In this final issue of 2010, History Now offers readers a selection of the latest interpretations of the Civil War era by four leading historians. These essays remind us that this critical moment in the history of our nation continues to demand reexamination.

In “Lincoln’s Interpretation of the Civil War”, Eric Foner takes a closer look at the President’s second inaugural address. He finds evidence of Lincoln’s deeply held belief that the sin of slavery could not be laid simply at the doorstep of the planter society of the South. The “peculiar institution” was a national institution, created and sustained by Yankee and Rebel alike. The war was a punishment by God for American sins, Lincoln declared, but neither blame nor vengeance ought to prevail now that the war had ended. Foner’s analysis gives new weight and meaning to the inaugural’s most famous phrase, “with malice toward none.”

In “The Underground Railroad: The Metaphor That Helped Launch a Civil War,” Matthew Pinsker observes that the Underground Railroad is often seen as a literal form of transportation rather than a metaphor for anti-slavery activism. Pinsker reminds us that the “agents” and “conductors” were not serving on actual trains or as participants in formal, organized escape routes. Instead, the “railroad” was the active and organized resistance of abolitionists to the fugitive slave laws. By the 1840s, many northern states had passed personal liberty laws designed to nullify the law of the land. Thus, as Pinsker points out, states rights arguments were as much a northern phenomenon as a southern one.

Bruce Levine considers the Confederacy’s plans for slave emancipation in his essay “The Riddles of ‘Confederate Emancipation’.” Could a society fighting to preserve slavery really contemplate a policy that granted freedom to African Americans willing to fight for Confederate independence? Levine examines the arguments of those who supported the recruitment of black soldiers and those who adamantly opposed it until desperate circumstances made them changed their minds. 

In our final essay, “Women and the Home Front,” Catherine Clinton reviews the emergence of a new literature that replaces the popular but entirely false image of a nineteenth century inhabited by Scarlett O’Haras and their faithful African American servants. Instead, Clinton shows us women like Rose Greenhow who served as a spy, soldiers like Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, nurses like Cornelia Hancock, and self-emancipated ex-slaves like Elizabeth Keckly. These women—whose stories can be found in historical studies, novels, and in primary source materials available online and in published volumes—were not passive onlookers in the great struggles of the mid-nineteenth century. Their addition to the canvas of the Civil War makes the story more complex and more inclusive.

As always, History Now offers lesson plans from master teachers, abundant resources for further investigation provided by our expert archivist Mary-Jo Kline, and suggestions for incorporating the central themes of the issue into your classroom from Bruce Lesh and Phil Nicolosi, both winners of the Paul Gagnon Prize for Teaching. Our interactive feature, “Letters from the Civil War,” provide powerful primary source documents for you and your students. 

A final note: Let me urge you and your school to sign up as members of the new Gilder Lehrman Affiliate School Program. The Affiliates section of the Gilder Lehrman website will offer you an amazing variety of resources for teaching American History: Essays by noted scholars, lesson plans, primary sources, maps and other visuals, podcasts, identifications of key terms from major chronological eras, time lines, and related essays on music, art, and literature. It is free--- and it is a remarkable treasure trove for you and your students. 

Wishing you a happy new year, 

Carol Berkin                                                           
Editor, History Now                                            

Carol Berkin is Presidential Professor of History at Baruch College and The Graduate Center, City University of New York. She is the author of several books including Jonathan Sewall: Odyssey of an American Conservative, First Generations: Women in Colonial America, A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution, and Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America's Independence.

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