfare were brought home - literally - into the drawing rooms and parlours of the American people and far beyond, it can claim not only to prefigure modern warfare but itself to be the first distinctively modern war.
Why did it happen? Was it an avoidable tragedy precipitated by irresponsible demagogues, or a necessary refining fire for a divided nation? To what extent was slavery the central issue, or was it a front for less principled passions and rivalries? How far did those who presided over the countdown to violence foresee the outcome, and the scale and horror of what would ensue? Brian Holden Reid sets out to answer these and other questions in his survey of the events preceding the outbreak of war in 1861, and of the vast literature to which they have since given rise.
Reconsidering the much-analysed political controversies of the 1840s and 1850s, he argues that the political differences between North and South cannot by themelves explain the coming of war. Familiar as we are with what happened, we can too easily overlook the gulf that lies in practice between casting a vote and firing on a uniformed enemy. He reminds us throughout of the enormity, rather than the inevitability, of that transition. He devotes two chapters to developing a 'model' to explain the escalation of violence that culminated in the firing of the first shots at Fort Sumter; and - writing from outside the United States, and seeing the conflict in a broader context than, understandably, many domestic historians have done - he also considers why a conflict with such huge international ramifications did not further escalate into a full-scale world war.
The period has been studied more intensively than any other in American history, which in itself would justify this exhaustive review of the main areas of controversy. But Brian Holden Reid's book is far more than just a synthesis. Based on a wealth of primary research,it makes its own substantial contribution to the historical debate. Written with an exhilarating vigour that makes light of its length, it is a formidable achievement.
BRIAN HOLDEN REID is Senior Lecturer in War Studies at King's College, London, and Resident Historian at the British Army Staff College, Camberley
Brian Holden Reid is Senior Lecturer in War Studies at King's College, London, and Resident Historian at the British Army Staff College, Camberley.
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