David Eicher’s Confederacy or Why Can’t We All Just Get Along?

I got my hands on and had a chance to go through an advanced copy of David Eicher’s new book Dixie Betrayed: How the South Really Lost the Civil War. In an earlier post I expressed some disappointment with the way this book was marketed as putting forth a groundbreaking argument of how and why the Confederacy lost the war. I suggested that Eicher’s argument that internal dissension within the highest level of Confederate military and civilian ranks did not represent a step in a new direction and that it is not an argument that can be defended successfully. Now that I’ve had a chance to review this book it seems that not only does Eicher not provide a new argument, the argument he does provide is not even close to the more sophisticated internalist explanations that one can find in Beringer, Hattaway, Jones, and Still’s Why the South Lost the Civil War, William Freehling’s The South vs. The South: How Anti-Confederate Southerners Shaped the Course of the War, Armistead L. Robinson’s Bitter Fruits of Bondage: The Demise of Slavery and the Collapse of the Confederacy, 1861-1865 or more recently in A People’s History of the Civil War by David Williams.

The central problem with Eicher’s interpretation is that it is much too narrow. It is essentially a top-down picture of the Confederacy. The most important actors are within the highest levels of the military and political institutions. Now, there is nothing necessarily wrong with focusing on such a crowd as few people will disagree that the decisions made at this level can have profound consequences for the general population. However, it is a problem if you are trying to answer a question as complex as why the Confederacy was defeated. In the opening pages Eicher tells the reader that “The Confederacy was born sick.” By this he means that the internal disputes between politicians on the state and federal levels and within the military essentially crippled the government and led to Confederate defeat. Essentially, Eicher is unpacking Frank Owsley’s old argument that the South died of states’ rights. (In my earlier post I attributed this epitaph to David Donald. He suggested it died of Democracy.) It would be a waste of time for me to plow through all of the internal disputes that plagued the Confederacy and made Jefferson Davis’s job that much more difficult. Most of you already know those problems, including problems of rank, favoritism between military and civilian leaders, conscription, impressments, supply shortages, states’ rights, relationships between the federal and state officials, but the author takes it one step further by couching these strong disagreements in moral terms:

The story of the betrayal of the Confederacy is rife with arguments, selfishness, reckless behavior, drunkenness, and the peculiar mind-set of a whole generation of privileged autocrats who had learned, for many years, to put state rights above all else. (p. 13)

Eicher rightfully notes that Lincoln and the North suffered from many of the same problems, but insists that these problems were the salient conditions to understanding Confederate defeat. Never mind that if the Confederacy had somehow managed to win we would be talking about the fatal internal disputes in the North.

While the narrative is well written and will surely attract readers, at times it is unsettling in its foreshadowing. Following an overview of the key players in the Confederate government Eicher ends by noting that “The stage had been set for disaster.” At the end of chapter 5 which surveys the War Department and its cast of characters, the author ends with a prophetic note: “None of this boded well for the rebellion. And within the boundaries of the Confederate capital itself, the arguments were just beginning.” And the chapter that emphasizes increased tensions within the Confederate government on the eve of Gettysburg ends by suggesting that one “grand campaign could turn it all around.”

That said the fatal flaw of this book has to do with its narrow scope. At times it is difficult to know whether Eicher’s survey of the endless bickering is a sign of insufficient nationalism, morale, or at times just the normal fighting over which branch of the federal government has control over various aspects of the war. More importantly, Eicher never really explains the extent of the damage to morale or nationalism that these internal debates had on the general population. Was anyone listening and if so how did they react? The author almost never engages in any serious analysis of the opposite end of his top-down narrative. How did Confederate civilians feel about the Confederacy and more importantly, how did they react to various government measures that Eicher argues were so damaging? Given the numerous studies that address life on the home front and the presence of a few in Eicher’s bibliography it is surprising that he does not take these arguments more seriously. Consider William Blair’s Virginia’s Private War, which explores the home front and is cited in the bibliography. Blair argues that Virginians did not lose because of failed nationalism or internal conflicts and was surprised when he discovered that many civilians called for the very measures that led to the centralizing of the Confederate government:

I had not counted on the complicated way in which dissent functioned as a catalyst for change or how Confederates could still identify with a cause even when they lost faith in a particular government. Virginians demonstrated that although they had qualms about certain aspects of their nascent nation, their sense of purpose remained strong enough to win until the winter of 1864-1865, when the pressure of the Union army and the lack of resources finally took their toll on the spirits of all but the heartiest souls. (p. 4)

Blair’s focus on Virginia and more recent studies that concentrate on very different regions of the Confederacy suggests that any study of why the Confederacy was defeated in April 1865 will have to draw the necessary distinctions between region and class and include a more thorough treatment of how the war impacted on civilian morale at different times. Indeed, Eicher’s analysis does not help us better understand how it was possible (given all of these disputes) how the Confederacy managed to survive and continue to pose a substantial threat to Union forces even into 1865.

Any account that purports to explain why the Confederacy failed must move beyond the narrow confines of Richmond. It must take into account among other things recent studies of southern unionism, geography, the morale of the men in the ranks and their influence on those on the home front, reactions to both victory and defeat within the ranks and the home front, various forms of nationalism, the impact of the war on slavery, and the evolution of the Union war effort. While Eicher at times alludes to some of these themes his focus on the political disputes simplifies the problem to a point that renders the explanation easy to dismiss. In short what is missing is a heavy dose of recent social histories that provide the crucial perspective from the bottom-up that would fill in many of the gaps in this study.

Given Eicher’s earlier published bibliography of the most important Civil War studies it is disappointing that he did not address the broader historiography and the many excellent studies by historians like William Blair, Gary Gallagher, George Rable, and James McPherson who argue that the Confederacy succumbed to battlefield defeat rather than internal cracks. In other words, declining morale was the result of battlefield defeat and not its cause. These historians have presented sophisticated arguments that should be taken seriously if the historian hopes to persuade the reader of a certain conclusion.

Though this short review may seem a bit harsh, I would recommend this book for those who are looking for a very readable overview of the political debates within the Confederacy. Eicher does a very good job introducing the major players within the Confederacy and the issues that proved to be so divisive throughout the struggle. It is also nice to know that those who choose to read this book will be introduced to a brief description of the postwar debates among ex-Confederates that were so effective in shaping the “Lost Cause” interpretation of the war. That said it was a big mistake on the part of the publisher to market this book as presenting a brand new interpretation.

This brings me to my final thoughts about this book. It is a great example of the sharp divide between studies that are meant for a wide reading audience and those that are written by academics for fellow academics. The general public is typically looking for a highly readable narrative that brings some level of meaning to the event in question. Eicher clearly provides both strands of this demand, but he does so at the price of steering clear of the more complex academic debates. Now you may be grateful for that, but the problem is that it seems reasonable to suggest that the reader is not getting the complete story. The trick is to somehow combine the analytical rigor that defines many academic studies with the desire on the part of the reading public to have it packaged in the form of a readable narrative. It can be done.

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