Why is This Book Getting So Much Attention?

I read David Williams’s previous book on the internal class strife within the Confederacy that he believes resulted in its defeat.  For the life of me I can’t understand why his most recent book is getting so much attention in the press.  I am quite sure that there is a system which can be manipulated by publishers, and I am quite sure that I don’t understand it.   One of the online news items that I came across on Williams’s new book, Bitterly Divided: The South’s Inner Civil War, includes an interesting interview.  But first the book jacket description:

The American Confederacy, historian David Williams reveals, was in fact fighting two civil wars—an external one that we hear so much about and an internal one about which there is scant literature and virtually no public awareness.

From the Confederacy’s very beginnings, Williams shows, white southerners were as likely to have opposed secession as supported it, and they undermined the Confederate war effort at nearly every turn. The draft law was nearly impossible to enforce, women defied Confederate authorities by staging food riots, and most of the time two-thirds of the Confederate army was absent with or without leave. In just one of many telling examples in this rich and eye-opening narrative history, Williams shows that, if the nearly half-million southerners who served in the Union military had been with the Confederates, the opposing forces would have been evenly matched.

Shattering the myth of wartime southern unity, this riveting new analysis takes on the enduring power of the Confederacy’s image and reveals it to be,
like the Confederacy itself, a hollow shell.

Of course, the publisher has to spice up the book a bit, but I have little doubt that Williams believes what is  included in the description given the focus of his previous book, which was written for a series edited by Howard Zinn.  That is no doubt your first sign of trouble.  At some point, however, we come to a point where it no longer makes sense to be so blatantly dishonest about a book’s significance.  There is nothing really new about Williams’s view as one can find it in Ella Lonn’s study of desertion,
which was published in 1928 and I am sure there are even earlier
studies that push what scholars have dubbed the “internalist”
explanation for Confederate defeat.  More recently, historians such as Paul Escott, William Freehling, Armistead Robinson, and the authors of Why the South Lost the Civil War have all emphasized internal problems as a salient factor in our understanding of Confederate defeat.   The interview with Williams offers some very strange exchanges:

Q: You say the war didn’t start at Fort Sumter.

A: The shooting war over secession started in the South
between Southerners. There were incidents in several states. Weeks
before Fort Sumter, seven Unionists were lynched in Tallahatchie
County, Miss.

Q: In the spring of 1862, the Confederacy enacted the first
draft in American history. Planters had an easy time getting out of it,
didn’t they?

A: Very easy. If they owned 20 or more slaves, they were
pretty much excused from the draft. Some of them paid off draft
officials. Early in the war, they could pay the Confederate government
$500 and get out of the draft.

Q: You use the phrase “rich man’s war, poor man’s fight” several times. Does this history anger you?

A: I don’t think it would be unfair to say that. It seems
like the common folk were very much ignored and used by the planter
elite. As a result, over half a million Americans died.  My great-great-grandfather was almost one: John Joseph Kirkland. He
was a poor farmer in Early County, no slaves. He was 33, just under
draft age, and had five children at home. He went ahead and enlisted so
he could get a $50 bonus. A year later, he lost a leg at the Battle of
Chancellorsville.

I would have very little problem with such an exchange even twenty years ago, but given the flood of recent scholarship which has challenged the very idea of a “rich man’s war, poor man’s fight” it is simply irresponsible to proceed as if it doesn’t exist.  Consider Joe Glatthaar’s recent massive study of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.  He actually argues that slaveholders were overrepresented in Confederate armies.  Beyond Glatthaar one can look at studies by Gary Gallagher, William Blair, Aaron Sheehan-Dean, Peter Carmichael, Jason Phillips, and George Rable.  And the list goes on and on.

This is not to deny that the focus on internal conflict is not important.  It is essential for a complete understanding of the Confederate experience and for our own view of the war, which tend to simplify the Southern experience down to a unified pro-Confederate stance without any sense of space and time.

On a personal note, I always thought the Yankee army had something to do with Confederate defeat after four long years of successful resistance.

6 thoughts on “Why is This Book Getting So Much Attention?

