Billed as the “first new interpretation of the Civil War era in a generation,” David Goldfield’s America Aflame certainly takes a more critical and nuanced look at the war than my high school textbooks did. I was basically taught the war was a necessary evil to end slavery because whites in the South just weren’t educated enough to understand that slavery was wrong. During Reconstruction the government did everything it could to help former slaves and rebuild the south. Mistreatment of African Americans persisted in the South until Martin Luther King Jr. came along and educated us all.
Goldfield begins with the question: why was the United States the only country in the world that needed a war to end slavery? The answer is of course complex. But Goldfield’s novel contribution is exploring the influence of the rise of evangelical Christianity on the radicalization of the political sphere required for fellow citizens to go to war against each other. He goes in depth on the role this new breed of Christianity played with its all or nothing thinking and active “redeeming” of this world. Using a plethora of primary sources (almost 100 pages of just endnotes), Goldfield is critical of the extremism of both abolitionists and pro-slavery whites for making nonviolent political solutions unfeasible and cheering on the march to an utterly horrific war that many of them later regretted. Goldfield’s brings a breath of fresh air by not taking sides in his historical accounts.
But America Aflame is not just about the Civil War. It’s a window into the seminal period that created the United States we know today. Rather than a mere listing of chronological events related to the war, the book is more a story telling of the 19th century. This is the era of westward expansion, Indian wars, gold rushes, oil booms, transcontinental communication and transport, industrial monopolies, explosive growth of federal power, Irish and German immigration, nativist politics, and the rise of the middle class. Goldfield’s narrative style kept me engaged through all 533 pages with diary entries, newspaper articles, literature (particularly Walt Wiltman’s poetry), as well as excerpts from other primary sources. I truly felt as if I were there, receiving an excellent picture of the personal sentiments as well as overall trends of 19th century America. Thank you David Goldfield!