What this Cruel War was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War


No one can go back in time, conduct an opinion poll, and ask Civil War soldiers why they fought. Chandra Manning has done the next best thing, reading and analyzing scores of letters, diaries, and regimental newsletters from the period. This absorbing history is the result of her effort to glean the Civil War’s meaning to its participants. Her abundant quotes from primary sources give the reader a window into the thinking of black and white, Union and Confederate troops. She maintains that, in the view of most soldiers, the war was clearly about slavery. Northern soldiers often became more strongly abolitionist in outlook as they encountered the ”peculiar institution” during the war, and their fervor helped make the end of slavery inevitable. For white Southerners, abolition meant dangerous social chaos.

Occasionally, Manning’s conclusions go beyond her data, for example when she states that, for Southerners, “Recognition of a man’s honor chiefly depended upon his demonstration of authority over subordinates, including women, children, and African Americans, whether or not he owned slaves.” Nonetheless—and especially when she gives us the soldiers’ words unvarnished—this is an enlightening, fascinating book.

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