Sherman Book Apparently “Selling Big”

It's nice to see a thick Civil War book like Noah A. Trudeau's Southern Storm: Sherman's March to the Sea, sitting pretty at #20 on the NYT's Hardcover Bestseller List.    While I did receive an advanced copy I have not yet read it, and to be honest, I have no idea if I will ever get around to reading it.  I've already read Joseph Glatthaar's wonderful study of the soldier experience along with Mark Grimsley's analysis of the campaign as part of a broader story of U.S. military policy in the South.  Perhaps I would be more interested if Trudeau's thesis challenged what has become accepted by scholars, which is that Sherman's march was not the apocalyptic event that Lost Cause-inspired white Southerners would have us believe.  Yes, it was destructive, but it can also be defined by restraint and worked to carry out a specific objective to bring the war to a speedy conclusion.  Much of the whining simply fails to convey anything of historical value to the subject, and as John Marszalek is fond of noting, many stories of families caught in the middle of Sherman's "hordes" didn't live anywhere near the avenues of march.

From the reviews I've read [see here, here, and here] it looks like the book will force Civil War enthusiasts to rethink some of their assumptions about the nature of "hard war" and the salient characteristics of Sherman's March.  That's always a good thing.

It’s Always a Good Day When a New Book by Earl J. Hess is Released

A number of other bloggers have already announced the release of his new book, The Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat: Reality and Myth (University of Kansas Press, 2008), but when we are talking about Earl Hess my rule is the more talk the better.  Hess is quite simply one of my favorite historians.  I can best express my enthusiasm by admitting that when a new book of his is released everything else takes a side seat.  I’ve read just about all of his books, my favorites including Lee’s Tar Heels: The Pettigrew-Kirkland-MacRae Brigade and Liberty, Virtue, and Progress: Northerners and Their War for the Union.  Hess has tackled a broad range of topics within the sphere of military history, and readers can always count on a well written and analytically-driven interpretation that inevitably leads to a reassessment of basic assumptions concerning the subject at hand.  In that sense, both the scope and quality of his work remind me of George Rable’s scholarship.

I’ve never met Professor Hess, though I did spend a few weeks in the summer of 2003 mining the Richmond archives for sources that will be used in his final volume of field fortifications during the Petersburg Campaign.  Much of that source material became the foundation for my own work on the battle of the Crater.  By the way, Hess is finishing up (and may even be finished) with a book-length manuscript on the Crater.  [If I am not mistaken, UNC Press is going to publish it.]  We haven’t seen a decent book-length account of this battle since Cavanaugh and Marvel’s study, which was published back in 1989.

The Most Important Primary Source on Secession

My students thoroughly enjoyed reading and discussing the article by Charles Dew along with the letter by Stephen Hale who served as a secessionist commissioner to Kentucky.  Students picked up on a number of points about secession between the Dew article and another piece by James McPherson, which takes a much broader view of the events leading to Lincoln’s election.  One of the things McPherson does is briefly survey how others have answered the question of what caused secession, including those subscribing to the Lost Cause view as well as the Progressive and Revisionist schools of thought.  My students were particularly interested in the Lost Cause view and seemed to understand the need for those like Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens to distance their cause from race and slavery following the end of the war.  The long-term influence of the Lost Cause could easily be identified as we read through Dew’s own brief autobiography in which he admits to growing up in Florida with a glorified view of the cause only to be confronted with a less than pleasant picture through careful study.

Our close analysis of the Stephen Hale letter led to a very engaging and spirited class discussion.  Actually, once I introduced a few questions at the beginning of the class I said very little and instead allowed the students to engage one another.  They commented on the close linking between the states rights argument and the strong desire to preserve slavery.  In other words, they can now answer the question that McPherson posed in his article, which is, “States rights for what?”  Some of the students struggled with the strong racial references and at times questioned whether this apocalyptic vision that Hale was suggesting was a function of real fear or hyperbole.  They also discussed the importance of linking together slave and non-slaveowners:

