If your New Year’s Resolution is to read more, check out some of these works that came out in 2018!
NOTE: This is not a comprehensive list. I put the question out to #twitterstorians and these are the suggestions posted as a reply. Feel free to add additional suggestions in the comments!
Aberration of Mind: Suicide and Suffering in the Civil War-Era South by Diane Miller Sommerville
“More than 150 years after its end, we still struggle to understand the full extent of the human toll of the Civil War and the psychological crisis it created. In Aberration of Mind, Diane Miller Sommerville offers the first book-length treatment of suicide in the South during the Civil War era, giving us insight into both white and black communities, Confederate soldiers and their families, as well as the enslaved and newly freed. With a thorough examination of the dynamics of both racial and gendered dimensions of psychological distress, Sommerville reveals how the suffering experienced by Southerners living in a war zone generated trauma that, in extreme cases, led some Southerners to contemplate or act on suicidal thoughts.
Sommerville recovers previously hidden stories of individuals exhibiting suicidal activity or aberrant psychological behavior she links to the war and its aftermath. This work adds crucial nuance to our understanding of how personal suffering shaped the way southerners viewed themselves in the Civil War era and underscores the full human costs of war.” From www.uncpress.org
Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America by Martha Jones
“Before the Civil War, colonization schemes and black laws threatened to deport former slaves born in the United States. Birthright Citizens recovers the story of how African American activists remade national belonging through battles in legislatures, conventions, and courthouses. They faced formidable opposition, most notoriously from the US Supreme Court decision in Dred Scott. Still, Martha S. Jones explains, no single case defined their status. Former slaves studied law, secured allies, and conducted themselves like citizens, establishing their status through local, everyday claims. All along they argued that birth guaranteed their rights. With fresh archival sources and an ambitious reframing of constitutional law-making before the Civil War, Jones shows how the Fourteenth Amendment constitutionalized the birthright principle, and black Americans' aspirations were realized. Birthright Citizens tells how African American activists radically transformed the terms of citizenship for all Americans.” From www.cambridge.org
Denmark Vesey’s Garden: Slavery and Memory in the Cradle of the Confederacy by Ethan Kytle and Blain Roberts
“Hailed by the New York Times as a “fascinating and important new historical study that examines . . . the place where the ways slavery is remembered mattered most,” Denmark Vesey’s Garden“maps competing memories of slavery from abolition to the very recent struggle to rename or remove Confederate symbols across the country” (The New Republic). This timely book reveals the deep roots of present-day controversies and traces them to the capital of slavery in the United States: Charleston, South Carolina, where almost half of the slaves brought to the United States stepped onto our shores, where the first shot at Fort Sumter began the Civil War, and where Dylann Roof murdered nine people at Emanuel A.M.E. Church, which was co-founded by Denmark Vesey, a black revolutionary who plotted a massive slave insurrection in 1822.
As they examine public rituals, controversial monuments, and competing musical traditions, “Kytle and Roberts’s combination of encyclopedic knowledge of Charleston’s history and empathy with its inhabitants’ past and present struggles make them ideal guides to this troubled history” (Publishers Weekly, starred review). A work the Civil War Times called “a stunning contribution, ” Denmark Vesey’s Garden exposes a hidden dimension of America’s deep racial divide, joining the small bookshelf of major, paradigm-shifting interpretations of slavery’s enduring legacy in the United States.” From thenewpress.com
Embattled Freedom: Journeys Through the Civil War’s Slave Refugee Camps by Amy Murrell Taylor
“The Civil War was just days old when the first enslaved men, women, and children began fleeing their plantations to seek refuge inside the lines of the Union army as it moved deep into the heart of the Confederacy. In the years that followed, hundreds of thousands more followed in a mass exodus from slavery that would destroy the system once and for all. Drawing on an extraordinary survey of slave refugee camps throughout the country, Embattled Freedom reveals as never before the everyday experiences of these refugees from slavery as they made their way through the vast landscape of army-supervised camps that emerged during the war. Amy Murrell Taylor vividly reconstructs the human world of wartime emancipation, taking readers inside military-issued tents and makeshift towns, through commissary warehouses and active combat, and into the realities of individuals and families struggling to survive physically as well as spiritually. Narrating their journeys in and out of the confines of the camps, Taylor shows in often gripping detail how the most basic necessities of life were elemental to a former slave's quest for freedom and full citizenship.
