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
Q: In the spring of 1862, the Confederacy enacted the first
draft in American history. Planters had an easy time getting out of it,
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
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.