Civil War Book Review: At the Precipice: Americans North and South during the Secession Crisis

by James Durney on January 3, 2011 · 0 comments

At the Precipice: Americans North and South during the Secession Crisis (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era)
by Shearer Davis Bowman

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 480 pages
  • Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press (September 30, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0807833924
  • ISBN-13: 978-0807833926

Difficult but Rewarding

The author, who died in December 2009, spent his life teaching history at the college level.  While not a dynamic writer, an excellent understanding of history coupled with the ability to discern trends resulted in a unique view of events creating a provocative view of American history.

Eight chapters organize the author’s position and present his arguments.  “Introduction and Overview” is a slow read and may cause some to give up on the book.  It is not an optional item as the author covers events and interruptions of events during the 1850s.  “Slaveholders and Slaves, State’s Rights and Revolution” picks up the pace looking at feelings, fears and values.

“Honor and Degradation” takes a hard look at manliness and personal honor.  How these items influence the political process and secession provides food for thought.  How the political parties held off or brought on secession is the subject of “The Second Party System and Its Legacy”.   Looking at John Bell, John C. Breckinridge, Howell Cobb, Stephen A. Douglas, John Tyler and Martin Van Buren we see the process of comprise and disaffection.   “Jefferson Davis, Horace L. Kent and the Old South” coupled with “Abraham Lincoln, Henry Waller and the Free-Labor North” highlight the development of the two sections.  How different they were in attitude, politics and expectations resulting in one nation with two countries.  “Faith, Race, and Gender” is worth the price of the book.  Using Sojourner Truth, the author traces the history of slavery in the North.  Using a well to do Southern widow, we see slavery in the South from a moderate’s view.  These 17 pages is a revelation on the subject of slavery.  The last chapter looks at Buchanan, the Crittenden Compromise, Lincoln and Ft. Sumter.  Throughout, the author looks at racism, property rights, westward expansion and abolition.

The “takes readers into the minds” is misleading.  To me, it brought back memories of the “pop physiology” histories that once were popular.  In this book, the author makes his points using statements and actions by the participants.  This results in a very well supported logical argument.  This is a serious history with 49 pages of ends notes and 18 pages of further reading suggestions.  Sources are a mix of primary and contemporary works.

There is a wealth of information and ideas in this book.  It is an intellectually challenging and thought provoking book.  This is not an easy read!  Often, I had to reread a sentence to ensure understanding.  The prose is not impossible but can be difficult. The ideas presented are worth the effort and will expand your understanding of America entering the Civil War.


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