Making Sense of the American Civil War

From the moment Americans founds themselves pulled into a civil war of unimaginable scale and consequence, they tried desperately to make sense of what was happening to them. From the secession crisis into the maelstrom of battle, from the nightmare of slavery into the twilight of emancipation, Americans of all backgrounds confronted the chaos with stories to explain how things had come to be. People continued to tell themselves those stories about the war and its meaning for the next century and a half, and they probably always will.

Historians’ understanding of the global significance of the Civil War has shifted from fifty years ago, at the time of the centennial, when its major consequence seemed to be the unification of a nation that would stand against communism. Today, the Civil War matters just as much, it seems, for bringing an end to the most powerful system of slavery in the modern world. A hundred and fifty years after the defining war in our nation’s history, we are still discovering its meanings.

Stories about the American Civil War have been told in many forms, often disguised as something else. Most of the stories at the time came in letters or diaries or reports, fashioned from whatever materials were close at hand. Speeches, made up on the spot or carefully crafted for the world to read, told stories that placed blame and laid out strategies. Newspaper articles written overnight shaped fragments and reports into narratives of victory and loss. Memoirs, short stories, novels, and histories written months or years later wove new patterns of storytelling.

Book List

The following readings have been selected for Let’s Talk About It: Making Sense of the American Civil War, giving us a glimpse of the vast sweep and profound breadth of Americans’ war among and against themselves. Each reading adds a crucial voice to our understanding of the war and its meaning.

Scholar’s Essay and Promotional Materials

National project scholar Edward L. Ayers has written a thoughtful and reflective essay that informs the theme. This essay is a discussion tool and guidepost for local scholar and participant alike. Each Let’s Talk About It participant should be given the essay in advance of the first discussion session.

Download the scholar’s essay, annotated book list, and supplementary texts (PDF). Please note: The American Library Association is the copyright owner of this essay and annotations. The credit lines embedded in the program materials and/or sponsor and funder logos must remain on all published (print and web) materials derived from these materials.

How-To Discussion Programming Guides

Developed to aid participants in “The Millennium Project for Public Libraries,” this how-to guide (PDF) provides basic information about developing and promoting book discussion programs.

When planning a “Let’s Talk About It” program, you may wish to consult the planner’s manual (PDF) for general how-to information about program format, selecting a scholar, promoting your series, evaluation, and more.

In addition, when selecting a scholar for Let’s Talk About It: Making Sense of the American Civil War, we recommend choosing one with a Ph.D. or advanced degree in American History, American Literature, or other related humanities subject who is also adept at facilitating discussion with adult audiences on themes related to the human condition, and in particular on American history and the Civil War.

Related Programming Ideas

  • Host a film series that focuses on movies and documentaries about the Civil War. For more information on hosting film programming, view the recording of the Programs with Ken Burns’ The Civil War webinar. Films suggestions include:
  • Invite authors or historical reenactors to appear and read from their works featured in the Let’s Talk About It series; or, invite authors to read from their works on similar themes. Consult the Additional Reading list for this series, included at the end of the thematic essay, for ideas.
  • Work with a scholar to present a lecture or lecture series on the lives and times of the authors featured in the series.
  • Ask good public speakers to read one or more of the speeches featured in America’s War. Have an historian on hand to interpret them and put them in context. A series of public readings can create a picture of this period of American history—its people, its philosophies, its ideals, its failings—and also allow community leaders, media personalities and other celebrities to be included in library programs.
  • Create intergenerational programs for community members to discuss and learn about historic and contemporary issues.
  • Develop a walking tour of battlefields and other local sites significant to Civil War history. Highlight the people and places connected to the Civil War era in your community. Create a Web version of your research.
  • Host a related exhibit from the Gilder Lehrman Institute. Available exhibits include “Frederick Douglass from Slavery to Freedom: The Journey to New York City,“ “Looking at Lincoln: Political Cartoons from the Civil War Era,“ “Free at Last: A History of the Abolition of Slavery in America,“ “Freedom: A History of US,“ and “Abraham Lincoln: A Man of His Time, A Man for All Times.“
  • Find people in your community who have family stories, diaries, artifacts from the Civil War era. Create related exhibits or ask them to speak at a program. Record their stories.

Additional Online Resources

What’s New

  • New York Times, Opinionator’s “Disunion” series. Exclusive online commentary revisiting and reconsidering America’s most perilous period—using contemporary accounts, diaries, images and historical assessments to follow the Civil War as it unfolded.
  • National Park Service, The Civil War: 150 Years (National Park Service Sesquicentennial Commemoration). Features include: Nationwide calendar of CW150 events, information about Civil War Parks, access to database of Civil War Soldiers, more in-depth information about the War.

Pioneering Digital History Resources

Online Exhibitions

General Information—to Learn More