Ecstatic Nation – before, during, and after America’s Civil War

Ecstatic nation picSince I recently read 1858, reviewed here, I thought Brenda Wineapple’s  book Ecstatic Nation, Confidence, Crisis, and Compromise, 1848 – 1877 was a logical follow-up.  It is fairly long at 526 pages, and the 74 pages of notes are connected to the text via by page number rather than footnotes.

The enormity of the Civil War continues to amaze and horrify me.  Wineapple says the number of soldiers who died from a combination of battle and illness was recently revised upwards to over 750,000, “far greater than the number of men who perished or would perish in all other U.S. wars put together.”  According to the count on , with Wineapple’s “recent revision”, that’s true.

Lincoln’s Republican platform promised to protect slavery where it existed and after the war started Lincoln vowed to preserve the Union, not to abolish slavery.  The Confederacy felt invaded and pledged to “safeguard its way of life, its grace, its privilege.”  Even Robert E. Lee “didn’t like slavery, and didn’t much like secession”; he fought for his home state of Virginia rather than the United States.  By the end of the war, “the Confederacy’s independence… was far more important than the preservation of slavery.”  The Confederacy approached France and England and, “in return for recognition and aid… promise[d] to end slavery,” but it was too late.

Yet clearly, slavery was at the core of the conflict; if somehow slavery could have withered away (as some American’s hoped it would), the Civil War would not have occurred.

The war was part of a violent period.  Americans often engaged in armed conflicts outside government sponsorship; for example, invading Cuba in a failed attempt to seize the island for America, and battling each other for control of the western territories.  Guerrillas and vigilantes were not uncommon.  (I am reminded of Steven Pinker’s view that violence decreases when a state monopoly on force replaces feuds and personal vengeance: this state monopoly was not pervasive yet in America.)

Slavery was often the issue at the heart of conflicts and those conflicts drew in other citizens not originally involved.  The aim to bring free-states or slave-states into the Union so one side or the other could control Congress fueled many of these clashes.  Mob violence and lynching are part of the story; even on the floor of the U.S. Senate, a Senator was viciously beaten.  A sense of “inevitability dominated the newspapers, diaries, letters, and broadsides… war seemed a foregone conclusion… there were those who wanted it.”

While I have written above on the overarching historical trend, Wineapple’s book documents the many individual people and events of the times.  In addition to Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, and many other presidents and politicians, she covers authors, showmen, criminals, ideologues, and filibusters.  (I had to include the word “filibuster”, which at the time meant “pirate”.)  Many of these stories would make suspenseful movies, since their individual outcomes are not commonly known today.

The abundance of stories offers an excellent view of the nature of Americans at the time, but also made the book a long read for me.  I found myself skipping around the various sections, reading every word of one story and skimming another.  Maybe I tried to read it too soon after 1858, so the overlap tired me.  If, like me, you have read more about the build up to the war than its aftermath, start at Part Three.

It is surprising how quickly the popular attention turned away from the war.  Everything was changing.  The popular sentiment was “Let us forget.  Let us make money.  Let us have peace,” as Wineapple puts it.

There were wars against Native Americans as the country expanded westward.  The nation was occupied with the rise of coal and steam power, railroads, manufacturing, gold rushes, increasing oil and steel production, the “burgeoning meatpacking and agricultural industries”, and woman’s suffrage.  Henry David Thoreau wrote that the “farmer becomes a market capitalist” and a railroad ran close by Walden Pond.

Most Americans turned their backs to “the depredations against the black population… where blacks were being slaughtered and the whites who sympathized with them were being driven away.”  Slavery returned in a way in the South, when black prison inmates were sentenced to work plantations.

Many people in the defeated South began to “write magnolia-scented history” where Lee was nobler than Grant and Confederates were finer men than Unionists.  In an exception to the common view that the victors write history, the South was fairly successful in their efforts.

I learned the most from this last part of the book.  It helps explain why, in my mind, the Civil War seemed to drop out of American history so abruptly.

I recommend you read Wineapple’s book over a few weeks, so you can absorb the various stories.

“The past is never dead.  It’s not even past.”  William Faulkner

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About Ponderer

Ponderer also writes science fiction and science-inspired rhyming poetry. Check her out at She worked at Rocky Flats for 22 years - you may know her as Kathy London.

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