Ta-Nehisi Coates on the American Civil War
October 20, 2010 1:31 AM   Subscribe

Ta-Nehisi Coates has written about his evolving view of the American Civil War (among many other things) on his Atlantic blog for over two years. A reader has now compiled links for all of them for our reading pleasure. There is also a page of recommendations that will help a reader find the most often mentioned civil war resources in the discussions.

Another reader made a similar link collection. It has a separate list of links to the book club discussions (a.k.a. The Effete Liberal Book Club) that Ta-Nehisi's readers had about the Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson.
posted by severiina (18 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite

 
I wish I could give you some sort of 'top ten' of 'best of' type list to get started with this but just wasn't able to pull that off. So my recommendation is to just choose one and try it out. One recommendation I am able to give is that the comments should not be skipped over.

I'm not American and this is not my history but I found myself fascinated by these posts and didn't have much trouble following them even with my limited education on American history.
posted by severiina at 1:32 AM on October 20, 2010


I've been following TNC's posts on the Civil War for a good year and a half, as a lurker, and a non-American, and an ex-research student in history, though not American history, and someone who (in penance for some terrible sin) once taught American undergraduates on exchange in Australia about the American Civil War. They're genuinely great. McPherson's book is one book in a very limiting political-history school in an infinite field of history on the war, and Nehisi-Coates approaches it, being what he is, like a lit critic, but he's a non-historian who's almost uniquely able amongst journalists to get across just how difficult it is to work in the past and just how politically malleable the past is.
That said, it's still the stories about his family that I've found most affecting. Look at his kids, in front of an historical sign. They're bored out of their heads, like all kids, of all countries, in front of every national historical sign everywhere.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 3:37 AM on October 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


I love TNC and am glad to see him get some MeFi love. Highly desrved. He currently has an amazing piece of writing up on why we go about recruiting teachers all wrong. Money quote:

"My basic premise is that we have a terrible mismatch between the characteristics of teachers most likely to produce excellent outcomes, and the characteristics of the systems that seek to attract and retain them. We want teachers who demonstrate perseverance coupled with ambition, steady improvement over time, and achievement, without succumbing to complacence. Our school systems, on the other hand, are bastions of stability. They extend the promise of steady employment in a volatile world, substantial job security, and for those who stick it out for long enough, an enormous deferred payoff in the form of benefits and pensions. If we'd designed it from scratch, we would have struggled to produce a system more perfectly designed to attract young people who value stability, or to repel and grind down those who seek constant change."


Read the rest here.
posted by fourcheesemac at 4:51 AM on October 20, 2010


Oh, this is good! I've been meaning to read up on the American Civil War for years. It's not a subject that's covered well (or at all!) in Norwegian schools. I think I've actually read more alt-history takes on the Civil War than actual history on it.
posted by Harald74 at 5:16 AM on October 20, 2010


If anyone is in Chicago today, Ta-Nehisi Coates will be speaking at Columbia College Chicago's Creative Nonfiction week at 1p and 6.30p.

This post brought to you by someone who is bitter she will be in class and not able to see him speak about the Civil War writing he's done but otherwise has no connection to the production.
posted by sugarfish at 5:24 AM on October 20, 2010


well, here's a nice story that combines two of his interests.

A textbook distributed to Virginia fourth-graders says that thousands of African Americans fought for the South during the Civil War -- a claim rejected by most historians but often made by groups seeking to play down slavery's role as a cause of the conflict.

The passage appears in "Our Virginia: Past and Present," which was distributed in the state's public elementary schools for the first time last month. The author, Joy Masoff, who is not a trained historian but has written several books, said she found the information about black Confederate soldiers primarily through Internet research, which turned up work by members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.


posted by stargell at 5:44 AM on October 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


TNC is great. Having grown up in the South my education on the Civil War was likely a bit skewed so it's nice to be pointed towards new perspectives.
posted by ghharr at 5:47 AM on October 20, 2010


If anyone is in Chicago today, Ta-Nehisi Coates will be speaking at Columbia College Chicago's Creative Nonfiction week at 1p and 6.30p.

Well shoot, we're having a meetup at 6pm in the wrong direction to incorporate that.
posted by shakespeherian at 6:19 AM on October 20, 2010


Our school systems, on the other hand, are bastions of stability. They extend the promise of steady employment in a volatile world, substantial job security, and for those who stick it out for long enough, an enormous deferred payoff in the form of benefits and pensions. If we'd designed it from scratch, we would have struggled to produce a system more perfectly designed to attract young people who value stability, or to repel and grind down those who seek constant change.

