The Civil War has been in the spotlight a little lately, largely owing to some comments from White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, who chalked it up to an unwillingness to “compromise.” Such comments rubbed many historians the wrong way, who accused Kelly of a rather selective interpretation of American history. In the immediate wake of the controversy, famed writer Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Twitter thread became the most thorough refutation of Kelly’s line of thought, and now he’s put together a quick reading list for people who want to get up to speed on just what the Civil War was really about.
“For the past 50 years, some of this country’s most celebrated historians have taken up the task of making Americans less stupid about the Civil War. These historians have been more effective than generally realized,” Coates wrote over at The Atlantic. “I do not contend that this improved history has solved everything. But it is a ray of light cutting through the gloom of stupid. You should run to that light. Embrace it. Bathe in it. Become it. Okay, maybe that’s too far. Let’s start with just being less stupid.”
Here are five books he recommends starting on.
- Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson, which Coates calls “arguably among the greatest single-volume histories in all of American historiography.”
- Grant by Ron Chernow, which he says “hits like a Mack truck of knowledge.”
- Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee by Elizabeth Pryor—a biography that Coates says “dispenses with the boatload of stupid” that’s been built up around Lee’s life in the ensuing years since the war.
- Out of the House of Bondage by Thavolia Glymph, which dispels the very odd American notion that there was ever such a thing as “good” or “domestic” slavery.
- The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass is the last of the famed abolitionist’s three autobiographies and, according to Coates, his personal favorite.
So there’s a start, for people who are actually interested in understanding a chapter in U.S. history many people seem bound and determined to misunderstand. It’s hard to think of a better corrective on all this than reading. “It’s not that hard, you know,” Coates writes. “You’ve got nothing to lose, save your own stupid.”