by John J. Dwyer by John J. Dwyer
So why spend a good portion of the past six years working on another volume about the greatest and most terrible epic of American history? After all, tens of thousands already exist, and more come off the printing press each year. The reason is that the contributing editors (George Grant, Steve Wilkins, Doug Wilson, Tom Spencer, and myself) of Bluebonnet Press's newly-released The War Between the States: America's Uncivil War believe that nowhere in that amazing collection of material is there a single volume that serves as a thorough primer for the causes of the conflict, the war itself, and the aftermath and consequences of it.
Home school parents, school teachers, and adult readers alike have faced two distasteful options when exploring this subject. One, use the same expensive, politically correct textbook their children could get for free at the government school down the street. Or two, employ a virtual library of informative, expensive books that together might manage a proper understanding of the war, while filling up a library shelf or book bag.
As a teacher, parent, and reader myself, I wanted one book that covered all the important factors. But I wanted a book which recognized that something as complex as the War Between the States demands more than regional or political partisanship; rose-colored exaltation of times past; analysis of where battle plans went right and wrong; and judgments on a long-past world based upon the "enlightened" sensitivities of the 21st century. It demands a full accounting of these, in concert with many other factors.
The War Between the States: America's Uncivil War aims to provide the best and most up-to-date scholarship – sans the normal crippling constraint of politically correct dogma – in a colorful, graphically-appealing package. The book is organized into three parts, in order to make that information accessible even to the novice. Part I is a thorough narrative of the many causes of the war. Part II presents not only the events and strategies of the war, but the people from all walks of life who lived through it – and not just soldiers and politicians, but spies, artists, theologians, inventors, nurses, poets, and mothers and children on the home front. Part III tells the story of the post-war years and Reconstruction, which give new meaning to the phrase that fact is stranger than fiction.
Dozens of penetrating, often humorous period political cartoons, photographs by the bushel, nearly one hundred biographical features, and over two dozen paintings from John Paul Strain – perhaps the greatest painter ever to put American historical art on a canvas – help bring this most powerful of American stories to life. Students and teachers may download for free a comprehensive study guide for the book, which is already partially online at www.bluebonnetpress.com.
Why work so hard to understand an ancient war? Many government schools in America now ignore it and concentrate their American history classes after 1865. As I tell my high school students, however, history is not just about the past and it is most certainly not dead and gone. I tell them of the words from long, long ago of Alfred the Great: "The past is given to those in the present, to keep and guard those in the future," that humble, suffering, great and good Christian man declared.
History is His Story, God Almighty's work of calling out a covenant people for Himself in space and time, throughout human history. Viewed in this context, history can grow very exciting indeed, inspiring, and it might even bring hope, sometimes through events where we would least expect to find it.
Through the 712 pages and 536 illustrations of The War Between the States: America's Uncivil War, we want to demonstrate with the words and actions of those who came before us that some of what we were taught about that war is true and much is not. For instance, it is true that brother sometimes literally fought against brother, that brave men and women – North and South – suffered and sacrificed for what they believed. It is true that slavery was a divisive and contentious issue in those days, that Americans of African descent have as a race endured a long and hard struggle since their kidnapping and brutal shipment to our shores, and that the war ended American slavery. And it is true that Abraham Lincoln towers over American and even world history for his leadership in the war.
But it is also true that people fought for many different reasons and that slavery drove neither the United States nor the Confederate States to war. It is true that North and South had many real and, by 1861, even foundational differences. It is true that the Founding Fathers' vision for America and their Constitution were derailed, not preserved, by the war, its outcome, and especially its aftermath. And the story of Abraham Lincoln is more interesting, more tragic, and far more complex than received American history has taught us.
Withal, our story is not that of a "Civil War" of 1861–65, but of a Fifty Years' War in America. By the late 1820s, economic conflict tore at the unity of the country's regions. In particular, controversy over the tariff (the tax the nation charged on imported goods) engendered animosity between the geographic sections, as witnessed by the Nullification Controversy. Fury filled Southerners, who believed the tax to be, whether or not intentional, a colossal transfer of wealth from themselves to those in the North. This contention was connected to the larger issue of what role the Federal government should play in America and its growth. The industrialized North, by and large, maintained the necessity for high tariffs, and the need for the strong and energetic national government they would fund – a government more powerful and expansive than most Southerners believed the Founders intended.
These competing visions regarding the role of the Federal government stemmed back to the Federalist vs. Anti-Federalist debates of the Constitutional era. But now their significance multiplied, fueled by hardening geographic divisions and the other issues. As the Southerners' discontent escalated to a consideration of leaving the Union, arguments about the constitutionality of that act itself flared on the national stage. Moreover, the debate over the national government's role became a referendum on whether it or the state governments had birthed the Federal Union and whose authority held primacy.
That debate found particular relevance for the Abolitionist minority in the North who wanted slavery (by now concentrated in the Southern states) abolished by the Federal government, in which Northerners held the majority. It did also for the minority of Southerners who were staunchly pro-slavery, but disproportionately wealthy and influential, and who depended on their state governments to protect their right to the practice.
Added to long-held regional, cultural, and even ethnic differences, as well as the size and diversity incumbent in the ever-expanding Union, disputations over the scope and scale of the Federal government meant that increasing numbers of Americans had differences with one another. And all the more as the burgeoning influence of the Scientific Revolution, the European Enlightenment, and rationalism carried the religious persuasions of the North farther from the still largely-orthodox Christian South.
When war came, it proved vast beyond the imagining of any of its participants. Slavery was ended suddenly, permanently, likely unconstitutionally, and with much harm to both races, but it was ended and American blacks launched on a long uncertain pilgrimage toward equal rights and opportunities. The South was crushed through an unprecedented – for America – campaign of total war, and the North had to abandon not only the precepts of its own Constitution but those of its Bible to win.
Still, it took a decade of misguided post-war "Reconstruction" to form a nation very different from that birthed by the Founders in 1789. That decade gave rise to the carpetbaggers, scalawags, robber barons, Black Friday Stock Market Crash, the most corrupt Presidential administration in U.S. history, the Gilded Age, the Ku Klux Klan, and lasting enmity between the black and white races in the South.
The war sprang from a half-century (at least) conflict between worldviews and ideologies incapable of cohesion. Ironically, it did not end most of those conflicts, and the victory of the North set in place the evolution of the Federal government, for good and bad, into the unrivaled colossus its early 19th-century mercantile proponents intended.
Still, amidst all the sorrow and destruction, the death and broken dreams, there flowered much courage and heroism, acts of valor and sacrifice now consecrated in the American memory, deeds at once emblematic and formative of what is good and noble in our tradition and character. Legendary, larger-than-life men and women seemed to rise up on every side, many of them devout Christians. Inventions of many kinds sprang forth, born in the crucible of war and struggle, from weaponry to communications, and transportation to medicine.
And spiritual awakening swept the soldiers of America, its intensity mirroring the worsening of war, and as people and ideals alike died, something else was born – the Bible Belt. If the war was America's time of sorrows, it also opened a window to the selfless bravery of which her sons and daughters are capable.
Our hope and prayer for The War Between the States: America's Uncivil War is that it might aid us all to better learn our past, that we might by the mercy and grace of God be wiser in the present and thus builders of a better future for our children and grandchildren.
John J. Dwyer (send him mail) is chairman of history at Coram Deo Academy near Dallas, Texas. He is author of the new historical narrative The War Between the States: America's Uncivil War. His website includes a five-minute preview video about the book. He is also the author of the historical novels Stonewall and Robert E. Lee. He also is the former editor and publisher of The Dallas/Fort Worth Heritage newspaper.