Monday, February 7, 2011

Masur: "THE CIVIL WAR: A Concise History"

[The Civil War: A Concise History by Louis P. Masur (Oxford University Press, 2011). Hardcover, illustrations, notes, reading list, index. Pages main/total:94/133. ISBN:978-0-19-974048-2 $18.95]

Condensing the history of a continental scale Civil War, especially one characterized by massive military campaigns and sweeping social and political change, into a narrative less than one hundred pages in length is no mean feat, and Louis P. Masur's The Civil War: A Concise History largely succeeds in the attempt. The author traces the etiology of the sectional conflict back to the founding generation and ends his short study with a chapter dealing with Reconstruction.

Masur usefully organizes his discussion of the war's origins into long term differences, short term aggravations, and immediate triggers, all the while recognizing the centrality of slavery in each. The narrative focuses far more on political acts and social initiatives (e.g. First and Second Confiscation Acts, Homestead Act, conscription, emancipation, colonization, arming of blacks, constitutional amendments and Reconstruction Acts) than on military events, with the Emancipation Proclamation as its interpretive center of gravity.

Even if one takes into account the severe space limitations place upon the military discussion, one might deem the author's eastern centric approach more Centennial than Sesquicentennial. With even major campaigns dispensed with by a handful of sentences at best, the devotion of several pages to the Gettysburg Campaign gives the novice reader the impression that the battle was a decisive turning point, a traditional view no longer widely held. Also, use by Masur of the excellent body of work on the "inner" war that has emerged over the past few decades is not in evidence.

These quibbles aside, those seeking an overview of the societal changes wrought by the war, that can also be read in a single sitting, will be satisfied with The Civil War: A Concise History. Reasonably priced as these things go, one can imagine Masur's work being usefully employed as an introductory text in high schools and lower division college courses.

Other CWBA reviews of Oxford titles:
* The Grand Design: Strategy and the U.S. Civil War
* Lincoln and His Admirals
* The Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858
* The Road to Disunion, Volume II: Secessionists Triumphant
* Copperheads: The Rise and Fall of Lincoln's Opponents in the North
* Lincolnites and Rebels: A Divided Town in the American Civil War

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