My new e-book, The Looming Conflict, has finally arrived! It will be available through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other electronic outlets at a price of $2.99. For a writer like me who is a product of the age of print and paper, the very notion of a book that exists mainly in the ether of the internet was unsettling. But with a lot of good advice and a great deal of tinkering by my electronic publishing guru Neil Levin of Everpub and my brilliant web designer John Schmitz, “The Looming Conflict” has become a reality.
The six articles included in “The Looming Conflict” appeared at different times in Smithsonian Magazine. They all combine, to differing degrees, a narration of historical events with first-hand reporting, and commentary by noted historians, among them Harold Holzer, David Reynolds, Orville Vernon Burton, John Stauffer, and others. Three of the pieces focus on events that led up to the Civil War: the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, the long rivalry between pro-southern President James Buchanan and radical abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, and John Brown’s 1859 raid on Harper’s Ferry. Two more are war pieces, on the attack on Fort Sumter and the events that led up to it, and on the heroic but ill-fated attack of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment against Fort Wagner, in Charleston harbor, in 1863. (Though a Union defeat, the battle was the heroic debut of African-American troops, and served as the climax of the 1988 film “Glory.”) The final article centers on the creation of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, in Cincinnati. Although the Underground Railroad of course preceded the war, I saw the story of the museum’s creation as a way to look not only at the underground’s remarkable history but also at the way in which we may deal with the legacy of slavery and abolitionism today.
I’m as interested in how we relate to the American past as I am with history for its own sake. So nearly all these articles show people of our own time coming to grips with the past in a variety of ways. For instance, you’ll meet George Buss, a masterful Abraham Lincoln reenactor whose nuanced understanding of Lincoln’s speaking style provides a unique window into his performance in the 1858 debates; Jim Delle, a Pennsylvania archaeologist who led me into a newly discovered underground cistern behind the Lancaster Pennsylvania home of Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, where the abolitionist apparently hid fugitive slaves; preservationist Blake Hallman, who took me to splendidly, eerily isolated Morris Island, the site of Fort Wagner, where fragments of shattered cannonballs still turn up in the sand; historian Carl Westmoreland, who discovered a former slave jail in rural Kentucky, and recovered it for the Freedom Center as its paramount symbolic relic of slavery; and many others.
While each story stands on its own as window into history, it will also (I hope) open a door on some aspect of our own time, whether it be the price a nation pays for indecisive political leadership, as in the case of James Buchanan, or the persistence of the passions that are still evoked by slavery and the Civil War, as will be seen in the successful effort to create a coalition of Sons of Confederate Veterans, African Americans, and ecologists to save Morris Island from development. And in our own era of international terrorism, what historical figure is more relevant – and troubling – than our own homegrown idealist and terrorist John Brown?