A history curriculum worth following... Civil War books recommended by The Atlantic and by Substance...

The best single history of the U.S. Civil War is "Battle Cry of Freedom." Why? The book combines the military history of the war with the social, political and cultural backgrounds necessary for students to understand the single most important historical event of the 19th Century in the United States of America. When the President of the United States and the White House Chief of Staff both push lies about our own history -- the history of the United States of America -- it's time for teachers to take advantage of the "teachable moment" and recommend to students books that can make things more clear. My suggestion comes as a result of a recent post from The Atlantic by Ta-Nehisi Coates, in which he suggested five books to clarify the facts of Civil War history -- books to make you less stupid, he called them.

To the five recommended by Coates, I would add five others, some of which I have used in class before I was blacklisted by the reactionaries who run Chicago's public schools. We all can agree on "Battle Cry of Freedom," which has been used as a textbook in many CPS history classes. The Coates list follows mine: There would be no time in a high school history class to study and discuss all of the ten works below, but they can at least be recommended.

Also, a warning. Long before Ken Burns produced his flawed version of The Vietnam War, Burns did some strange historiography in his "Civil War" materials, which must be studied, with reservations. The most egregious problem with the Burns version of The Civil War is that he chose a reactionary Southern historian -- an apologist for the Confederacy and a fan of the founder of the Ku Klux Klan -- as his main historian commentator. Shelby Foote was not a James MacPherson, and anyone reading Foote's two-volume work (as I have) would easily note how much time Foote devotes to trying to explain away the version of "history" pushed by the Confederacy (successfully in some cases, for nearly 100 years, as the "Noble Cause" lie). And so, no matter how much students should learn from video histories as well as texts, the Ken Burns story needs to be taken with a major grain of salt. Any "historian" (Foote) who praises Nathan Bedford Forrest (the founder of the KKK) has to be examined carefully.

Nevertheless, there is much to be learned in 2017 about the U.S. Civil War -- and not simply that those currently in the White House are lying about our own history.

My additions to the Coates list:

-- Black Reconstruction in America, by WEB Dubois.

-- Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant

-- Memoirs of William T. Sherman

-- Freedom Road by Howard Fast (fiction)

and one of your own choosing...


Five Books to Make You Less Stupid about the Civil War by Ta-Nehisi Coates November 1, 2017

The Atlantic

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.

29th Regiment Connecticut Volunteers, U.S. Colored Troops in formation near Beaufort, South Carolina, 1864, Library of Congress,

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. 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 bee 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.


November 25, 2017 at 4:41 PM

By: Marybeth Foley

Civil War Meetings

There are three Civil War Round Table (CWRT) groups that meet each month and have lectures about some aspect of the Civil War:

Northern Illinois CWRT

First Friday of each month September to June

Free lecture at Arlington Heights Memorial Library

500 North Dunton Avenue, Arlington Heights, IL. Free parking

Next meeting: Friday, December 1, 2017 at 7:30 p.m.

Next topic: Irish Brigade

Some often go out for ice cream after at Eros Restaurant nearby.


Chicago CWRT

Second Friday of each month September to June

Lecture $10.00, Lecture plus buffet $40.00 (Email )(preferred) or call 630-460-1865. Holiday Inn O'Hare at 5615 N. Cumberland Avenue in Chicago. Free parking. Lecture only reservations welcomed but not required.

Next meeting: Friday, December 8, 2017 at 5:30 Social Hour, 6:30 buffet, 7:15 lecture

Next topic: The Lost Gettysburg Address


Salt Creek CWRT

Third Friday of each month September to June.

Free lecture at Oak Trace, 200 Village Drive, Downers Grove, IL (630-402-6699). Free parking.

Next meeting: Friday, December 15, 2017 at 8 p.m.


Next topic: Naval Operations During the Civil War

Hope to see you at one of these meetings!

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