Saturday’s Strawman Argument

I have a soft spot in my heart for the Civil War Page of the Washington Times which is published every Saturday. The late Woody West gave me my first writing opportunity back in 1997 and I took full advantage of it. I had no idea what I was doing; however I learned a great deal and West was a pleasure to work with. I still read from time to time. Today I was treated with a “review” from the individual who asks us to rethink our understanding of the concept of friendship to include slaveholders. If only we could be so lucky in our lives to have such friends.

Today Richard Williams reviewed two recent releases that he believes force us to acknowledge that “Southerners have endured two never-ending accusations that, despite their inaccuracy, have made those from the region feel inferior because of their moral implications.” The first title is Bud Hall’s Den of Misery: Indiana’s Civil War Prison (Pelican Press) and the second is Complicity: How the North Promoted, Prolonged, and Profited from the Slave Trade (Ballantine Books)

Williams doesn’t make any attempt to analyze the arguments contained in these studies. Rather he is content to frame his comments around a rather vague assumption: “However, with the recent release of two books, the truth finally is available to all who are willing to examine the facts objectively. What makes these two books so compelling is that they were written by Northerners.” It’s hard to know whether Williams is speaking for himself or the general public when it comes to describing these books as uncovering some kind of long-forgotten truth that has been suspended (one assumes) by those with nefarious interests.

In the case of the first title Williams seems completely oblivious to the historiography of Civil War prisons – both North and South. Perhaps he should be reminded of a few titles that explore in detail the conditions in Northern prisons. They include the edited collection Civil War Prisons (Kent State Press) by William B. Hesseltine. The essays go back to the 1950’s and Hesseltine’s own scholarship on the subject dates to the 1930’s. In addition there is Portals to Hell by Lonnie Speer and the newly-released book While in the Hands of the Enemy by Charles W. Sanders, Jr. (LSU Press). It is disingenuous to make claims about an entire area of historiography without any apparent understanding of the relevant literature. The problem is that further reading would detract from Williams’s initial claim that Southerners (and I assume he means white Southerners) have been the victims of a national lie.

Williams applies the same level of analysis to Complicity and seems to revel in the authors own conviction that they have discovered something new about the history of slavery in the North. He quotes the authors at length:

We have all grown up, attended schools, and worked in Northern states, from Maine to Maryland. We thought we knew our home. We thought we knew our country. We were wrong…. Slavery had long been identified in the national consciousness as a Southern institution. The time to bury that myth is overdue. Slavery is a story about America, all of America. Together, over the lives of millions of enslaved men and women, Northerners and Southerners shook hands and made a country.

These comments fit perfectly into the working assumptions of the reviewer and of course go unquestioned. There is little doubt that the general public assumes that slavery was specific to the South, but that does not in and of itself provide a sufficient reason to conclude that this is a subject that has gone unstudied. Williams emphasizes the book’s focus on New York City, but is he aware that one of the most comprehensive exhibits on the city’s connection to the “peculiar institution” recently opened at the New York Historical Society? There is even a wonderful companion book edited by Ira Berlin that includes a number of first-rate essays.

The final few sentences do not disappoint as the reviewers own prejudices shine forth: “Complicity is thoroughly researched, heavily footnoted and generously illustrated with dozens of photographs, drawing, maps, charts and documents. Unfortunately, the book has been largely ignored by many in academia and the mainstream media. But perhaps the rest of America will, like the authors, soon admit they were wrong about who should share the blame for slavery.” I assume that according to Williams the book has been ignored by academics because they wish to steer clear of the fact of Northern slavery. As I stand here typing this post I look to my left and notice at least four shelves of books about the history of slavery and race in the North. The books cover the colonial period through the twentieth century. All of them have been published in the last thirty years and most of them are authored by academic historians who teach in Northern schools.

A note to reviewers: Take the time to analyze the content of the book’s argument and refrain as much as possible from using the review to further your own agenda – especially if you are not familiar with the relevant historiography.

CraterThanks for reading this post. Scroll down, leave a comment and join the conversation if you are so inclined. Follow me on Twitter and join the Civil War Memory Facebook group for continuous updates and additional links to newsworthy items from around the interwebs. Stay up to date by subscribing to this blog’s feed. You can also check out my recently published book, Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder.

7 comments… add one

  • matthew mckeon Feb 24, 2007

    The spreading of the stain of slavery beyond the South is part of general “neo-confederate” effort to deemphasize slavery as a cause of the war.

    Which is too bad, unlike the phantom legions of black confederate soldiers, popular books like “Hanging Captain Gordon” contain actual and significant information of how the illegal slave trade worked in antebellum New York.

  • Charles Bowery Feb 24, 2007

    Kevin,
    Great observations. I’m interested to learn that the WT runs a weekly Civil War page.

  • Cash Feb 24, 2007

    Kevin,

    What do you expect from the guy who says Stonewall Jackson was “The Black Man’s Friend?”

    Your comments are spot on. I have a number of books myself that talk about prison camps in the North and about slavery in the North, as well as Northern particiption in the slave trade. Mr. Williams’ main concern seems to be to raise southerners’ self-esteem–or maybe his own, since most of the southerners I know don’t dwell on the things Mr. Williams claims make southerners feel bad about themselves.

    By the way, after reading your comment about contributing to the WT Civil War Page I checked my files, and lo and behold I have a review you wrote of James McPherson’s _For Cause and Comrades_ published on 29 Mar 97. :)

    Regards,
    Cash

  • Kevin Levin Feb 25, 2007

    Cash, — I think you are right in couching this in emotional terms. The sad thing is that all Williams has to do is read a little and he would see that his comments border the irrational. I absolutely love his final jab at academia, but again these are the very same people who have written extensively about slavery in the North. When will the insanity end?

    Wow…I thought I was the only one with a copy of that review. I cringe at the thought of someone actually reading it. :)

  • Cash Feb 25, 2007

    Kevin,

    Fear not. I already have the book, so I don’t need to read the review anymore. :)

    Something else I noticed in Mr. Williams’ review is that he claimed, “Mr. Hall’s book is the first detailed history of Camp Morton.” I have on my bookshelf now, _Camp Morton, 1861-1865: Indianapolis Prison Camp,_ by Hattie Lou Winslow and Joseph R. H. Moore, a publication of the Indiana Historical Society, first published in 1940 and reissued in 1995.

    Regards,
    Cash

  • Jim Hall Feb 28, 2007

    Hello much-esteemed history teacher et al,

    Hey, thanks for the mention of my book (Den of Misery: Indiana’s Civil War Prison) on your website.
    But I would like to clarify that my name is James (Jim) Hall, not Bud Hall (smile).

    I wrote the book from the standpoint simply of a professional journalist looking for facts and wanting to document them – not from the standpoint of an analyst of the complicated history of the Civil War era.

    But hey, you won’t know that until you get your OWN copy of Den of Misery off of Amazon.com or epelican.com, etc. I still have a kid at home that I need to send to college (smile).

    P.S. Mr. Williams is one of the nicest guys you’d ever want to meet and a very intelligent man.

    Best wishes, Jim Hall

  • Kevin Levin Feb 28, 2007

    Jim, — Thanks for the comment and sorry about name. I assure you that my comments have nothing to do with your book. My focus was on the review of your book and the way Mr. Williams couched his “analysis.” While I assume you are pleased that he chose to review your book he failed to say anything constructive about it, rather he simply used it as an opportunity to push a personal agenda that has little support in the historiography.

    I have no reason to doubt that Mr. Williams “is one of the nicest guys” and “a very intelligent man.” To be honest I could care less as to whether this is the case.

    Thanks again for writing and good luck with the book.

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