Confusing, unclear, and scattered, not unlike The Guns of August. Every sentence in the book is an uncited statement of fact, with little in the way of a narrative or an analysis of any one set of facts. Thus, I am forced to discriminate between raw statements of fact and skewed statements of interpretation myself, while flying completely blind. Having said that, I did learn quite a lot. The book is dense with facts about the ten-year (or so) period after the Civil War that are not common knowledge. For all the rhetoric about the brutality Reconstruction wrought on the South, the only dubious action I read was the disenfranchisement of former confederate officers. Other than that, most of the perceived brutality can be chalked up to the social changes forced upon the vanquished that they obviously fought to resist, and can hardly be called “brutal” by modern standards.
Although the book makes no overt reference to any kind of egregious stripping of Southern rights and values, I did begin to understand the fundamental connection between union victory and big government. One of the quests I have set out on with my Civil War reading list is to answer a question that has bugged me for a while: Why does moral conservatism go hand in hand with financial conservatism, and likewise liberal morality correspond to liberal spending? This book’s hint of an answer lies in the nature of the Grant administration. Social equality must be enforced upon a society bent on clinging to the old hierarchy. The Departments of Education, Health, Commerce, the Freedman’s Bureau, union army occupation, etc. all cost money. The victorious North could not just emancipate the slaves, they had to tax and borrow horribly in order to afford the apparatus of implementation. All that money promoted the graft and corruption that history remembers Grant for.
Still, I am not convinced that the Civil War was fought over “the rise of centralized government” as the Lost Cause proponents claim. I’d have to read more books about the decades leading up to the war, of course. Rather, it sounds like a classic case of historical convenience, to take some of the obvious (and inevitable) evils of Reconstruction and claim them as the evils the South had sought to defeat from the outset. The greatest disappointment, reading from a modern perspective, is not how intrusive Reconstruction was, but how toothless and pathetic the abortive attempt turned out. What began as a noble mission, to eradicate slavery and enfranchise the freedmen, quickly degenerated into political infighting. How very American. One thing is certain: the postwar decades made us a modern United States, leaving the self-rule of farmers and artisans behind and ushering in the world of factories, corporations, railroads, and communications.