by Michael Johnson
Nearly thirty years ago James McPherson estimated that there were more than 50,000 books on the Civil War, making it the most written-about event in United States history. With such an extensive body of scholarship, which has only grown in the past three decades, it is no small feat to condense the important details into a mere one hundred pages, which also include extensive images, graphics, and supplemental activities.
Unit 3 of Joyce Appleby’s The American Vision, “The Crisis of Union,” picks up at the end of the Mexican-American War and explores the secession crisis, Civil War, and Reconstruction, discussing each event in a separate chapter. Chapter 8, “Sectional Conflict Intensifies,” covers the Mexican cession and Compromise of 1850 through to the secession of the Confederate states and the firing on Fort Sumter. The chapter focuses primarily on the politics of the sectional crisis, but mentions some social issues, if briefly, including Northern resistance to the Fugitive Slave Act and the Underground Railroad, as well as antebellum staples such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin and John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry.
Chapter 9, “The Civil War,” covers the four years of the war, from the mobilization of Union and Confederate armies to the surrender of Robert E. Lee and assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Considering the length constraints, the chapter does an effective job of mentioning the major strategies of the two sides, as well as the crucial battles of the war, while giving attention to both the Eastern and Western Theaters. Unfortunately, as is the case with most textbooks’ coverage of the Civil War, Native Americans fall victim to periodization and are relegated to the chapters on the postwar settlement of the West in the following unit. This decision overlooks Native American experience and participation during the Civil War, except for the obligatory mention of the presence of Ely Parker, a Seneca officer in the Union Army, at Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. The exclusion of Native Americans from the chapter also ignores the 1862 Dakota uprising, which resulted in the largest mass-execution in United States history. However, while overlooking Native Americans, unlike other textbooks this Civil War chapter does an admirable job of trying to remind students that life continued on the home front for both sides. Mixed into the military and political issues are sections on the economic impacts of the war as well as social changes brought about by the mobilization of military-aged men, including the expanding roles of women in the labor force.
The last chapter in the unit, “Reconstruction” is the shortest of the three, and the rushed nature of the chapter coincides with my memory of trying to squeeze Reconstruction in before the end of the school year in my high school U.S. History course. Like the antebellum chapter, this one is largely political, and covers Reconstruction from Lincoln’s first plan for reunion through the withdrawal of federal troops under President Hayes and the emergence of the New South. While this chapter deals primarily with political issues, namely the competing visions of Johnson, Southern Whites, and Radical Republicans, there are brief sections on important social issues such as community-building among free blacks in the postwar South.
The unit does an impressive job presenting a large amount of information in a limited space. But with the exception of limited forays into social issues, the unit maintains the standard politico-centric narrative traditional to the Civil War era. Published in 2010, this narrative arc ignores or underemphasizes intriguing historiographic contributions exploring such issues as social changes on the home front, the divided nature of Southern society, and the significance of guerrilla warfare, especially along the border between North and South. Of course it is important for students to understand the key political issues of the Civil War era. But students may also derive some benefit from learning about the experiences of everyday men and women.
Unfortunately, as is the case with most textbooks’ coverage of the Civil War, Native Americans fall victim to periodization and are relegated to the chapters on the postwar settlement of the West in the following unit.
Another important gap in the unit is the treatment of wartime emancipation. The exploration of abolition revolves primarily around Lincoln and other Republican leaders. There is a brief section on Lincoln’s decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation following the Battle of Antietam, which does mention his reluctance at the beginning of the war to address slavery primarily out of fear of losing the Border States. But by mentioning only the Emancipation Proclamation, as well as a brief section later about African American volunteers in the Union Army, the text oversimplifies the complex forces that contributed to the end of slavery. In addition to Lincoln and Republican leaders in Congress, these forces included Union officers and soldiers, as well as runaway slaves themselves. These decisions about content coincide with the favoring of political events over social actions.
