Not just a reappraisal of the Civil War, but an exemplary cultural study of 19th-century America.
Goldfield (History/Univ. of North Carolina, Charlotte; Still Fighting the Civil War, 2002, etc.) does not necessarily set out to tell a new story—“in this book, the outcome of the conflict will be the same as it is in every other book on the war. That goes for the battles, too.” Instead, the author offers an intriguing new perspective on what he convincingly argues to be not only the defining event of 1800s America, but the defining event of our nation's entire political and cultural history. For Goldfield, evangelical politics drives nearly every facet of the historical machinations of the period. Throughout the narrative, evangelicalism informs the debates around abolition, the Antebellum cultural conflicts born of large-scale immigration, territorial expansion and the rural religious fervor that led to the first cannon blasts at Fort Sumter. The author’s examination of the intensity of individual religious thought and religiously informed social activity in the camps provides readers a new comprehension of this extraordinary war. Although Goldfield is not the first to consider religion as a leading element in the Civil War, he elevates its influence by exploring the permeation of nearly every facet of American cultural life by religious thought. His unrelenting attention to so many of America's early cultural crannies—literary, technological, even geographical—often overlooked by past histories creates an authoritative depth to his argument.
For many writers, trading in such detail might complicate the otherwise simple arguments. However, because Goldfield writes with such veteran grace, he effectively demonstrates the complexity of the Civil War, with divisions that still reverberate in our modern political discourse.