The American Civil War A Hands-on History

Christopher J. Olsen

Hill and Wang



Trade Paperback

304 Pages



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Christopher J. Olsen's The American Civil War is the ideal introduction to the study of the South's secession, the Civil War, and Reconstruction. Beginning in 1850 with the mounting political pressures to split the Union, through the four years of bloodshed and waning Confederate fortunes, to Lincoln's assassination and the rise and fall of radical Reconstruction, The American Civil War covers the entire sectional conflict. It is Olsen's ability to put the reader in the middle of unfolding events that distinguishes The American Civil War. Whether recounting the timing of John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry, the serendipitous discovery of General Lee's plans (found wrapped around three cigars) before the battle of Antietam, or the conspiracy that led to Lincoln's assassination, Olsen's deft narrative reminds readers that chance and opportunity, both missed and acted on, worked within larger political, economic, and social trends. Selected historical documents following each chapter allow readers to experience the war in "real time," placing them at the center of every hard-won battle, every fierce political debate, and every tearful exchange between family members as the drama develops.


Praise for The American Civil War

"The American Civil War: A Hands-On History should prove to be invaluable for a variety of audiences, including high school and college students, who need resources that authoritatively blend primary and secondary source material. Olsen's book is an ideal introduction to a very complicated subject in U.S. history."—Wilson Warren, Western Michigan University

"Olsen has deftly integrated the work of Civil War historians into an engaging account of the Civil War era.  He provides an accessible interpretation of the American Civil War that prioritizes its cultural, social, and political aspects while demonstrating how all affected and were affected by events on the battlefield.  The documents at the end of each chapter further allow readers to interpret political, social, and military events for themselves and to get a contemporary view of the upheaval of war."—Lisa Tendrich Frank, Florida Atlantic University

"Accessible yet nuanced, easy to read but sophisticated in its approach, this volume will significantly enrich the teaching of the Civil War era. With a wonderful narrative, useful Web site suggestions, and primary documents that will engage students and provide valuable insight into the period, this is, quite simply, the best single-volume text available for teaching this complex period of American history."—Jonathan Daniel Wells, author of The Origins of the Southern Middle Class, 1800-1861

"A solid introduction to the Civil War, with related historical documents and private letters appended to each chapter. Olsen begins with the war's roots in conflicts during the early years of the republic. Slavery was already an issue at the Constitutional Convention, where the South won several key concessions, including the infamous clause that allowed a slave to be counted as three-fifths of a person when determining congressional representation. Sectional divisions sharpened as the two regions diverged economically, with New England heavily industrial, the Deep South dependent on agriculture. But the race issue was not clear-cut; many northerners fought to prohibit slavery in new territories in hopes of making them exclusively white enclaves. Olsen details the political maneuvers of the prewar years, the rise of the Republican Party and the South's ultimate decision to secede. He covers the major battles in broad strokes, usually not paying close attention to the actions of smaller units. But Olsen does give full coverage to such characteristic details as the mislaid set of orders that betrayed Lee's plans for his first Northern campaign, allowing McClellan to bring him to battle at Antietam. Nor does the author neglect famous commanders' idiosyncrasies, such as Andrew Jackson's insistence on eating foods he disliked as punishment for his sins. Those unfamiliar with the period will find the various documents Olsen presents particularly useful. These range from Jefferson's 1799 'Kentucky Resolution,' which laid out the basis for states' rights, to news articles on the attack on Fort Sumter and harrowing postwar testimony at trials of Ku Klux Klansmen. Lincoln's speeches from various periods show his evolving understanding of the crisis and changing views on slavery . . . Gets the basic points across clearly and effectively.”—Kirkus Reviews

"Olsen introduces essential issues involved in the outbreak, course, and aftermath of the Civil War in a comprehensible narrative. Effective interplay between context and contingency is Olsen's authorial forte, as in his explanation of sectional tension from the late 1840s forward. The fundamental issue was not slavery per se, since most Northerners were indifferent to it. It was slavery's bruited extension to the western territories, the South's hope for maintaining parity with the North in the Senate, which defied compromise. A manifestation of the constitutional impasse was the rise of the sectional Republican Party, and Olsen makes telling observations about the influence of its coalitional elements on the war . . . A trenchant survey history."—Booklist

"Olsen provides a good overview of the Civil War era, with an emphasis on the secession crisis and the conflict . . . It largely focuses on political leaders and generals and follows the trunk line of historical narrative on politics, policy, and battles. Olsen . . . knows the recent literature on the period and synthesizes it well to give readers a useful index of current arguments on a host of issues, ranging over the causes of the war and the nature of ‘modern’ warfare to the impact of war on civilians and the meaning of emancipation. Excerpts from select historical documents conclude each chapter. The book works best as a primer for college students and general readers wanting an introduction to the war years. Recommended.”—Randall M. Miller, St. Joseph's University, Philadelphia, Library Journal

"In juxtaposing pithy narrative and end-of-chapter references to primary sources, this book offers a glimpse up the author's sleeve, at the process of history writing as well as of history making . . . The major characters, events and themes appear, accompanied by excerpts from letters, speeches, newspaper editorials and other supporting material that back Olsen's analysis and add texture . . . Olsen, who teaches history at Indiana State University, has produced a tightly written book ideal for anyone looking for a quick introduction to one of the most important periods in American history."—Publishers Weekly

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Read an Excerpt

Excerpted from The American Civil War: A Hands-on History by Christopher J. Olsen. Copyright © 2006 by Christopher J. Olsen. Published in August, 2006 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.
Political Sectionalism Before 1850
When the majority of white Southerners opted to secede from the Union in 1860 and 1861 it signaled a failure of the American political system and its renowned ability to compromise difficult problems. For most of the antebellum period, nearly all politicians tried to avoid a national discussion of slavery or slavery
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  • Christopher J. Olsen

  • Christopher J. Olsen is an assistant professor of history at Indiana State University and the author of Political Culture and Secession in Mississippi: Masculinity, Honor, and the Antiparty Tradition, 1830–1860.