The stories of individuals--storekeepers, a laundress, and a minister among them--anchor this ambitious and wide-ranging history and demonstrate with new clarity how contingent the slaves' pursuit of freedom was on the rhythms and culture of military life. Taylor brings new insight into the enormous risks taken by formerly enslaved people to find freedom in the midst of the nation’s most destructive war.” From www.uncpress.org
The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War by Joanne Freeman
“In The Field of Blood, Joanne B. Freeman recovers the long-lost story of physical violence on the floor of the U.S. Congress. Drawing on an extraordinary range of sources, she shows that the Capitol was rife with conflict in the decades before the Civil War. Legislative sessions were often punctuated by mortal threats, canings, flipped desks, and all-out slugfests. When debate broke down, congressmen drew pistols and waved Bowie knives. One representative even killed another in a duel. Many were beaten and bullied in an attempt to intimidate them into compliance, particularly on the issue of slavery.
These fights didn’t happen in a vacuum. Freeman’s dramatic accounts of brawls and thrashings tell a larger story of how fisticuffs and journalism, and the powerful emotions they elicited, raised tensions between North and South and led toward war. In the process, she brings the antebellum Congress to life, revealing its rough realities—the feel, sense, and sound of it—as well as its nation-shaping import. Funny, tragic, and rivetingly told, The Field of Blood offers a front-row view of congressional mayhem and sheds new light on the careers of John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, and other luminaries, as well as introducing a host of lesser-known but no less fascinating men. The result is a fresh understanding of the workings of American democracy and the bonds of Union on the eve of their greatest peril.” From us.macmillan.com
Fighting Means Killing: Civil War Soldiers and the Nature of Combat by Jonathan Steplyk
“The Civil War was fundamentally a matter of Americans killing Americans. This undeniable reality is what Jonathan Steplyk explores in Fighting Means Killing, the first book-length study of Union and Confederate soldiers’ attitudes toward, and experiences of, killing in the Civil War.
Drawing upon letters, diaries, and postwar reminiscences, Steplyk examines what soldiers and veterans thought about killing before, during, and after the war. How did these soldiers view sharpshooters? How about hand-to-hand combat? What language did they use to describe killing in combat? What cultural and societal factors influenced their attitudes? And what was the impact of race in battlefield atrocities and bitter clashes between white Confederates and black Federals? These are the questions that Steplyk seeks to answer in Fighting Means Killing, a work that bridges the gap between military and social history—and that shifts the focus on the tragedy of the Civil War from fighting and dying for cause and country to fighting and killing.” From kansaspress.ku.edu
Frederick Douglas: Prophet of Freedom by David Blight
“The definitive, dramatic biography of the most important African American of the nineteenth century: Frederick Douglass, the escaped slave who became the greatest orator of his day and one of the leading abolitionists and writers of the era.
As a young man Frederick Douglass (1818–1895) escaped from slavery in Baltimore, Maryland. He was fortunate to have been taught to read by his slave owner mistress, and he would go on to become one of the major literary figures of his time. He wrote three versions of his autobiography over the course of his lifetime and published his own newspaper. His very existence gave the lie to slave owners: with dignity and great intelligence he bore witness to the brutality of slavery.
Initially mentored by William Lloyd Garrison, Douglass spoke widely, often to large crowds, using his own story to condemn slavery. He broke with Garrison to become a political abolitionist, a Republican, and eventually a Lincoln supporter. By the Civil War and during Reconstruction, Douglass became the most famed and widely travelled orator in the nation. He denounced the premature end of Reconstruction and the emerging Jim Crow era. In his unique and eloquent voice, written and spoken, Douglass was a fierce critic of the United States as well as a radical patriot. He sometimes argued politically with younger African Americans, but he never forsook either the Republican party or the cause of black civil and political rights.
