A People’s History of the Civil War, by David Williams***

With an introduction scribed by the late great Howard Zinn (and the book edited by same), I figured I just had to add this book to my collection. It bills itself as a history of the marginalized groups of this era, those seldom represented in traditional history. I found it at my favorite local used bookstore, Magus Books, which is near University of Washington, and I scooped it immediately.

The tome sat in the upstairs powder room for months, but we didn’t look at it all that often. I had trouble climbing on board. Eventually I realized there were two things bothering me here. One is that it treats both Union and Confederate governments, along with the powerful moneyed interests backing the two sides of the conflict, as equally wrong and equally culpable. With this I sharply disagree. Whereas no doubt plenty of war profiteers made a great deal of money, and no doubt working people on both sides deserved better pay and greater prosperity, this was not an equally-wrong war. In fact, the first Marxist to live in the USA came here from Europe to fight for the Union, because that was the way to move history forward. So in a sense I disagreed with the premise of the whole book.

That much done, I noted that the overall tone was more cynical than I consider warranted. For me, the American Civil War was the last truly heroic conflict in which US forces fought. It also distinguished itself by producing an unusually high number of casualties where high ranking officers were concerned. You didn’t see American generals get dead in these proportions in either of the world wars, nor Korea, Vietnam, or any of the conflicts in the Middle East. So the snarky manner in which Williams refers to the disparity between Union brass and foot soldiers is not well placed. I found it abrasive.

In addition, if we’re talking about marginalized peoples, excuse me Mr. Williams, but where are the Black folk? The author seems to have mislaid some four million former slaves. I kept flipping through this volume trying to find some, but they are underrepresented quite badly; one might even say the author has marginalized them.

The one worthwhile thing here, the thing that kept that third star in its place, is the extensive attention paid to Native peoples during this time. I was aware of the role of the Cherokees and that was the sole extent of my knowledge of which way American Indians chose to side, when they chose a side at all. I got something for my money other than frustration and regret; I really had to look hard to find it, though.

Consequently, those doing specific research having to do with the role of Native Americans during the American Civil War should get this book. I recommend it for that niche audience only.

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