Review: “What this Cruel War was Over”

In the great debate of Slavery Vs. State’s rights, there is a new recruit on the field. One who immensely researched letters, diaries, and journals from soldiers on the front line to get, straight from their own mouths, what they as individuals were fighting over.

Chandra Manning’s What This Cruel War was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War is a must have for any serious student of our Civil War. In her book, Manning has combed through thousands of interviews, letters home, diaries and journals to follow the typical Union and Confederate soldier throughout the war, and show how attitudes changed as battles, political and military, were won or lost. In it, she attempts to explain, once and for all, why it is that a southern man with no land, or a man from Maine who has never laid eyes on a black man would fight on his behalf.

Rather than looking at the debate from both sides, Manning takes an exclusive look at soldier’s viewpoints on slavery, addressing why the individual felt it his solemn duty to keep or abolish slavery. Because of such a one sided presentation, I fear that the book itself may be only preaching to the choir, and will fall on deaf ears for those who do not share the views.

One who already shares Manning’s views, will surely learn new connections between slavery and the common foot soldier, but in the end it will only stand to reinforce what he already believed in, and supply more sources to draw on to make get his point across. Although I would hope persons of all viewpoints will learn from this, I believe that many of the “State’s Rights” persuasion will dismiss Manning’s observations as too heavily biased towards the northern cause, or as whitewashing the administration.

For me, however, I think it is an important addition to any body’s library, no matter what their own beliefs may be. In order to understand the war more fully, we must understand why it was fought. Not why the history books say it was fought, not why politicians of the time say it was fought, but why the every day grunt out in the trenches and battlefields say they fought. This is who Chandra Manning addresses, and they are who ultimately paid the price.

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