A People's History of the Civil War: Struggles for the Meaning of Freedom by David Williams
Socialist Howard Zinn titled his oracular account of America, A People's History of the United States. Now, more than a quarter century after its publication, his tirade against "guns and greed" has given rise to a book series. Written by various Zinn devotees, the "people's history" books include accounts of the American Revolution, the Vietnam War, and now the Civil War.
It is no surprise that David Williams's mostly Marxist tale presents "common folk" or "working folk" as its heroes and "wealthy elites" as their nemesis. According to Williams, who teaches history at Valdosta State University, American capitalists divided the downtrodden against each other throughout the Civil War era, thereby controlling the dispossessed, including poor whites, women, blacks, and Indians. Bound by this ideological straitjacket, he wobbles between repetitive generalizations about the poor and jeremiads against the rich.
While offering only fleeting glimpses into the lives of ordinary citizens and soldiers, the book's framework also fails to account for the trajectories of great Americans like Abraham Lincoln. If dollars are destiny, how did a Kentucky backwoodsman become the Great Emancipator? In fact, Williams spares no invective in his mistreatment of Lincoln. "Though differing with Confederates on the issue of disunion," he writes, "Lincoln was united with them in his racist views." For Williams, Lincoln is just another "elitist."
—David J. Bobb
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This article appeared in the Summer 2006 issue of the Claremont Review of Books