How did a government of the people and by the people survive a bloody civil war over serious issues of race, economics, and governance?
That is the question Gettysburg College’s Allen Guelzo, Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era and professor of history, asked in his new book, Fateful Lightning: A New History of the Civil War and Reconstruction, now available from Oxford University Press.
We recently had the chance to catch up with Prof. Guelzo to find out why he hopes his new book is not unique, why he loves writing, and how, after decades of studying the Civil War, he can still be surprised.
In a few sentences, can you give me a high-level summary of Fateful Lightning?
Fateful Lightning is a big, narrative survey of the era of the American Civil War. It sends roots back into the era of the American founding, because that's where the causes of the Civil War really lie, and then brings connections forward to our times, in terms of the war's many legacies (as well as some of its failures). Fateful Lightning takes in everything from culture and religion to 19th-century military thought. But Fateful Lightning’s primary take-away is about politics – how the American experiment in creating a democratic republic nearly self-destructed over a single violent issue – slavery. The Civil War was the ultimate test of whether a democracy, built on the consent of the people, won’t capsize the first time a really big, divisive issue rocks the boat.
What makes this publication unique among the countless Civil War books that have already been written?
In one way, I hope it is not unique. I don’t want to show Grant surrendering to Lee at Schenectady. Seriously, though: Fateful Lightning wants simply to tell again the story of the Civil War, because it needs re-telling, and bears re-telling so well. What I think distinguishes it, is its scope – how it takes in the entire landscape of the Civil War era, and into Reconstruction, and not just battles and bugles. But there’s also an important set of civic lessons to be learned here: that democracies can absorb the conflict of opinion that democracies naturally breed…that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are not relics from an irrelevant and mechanistic past, and that the Civil War actually worked to increase their effectiveness…that the citizens of a commercially-minded, middle-class society are capable to rising to heights and deeds that dwarf those of all the emperors, kings, dictators, and mullahs who ever lived.
What is the one nugget you hope readers will take away from Fateful Lightning?
That, as a democracy, we passed that ultimate test I mentioned. We didn’t pass it easily or routinely or without make some dreadful and costly blunders, especially about race and Reconstruction. But there was, after all, no instruction manual that explained how to do a civil war in neat, easy steps. Given how many of the monarchies of the world in the 1860s – and that includes France and Britain – were rooting for the American republic to dissolve, the wonder is that we passed at all. Otherwise, we could easily have disintegrated into two or five or seven quarrelsome, comic-opera republics, and all for sake of legalizing human slavery. But pass we did, and the consequences for the world in the 20th century were simply incalculable.
The count of books you've written is in the double digits, with more on the way in the next year or so. What drives you to continue writing?
I have an itch to tell stories. And I think the stories are what incite us as a people to care about, carry on, and mend this extraordinary experiment in free, popular government. My particular thirst is, within the stories, the exposition of ideas, so that we can see the issues with the same eyes as people then saw them.
After years studying the Civil War, are you ever surprised by something new you learn while researching a book? Can you give recent examples?
I am always surprised by something new about the Civil War because so much, involving so many people, in such novel ways and roles, was going on over four years. There’s also plenty new to find (and say) because Americans enjoyed such high rates of literacy in the 1860s, and were finding such new and varied ways of storing and sorting what they were writing. In Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates That Defined America (2009), I dug down in the archives of the Secretary of State of Illinois to find that the vote-count usually reported for the 1858 Illinois elections is actually off by nearly 100,000 votes. In the work I’ve been doing for my current project on the battle of Gettysburg, it amazed me to find in George Meade’s papers his description of how he offered talking-points to Confederate peace commissioners at City Point en route to meet with Lincoln. I can’t imagine Dwight Eisenhower or Douglas MacArthur tipping-off the Axis powers in 1945 about what would be an acceptable surrender deal, but there’s George Meade, doing something very close to that.
Founded in 1832, Gettysburg College is a highly selective four-year residential college of liberal arts and sciences with a strong academic tradition. Alumni include Rhodes Scholars, a Nobel laureate, and other distinguished scholars. The college enrolls 2,600 undergraduate students and is located on a 200-acre campus adjacent to the Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania.
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