When will education reform discussions be not dominated by people blaming unions for all the woes of the world?
posted by DU at 6:32 AM on October 20, 2010 [3 favorites]


severiina: One recommendation I am able to give is that the comments should not be skipped over.

The community of people who comment on his blog is the finest I've come across on any blog. Definitely remember to check out the comments.
posted by Kattullus at 7:03 AM on October 20, 2010


Agreed on the comments, his blog comments section (which is moderated) is one of only two such sections that I'll ever actually dare to read (the other being Marginal Revolution). The article on teacher hiring linked above was actually written by one of his commenters.
posted by ghharr at 7:16 AM on October 20, 2010


I've been meaning to read up on the American Civil War for years.

There are two go-to guys here.

The first is Bruce Catton. If you're looking for an overarching view, you want the Centennial History of the Civil War -- The Coming Fury, Terrible Swift Sword, and Never Call Retreat? His absolute best work, though, focuses on the eastern theatre, the Army of the Potomac series -- Mr. Lincoln's Army, Glory Road, and the Pulitzer Prize winning A Stillness At Appomattox.

Warning: The latter series were recently bound up as Bruce Catton's Civil War, which implies that it covers the whole war. It doesn't.

The second is Shelby Foote. Shelby Foote is a very entertaining writer. This is important, because he's also a very verbose one, and if you had time for only one series, The Civil War: A Narrative covers everything from the leadup to Fort Sumpter through the end of the war and the beginning of Reconstruction. The three volumes are Fort Sumter to Perryville, Fredericksburg to Meridian, and Red River to Appomattox.

Fair warning. The Civil War: A Narrative is, I believe, longer than Mr. Catton's entire body of work -- it typically prints out at 3000 pages, total. Foote, like Neal Stephenson, is one of the best arguments for ebooks I can think of.

Bruce Catton was a Yank, born and raised in Michigan. Shelby Foote was a Reb, from deep in the Bayou. Both worked hard to keep their upbringing from coloring their works, and both succeeded -- though it's not hard to guess who has the more flowery prose.

If you want the more socioeconomic and political overview, the Centennial History... is best. If you want the whole sweep of the actual war, dig into Foote's Civil War.... After those, the Army of the Potomac series is a good read of the issues faced in the Eastern theatre by the Union Army.
posted by eriko at 7:43 AM on October 20, 2010


eriko, what about Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson, which I always thought was a standard text?

(Off to read the link above, which I avoided since I have to work sometime. :7)
posted by wenestvedt at 9:21 AM on October 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


Battle Cry of Freedom is a great one-volume history of the runup, war, and aftermath. (It's part of the Oxford History of the United States; What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 got good reviews from a lot of TNC's commenters.) Eric Foner's Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (or the abridged A Short History of Reconstruction, 1863-1877) is the go-to text for Reconstruction.

Yale History Professor David Blight's course The Civil War and Reconstruction Era, 1845-1877 is also excellent; the syllabus lists the books for the course, including Battle Cry of Freedom. Audio and video downloads are available for each lecture.

The Civil War - A Film by Ken Burns is the go-to documentary. Shelby Foote is a major commenter, and David Blight uses it in several lectures.
posted by kirkaracha at 1:05 PM on October 20, 2010


I love me some TNC. one of the best writers in journalism today
posted by Heliochrome85 at 5:43 PM on October 20, 2010


As an ex-Civil War buff (clean for 10 years now!), I'd definitely second the recommendations for Foote and Mcpherson.

If you have the patience for Foote's massive work, I'd recommend reading it first. He's really a joy to read, though I suspect his forays into romanticism about the Lost Cause would be a little tiresome at times.

And then read McPherson, who opens the book with a clear-eyed view of exactly what it was the South was fighting for and how they tried to bully the political system for decades before they finally threw a tantrum and seceded.

Definitely a cold shower after Foote's poetry and a needed one. McPherson's book completely changed the way I looked at the war and forever removed any lingering sentimentality that I, raised in the South, once had.
posted by honestcoyote at 6:10 PM on October 20, 2010


Thanks for the recommondations, people! I'm nearing the bottom of my pile of unread books, so the input is appreciated.
posted by Harald74 at 2:25 AM on October 21, 2010


There's also Tony Horwitz's Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War, about the Civil War's continuing resonance.
posted by kirkaracha at 7:33 AM on October 21, 2010


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