Don’t Know Much About the Civil War by Kenneth C. Davis

Have I written about Kenneth Davis yet? I haven’t? Oh good. Kenneth Davis is the man who knows everything. I’m not exaggerating. I literally believe he knows everything under the sun, and to prove it, he writes the much acclaimed, New York Times Bestseller listed, Don’t Know Much Series.

The books sound like they would be watered-down versions of information for children, but they are not.

I’m going to be honest. I am actually only halfway through his book about the Civil War, but I’m so into it that I had to put it down for a half hour and write this blog. It is that good. Like most of you, my version of the Civil War is like this:

Everything I Learned from Gone With the Wind and maybe a History channel special.

So I actually know very little about the Civil War. The thing with American history, which I’m learning as I delve deeper into education, is that people find it boring and confusing.

They can’t remember dates, all that jargon about Articles, the Senate, the weird political parties that bear little resemblance to our finely drawn Democrats and Republicans today, all the names are eerily similar to the generation before making it sound like the same persons being mentioned over and over, battles are all about strategy and who has the best general, (and I don’t know about y’all, but I never played Risk. My brother hoarded that game like it was his own, personal tribute to his male-ness…and no girls allowed)  and important events are drawn out over thirty, sometimes fifty, years.

Not only this, but its difficult to write about history because a lot has been written on it already (so you have to draw from different books and its like: Why am I writing this on my right while I’m reading it over here on my left?)  Not to mention when history is a couple hundred years back or more it can be vague and unreliable, with many contradictions from many historians. Besides, it really, really, doesn’t seem to have a whole helluva lot to do with our present government and situation.

But here is where people like Kenneth Davis come in. For starters, he’s a really good writer. Not because he’s brilliant, which he pretty much is, but because he has a very distinct voice.

I’ve read a lot of textbooks about American history over the years and I have been bored to tears by most of them. I think it’s because they are written by people who are good at research and very passionate about their subject, but they lack the one thing that makes them readable: Narrative Writing Skill.

Which is a term I think I just made up, but who cares.

Textbook authors couldn’t write a good story to save their lives and they probably have no idea about leads, tensions, character, conflict, and resolution. Like, they may have learned all that in their literature courses way back when, but never thought to combine the craft of creative writing with historical non-fiction.

Imagine the person you best love to talk to, the one that always tells you something interesting that you didn’t know and does it with remarkable grace and with no sign of pretension or condescension. Then imagine that person also makes you laugh by pointing out ironies and makes you cry by relating something that is intensely moving.

This is Kenneth Davis.

He tells the story of the Civil War with lots of details and facts, it’s true, but he is also telling you a STORY, with tensions and build-up, citing all the conflicts, the great strain of one nation divided in half and at each others throats. I mean, seriously, the cries of Union and States Rights and Central Government took on meaning for me for the first time this afternoon. I get it. (Aren’t we still bitching about those things today? Interesting.)

He offers you a vivid picture of the masses of dead and wounded. The horror of slavery, and the explosive  and often deadly protests of abolitionists. He also mentions the nice things and the funny things. In one part, one of my favorite parts, he talks about how the soldiers from opposite sides would often trade goods back and forth across enemy lines.

One night, on the Potomac, a Confederate soldier yelled over to the opposite side: “Say Yanks! There are some fools shooting across the river up above, but we won’t shoot if you don’t!” According to Davis, unofficial truces were common among the fighting men, because, as he says: Perhaps misery does love company.

The characters of the leaders of all the different armies are illustrated with brutal honesty; Davis does not glorify anyone or vilify anyone, he just tells the facts with remarkable non bias. (Did you guys know that there were different armies? Not just North and South? I didn’t really get that, but now it makes sense: Lee’s army: not the Confederate army, but a section of it; men who were fighting in Maryland and Virginia. It was all about States individual rights, you see. So different States had different armies all fighting the Union armies in different parts of the country, but for the same cause. Fascinating. I did not know that.)

It’s a great series by a great author. I’ve read two of them now and when I’m finished with the Civil War I think I’ll start a new one.

To all you guys who have been pestering me with dull textbooks and book suggestions? Yeah, don’t.

I’m busy learning everything there is to know about everything.