Who can look upon such a picture without a shudder? What Southern man, be he slave-holder or non-slave-holder, can without indignation and horror contemplate the triumph of negro equality, and see his own sons and daughters, in the not distant future, associating with free negroes upon terms of political and social equality, and the white man stripped, by the Heaven-daring hand of fanaticism of that title to superiority over the black race which God himself has bestowed? In the Northern States, where free negroes are so few as to form no appreciable part of the community, in spite of all the legislation for their protection, they still remain a degraded caste, excluded by the ban of society from social association with all but the lowest and most degraded of the white race. But in the South, where in many places the African race largely predominates, and, as a consequence, the two races would be continually pressing together, amalgamation, or the extermination of the one or the other, would be inevitable. Can Southern men submit to such degradation and ruin? God forbid that they should.

By far the most difficult parts to consider were where references to God and Christianity were used as justification for the preservation of slavery:

But, it is said, there are many Constitutional, conservative men at the North, who sympathize with and battle for us. That is true; but they are utterly powerless, as the late Presidential election unequivocally shows, to breast the tide of fanaticism that threatens to roll over and crush us. With them it is a question of principle, and we award to them all honor for their loyalty to the Constitution of our Fathers. But their defeat is not their ruin. With us it is a question of self-preservation– our lives, our property, the safety of our homes and our hearthstones– all that men hold dear on earth, is involved in the issue. If we triumph, vindicate our rights and maintain our institutions, a bright and joyous future lies beforeus. We can clothe the world with our staple, give wings to her commerce, and supply with bread the starving operative in other lands, and at the same time preserve an institution that has done more to civilize and Christianize the heathen than all human agencies beside– an institution alike beneficial to both races, ameliorating the moral, physical and intellectual condition of the one, and giving wealth and happiness to the other.  If we fail, the light of our civilization goes down in blood, our wives and our little ones will be driven from their homes by the light of our own dwellings. The dark pall of barbarism must soon gather over our sunny land, and the scenes of West India emancipation, with its attendant horrors and crimes (that monument of British fanaticism and folly), be re-enacted in our own land upon a more gigantic scale.

One of my students noted that the Hale letter makes it is much easier to see why Lost Cause writers chose to ignore the role that slavery played in the decision to secede.  I find that my students do one of two things when grappling with difficult passages such as this.  Either they dismiss the writer as a “moral monster” or question whether the author could have believed such a thing at all.  In the case of both positions I tell my students that there job is not to judge, but to understand; no doubt this takes time and a willingness to consider the perspectives of those with whom we seem to have little in common with, but it is a crucial step in introducing basic historical skills.  What needs to be carefully considered is not that they believed this, but how white southerners came to subscribe to this particular view of their religion or how Christian doctrine come to be used to prop up the institution of slavery and white supremacy?  It is also important to remind students that the analysis of primary sources is not about them.  Moral judgments about the past have their place, but in the hands of students who are being introduced to various topics the net effect is a distancing rather than an intellectual embracing of the historical subject.

Charles Dew contends that the speeches of the secessionist commissioners are the most helpful and insightful sources in trying to better understand what drove whites in the Deep South out of the Union following Lincoln’s election.  At one point he suggests that the speech by Stephen Hale belongs in every classroom and I have to agree with this assessment.

The complete letter by Stephen Hale can be found here.

“It is Well that War is so Terrible…”

001confSince my trip to Fredericksburg last week I’ve been thinking about the words Robert E. Lee supposedly uttered to James Longstreet during the battle on Telegraph Hill.  If you look up the quote Online you will get any number of versions.  Here are just a few:

1. It is well that war is so terrible – otherwise we would grow too fond of it.
2. It is well that war is so terrible — lest we should grow too fond of it.
3. It is well that war is so terrible – otherwise we should grow too fond of it.

I’ve always been struck by the slight differences between the three interpretations so I decided to look for the origin of the quote.  I started with both George Rable and Francis O’Reilly’s recent studies of the battle.   Both point to the 1907 publication of Edward Porter Alexander’s Military Memoirs of a Confederate, which references Lee as follows: “It is well that war is so terrible, or we would grow too fond of it.” (p. 302).  Keep in mind that these words were supposedly uttered to James Longstreet, but he makes no mention whatsoever in his own memoir, From Manassas to Appomattox, which was published in 1896.

