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Making Sense of the American Civil War

November 10, 2011 | By NEH Staff

Making Sense of the American Civil War is a scholar-led reading and discussion program for public audiences, presented by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the American Library Association's Public Programs Office.

Organizations in 36 states and the District of Columbia have agreed to administer a statewide reading and discussion program for libraries or other programming sites in their states. In most cases, the administering organization is the state humanities council or one of its partners, such as the Center for the Book or the state library commission.

At least four programs will take place in each of these states during 2013, with additional programs to be offered in subsequent years in many of the states.

Each program site will host a series of reading and discussion sessions over a four- to five-week period. Sessions will take place every two to four weeks, depending on program site preferences. At each session, the conversation will focus on a different facet of the Civil War experience, using one or more common texts as a foundation and touchstone.

The reading list includes works of historical fiction and interpretation, speeches, diaries, memoirs, biographies, and short stories. Readings also include an introductory essay, which provides context for the entire Making Sense of the American Civil War series and for each of the five sessions. The essay was written by the national project scholar: Edward L. Ayers, President of the University of Richmond, historian of the American South, and digital history pioneer. Professor Ayers also selected the reading materials and topics of conversation for the program.

The series focuses on three books: March by Geraldine Brooks, Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam by James McPherson, and America’s War: Talking About the Civil War and Emancipation on Their 150th Anniversaries, edited by Edward L. Ayers. A complete list of readings for the five-part series appears below.

Part One: Imagining the War

Geraldine Brooks, March [2005]

Selection from the anthology America’s War [2011]


Louisa May Alcott, “Journal kept at the hospital, Georgetown, D.C.” [1862]

Part Two: Choosing Sides

Selections from the anthology America's War


Frederick Douglass, "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?" [1852]


Henry David Thoreau, "A Plea for Captain John Brown" [1859]


Abraham Lincoln, First Inaugural Address [March 4, 1861]


 Alexander H. Stephens, "Cornerstone" speech [March 21, 1861]


 Robert Montague, Secessionist speech at Virginia secession convention [April 1-2, 1861]


 Chapman Stuart, Unionist speech at Virginia secession convention [April 5, 1861]


Elizabeth Brown Pryor, excerpt from Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through  his Private Letters [2007]


 Mark Twain, "The Private History of a Campaign That Failed" [1885]


Sarah Morgan, excerpt from The Diary of a Southern Woman [May 9, May 17, 1862]

Part Three: Making Sense of Shiloh

Selections from the anthology America's War


Ambrose Bierce, "What I Saw of Shiloh" [1881]


Ulysses Grant, excerpt from the Memoirs [1885]


Shelby Foote, excerpt from Shiloh [1952]


Bobbie Ann Mason, "Shiloh" [1982]


General Braxton Bragg, speech to the Army of the Mississippi [May 3, 1862]

Part Four: The Shape of War

James M. McPherson, Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam [2002]

Selections from the anthology America's War


Drew Gilpin Faust, excerpt from This Republic of Suffering: Death and the Civil War [2008]


Gary W. Gallagher, “The Net Result of the Campaign was in Our Favor: Confederate Reaction to 1862 Maryland Campaign” [1999]

Part Five: War and Freedom

Selections from the anthology America's War


Abraham Lincoln, address on colonization [1862]


John M. Washington, "Memorys [sic] of the Past" [1873]


Abraham Lincoln, Emancipation Proclamation [1863]


Frederick Douglass, "Men of Color, To Arms!" [March 1863]


Abraham Lincoln, letters to James C. Conkling [1863] and Albert G. Hodges [1864]


Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address [1863]


James S. Brisbin, report on U.S. Colored Cavalry in Virginia [Oct. 2, 1864]


Colored Citizens of Nashville, Tennessee, "Petition to the Union Convention of Tennessee Assembled in the Capitol at Nashville" [January 9, 1865]


Margaret Walker, excerpt from Jubilee [1966]


Leon Litwack, excerpt from Been in the Storm So Long [1979]


Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address, 1865.