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“The Civil War and Reconstruction Era, 1844-1877,” taught by David Blight

June 13, 2011

During my last week of paternity leave, I had finished all of my audiobooks and exhausted my supply of podcasts, so I started looking through iTunes U, where dozens of top universities post audio recordings of their courses. It’s an amazing resource, although I’ve only listened to a handful of recordings. But I noticed on the list of top courses David Blight’s course at Yale University called “The Civil War and Reconstruction Era, 1844-1877.” I have never been much of a Civil War buff, but David Plotz has raved about it several times on Slate’s Political Gabfest podcast, so I thought I’d give it a shot.

I am now 20 classes deep in the course (out of 27) and am completely riveted. Last week, I spent two full consecutive days working in the yard and listened to 6-7 straight hours of the course without needing to take a break. Rather than your typical course that covers the dates and troop movements of the war (although there are some of the requisite dates and battles), this class is more about the ideas of the war. The motivations of both sides (and the evolution of those motivations), the strategies of the generals, the reasons behind the northern victory and the consequences. Blight also covers the history of the history of the war, joking in his first lesson about “revisionism.” All history, he says, is in some ways revisionist history. It’s told with a point of view. So he examines some of the ideas that have come into play as the story of the Civil War has been told and told again.

He also uses diverse sources, quoting from letters, news reports, scholarly books, literature and poetry. He brings to life the human drama of the war, knitting large themes and intimate moments together into a grand narrative tapestry. It’s an epic story, and Blight delivers it as such, with a keen eye to the structure of each lecture and how to link the lectures together like chapters in a book.

What has struck me is how much our country’s current inner struggles date back to the Civil War. States rights. Agrarian vs. Industrialist. Diverse ideologies tenuously stitched together into political parties. Civil rights. Debates over the sanctity of the Constitution and interpretations of it. It’s easy to forget how relatively recent the Civil War took place. And few of us have an appreciation for how destructive it was. 150 years isn’t enough time to bridge some divides or heal some scars.

For me, the course perfectly ties together a couple books I just finished on the American civil rights movement and a book I’m currently reading about the ideals of the American Revolution. And with the anniversary of the Civil War coming up, there’s going to be a deluge of material about it. I can’t think of a better place to start, if you’re at all interested. The full syllabus is available online if you care to check out some of the supplementary materials too.

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