How the South Won the Civil War – A BOOK REVIEW

How the South Won the Civil War presents an answer to a singular question – how is it that the hateful thinking and racist political motivations of the Civil War-era South are still around? History professor Heather Cox Richardson does a wonderful job in presenting an answer and helps shed light on many forgotten events, people and politics. Many history books (trying to present a new slant or case) wind up being too academic. Too stuffy. People won’t want to read them. This history book isn’t one of those. There is a mastery to the logic and sources that Richardson presents and the writing is compelling and well done (and at only 272 pages, many of which are citations and sources, it’s totally manageable).

book cover for How the South Won the Civil War
The cover design was done by Kathleen Lynch.

No spoilers here, but in How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America Richardson shows, that just as the post-Civil War South was failing, those still waving the Confederate flag found a new home for their thoughts and beliefs – out West.

The premise is that the genteel individualism/states rights thinking of the South was easily transplanted and fit nicely with the narrative of rugged individualism and manifest destiny that the West was using to fuel its growth. So the picture book illustration of the rugged cotton farmer being the backbone of the U.S. became the illustration of a rugged cowboy surviving on his own and protecting what’s his.

So while both pictures touted things like family, strength and individualism, in practice they were both built upon a foundation of slavery, racism and taking things from “the other”. Richardson’s argument was a new one to me and there is plenty to think about.

How the South Won the Civil War starts way back at our country’s founding showing (again, in practice) how the “ultimate paradox” was present in forming our country. It’s the whole “All men are created equal” being written by a slave owner argument. The policies and legislation made up through the Kansas Act, Red Summer after WWII, the politics of the late 1960’s through the 1980’s, etc. allowed for this paradoxical thread to weave in and out and continue up to the most recent presidential election.

And that’s one thing I appreciated about what Richardson has created. It’s not just an origin story. It’s not just a snapshot. Using very conversational language and plenty of sources, she is able to show that what happened hundreds of years ago created a nation with race-issues and ideologies that we are seeing play out today.

It doesn’t matter your background, your current politics or your opinion on how things are going in our country. This book is one you should read. It’s a healthy conversation to be a part of. Whether you agree, disagree or just have tons of questions, it’s a book that will have you underlining and scribbling in the margins.

I am giving this book 3 out 5 stars and recommend it to anyone who enjoys history books or finds themself having difficult conversations about what’s happening in the U.S. these days.

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