BigFatBook(tm) takes a big fat chunk of time to read, but this one is worth it.
The first several chapters cover the years leading up to secession, from social to economic to religious. The effects events Mexico, Britain, and France are not neglected.
John Brown’s Rebellion is something else I vaguely remember. The clear re-telling was much enjoyed.
For the war years, battles are given in clear detail, with maps to clarify who was where, when. [who-what-when-where-why: what & why are pretty clear without a map ;)]
Political machinations are followed on both sides. I had no idea that both sides had Generals who were so incompetent! And the back-stabbing and in-fighting lost a not insignificant number of battles. And each President desperately wanted to fire a popular General, but thought better of it.
One of the most interesting questions I wanted answered was about The Great Emancipator: Did he start the war with the goal of freeing the slaves, or was that a by-product of keeping the Union together? According to my high school history teacher, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation only freed the slaves in the Confederacy, where Lincoln had no control! The proclamation had no effect on the four slave-states in the Union. Hahaha! So he really freed no slaves at all!
On the other hand, anyone can tell you that when the government says “in four months this regulation will go into effect,” people who will be affected by said regulation start making preparations at once. The four slave states probably saw which way the wind was blowing. (For example, Maryland abolished slavery in November 1864, a year after the Proclamation but half a year before the Civil War ended.)
At the start of the war, Lincoln was NOT pro-abolition. He would have done anything to save the Union. As the war progressed, Lincoln changed his mind by increments.
* First he said that any black person who crossed the Union battle line was free. Any black man could join the army. Arming the Negro was anathema in the South, which feared slave rebellion.
* Then Lincoln said, for reasons of manpower, Negroes in the North should be enlisted as soldiers. Some captains read ‘soldiers’ as ‘cooks, horse-boys, and other needed work’ that would free up a ‘real man’ to fight. Other captains read ‘soldiers’ as ‘soldiers’ and trained the black men alongside white men. Fighting together forges a bond, and “Battle Cry” quotes soldiers writing home who said that black folk are pretty much as brave as white folk, when you get down to it. So that was something.
* Later he said that black soldiers must be paid as much as white soldiers. Congress voted this down, but Lincoln tried.
* Even before as Negro Soldiers became a Thing in the North, the South declared that any Negro caught on southern territory would be treated as a runaway slave. Many were, in fact, runaway slaves. Southerners returned many to their masters. Many were killed immediately.
* The South refused to include Negro soldiers in any exchanges of prisoners-of-war. Therefore Lincoln refused to do any exchanges at all. Considering the death toll of Southern prisons like Anderson, this did not win him political points, and therefore it must have been his own convictions that he cannot betray the soldiers who trusted him with their lives.
How did civilians in the North view the Negro? Anywhere from Bible-thumping abolitionists who loved their neighbor to working-class people who hated the @#% competition. And there were plenty who protested white men dying for a black man’s war.
How did superpowers Britain and France view the South? King Cotton should have paved the way for negotiations, but the South had shot itself in the foot a year before the War of Northern Aggression. Furthermore, Britain had abolished slavery in Britain (but not on the islands) and did not want to ally itself with the peculiar institution. France followed Britain’s lead.
If you read the book, try to count how many times the Union despaired of winning the War, and try to imagine life today if they had indeed lost.