Thomas Fleming Plays Civil War Historian

What happens when you bring a radio talk show host, who hasn’t thought about the Civil War since High School and a historian, who has been studying it for five years?  What is truly miraculous is that in the process Thomas Fleming was able to produce “A New Understanding of Why We Fought the Civil War.”  I lost count of the numerous factual mistakes and exaggerations made by Fleming.  Truly horrific, but given Fleming’s popularity I have no doubt that the book will fly off the shelves.  This new understanding basically comes down to the observation that the North and South really didn’t like one another.

27 thoughts on “Thomas Fleming Plays Civil War Historian

  1. Barb Gannon

    What I read made it sound like the “hot heads on both sides” were the problem. Nothing new there. It’s an old interpretation.

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    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      I picked up on his little nod to the Irrepressible Conflict or Blundering Generation School as well, but I loved his reference to 1 million + deaths in the Civil War.

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      1. Michael Guyton

        Your biased opinions on this subject scream Boston Yankee mentality.
        Please explain what you enjoyed about a reference to 1 million + deaths. Are you disputing the number or are you just thrilled by mass death? The latest studies contend the military casualties alone top 750,000 men. I’d love to hear your estimates as to the number of civilian casualties directly and indirectly related to Godless Abe’s war.

        Reply
  2. Brendan Bossard

    It seems to me that it would be very difficult to cover new ground on this topic. Is there any good recent scholarship out there that you would recommend reading?

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    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Have you read Stephanie McCurry’s Confederate Reckoning or Glenn David Brasher’s The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation?

      Reply
  3. Eric Welch

    Hi Kevin:

    I’ve usually enjoyed Fleming’s writings, so I was intrigued by your picking up on his numerous factual errors. Could you give us several examples, and comment on whether this carelessness is typical of his other works as well? Thanks.

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    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      The overarching factual error is the claim that anything presented in the interview points to something new.

      Reply
  4. Brad

    Double yes on the reading recommendations.

    I saw the book in the local bookstore but unless I see that an author has some particular qualifications in the field, other than “I want to write a book about the Civil War.” I tend to avoid them.

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    1. SF Walker

      Brad–overall, I agree with you that qualifications are a must for a good Civil War author. I think Bruce Catton was a notable exception. Despite having no training as an historian, he wrote some quality works on the War. While they are dated now and contain some information which has been disproved or questioned, overall Catton’s books were pretty good; he had a good overall understanding of the war and its causes–and they were written in a way that was attractive to the general reader, which is important. Who knows how many future historians were inspired by Catton’s works?

      But yes, most works by untrained historians fall short.

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  5. Jimmy Dick

    The good news is that based upon one of the Amazon reviews the Heritage Instead of History crowd isn’t going to like the book. Tom is over on the Journal of the American Revolution site quite often and his articles there are quite good.

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    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      They may not like, but I am sure you would agree that this alone wouldn’t determine the overall quality of a book.

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  6. Jimmy Dick

    As you can see in this review, the book is getting traction. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324695104578414780262471960.html
    I haven’t read the book, but from the article alone it seems like an emphasis was placed on abolitionists. The facts are that the abolitionists were a small minority and had no political power. The claim that only 6% of southerners owned slaves is one that simply reinforces an erroneous and highly misleading lack of understanding how slavery was deeply embedded in families and kinships.
    This just isn’t addressing what you and others have been putting forth on the blogs and in books and articles over the last couple of years. If anything this feels like a book from the 1980s or earlier.

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  7. Diane Levero

    I picked up two errors in “A Disease in the Public Mind,” one of them inexcusable. First, Fleming, discussing Robert E. Lee’s agonizing over the possibility of secession and war (page 255), states that Lee “had no doubt whatsoever that secession was treason. The Constitution had declared the union ‘perpetual’ in its preamble.” The Constitution states no such thing, in the preamble or anywhere else, for that matter. Fleming may have been thinking of the Articles of Confederation, predecessor of the Constitution, which states that “the union shall be perpetual.” Three states: New York, Virginia and Rhode Island, declared in their ordinances of ratification of the Constitution that, being sovereign states, they reserved the right to secede. Fleming’s appalling error distorts Lee’s mindset and character. It also distorts some fundamental questions: Did the Southern states have the constitutional right to secede? And, was secession treason? I think the answers are, respectively, yes, and no.

    The second error seems to have been a result of carelessness, laziness, or a preset state of mind on the part of Fleming. Writing on the April 19, 1861, riot in Baltimore when a mob attacked the Massachusetts Sixth Regiment marching through the city, he states (page 275) that “Baltimore’s police chief made no attempt to control the gathering crowd.” He offers no authority for this assertion. Let me offer a few: J. Thomas Scharf, in his book, “History of Baltimore City and County, Maryland (1881), reports in minute detail the extensive efforts of the police chief, George P. Kane, to protect the soldiers and prevent violence against them. In his book, “Baltimore and the 19th of April, 1861″ (1887), George W. Brown, mayor of Baltimore and eyewitness of the riot, stated that at one point, Kane and his officers “came at a run from the Camden Street Station, and throwing themselves in the rear of the troops, they formed a line in front of the mob, and with drawn revolvers kept it back.” Kane shouted, “Keep back, men, or I shoot!” Reported Brown, “The mob recoiled like water from a rock.”
    Finally, John H. Dike, a captain in the Massachusetts Sixth during the riot, wrote on April 26, 1861 (printed in the Boston Courier), “It is but an act of justice that induces me to say…that the mayor and city authorities should be exonerated from blame of censure, as they did all in their power…to quell the riot.”
    I am from Baltimore and an avid student of its history, so I know a great deal about the Baltimore riot. But I can only imagine how many other careless mistakes or outright falsehoods or distortion of the facts Fleming may have included in this book.

