A solid introduction to the Civil War, with related historical documents and private letters appended to each chapter.
Olsen (History/Indiana State Univ.) begins with the war’s roots in conflicts during the early years of the republic. Slavery was already an issue at the Constitutional Convention, where the South won several key concessions, including the infamous clause that allowed a slave to be counted as three-fifths of a person when determining congressional representation. Sectional divisions sharpened as the two regions diverged economically, with New England heavily industrial, the Deep South dependent on agriculture. But the race issue was not clear-cut; many northerners fought to prohibit slavery in new territories in hopes of making them exclusively white enclaves. Olsen details the political maneuvers of the prewar years, the rise of the Republican Party and the South’s ultimate decision to secede. He covers the major battles in broad strokes, usually not paying close attention to the actions of smaller units. But Olsen does give full coverage to such characteristic details as the mislaid set of orders that betrayed Lee’s plans for his first Northern campaign, allowing McClellan to bring him to battle at Antietam. Nor does the author neglect famous commanders’ idiosyncrasies, such as Andrew Jackson’s insistence on eating foods he disliked as punishment for his sins. Those unfamiliar with the period will find the various documents Olsen presents particularly useful. These range from Jefferson’s 1799 “Kentucky Resolution,” which laid out the basis for states’ rights, to news articles on the attack on Fort Sumter and harrowing postwar testimony at trials of Ku Klux Klansmen. Lincoln’s speeches from various periods show his evolving understanding of the crisis and changing views on slavery.
Breaks little new ground and is unlikely to surprise knowledgeable readers, but gets the basic points across clearly and effectively.