1861: The Civil War Awakening by Adam Goodheart

In brief, this is one of the most amazing Civil War books I’ve ever read. I picked it up almost at random–it has a blurb by James McPherson–and read it slowly over the course of a couple of weeks.

Here’s what happens: There are, in most Civil War histories, certain events dealt with in a single sentence, or maybe a short paragraph.  For example, Colonel Anderson moved his command from Fort Moltrie to Fort Sumter.  Or, Elmer Ellsworth was killed while taking down a Confederate Flag in Alexandria, Virginia, and there was mourning throughout the North.  General Butler created the concept of “contraband” so he wouldn’t have to return slaves to their Confederate masters.  But:  Why was Anderson’s move such a big deal for the country? Who was this Ellsworth, and why did people care about him so much?  And exactly who were those slaves, how is it they came into Union lines,  how did Butler make that decision, and what were the effects of it?

In 1861, we learn of why and how these events–and several others–were significant. We learn how they contributed to the mood and feel of the time; to the attitude of the Northern civilian and soldier. We learn how they flow from history, and how they effect that history.

“By the end of May, Northerners were starting to accept the idea of Southerners not just as opponents–let alone the wayward brethren they’d been just a few months earlier–but as enemies.”  How that change took place is what this book is about, and it isn’t what you’d thought.

That old, tired cliche about a book being good as an introduction and for those who’ve done a lot of reading, well, it’s actually true this time.  If you’re familiar with the American Civil War, this will more than fill in gaps, it will cause you to reevaluate a number of things you knew. And if you’re not, it would be a place to start that gives you a solid platform from which to understand everything that follows.

I can’t recommend it strongly enough.


What I’m Reading

There was a suggestion for a “What I’m Reading” section.  I’ll start it as a topic, and we can decide if it’s interesting enough to maintain as a permanent feature.

So, I just finished Bruce Catton’s Grant Takes Command, the sequel to his Grant Moves South which I read last week.  I’m now considering whether to reread O’Brian’s Master and Commander next; still haven’t quite made up my mind.




Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine

My friend Emma Bull recommended this book to me.  I love it.  There is nothing quite as affirming as finding a scientist who does careful research that supports your prejudices.

We’ve all seen (and maybe even read) the popular books that explain how men and women are “fundamentally” different; have different brains; we’ve come across–or seen reference to–neurological proof of this.  Fine looks at this “proof” in detail, carefully; she analyzes the data, she looks at the testing methods, she studies the conclusions–and she destroys the whole myth.  Beautifully.  Entertainingly.

It must be said that the idea of (for lack of a better term) “white male privilege” is also shown to be real, with hard evidence as well as theoretical backing.  I can, to be very brief, state that, to me, such arguments as John Scalzi’s recent one get support (much of what she demonstrates clearly applies to non-white, non-hetrosexual men as well as to all women); but, to me, so do my objections to it (to put it another way: this reaffirmed my conviction that prejudice exists and is a major factor in our lives; it did nothing to make me question my hatred of identity politics).

None of which is the beauty of the book.

I have long believed that certain classes of scientists (evolutionary psychologists being the most recent) either understate or overlook entirely that man is above all a social animal; we adapt, we work, we compete, we cooperate as societies, and the social forms we’ve developed for doing so determine, more than anything else, who we are.  It is a joy to see this view supported.

She is strongest when she is looking at the methodology of the tests that found men and women have different brains.  One of my favorite moments is on page 122.  There was a study to determine how much girls chose girlish toys, and boys chose boyish toys.  “Interestingly, one of the staples of the boyish toys, the Lincoln Logs construction set, recently had to be replaced because girls liked it so much.” I don’t know what you’d call that, but “science”certainly isn’t the right word.

She goes into brain tests such as PET and fMRI, and discusses what we can and cannot learn from them; and it’s scary how many of the popularizers of “hardwired brain differences” are drawing conclusions from either insufficient data, or data that directly contradict their conclusions.  She goes into detail, she makes it clear, and she makes it fun.  And there plenty of references for those who want to check her work.

Page 177: “Genes don’t determine our brains (or our bodies), but they do constrain them.”  Clear, elegant, and dead on.  And then a page later, “As cognitive neuroscientist Giordana Grossi points out, terms like hardwired–on loan from computer science where it refers to fixedness–translate poorly to the domain of neural circuits that change and learn throughout life, indeed, in response to life.”

No, it isn’t “hardwired.”  No, it isn’t “innate.”  Which means we can change it.