TRIAL BY FIRE: A People's History of the Civil War and Reconstruction by Page Smith

TRIAL BY FIRE: A People's History of the Civil War and Reconstruction

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The latest volume in Smith's ""People's History of the United States,"" on the Civil War and Reconstruction, is almost the People without the History--and not the general populace, but George Templeton Strong, Mary Chesnut, Carl Schurz, and other diarists (or memoirists) whose observations, arranged in topical chapters, fill at least half the book's thousand pages. This is the case whether the topic is white attitudes toward blacks, or a specific military engagement, or compulsory education in the postbellum South. Smith is an adept excerpter, so the fragments are seldom uninteresting, and he does reiterate certain ideas--the divided North, the ""violent,"" ""intractable"" South--that might be taken as motifs. But the larger questions go begging (Smith has no doubt that the Civil War was fought over slavery, he dispatches the North's advantages in one sentence); though some minor episodes are dramatized, there is no high drama (Lincoln's assassination, indicatively, occurs offstage); the benefit of a historical perspective is largely lacking--except insofar as Smith's witnesses are acute or prescient commentators. The series as a whole, however, has tended toward the accretion of unweighted minutiae. Special to this volume are: the initial, clichÉd treatment of the ""mysterious"" Old South--to which we then don't return until p. 350, following the first Northern discussion of the South's ""reconstruction"" (there is virtually nothing on the Confederacy as such, or on Southern conduct of the war); the scrambled chronology (the crucial success of black soldiers, at Fort Wagner, precedes by 150 pages the N.Y.C. draft riots, days earlier, that made that success so crucial); the concentration throughout on the white-black relationships (specifically, on perceptions of that relationship)--with the result that every shade of opinion at each stage is represented, and much else (from the North's superior transport system to the ideology of the New South) is largely or wholly ignored. Other books are variously sounder, more analytical, more rousing--but there is a proven audience, by now, for Smith's combination of documentary detailing and unruffled certitude.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1982
Publisher: McGraw-Hill