In the introduction to his edited collection on Fredericksburg, Gary Gallagher offers a few remarks on the Lee quote.  He notes that Douglas Southall Freeman cited John Esten Cooke’s 1871 biography of Lee with a few alterations to the quote itself and also mentions Jackson’s failure to reference the comment.  Cooke served on Stuart’s staff so I guess there is the possibility that Lee said it; as far as I know Cooke’s is the earliest reference.  Freeman’s referencing of the quote is worth reading:

Lee’s eyes flashed as he saw them, and the blood of “Light-Horse Harry” fought in his veins with the calmer strain of the peace-loving Carters.  Turning to Longstreet he revealed the whole man in a single sentence: “It is well that war is so terrible–we would grow too fond of it!”  As he uttered the words, he seemed in the eyes of a British correspondence who stood by to have about him an “antique heroism.” (2:462)

First, if that ain’t a dose of psycho-history I don’t know what is.  I guess we could suggest that Longstreet’s failure to cite the sentence in his memoir was intentional given the critical nature of much of the book.  However, it’s just as likely that Lee never said it at all.  There is something about the quote that is too good to be true.  It functions to reinforce our preferred image of Lee on the battlefield.  Consider Gallagher’s brief assessment:

These two brief sentences have done much to define Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia for generations of readers: the brilliant soldier, his martial ardor aroused, quietly exulting as the men of his famous army demonstrated their prowess on yet another battlefield. (vii)

I am not for a moment denying Lee’s leadership skills and military prowess on the battlefield, but I have a sense that the pervasiveness of this quote tells us more about our own attitudes toward the Civil War than it does about Lee.  That may sound strange, but if we assume for a moment that Cooke may have heard something said to Longstreet during the battle, by 1871 (and Lee’s death) it may have become ever so slightly altered to fit into his already growing mythical status.

Teaching Secession

The two sections of my Civil War class have been a pleasure to teach so far.  Just about all of the students have either taken my AP class or read William Gienapp's biography of Lincoln last year, which means they have a nice foundation with which to dig a little deeper.  In addition to using Brooks Simpson's America's Civil War as our base text, students are reading excerpts from various historians.  In our discussion of Lincoln's election and secession students read an article by James McPherson and we are currently going through a short piece by Charles Dew that is based on his recent book, Apostles of Disunion (University of Virginia Press, 2001). 

The two articles work well together and both are from North and South Magazine.  McPherson tackles the importance of slavery from a long-term perspective, and along the way challenges the traditional answer of states rights with the question of "states rights for what?"  I encourage my students to think critically about their readings and to look for weaknesses in the argument.  A couple of students suggested that McPherson did not do sufficiently explain the fear that white southerners felt following Lincoln's election.   Of course, I did not anticipate this particular concern, but it was nice that I had the Dew article waiting in the wings.  Many of you familiar with Dew's argument.  Dew examines those individuals chosen by the seceded Deep South states to convince those in the Upper South that Lincoln's election represented an immediate threat to slavery.  The nice thing about the Dew piece is that it gives students a great deal to think about in terms of understanding the importance of slavery.  Students can discuss the relevant factors involved in the choosing of individual secessionist commissioners.  According to Dew, these men were typically from the state where they were sent and moderate in their political outlook. 

The speeches are incredibly rich and work to answer McPherson's question of "states rights for what?"  Their speeches reveal the fear following Lincoln's election that emancipation would lead to race wars, including the raping of white women and miscegenation.  The language goes beyond our tendency in the classroom to simplify slavery's importance to one of economics.  The book includes two samples from the commissioner's writings, one of which by Stephen F. Hale of Alabama we will read tomorrow in class.  This particular speech can be found in the Official Records, ser. 4, I:4-11.

Given the recent talk about heritage and perspective I thought it might be worthwhile referencing an older post on Charles Dew, which includes his thoughts about growing up in Florida and eventually breaking with the Lost Cause tradition.