When I was growing up, I believed that the Civil War was the result of a tragic misunderstanding, brought on by the radical abolitionists of the North and the radical fire-eaters of the South.
I believed that the Southerners were better and more chivalrous fighters, and had better generals. I believed that the North won only because of greater numbers and better supplies. I believed that black people were bystanders in a war between white people.
I believed, too, that Reconstruction was tyranny, dis-enfranchising the white people of the South and putting them under the rule of ignorant black people and corrupt Northern carpetbaggers.
I learned that the Reconstruction Ku Klux Klan was the liberation movement of the Southern white people, and not to be confused with the 20th century Ku Klux Klan, which warred on white Catholics and Jews as well as black people.
All this coincided with a strong belief, which I got from my parents, teachers and Sunday school teachers, that all people have equal rights and that people should be judged as individuals and not on the basis of their color, religion or nationality.
Our history was written to make possible the reconciliation of the white people of the North and South, and to conceal the fact that the price of reconciliation was to sacrifice the freedom of the black people in the South. In all my high school and college experience, I was never assigned a book by a black author.
This may have been the result of growing up in Maryland, a border state, where people had fought on both sides, although a friend of mine, who grew up in Brooklyn, recalls being taught the same version of American history.
The fact is that the Civil War was fought over slavery. It was not a war for the abolition of slavery, but in defense of slavery.
President Lincoln said that slavery was a bad thing and should not be allowed to spread. The white Southern leaders said that slavery was a good thing, and should not be restricted. The white Union soldiers fought to preserve the Union, but the white Southern soldiers fought to preserve slavery. There also were black regiments fighting for the Union, and their members had no doubt they were fighting against slavery.
Reconstruction was a noble but half-hearted attempt at nation building, and it was a tragedy that it was stopped by means of terrorism—terrorism that was still in place during the civil rights era of the 1960s.
That doesn’t mean that Southern white people were individually worse than Northern white people, as Abraham Lincoln was at pains to point out, or that the Confederates did not fight bravely against great odds. It means they were part of a bad system whose effects linger today.
Battle Cry of Freedom: the Civil War Era by James McPherson. A good report on the causes and politics of the war.
What This Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery and the Civil War by Chandra Manning. What the soldiers thought they were fighting for, based on their letters.
Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 by Eric Foner. A good antidote to “Gone With the Wind”.
Here are three good articles on the Civil War by Gary Brecher, the War Nerd.