Why Charles Dew’s Secessionist Commissioners Matter 150 Years Later

My abbreviated course on the Civil War has hit the ground running in the last two weeks. This time around I am using Louis Masur’s brief history of the war and Reconstruction and so far it is working out well. I tend to look for a concise narrative that I can supplement in various ways. For their first supplemental reading I had students read an essay by Charles Dew based on his book, Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War.

It’s an ideal reading for high school students. The argument is concise, easy to follow, and the subject matter couldn’t be more conducive to a seminar discussion. And we did, indeed, have a dynamite discussion earlier today. Students thought that Dew’s commissioners helped to answer an important question regarding why the Deep South states interpreted Lincoln’s election as an immediate threat. At the same time they struggled with the content of their speeches and editorials. As they discussed the article further I realized that the difficulty has to do with how history students tend to think about the institution of slavery. They think about it primarily in abstract terms with an understanding that life could be incredibly violent and sad. Few survey classes have the time to dig into the complexity of the master-slave relationship or examine the day-to-day lives of slaves. What they miss, unfortunately, is the extent to which slavery was intertwined with assumptions concerning race. Continue reading “Why Charles Dew’s Secessionist Commissioners Matter 150 Years Later”

“Forever Scarred By Their Service”?

In re-reading a section of Anne Rubin’s new book about Sherman’s March I came across a couple of paragraphs that touch on some of the concerns that I’ve expressed about the extent to which we have applied the lessons of recent wars to Civil War veterans. Rubin hones in on the dangers of doing so in regard to how Union veterans remembered the march and their interactions with Southern civilians.

Nor did they use memoirs or fiction to pour out their hearts and souls, expressing shock or trauma at what they saw or did. Today we are accustomed to stock war stories with their mix of crusty old generals, fresh-faced young recruits, and eventually the traumatized veteran, forever haunted by the things he saw and did… Recently, we’ve seen the twenty-first century version, with a host of new memoir s of Gulf War service. In April 2008, a Rand Corporation study announced that one in five service members who served in Iraq or Afghanistan reports symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder or major depression. We think that soldiers are forever scarred by their service, especially when they are asked to make war on civilians.

But what of their nineteenth-century counterparts? Analogies have often been made, albeit imperfectly, between the Vietnam War and Sherman’s March. James Reston’s 1986 work, Sherman’s March and Vietnam makes the connection most explicitly, arguing that Sherman was the metaphorical father of destructiveness and that connections can be drawn between the soldiers of the 1860s and 1960s. In Reston’s words, “the wanton violence of Sherman’s bummer and Westmoreland’s grunt differs as looting differs from killing, but neither time nor morals are static. Stealing the jewels from a peasant’s hooch in Vietnam would be precious little crime today. The patterns of behavior in both armies were encouraged by the official policy and extended the rules of permissible conflict in the same degree.” So, if Vietnam (and now Gulf and Afghanistan) veterans have been troubled by their service, and indeed, the vast majority of their writings seems to indicate that they were, one might be able to assume that Sherman’s veterans felt a similar sort of, if not remorse, at least discomfort. (p. 97)

According to Rubin, however, they did not. Perhaps as the author suggests these veterans remembered in a “celebratory fashion” because they were convinced that they had won the war. Of course, the same individual could just as easily exhibit symptoms of what we now call PTSD or struggle in any number of ways readjusting to life as a civilian. Again, my interest here is not in discounting recent attempts to apply the lessons learned in recent wars, but rather in remaining attentive to how we apply them.

A Few Thoughts About Brian Matthew Jordan’s Marching Home

It is difficult to deny the influence that the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have had on recent scholarship about Civil War veterans and the broader genre of studies that now fall under the heading, “dark history.” In the preface to his new book, Marching Home: Union Veterans and Their Unending Civil War, Brian Matthew Jordan makes this connection explicit:

But even today, as soldiers return home from new and more  complex wars farther away and more difficult to imagine, we still have trouble seeing the pathos of American veteranhood. More than 26,000 veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan dwell in homeless shelters; thousands suffering from posttraumatic stress and traumatic brain injuries have yielded to drugs and alcohol; divorce and suicide rates among recent veterans have reached record highs; and bureaucratic delays have kept some veterans waiting impatiently for promised benefits. These veterans, too, are fighting an unending war. And like their forebear in blue, they will ensure that debates over the meaning of war will be long, difficult, and complex.

Indeed, this short list of postwar maladies and challenges frames Jordan’s beautifully written and accessible book. [I started reading last night and finished late today.] Continue reading “A Few Thoughts About Brian Matthew Jordan’s Marching Home”

New to the Civil War Memory Library, 12/29

Marching HomeI decided this year to discontinue my “Best of…” lists. Simply put, I read a lot of really good Civil War history and I am finding it difficult to single out specific books. Here are some late arrivals to my library in 2014.

Don H. Doyle, The Cause of All Nations: An International History of the American Civil War, (Basic, 2014).

Brian Matthew Jordan, Marching Home: Union Veterans and Their Unending Civil War, (Liveright, 2015).

Brian McGinty, Lincoln’s Greatest Case: The River, the Bridge, and the Making of America, (Liveright, 2015).

Barton Myers, Rebels against the Confederacy: North Carolina’s Unionists, (Cambridge University Press, 2014).

What Union Meant Abroad

I arrived home today to find a review copy of Don H. Doyle’s new book, The Cause of All Nations: An International History of the American Civil War, waiting for me. As I was perusing the introduction I came across this passage, which I thought was appropriate for sharing given the last post and the conversation in the comments section.

“America is not only America, one place or one race more on the map, it is yet and especially the model school of liberty. If against all possibility it had perished, with it would fall a great experiment.” — Eugene Pelletan


Some readers may feel such unqualified admiration of America was undeserved. the Union, everyone knows, had been painfully slow to embrace emancipation, and America’s deeply ingrained racial prejudice would long outlast slavery. These were only some of the egregious flaws in the nation foreign admirers hailed as the Great Republic.

Yet we miss something vitally important if we view Pelletan and other foreigners who saw America as the vanguard of hope as naive or misguided. Foreign admirers typically regarded the United States not as some exceptional city upon a hill, but as exactly the opposite: an imperfect but viable model of society based on universal principles of natural rights and theories of government that originated in Europe but had thus far failed to succeed there. In the 1860s they were horrified to see government of the people seriously imperiled in the one place it had achieved its most enduring success. Abraham Lincoln was hardly boasting when he referred to America as the “last best hope of earth.” His was a forlorn plea to defend America’s–and the world’s–experiment in popular government. (pp. 10-11)

This looks to be a good one.