While everyone will have their own opinion about what should and should not be covered in a unit on the Civil War era, a more pressing issue that is almost inevitable when trying to cover so much material is that the information, while too vague to be incorrect, can be misleading. For example, the brief section on the development of free black communities after the war does not mention the extensive communities that already existed in cities such as Philadelphia, Boston, Baltimore, and New Orleans. Perhaps one of the more troubling claims comes in the brief section on the Know Nothing Party. According to the text, the Party gained support due to “fear that immigrants would take away jobs.” (295) This claim may be based on John Higham’s 1955 classic Strangers in the Land, which ties nativism in the United States to periods of economic uncertainty. But the “they took our jobs” mentality is much more synonymous with the illegal immigrant concerns of the 21st century, and historians such as Tyler Anbinder have argued that the nativism of the antebellum era was fueled by genuine concern over the cultural and religious differences of Catholics, not fear of economic competition.
By mentioning only the Emancipation Proclamation, as well as a brief section later about African American volunteers in the Union Army, the text oversimplifies the complex forces that contributed to the end of slavery. In addition to Lincoln and Republican leaders in Congress, these forces included Union officers and soldiers, as well as runaway slaves themselves.
For me, the biggest shortcoming with the textbook came not from its content, but its use of primary sources. Periodically throughout the text are block quotes from relevant primary documents from the era. Unfortunately, the text usually goes only so far as to identify the author of the quote and perhaps some context; instead of offering a citation for the source, the attribution says only that it was quoted in another secondary source (most often Battle Cry of Freedom). If we want to encourage students to engage more with primary sources, which I believe is an admiral goal, then the least the textbook can do is identify what the primary source is so interested students can check it out themselves. This relatively simple addition would go a long way in encouraging the infusion of primary sources into the classroom, and the failure to include such information is disappointing.
Overall the Civil War unit in The American Vision outlines the traditional political narrative of the American Civil War era while adding a few inlays into social themes. But the decision about what details to include in a limited exploration of a subject that has inspired such expansive scholarship can spark endless debate. The real shortcoming of this textbook, at least in my eyes, is the missed opportunity to encourage students to engage with primary sources, an activity which might lead to greater interest in the study of history, but if nothing else is a valuable skill to promote regardless of future pursuits.
Berg, Scott, 38 Nooses: Lincoln, Little Crow, and the Beginning of the Frontier’s End (New York: Vintage Books, 2012).
Kantrowitz, Stephen, More than Freedom: Fighting for Black Citizenship in a White Republic, 1829-1889 (New York: Penguin Books, 2012).
McCurry, Stephanie, Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010).
Oakes, James, Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865 (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2013).
Michael Johnson is a PhD student in History at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. His research focuses on race and ethnicity in the Civil War era. His current project explores interactions of Irish and African Americans in Civil War era Philadelphia and Baltimore. He can be contacted here.
* * *
Our collected volume of essays, Demand the Impossible: Essays in History As Activism, is now available on Amazon! Based on research first featured on The Activist History Review, the twelve essays in this volume examine the role of history in shaping ongoing debates over monuments, racism, clean energy, health care, poverty, and the Democratic Party. Together they show the ways that the issues of today are historical expressions of power that continue to shape the present. Also, be sure to review our book on Goodreads and join our Goodreads group to receive notifications about upcoming promotions and book discussions for Demand the Impossible!
* * *
We here at The Activist History Review are always working to expand and develop our mission, vision, and goals for the future. These efforts sometimes necessitate a budget slightly larger than our own pockets. If you have enjoyed reading the content we host here on the site, please consider donating to our cause.
 James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), ix.
 For a detailed narrative of the uprising and execution, see Scott Berg, 38 Nooses: Lincoln, Little Crow, and the Beginning of the Frontier’s End (New York: Vintage Books, 2012).
 Examples of such scholarship before this textbook’s publication in 2010 include William Blair, Virginia’s Private War: Feeding Body and Soul in the Confederacy, 1861-1865 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998); William W. Freehling, The South vs The South: How Anti-Confederate Southerners Shaped the Course of the Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001); Aaron Sheehan-Dean, Why Confederates Fought: Family and Nation in Civil War Virginia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007); Judith Giesberg, Army at Home: Woman and the Civil War on the Northern Home Front (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009); Daniel Sutherland, A Savage Conflict: The Decisive Role of Guerillas in the American Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009).
 One study that explores Republican policies in the context of wartime realities is James Oakes, Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865 (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2013).
 Tyler Anbinder, Nativism and Slavery: The Northern Know Nothings and the Politics of the 1850s (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992).
Pingback: Back to School: The Activist History Review Reviews High School History Textbooks – The Activist History Review