Who Best Interprets the Coming of the Civil War?

I was hoping that yesterday’s post would not turn into another round of the same old back and forth over the cause of the war, but that is exactly what happened.  Unfortunately, most of what is usually offered in such discussions lacks any serious analysis and/or context.  I was hoping to encourage readers to share those books that have informed their understanding of the coming of secession and war.  For what it’s worth, here are a few of my favorites, though I could just as easily have chosen five others.

Feel free to add to this list.

Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth

“Levin’s study is the first of its kind to blueprint and then debunk the mythology of enslaved African Americans who allegedly served voluntarily in behalf of the Confederacy.”–Journal of Southern History

Purchase your copy today!

19 comments… add one
  • Nathan Towne Dec 19, 2013 @ 9:20

    There are a litany of great studies and biographies in antebellum history, the majority of which most readers here are probably aware of.

    You may or may not however be aware of a two volume biography published in 2004 and 2007, by Peter Wallner on Franklin Pierce entitled New Hampshire’s favorite son, and Martyr for the Union covering his entire life up through his inauguration as President of the United States in the first volume and covering his presidency in great depth
    and ultimately through his post-presidential years to his death in
    1869 in the second volume. I have no reservations in calling it one of the great biographies of our era. Wallner is judicious, even-handed, his research is absolutely phenomenal and the biography is (in my opinion) ultimately profoundly challenging, beautifully written and deeply moving. Truly a tour-de-force in American History. I could not recommend it more highly.

    Nathan Towne

  • Pat Young Apr 6, 2012 @ 6:25

    The books that most changed my mind about the coming of the war were Freehling’s Road to Disunion pair. I really did not understand the complexity of Southern society and politics. Dew was great, but, as I had already read all the secession documents years earlier, his book just confirmed what I already knew.

    • TF Smith Apr 6, 2012 @ 13:37

      Freehling, Dew, Potter, and Foner are all excellent; Manning’s “What This Cruel War was Over” for some social history is useful, and I think Morgan’s “American Slavery, American Freedom” gives a good foundation.

      But that’s just me.

  • JMRudy Apr 5, 2012 @ 11:28

    So, you asked “Who Best Interprets the Coming of the Civil War?” I read that question a bit differently than most, because using the term “interpret” goes in very different places for an NPS person. 😉

    I think that both the Morgan Freeman film and the History channel exhibit films presented at Gettysburg NMP do an excellent job of interpreting the cause and context of the war, offering a keen description of the economic centrality of slavery to American life and the problems raised by even the conception of extricating it.

    The Corinth NPS Visitor Center also does a very good job of laying out the cause of the war, never eschewing the fact that slavery was the spark point but offering that evidence adeptly and in measured doses for a possibly hostile audience. There is a good deal of “analyze the document” type of exhibitry, giving original sources to read and ponder (the example that stand out in my mind is the Declaration of Causes of Secession as printed in a local newspaper). I visited a couple years ago and was deeply impressed.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 5, 2012 @ 11:47

      Hi John,

      Please feel free to steer the discussion in this direction.

    • Lee White Apr 6, 2012 @ 9:09

      John, I agree about the film at Gettysburg, I wish it was offered for sale.

  • Jason Phillips Apr 5, 2012 @ 10:27

    I still like Channing’s Crisis of Fear: Secession in South Carolina. It’s been useful for me current research on how Americans anticipated the Civil War.

  • Joshua Horn Apr 5, 2012 @ 7:34

    The Causes of the Civil War edt by Kenneth Stampp. It does answer any question, but it gives the basic primary sources and historian interpretations.

    For the state’s rights/economic perspective The Real Lincoln by Thomas Dilorenzo

    • Kevin Levin Apr 5, 2012 @ 10:39

      I can’t say I recommend Dilorenzo, but I can recommend Marc Egnal’s Clash of Extremes even if I think there are some pretty big problems with his interpretation.

  • Scott Ackerman Apr 5, 2012 @ 7:31


    I would like to nominate Lacy K. Ford’s Deliver Us From Evil, The Slavery Question in the Old South for inclusion on this list.


  • Barbara Gannon Apr 5, 2012 @ 5:09

    I enjoyed the cartoon. It is both funny and very instructive about CW memory. The first cause mentioned was slavery–just the word. Then there are other causes, the extension of slavery–different economic systems–secession. This is a very standard “list.” But its not a “list” in that many of the issues are subsets of slavery. In the rhetoric of CW memory, if you say “slavery” the assumption is the desire to end it caused the war. So here is what scholars say it was not slavery but its “extension” ahhhhhh (Pause). Why the equivocation, if it its the extension of slavery then its slavery. The different economic system is also funny, Northerners were mostly “farmers.” These were small farms, and they did not have slaves; so the differences relate to “Slavery.” I am going to use this cartoon in class, its great.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 5, 2012 @ 11:00

      Hey Barbara,

      I think it’s interesting for that very reason as well. That slavery made it to the top of the list is a clear reflection of how popular perceptions have changed in recent years.

  • Ken Noe Apr 5, 2012 @ 4:12

    For me, I’d add William Gienapp’s The Origins of the Republican Party
    Michael Holt’s The Political Crisis of the 1850s.
    Stephanie McCurry, Masters of Small Worlds
    Christopher Olsen, Political Culture and Secession in Mississippi
    Craig Simpson’s A Good Southerner

    • Kevin Levin Apr 5, 2012 @ 4:14

      Thanks, Ken.

      I am not familiar with Olsen’s book. Will have to check it out.

  • Brad Apr 5, 2012 @ 4:09

    I would heartily concur with Potter’s book as well as his Lincoln and His Party in the Secession Crisis. I am in the midst of reading Freehling’s first book so I would concur with that as well. I would add Stanley Harrold’s Border War: Fighting Over Slavery Before the Civil War. I think that is a tremendous book.

    However, there is none better than Potter, in my humble opinion 🙂


    • Kevin Levin Apr 5, 2012 @ 4:13

      It’s nice to have it back in print.

  • Chris Meekins Apr 5, 2012 @ 3:43

    I always thought Eric Foner’s Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party before the Civil War was a good book to be on that list.

    • Emmanuel Dabney Apr 5, 2012 @ 4:12

      I agree with Chris on Free Soil, Free Men, Free Labor.

      Also will add:

      Drew Gilpin Faust, The Ideology of Slavery: Proslavery Thought in the Antebellum South, 1830-1860

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *