Wednesday, 16 December 2015 11:02

Writers for Conservatives, 45 - Historians, The South, and the Civil War

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Writers for Conservatives, 45 - Historians, The South, and the Civil War

Jigs Gardner

Jigs Gardner is an Associate Editor of the St. Croix Review. He writes on literature from the Adirondacks where he may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..
Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by!

The epitaph of Yeats should be an admonitory motto for historians. It is very difficult to be so objective, as I know in my own case. Of course, I make no claim to be an historian, but I try to be objective about the Civil War, even as I am aware of my predispositions, not to speak of prejudices. In my college chapel on the wall behind the altar in gold letters on a white ground were listed the names of graduates who had died in the Civil War with the dates and places of their deaths. Every Sunday evening I read those typically homely American names - Shiloh, Bull Run, Gaines Mill, Kenesaw Mountain, Brandy Station - names that resonate in my mind, echoing the passions of those terrible four years. Lincoln said it: "We cannot escape history." And we cannot escape trying to understand it, despite the burden of our feelings. Yeats was right, of course, but when I recall those humble names, picked out in golden letters, I knew how difficult it is, for me, anyway. What I intend to do in this essay is to examine some books about the Civil War and the South in the light of Yeats' epitaph.

The Civil War has fascinated me from my earliest years - I have told in another place how, at the age of seven, I memorized the Gettysburg Address as well as "O Captain, My Captain" (and never told anyone!) - just as it has fascinated so many other Americans. As Whitman said, it is our Trojan War, but he was mistaken when he thought American Homers would arise to celebrate it. There is Whitman's "Lilacs" and "O Captain" and the short poems in Drum Taps, Melville wrote some characteristically somber poems about it, and there is Howe's "Battle Hymn of the Republic" and Crane's Red Badge, but otherwise not much. Not that writers haven't tried. Allen Tate's "Ode to the Confederate Dead" is regarded with respect, but not by me. No, the major Civil War literature has come, not from our imaginative writers but from historians and memoirists.

My own interests have developed over the course of more than 70 years as I have read and reread those memoirs and histories. I am always going back to Bruce Catton's volumes, which seem to me the best of the general histories because he is always alert to the significance of what he chronicles; he makes explicit the larger issues behind the battles and personalities. Too many histories are merely accounts of battles and maneuvers. Not that that isn't interesting in itself, just as the story of evolving tactics, logistics, and strategy is absorbing. For instance, my conception of Grant's military genius has grown greatly as I have studied and restudied his campaigns, just as I have come to see Lee's brilliance as largely irrelevant. (I can hear already my readers' protests, but they must possess their souls in patience: I'll discuss everything before I'm done.)

What stirred me to write this essay were some books by Brady MacWhiney: Braxton Bragg and Confederate Defeat, Cracker Culture, Confederate Crackers and Cavaliers, Southerners and Other Americans. Only the first two were conceived as books, the others are essay collections. He felt that Southern historians betrayed - what? their craft or their region? - when they seemed, in his eyes, to embrace what he thought of as the Northern version of Southern history. The ambiguity - craft or region? - is significant, and I'll discuss it in a minute, but one way of getting at it is to consider the history he writes. A convenient place to start is his essay on Jefferson Davis, which is very sympathetic, praising Davis for retaining his faith in secession until his death. I should think an historian sympathetic to the South would recognize that secession was a disaster for the region, an utterly stupid idea. Historians have often pointed out the material odds against the South in terms of population and resources, but few have pointed out what a lunatic idea it was in itself. Even if the Federal Government had done nothing, the Confederacy would not have lasted long: the world price of cotton was falling as new sources of supply were being developed, investors were not interested in agricultural speculation, and the Southerners had mixed feelings about resource and manufacturing development. Serious economic decline would have ensued, exacerbating the fissiparous tendencies in the Confederate States, defeating Davis's national project. Even under the pressure of war, state's rights were a growing problem for the Richmond government. Of course, historians have to explain the reasoning of the actors of the time, have to assess sympathetically their ideas and assumptions, but to express admiration for Davis's lifelong delusion seems to me a betrayal of the historian's role in favor of regional solidarity.

MacWhiney is guilty of a much greater lapse in Cracker Culture. Readers will recall my essay on D. H. Fisher's Albion's Seed, that sweeping historical synthesis that describes the four great waves of migration from the British Isles to the New World: Puritans, Cavaliers, Quakers, and the Borderers, Fisher's name for those from the English-Scottish borderlands and Ulster across the Irish Sea. These were the poor whites of the Southern backcountry, MacWhiney's Crackers, who he describes very well in chapters devoted to specific subjects, like Violence, Hospitality, and Pleasures, and so on. But his account lacks the breadth and precision of Fisher's. It is a big mistake, for instance, to assume that Crackers comprised the whole Southern populace when in fact Cavaliers, fostered by Governor Berkeley in Virginia in the 17th century, dominated the tidewater South. Thanks to his regional loyalties, MacWhiney winds up defending some of the worst aspects of Cracker culture. The chapter on education, for instance, accurately describes the absence of adequate schooling, the illiteracy and general indifference, if not hostility, to learning, but by the end of the chapter he implicitly excuses these conditions and attitudes:

Most Crackers seemed reasonably content with their place in this world. . . . Unburdened by a work ethic and unhurried by driving ambition, they treasured the ways of their forefathers and were satisfied to live out their lives innocent of different skills.

MacWhiney consistently sets up a caricature of a relentlessly workaholic joyless "Yankee" as the Cracker's opposite. It is fine for a Cracker to prefer the skills of the "hunter, fisher, fighter, and fiddler" to those of the "scribbler, reader, and figurer," but MacWhiney forgets that these roles are not mutually exclusive, and by saying so he is condemning Crackers to a life of ignorance of the wider world.

