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A U.S. Civil War Classic History Text Mar 8, 2008
James Ford Rhodes (May 1st, 1848 - January 22nd, 1927) was both an industrialist and an historian. Prior to this work, he produced seven volumes of a "History of the United States from the Compromise of 1850" (an eighth volume was published after this work), and he also produced a three volume "History of the Civil War 1861-1865". In the preface to this one-volume "History of the Civil War 1861-1865" he states that this is not an "abridgement" of his prior work, but rather was a "fresh" study.
Originally published by "The MacMillan Company" in 1917, this new History was awarded the 2nd Pulitzer Prize for History in 1918. Rhodes became known for his detailed research and lack of bias which is consistent throughout all his history works. His balanced treatment of both sides is a rather stark contrast to the first winner of the Pulitzer Prize in History (Jean Jules Jusserand's "With Americans of Past and Present Days") which was more of a celebration of Franco-American relations.
It is interesting while reading this book to think about the way the perceptions of the United States Civil War have changed over the years. As an example, Rhodes has no difficulty in emphasizing slavery and anti-slavery as the primary causes of the war, and since that time it has become more common to see more general references to state rights used, perhaps to cover the ugliness of issue. Another example would be the way History and Historians treat Robert E. Lee. Rhodes has high praise for Lee, though that is not to say that he doesn't point out his mistakes. Lee does not seem to fare so well with modern historians.
The discussion of other nation's attitudes towards the war is one of the more interesting sections, at least for me. Though ultimately there was no foreign interference, it is interesting to learn how a different outcome in a battle here and there, could easily have changed things considerably. One also gets a slightly different view on the French position towards the Union than one did from the essay from Jusserand's work, though to be fair the prior work was more focused on their attitude towards slavery and Abraham Lincoln, and not as much on the war and its negative effects on France.
Other interesting chapters and threads throughout the book include looking at how the North responded to the draft, especially after it became clear that the war would be won. There is a discussion of the politics and the Democratic Party turning into the Copperheads, while some legitimate opposition positions were lost as a result of the party pushing their opposition to Lincoln and the war. Rhodes also discusses the technology, and the failure to quickly move to breech loading rifles.
His discussion of the economics during the war is also very thorough. Obviously there is a discussion on the blockades and blockade running. In addition he discusses the currency problems faced both in North and South, as well as the debt resulting from the war and the consequences to the populations of the Union and the Confederacy. He also looks at the illegal trade between North and South during the war.
Not surprisingly, Rhodes gives an excellent and thorough evaluation of the Generals and other figures on each side of the war. In particular, his comparison of the Generals as they come into opposition with each other is particularly well done. While the perception of some of them as changed through time, one can count on an even appraisal in all cases. The same is true for his evaluation of the battles, tactics, and strategies from the perspective of both sides. Of course, there are many good books on the United States Civil War which cover these areas, but just as obviously this book would not be complete without them.
One weakness of this history, is that despite Rhodes' claim that this was a fresh study, he does in the very early discussion inform the reader that his discussion of the supporters for disunion was so complete in his three volume history that it is unnecessary to repeat it at length. The result is that one has to wonder how much he is leaving out in this one volume history that was included in his earlier three volume work. Having not read his earlier history, or his larger history of the entire era, it is impossible to judge how much he is leaving out.
Along the same lines, his discussion ends fairly abruptly after describing in some detail Lee's surrender, he then briefly mentions the assassination of Lincoln and the surrender of Johnston to Sherman. There is no discussion of the aftermath of the war to balance the discussion of the events leading to the start of the war. These weaknesses are small though when one looks at the overall strength of the book. This one is highly recommended, even after 90+ years.