America on the Eve of the Civil War, Edward L. Ayers (Editor), Carolyn R. Martin, University of Virginia Press, 160pp, index, bibliography, $23.95.
This expensive little book is worth every penny. Described as having 160 pages, it really has 147 pages. Amazon.com makes it available at 32% off which is $16.29. I had a 40% off coupon at Borders and got mine for $14.37. So on Saturday, I started it at around 3p and finished it at 10p. On the deck, above a stream, next to a small woodlot, beside a wood fire. Two micro-brews and four hot sausages [no bun, honey mustard only] later I finished it and it was marked up on nearly every page.
Four chapters take stock of America in 1859, the future of Virginia and the South, John Brown's October Raid on the Federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry, and the 1860 election. The theme of the conference was set beside the condition that historians were limited to the constraint of discussing 'America on the eve of what would become the Civil War. Sixteen historians during the one day discussed 1859 as if it was December 31 1859 and the presidential campaign of 1860 was yet to occur.
In 1859 the emerging technologies were the railroad and the telegraph. John Brown had been executed just three weeks before and one of the overriding divisive issues was immigration. Gary Gallagher reported that in December 1859 very few white people awoke in the mornings with the sectional crisis on their minds. One of Virginia's chief exports to the others states were slaves and one of the understandings that South, especially Richmond, was realizing was that slavery was adaptable to factory production.
The book concludes with an essay by David W. Blight, a contribution, not to the conference but to the Chronicle of Higher Education. "Marking the Civil War Sesquicentennial--Will We Do Better This Time?" Blight states that the 1960-1965 centennial celebration was a political and historical debacle. Due to Cold War nationalism, racism, Lost Cause historiography, and the divisiveness of the Civil Rights Movement, the centennial celebration became a reconciliationist, Blue-Gray celebration of valor and national greatness. Blight hopes that the sesquicentennial celebration is not one that offers the country in pathos and nostalgia. He looks forward to a celebration that finds national unity in a shared history of conflict and tragedy that confronts the nations' present day conflicted memory squarely in the face.
CWL's appreciation of interviews with historians began with John Garrity's Interviews with Historians: Volumes I and II. Required reading in both halves of a 1970-1U.S. history college survey course, the interviews provided basic information, an historiographical overview and the historian's personal interpretation. Ed Ayers is a fine interviewer and elicits some remarkable states from the sixteen historians. Constrained by the December 31, 1859 focus, the scholars provide an intriguing summary of America with the knowledge of the future [1860-1865]. The volume will be useful for readers in Advance Placement American history course and for the Civil War enthusiast.