Negro slavery is never mentioned. Surely a chapter should have been devoted to the Cracker's complex attitudes toward the institution. Perhaps Cracker culture wouldn't have seemed so cheerfully lackadaisical then. I have focused on MacWhiney because he is obviously a good historian who is able to see things as they are - Cracker Culture is beautifully written and argued (I recommend it highly) - but even he cannot escape the fatal conceit that the South, despite all its flaws, was somehow superior to the materialistic North and was, by brute force, made its victim. MacWhiney conflates defense of the region with historical integrity.

I have been reconsidering another writer on the Civil War: Edmund Wilson, about whom I have written before, when I concentrated on his anti-American, pro-Communist views, mentioning them in the introduction to his book Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the Civil War, an embarrassing assertion of his belief that nations are no more than entities of power projection, animals like voracious sea slugs, but now I want to focus on the text itself, on the chapters about the memoirs of Grant and Sherman in particular (which I recommend highly). Wilson was not a historian, but instead of that making him cautious about his sources, it seems to have given him license to roam at will. So he repeats the long-discredited account by Sylvanus Cadwallader of Grant's drunken binges at various times during the Vicksburg campaign. A more serious lapse is his failure to understand the motivations of men like Grant and Sherman. He thinks they "were inspired by the political ideal which Walt Whitman and others called 'Unionism,'" a condescending way to put it, and he says specifically of Sherman:

. . . we feel that he is constantly sustained by a genuine indignation against the "disloyalty" of the rebels. . . .

(Wilson's scare quotes). It is not well understood that the "Unionism" of which Wilson speaks so slightingly was an almost mystical faith in the Union, especially fostered in the North before the Civil War by the westward movement; Northerners thought of the Union, Southerners thought of their region.

Wilson describes Sherman's March as a "Grand Guignol horror" ("a demon possesses him . . . to abuse and lay waste the Confederacy") and is appalled by Sherman's blunt remarks about the war (to the Atlanta mayor: "You cannot qualify the war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty and you cannot refine it"). Wilson sees it through the lens of his introduction, as an animal voracity, the aggression which he claims was manifest in post-bellum America, the Gilded Age, which Wilson all his life condemned as an orgy of materialism which, he claimed, thrust aside genteel Americans (like Wilson's forebears) in favor of "robber barons." Wilson does not see, as Sherman clearly did, that the delusions of the Southerners were so deeply ingrained that they had to be made to feel all the horrors of war directly in their lives, they had to see his army burning a path of destruction right through the vitals of the Confederacy before they would admit defeat. It is well to recall Mrs. Chesnut's Diary From Dixie in which, soon after Sumter, she vehemently declares that every Southerner, including women, will fight to the death, with broomsticks if necessary. Sherman's March takes Mrs. Chesnut at her word (Wilson discusses the Diary, but not this passage).

Wilson really has no interest in the military aspect of the War, and he completely misses Grant's strategic genius and the significance of the partnership of Grant and Sherman. Of course, Grant's memoir is, like the man, understated and undramatic, so to appreciate the story it tells one needs to be familiar with the course of the war and the behavior of other generals. Now we can see the pattern of Grant's generalship (the most discerning book about this is the five volume Lincoln Finds a General, by Kenneth Williams): after taking Fort Henry he quickly moved on Fort Donelson despite Halleck's caution. He thought of battles as part of a campaign, and he believed, as all great generals do, in his success (think of George Patton in World War II). His masterly Vicksburg campaign, in which he crossed the Mississippi with only five day's rations and ammunition wagons, showed his ability to fight dashing battles of maneuver until he had Pemberton besieged. Sherman was against it, but Grant believed, correctly, that he could live off the country, thus showing Sherman the way for his March the next year.

It was the war in Virginia that received the most attention, then and thereafter, for obvious reasons: both capitals were there, the clashes were frequent and dramatic, and General Lee commanded the scene with his brilliant tactical maneuvers and repeated defeats of the Army of the Potomac. Until 1864 the war in Virginia was fought as it had been from the beginning, a matter of thrust and parry, of sharply defined battles and rest periods. It's a wonderful war to read about. But the Civil War was really won in the West, and when its strategy was brought to bear in Virginia when Grant crossed the Rapidan in May 1864, Lee and his type of warfare was finished. Discrete battles became parts of a campaign, and when Lee was pinned behind Richmond's defenses, it was only a matter of time, as the grand strategy of the two Western generals was set on its relentless course: Grant held Lee in place while Sherman demonstrated the Confederacy's impotence by marching unimpeded through its heartland. Grant's relentlessness was shown at the very end: Meade intended to pursue Lee when he left Petersburg, but Grant insisted Sheridan go on to get ahead of Lee, which he did at Appomattox Station.

Well, I did not start out to re-fight the Civil War, but all the while I have been thinking of objectivity. I think MacWhiney was unconscious of his fault, and Wilson was in the grip of a fixed idea mixed up with his anti-Americanism. MacWhiney is worth reading and Wilson is not. The reason I got to discussing strategy is that I think the history of the war has been distorted by overemphasis on the Virginia battles. Lee had to be opposed, of course, and battles had to be fought, but when the Western idea of a campaign came East, Lee was doomed. Fascinating as Lee's tactics were (although no one seems to see that his orders to Pickett on July 3 were incredibly stupid), the real war was elsewhere, and objectivity would be fostered if we recognized that. *

Read 3685 times Last modified on Wednesday, 16 December 2015 17:02
Jigs Gardner

Jigs Gardner is an associate editor of the St. Croix Review.

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