  1. Robert Moore

    Hi Kevin,

    Good points. Yet, maybe the book is significant as it is yet another counter to the neo-Confederate arguments. Sort of like the need for sustained or repeated bombardments to break through a line (or some might simply refer to it as the need to go through the “rinse and repeat cycle” a couple of times). Mentioning it once doesn’t mean that everybody is listening… the argument has to be repeated. In fact, this may be good as we are forced to take another look at previous arguments made about the same topics. I’ll admit, I don’t have a copy of the book yet, but I wonder if the interview doesn’t do the book justice. Are there new points made by Williams that are not represented in the interview or does Williams look at the old (and not so old) arguments again, but from a different angle?

    Reply
  2. Anonymous

    Hi Kevin,

    I tend to agree with you that Williams’ arguments are nothing new, but I would point out that some of the other studies you cited: Rable’s, Gallagher’s and Dean’s most notably, I think tend to rely too much on the Confederates’ own rhetoric and on wide-reaching considerations of what it meant to be an enlisted soldier. Rable cites mostly newspaper editorials and a lot of political hyperbole (from Joe Brown and others) to claim that Confederate political culture was Anti-Party. But this kind of argument tends to brush over the fact that there was a deeply partisan South before the Confederacy right up to secession, and one could just as easily argue that the simple trials of wartime, plus the theoretical elimination of slavery as a political argument, explains the “lack” of partisanship within the Confederacy. Rable also too easily brushes over the fact that much of the internal squabbling was between old Whigs and Democrats of all stripes.

    As far as the Gallagher and Dean books: they both rely on broad definitions of Confederate enlistments. For example, when Gallagher claims that some 80% of Confederates fought for the Army of Northern Virginia, he doesn’t deliniate between revolving service; those men who at one time or another were in the army. Plenty of men were in the army at some point and then deserted, but if you include all those numbers at once as evidence of die-hard military support, then yes, some 80% did technically serve. The danger of this approach is that someone like Newt Knight, the anti-Confederate raider in Mississippi, did serve in the army for about a year before he deserted and waged guerilla war against the Confederate calvary in Jones County, Miss. But you could also say that he “served” in the army. Dean’s book takes much the same approach as Gallagher’s, and both books, I think, rely too heavily on Confederate gusto in the form of speeches declaring support, even as the end was near, for the Confederacy. Both books are somewhat slim on actual data beyond editorial rhetoric. Both books also talk little about the Western Confederate armies; one of the dangers of focusing on the Army of Northern Virginia is that, because they won a lot, they seemed to always have higher morale.

    I am not bashing these books or the authors, I’m just pointing out some of their limitations that I’ve found while reading them for my classes. In addition, the more I look into secession politics the more I am convinced that partyism and division not only survived but thrived after the Confederacy’s formation, but there remains much research to be done on this subject. William C. Davis’ “Look Away” is particularly good at examining these issues. Thanks,

    - Jarret

    Reply
  3. Kevin Levin

    Jarrett, — Thanks for the comment. No doubt there is room to disagree re: the titles mentioned, but it seems to me that these books at least engage those other arguments in a way in which Williams does not (at least his previous book on the subject). I’ve been particularly impressed with the increase in county/regional studies that have appeared in recent years and it seems to me many of their conclusions hold more weight given the focus as opposed to picking and choosing from across the Confederate South to buttress claims about nationalism or the lack thereof.

    Reply
  4. Jarret

    I completely agree with you on the regional studies. In fact, I think the whole “nationalism” thing has run its course. I mean, how exactly do you, as a historian, find out someone’s identity? I think the future course should be to look at different states and see how the war changed political options and opened up new opportunities for dissent among southerners. I suspect that pre-war politics remained strong, especially since in so many states many people simply didn’t vote on secession or were intimidated against doing so. Of course, as you said, the Union army did play a role as well…

    - Jarret

    Reply
  5. Larry Cebula

    It is interesting how some academic books get a lot of play for no discernible reason. While other books–some of them innovative, deeply researched, and beautifully written–go unnoticed.

    But I’m not bitter.

    Reply
  6. Lee White

    I have not read Williams’ new title, but from the reviews it seems that he is just taking what he has done before on a more local level and expanding it to the entire Confederacy.

    Lee

    Reply

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