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    1. Jimmy Dick

      No state reserved the right to secede whatsoever. Had they done so they would not have joined the Union. This is a common misperception on the part of those who wish to advocate slavery. NO state reserved any right not given to them under the Constitution. NOT a single right. They adopted the Constitution as it was.

      WE the Delegates of the people of Virginia, duly elected in pursuance of a recommendation from the General Assembly, and now met in Convention, having fully and freely investigated and discussed the proceedings of the Federal Convention, and being prepared as well as the most mature deliberation hath enabled us, to decide thereon, DO in the name and in behalf of the people of Virginia, declare and make known that the powers granted under the Constitution, being derived from the people of the United States may be resumed by them whensoever the same shall be perverted to their injury or oppression, and that every power not granted thereby remains with them and at their will: that therefore no right of any denomination, can be cancelled, abridged, restrained or modified, by the Congress, by the Senate or House of Representatives acting in any capacity, by the President or any department or officer of the United States, except in those instances in which power is given by the Constitution for those purposes: and that among other essential rights, the liberty of conscience and of the press cannot be cancelled, abridged, restrained or modified by any authority of the United States.

      The above is the first paragraph of Virginia’s ratification. Where so many want to say secession was allowed is where the problem begins. The federal government would have to be violating the Constitution against the people of Virginia which was definitely not happening. The US government was in no way whatsoever violating the US Constitution. Therefore those advocating secession were defying the people that ratified the US Constitution.
      Secession was and still is unconstitutional. It is still treason in many people’s eyes, but no one has been convicted of treason for advocating secession. That doesn’t change the fact that secession is still unconstitutional.

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      1. Diane Levero

        Jimmy Dick asserts, “No state reserved the right to secede whatsoever. Had they done so, they would not have joined the Union. This is a common misperception on the part of those who wish to advocate slavery. NO state reserved any right not given to them under the Constitution. NOT a single right. They adopted the Constitution as it was.”

        First of all, the Constitution did NOT GIVE any rights to the states! The sovereign states themselves created and ratified the Constitution, and in doing so, DELEGATED certain specific and named powers to the federal government. As the 10th Amendment states so clearly and eloquently, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.”

        Jimmy helpfully quotes from Virginia’s ratification, which states, in part, “the powers granted under the Constitution, being derived from the people of the United States, may be resumed by them whensoever the same shall be perverted to their injury or oppression.”

        We all know that Virginia first voted against secession, and only voted to secede after Lincoln called for 75,000 troops from the states to “suppress the rebellion” in the seceded states. Virginia considered forcing Virginians to kill citizens in sister states to be “oppression” and thus a valid reason to secede, and did so.

        Jimmy says that those that support the right to secede are motivated by “a wish to advocate slavery.” My support comes from the fact that once we lost the right to secede through brute force and the killing of 600,000 Americans, the power of the federal government no longer had any meaningful restraints upon it, and the Constitution continues to be violated until it is almost meaningless.

        I recommend Economics Professor Tom DiLorenzo’s book, “The Real Lincoln,” for a thorough explanation of this concept.

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        1. Kevin Levin Post author

          If I remember correctly, the Constitution begins with, “We the People…”

          I recommend Economics Professor Tom DiLorenzo’s book, “The Real Lincoln,” for a thorough explanation of this concept.

          Of course you do. :-)

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          1. Jimmy Dick

            Well, no point in carrying on that conversation. Anyone who advocates DiLorenzo and his thoroughly ridiculed concepts is just ignoring actual historians in order to belief in the Lost Cause myth. They’re not worth my time.

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            1. Diane Levero

              Whoops, my mistake. I thought this might be a blog that was open to differing opinions. Obviously, I was wrong. For the record, I am not a Southerner. My antecedents were from the North (Illinois and Pennsylvania). My great-grandfather died of typhoid fever while serving in the Union Army in Petersburg. In high school and college, I was taught and took for granted that the Civil War was about slavery, and that Southerners were “the bad guys.” Only after extensive reading about the causes of the war (which did not begin with DiLorenzo, but with many other writers first) did I come to the conclusion that the Southern states had the right to secede. Sorry I bothered you guys.

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              1. Kevin Levin Post author

                DiLorenzo has come up on this site numerous times and it is typically in the form of the argument you outlined in your previous comment. There is a incredibly rich literature on the Constitution and the right of secession, but DiLorenzo’s book – who is not a historian or constitutional scholar – is not among them.

                BTW, I never said anything about your regional affiliation and neither did Jimmy.

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                1. Diane Levero

                  No, you didn’t. By bringing it up, I was trying to make clear that my opinions were not coming from any ingrained bias, but from thoughtful perusal of the subject. As for DiLorenzo, yes, he’s an economics professor. I think almost all wars have one sort of economic basis or another, and he makes a good case that the Civil War was no different. Lincoln stated in his first Inaugural Address that he had no wish to interfere with slavery, but that he WOULD use force to regain the federal forts (and by implication, the power to collect tariffs).

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                  1. Kevin Levin Post author

                    I highly recommend starting with James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom. It’s still the best overall survey of the Civil War era and he devotes a good deal to the secession crisis. If you are feeling more ambitious you might want to check out volume 2 of William Freehling’s Road to Disunion.

                    DiLorenzo just doesn’t have a very good grasp of the relevant primary sources and his grasp of the relevant secondary literature is even worse. In short, he is not a very good historian. I would go further, but like I said, he comes up on this blog all the time and I just don’t have the time to go through it all again. Thanks.

                    Reply

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