In this remarkable biography, David Blight has drawn on new information held in a private collection that few other historian have consulted, as well as recently discovered issues of Douglass’s newspapers. Blight tells the fascinating story of Douglass’s two marriages and his complex extended family. Douglass was not only an astonishing man of words, but a thinker steeped in Biblical story and theology. There has not been a major biography of Douglass in a quarter century. David Blight’s Frederick Douglass affords this important American the distinguished biography he deserves. “ From www.simonandschuster.com
I Remain Yours: Common Lives in Civil War Letters by Christopher Hager
“When North and South went to war, millions of American families endured their first long separation. For men in the armies—and their wives, children, parents, and siblings at home—letter writing was the sole means to communicate. Yet for many of these Union and Confederate families, taking pen to paper was a new and daunting task. I Remain Yours narrates the Civil War from the perspective of ordinary people who had to figure out how to salve the emotional strain of war and sustain their closest relationships using only the written word.
Christopher Hager presents an intimate history of the Civil War through the interlaced stories of common soldiers and their families. The previously overlooked words of a carpenter from Indiana, an illiterate teenager from Connecticut, a grieving mother in the mountains of North Carolina, and a blacksmith’s daughter on the Iowa prairie reveal through their awkward script and expression the personal toll of war. Is my son alive or dead? Returning soon or never? Can I find words for the horrors I’ve seen or the loneliness I feel? Fear, loss, and upheaval stalked the lives of Americans straining to connect the battlefront to those they left behind.
Hager shows how relatively uneducated men and women made this new means of communication their own, turning writing into an essential medium for sustaining relationships and a sense of belonging. Letter writing changed them and they in turn transformed the culture of letters into a popular, democratic mode of communication.” From hup.harvard.edu
No Property in Man: Slavery and Antislavery at the Nation’s Founding by Sean Wilentz
“Americans revere the Constitution even as they argue fiercely over its original toleration of slavery. Some historians have charged that slaveholders actually enshrined human bondage at the nation’s founding. The acclaimed political historian Sean Wilentz shares the dismay but sees the Constitution and slavery differently. Although the proslavery side won important concessions, he asserts, antislavery impulses also influenced the framers’ work. Far from covering up a crime against humanity, the Constitution restricted slavery’s legitimacy under the new national government. In time, that limitation would open the way for the creation of an antislavery politics that led to Southern secession, the Civil War, and Emancipation.
Wilentz’s controversial and timely reconsideration upends orthodox views of the Constitution. He describes the document as a tortured paradox that abided slavery without legitimizing it. This paradox lay behind the great political battles that fractured the nation over the next seventy years. As Southern Fire-eaters invented a proslavery version of the Constitution, antislavery advocates, including Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, proclaimed antislavery versions based on the framers’ refusal to validate what they called “property in man.”
No Property in Man invites fresh debate about the political and legal struggles over slavery that began during the Revolution and concluded with the Confederacy’s defeat. It drives straight to the heart of the most contentious and enduring issue in all of American history.” From www.hup.harvard.edu
The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul From the Revolution to the Civil War by Andrew Delbanco
“For decades after its founding, America was really two nations–one slave, one free. There were many reasons why this composite nation ultimately broke apart, but the fact that enslaved black people repeatedly risked their lives to flee their masters in the South in search of freedom in the North proved that the “united” states was actually a lie. Fugitive slaves exposed the contradiction between the myth that slavery was a benign institution and the reality that a nation based on the principle of human equality was in fact a prison-house in which millions of Americans had no rights at all. By awakening northerners to the true nature of slavery, and by enraging southerners who demanded the return of their human “property,” fugitive slaves forced the nation to confront the truth about itself.
By 1850, with America on the verge of collapse, Congress reached what it hoped was a solution– the notorious Compromise of 1850, which required that fugitive slaves be returned to their masters. Like so many political compromises before and since, it was a deal by which white Americans tried to advance their interests at the expense of black Americans. Yet the Fugitive Slave Act, intended to preserve the Union, in fact set the nation on the path to civil war. It divided not only the American nation, but also the hearts and minds of Americans who struggled with the timeless problem of when to submit to an unjust law and when to resist.
The fugitive slave story illuminates what brought us to war with ourselves and the terrible legacies of slavery that are with us still.” From www.penguinrandomhouse.com