Filed under History

2 responses to “Don’t Know Much About the Civil War by Kenneth C. Davis

  1. taxsanity

    Davis wrote a decent book, but left out a very basic thing.

    He readily states the war was fought over slavery — but fails completely to mention the SOUTH fought it to spread slavery. Yes, to spread slavery. This was the basic reason the South went to war, and they SAID so at the time, repeatedly and proudly. To spread slavery. That amazing fact is often totally overlooked, as it was in Davis book.

    The NORTH fought it, at first, to put down the violent rebellion. It’s ironic that the SOuth started the war over slavery, and over time, the North agreed — it had to be about slavery. And Lincoln made it about slavery. He had to. There was no way to avoid it. Once he put freed slaves into the US military, it was a totally different war, and a totally different nation emerged.

    If you want to see proof that the South was trying to spread slavery, look at their own Ultimatums, which were declared proudly and loudly when the first seven states seceded. The South issued five ultimatums – after they seceded. Each of the five ultimatums were about slavery. Four of them were about the spread of slavery.

    The FIRST ultimatum was that — incredibly –was that slavery had to be forced into the territories. You think I’m kidding? Go read the Ultimatums. WIthout question this is the craziest ultimatum in US, and maybe, world history. Spread slavery into the territories? Kansas had just fought a bloody war to keep slavery OUT. The people of Kansas had just voted 98% to 2 % to keep slavery out.

    There was ALREADY a war in Kansas –the South had ALREADY sent thugs and terrorist out there to force slavery, against the will of the people there.

    And the South lost that fight. The people of Kansas fought back, and defeated the thugs.

    So then the FIRST ultimatum was that the NORTH had to force slavery into the territories? Their ultimatum does not say who has to do the forcing —- just that “slavery shall be recognized and protected by Congress”.

    It takes a special kind of audacity to make that an Ultimatum. But keep in mind, they issued these Ultimatums in Montogmery, at the same time they seceded, and by the same people. These were people who were giddy with power, who could order a woman tortured, or a child sold, or a man burned to death, and it was done.

    They had just seceded, established a country, and were very much focused on spreading slavery. So in that light, it made perfect sense they would issue these ultimatums — do this, or face war.

    Southern books, by Southern authors, immediately after the war, actually bragged that they had continually warned the North that if they elected Lincoln, the South would take that as “a decaration of War”. (See ” Southern History of the Great Civil War in the United States” By Edward Alfred Pollard page 37 ) Pollard was stating this fact proudly, boasting of it!

    People today simply have no concept of the intense hatred, and threats, and chest pounding done by the South for years.

    The Ultimatums can be found HERE —

    But the ultimatums were basically simply the articulation — the declaration — of what they had been doing for forty years. The South had long tried by all means, to spread slavery. By legislation (which failed) by violence and threats (which succeded) by hook and by crook, (mixed results).

    It would have been odd if they had NOT issued these bizarre ultimatums.

    I don’t think Davis even mentioned these Ultimatums. By the way, the Southern newspapers called these Ultimatums “The True Issue”. Read what the Southern newspapers said about their OWN ultimatums.

  2. Thank you for your comment and observations. I believe that Davis does actually mention that the Southern states were pushing for the spread of slavery in new states as they were sworn in to the Union. Hence the Missouri Compromise and the abolitionist wars in Kansas. Also, when California came in as a free state that was a major blow to the South, as it created an imbalance in the amount of slave states and free. Davis spends a chapter going over all this, but you are right, he does not stress the Southern ultimatums. Perhaps it was his intent to appear as unbiased and as broad as possible.
    The book is a good summary of key points, causes, events, battles etc., but I wouldn’t say his book is THE authority on the Civil War. I just like the way he writes; simple and to the point. I’m actually plugging away at Shelby Foote now, which is a much more comprehensive history.
    I’m in school studying to be a teacher, and recently, in one of my textbooks, there was an example geared toward toward student comprehension. It stated that slavery was NOT a key cause for the Civil War, but that it was actually about State’s rights. It was only an example, but it is still infuriating to read stuff like that. Of course, I understand that in a lot of textbooks, particularly those created in the South, they don’t emphasize the Slavery issue…touchy subject, I guess.
    Thank you again for your comment!

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