How to Write Like a Civil War General

I've been lucky enough to receive a galley of Bruce Levine's upcoming book The Fall Of The House Of Dixie. I would describe it as a People's History of The Civil War, were that title not taken. Zinn's inability to distinguish among peoples with a boot on their neck (as I have said before) has always been a problem for me. (I find his thoughts on the Civil War really unfortunate.)


But I think his basic notion, that history can be told from the ground up, that Big Men and Big Battles are not the only (or even always the best) way to assemble a narrative, is right on point. I thought What Hath God Wrought ably demonstrated that point. So I come back to Zinn because I think he was right in theory, if not in practice. He certainly doesn't belong in the company of a charlatan like David Barton.

Levine's book does that same sort of work -- it is a grassroots survey of the Civil War. Grant, Lee, Lincoln, Gettysburg, and Bull Run are all there, but they are in the background, while the enslaved, planter classes, and poor whites are in the front. It is a kind of social history of the War. And it is eminently readable. I always recommend Battle Cry of Freedom as an introduction, but I think The Fall of The House of Dixie is a very good complement.

My favorite historians are masters of the illustrative quote. So here's one from a Confederate official:

The sacrosanctity of slave property in this war has operated most injuriously to the Confederacy.

Man, I love how these 19th-century guys wrote. Most injuriously. It's wordy sentence but the words function as concealment for the bayonet notion that that which the South took as its great strength -- slavery -- was in fact its greatest weakness. It's a perfect union between form and meaning.

Just to wrap up that former question of Big Men vs The People in terms of narrative, I've come to believe that it shouldn't really be either/or. The problem isn't in telling history through the eyes of Big Men (Lincoln and Lee really did have an outsized effect on the war), but in only telling the history through the eyes of Big Men.


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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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