UNC Charlotte historian David Goldfield is staking his claim to history. His latest book, the critically acclaimed “America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation,” takes aim at the role evangelical fervor played in the North (and later in the South) in the making of the bloodiest war in American history.
Goldfield joined the faculty at UNC Charlotte in 1982 and has since served as the Robert Lee Bailey Professor of History in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences.
A prolific writer, he has spent his professional life making history accessible to his students and the general public.
“Too often historians write for each other and then complain the general public doesn’t get it,” he says. “It’s not that people don’t like history, it’s just that professional historians have not really made that history accessible.”
“America Aflame” was released in advance of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War (April 12, 2011) and has been recognized as an engrossing interpretation of a period marked by deep-seated divisions and extreme transformation.
More than 100,000 books have been written about the Civil War, but few historians have taken Goldfield’s approach.
“We’ve gotten into a rut in the past 50 years in writing about the war,” Goldfield explains. “The North is often depicted as the Republic of Virtue and the South as the Evil Empire. The conflict is reduced to whether the war was fought over slavery or states’ rights.”
– David Goldfield
The United States became a slaveholding nation 250 years before the Civil War. So why was there a war in 1861? Goldfield’s answer: Because the political process broke down as a result of the injection of evangelical Protestantism into that process.
“America Aflame” transports readers back to a time of Protestant evangelical religious revival known as the Second Great Awakening, a movement that swept across the country in the decades prior to the war and resulted in the creation of new religious denominations.
Goldfield says the Awakening inspired millions of Americans, but it also propelled some to use their faith to wield public policy as a righteous club against those they perceived as a threat to the second coming of Christ — especially slaveholders and Roman Catholics.
The infusion of religion into politics led to the erosion of the political center and later hardened the attitude that war was the only means to settle the dispute over slavery, Goldfield claims. What had once been an intractable political situation became a matter of morality; compromise was no longer a viable option.
“A democracy functions best through moderation and compromise. Unfortunately many people in 1861 related moderation and compromise to weakness. They wanted something forceful done,” Goldfield says.
Goldfield makes clear that he does not seek to minimize the injustice and horrors of slavery. Instead, he weighs the costs of the war against the possibility that slavery would have collapsed without the loss of life, property and unforeseeable consequences of war.
$6.7 Billion War
Harvard University historian Claudia D. Goldin computes the total monetary cost of the Civil War at around $6.7 billion in 1860s currency. Much of the economic hardship of the war was suffered by the Southern states, but the human toll touched every family in practically every small town and city in America.
Goldfield has won praise for offering a raw account of the human tragedy.
“At the start of the war, and years later, the war was romanticized as a great adventure,” Goldfield says. “I want readers to be transported and feel the smoke and the dirt and the death all around them.”
Just prior to the start of the war, the population of the United States was close to 30 million. More than 620,000 civilian soldiers lost their lives during the war; thousands more were maimed, and countless family and friends mourned for them.
The Civil War also contributed to the acceleration of the Industrial Revolution.
“It wasn’t coincidental that the 1870s was the greatest period of economic growth in American history,” Goldfield says.
However, the South lost out on any benefits from the war. Four years of battles fought primarily on Southern soil left the agrarian region deeply damaged. Economic development didn’t occur on anywhere near the scale it did in the North, where the war had spurred revolutionary advancements in communications, transportation and mechanization, and spawned new industries.
In less than a decade, America had been reborn, but it took at least another century for African-Americans to achieve the freedom promised with the end of slavery. Ultimately, Goldfield concludes that the same ends could have been achieved without military action.
“The Civil War was America’s greatest political failure,” Goldfield says.