Title Reviewed:
A House Divided: Sectionalism and Civil War, 1848–1865

Author Reviewed:
Richard H. Sewell

Patrick W. Riddleberger


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 85, Issue 3, pp 275-276

Article Type:
Book Review

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A House Divided: Sectionalism and Civil War, 1848-1865. By Richard H. Sewell. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988. Pp. xii, 223. Maps, bibliographical essay, index. Cloth-bound, $29.50; paperbound, $9.95.)

Richard H. Sewell, biographer of the Free Soiler-Radical Republican John P. Hale and author of Ballots for Freedom: Antislavery Politics in the United States, 1837-1860 (1976), moves in this book from political historical specialist to synthesist. He has made the transition with spectacular success. In refocusing "attention on slavery as the taproot of sectional discord and civil war," Sewell offers a "modest challenge to those historians who see slavery as a largely artificial or symbolic issue and who emphasize instead the role of such ‘ethnocultural’ concerns as temperance and nativism in shaping public events …" (p. xi). Happily, the challenge is very modest, never disputatious, and indeed hardly discernible. He avoids the error that is too prevalent among Civil War historians of reading back into the minds of past generations the knowledge and values of the late twentieth century. He brings to his work the sagacity of the late David Potter and the provocative insights of Bertram Wyatt-Brown.

In contrast with some historical interpretations, Sewell's argument is that a kind of southern nationalism did exist prior to the Civil War, a nationalism that derived "more from shared fears and resentments than from a common, unique cultural identity. … rightly or wrongly, many southerners had come to believe that theirs was a distinctive way of life" (p. 79). Also relevant was a mid-nineteenth century concept of "honor" that is foreign to the late twentieth century American mind. It follows that southern secession, no matter how ill-advised scholars now know it to have been, was the expected rather than the unexpected southern reaction to Abraham Lincoln's election, for the Republican victory in 1860, following a decade of sectional controversy, "represented an assault on the honor and well-being of the South" (p. 78). Thus, while the words "tragic" and "tragedy" hardly ever appear in his book, Sewell is sensitive to the pervasive tragic theme in the history of the Civil War era.

A chapter entitled "The War at Home" is a masterly account of the impact of war on civilians of all classes and stations, North and South. In a chapter called "The Destruction of Slavery" Sewell recounts how emancipation began early in the war, escalated gradually to 1865, and culminated in the establishment of the Freed-men's Bureau and the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment. Paralleling wartime emancipation was wartime reconstruction, which began at least as early as 1863 and probably earlier.

The book is free of serious flaws. Although Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas are given prominent roles in the political history of the 1850s, there is no narrative or analysis, per se, of the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858. Sewell's account of the former slave as soldier, pupil, and wage earner may be somewhat roseate, but the general excellence of the book overshadows these problems. Sewell's prose is always lucid and sometimes sparkling. His knowledge of the primary and secondary sources enables him to illustrate the narrative with apt quotations and lends to the book an aura of authenticity. This sophisticated, but never recondite, book will be widely read and enjoyed. If there is a better book of its genre on the period 1845-1865, this reviewer does not know what it is.

PATRICK W. RIDDLEBERGER, history professor emeritus, Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, is author of George Washington Julian, Radical Republican (1966) and 1866: The Critical Year Revisited (1979). He is currently working on a general history of Reconstruction.

Published by the Indiana University Department of History.