Internal or External: A False Dichotomy?

I am making my way through the essays in James McPherson’s latest offering This Mighty Scourge: Perspectives on the Civil War (Oxford University Press, 2007).  All in all I have to say that I am just a bit disappointed with this collection.  Many of the essays fail to deliver a stronger analytical punch.  Part of the problem is that most of the chapters are reprinted from other publications that I am already familiar with.  A couple of chapters were originally published in the New York Review of Books.  There is nothing necessarily wrong with reworking material; Gordon Wood’s most recent collection is a also pulled from his articles in the NYRB.  The difference, however, is that Wood apparently spent more time expanding the reviews into fairly sophisticated essays.  There are a few chapters, including one on the Lost Cause and textbooks that are well worth the time to read.  For someone unfamiliar with these chapters the book will no doubt make for interesting reading. 

One of the chapters that originally appeared as a book review in the NYRB examines recent studies that explore questions surrounding Confederate defeat.  The books in question include, William Freehling’s The South v. The South, William C. Davis’s Look Away! and Gary W. Gallagher’s The Confederate War.  McPherson reviews these books and along the way offers  commentary about the historiography of Confederate defeat.  Most interpretations that purport to explain why the North won or why the Confederacy lost can be grouped within the so-called internal and external camps.  Explanations that fall into the former tend to reference internal conditions such as economic deficiencies or political bickering (David Donald’s thesis that states rights killed the Confederacy)  as the reasons why the Confederacy lost.  Shelby Foote brought this point home when he noted in the Ken Burns documentary that the "North fought that war with one hand behind its back."  External explanations, on the other hand, concentrate on the ebb and flow of the military campaigns as a sufficient reason for Northern victory or Confederate.   On this view the Confederacy succumbed to military defeat rather than specific internal problems. 

There is some value in distinguishing between internal and external explanations of Confederate defeat or Union victory.  The historiography of internal explanations is fairly rich and includes Richard Beringer, et. al. Why The South Lost The Civil War and Charles Ramsdell’s Behind the Lines in the Confederacy.  Historians who subscribe to this view must explain away the fact that the North experienced just as much – perhaps even more – internal political strife.  And implicit in the explanation is the assumption that we can know what is a sufficient level of internal conflict to explain defeat.  In arguing for internal conflict these historians conclude that white southerners never experienced a vibrant or sufficient level of nationalism (whatever that means).  McPherson notes another difficulty relating to sources which he notes in his comments re: Davis’s Look Away!:

It is the nature of newspaper editorials, private correspondence, congressional debates, partisan speeches, and the like to emphasize conflict, criticism, argument, complaint.  It is the squeaky wheel that squeaks.  The historian needs to step back and gain some perspective on these sources, to recognize that the well-greased wheel that turns smoothly also turns quietly, leaving less evidence of its existence for the historian.

If I understand McPherson he is basically saying that if you look for conflict and criticism in the political realm you are going to find it.  From here it is a short step to Foote’s conclusion that Confederate defeat was inevitable.  Regardless of the problems with the explanation it is undoubtedly the cased that these historians have uncovered important information about the Confederate experience. 

External accounts have made their mark more recently.  Gallagher’s Confederate War is a great place to start in looking at why the Confederacy lasted as long as it did.  Notice that the way the question is framed matters.  This was one of the first books that I ever read about the Civil War and it has shaped to a great extent the way I interpret the Confederate experience.  I wasn’t convinced at first by the argument and this had much to do with the way I read Gallagher’s book.  My biggest problem early on had to do with the fact that I was looking for an argument that somehow indicated that  Confederates had achieved in generating sufficient nationalism.  Indeed Gallagher talks a great deal about Confederate nationalism in the army and on the home front, but he does not get stuck in the question of whether the Confederacy "created a nation."  Rather he argues that Confederates identified in various ways which allowed them to continue the fight for close to five years and even come close to victory on more than one occasion.  I now tend to see that book more as a call to arms: Gallagher is basically saying that historians have tended to explain the Confederate experience by looking at why their experiment in revolution failed.  The question itself steers the historian in the direction of looking at what they fell short of achieving; in doing so they have ignored the myriad ways in which Confederates identified with their "nation."  It’s no accident that some of the best studies of Confederate nationalism have been written by Gallagher’s students.

This brings me to my major concern surrounding this distinction between internal and external accounts.  Simply put, I think the distinction has outlived its usefulness.  Although I can’t prove it I suspect that the attraction of the internal account as it appeared in earlier histories such as Why The South Lost The Civil War is that it allowed the historian to utilize the new social history without having to come to terms with the military aspects of the war.  This is where that vacuum affect comes into play.

Freehling’s study does not make this mistake.  While he admires Gallagher’s sketch of "selected Southerners’ pro-Confederate passions" Freehling argues that white southerners in the Upper South who served in large numbers in Federal armies and the slave population constituted a significant problem for Confederate authorities.  Freehling does not confine his analysis to the Confederate states, but broadens it to include all southern slave states.  In doing so he is able to show that between southern unionists and the slave population roughly half the population stood against the Confederate war effort.  I hesitate to call this an internal explanation – even though Freehling argues that both populations and the pressure they placed on the Confederate war effort proved to be decisive – because he spends as much time discussing the ways in which Union military operations along the Mississippi River exploited these apparent weaknesses.  There was nothing inevitable about Confederate defeat unless Union military authorities and the president took proper action.  [Freehling would probably disagree with this last point.] 

It seems to me that we can have our cake and eat it too.  The best recent military histories that fully integrate analysis of the political, economic, and social aspects of the Confederacy have the best chance of answering the big questions of why the war turned out the way it did.  We need to know how Union military policy changed over time in response to conditions on the ground.  Certain internal conditions may rise to the top depending on how they connect to the military sphere.  It is clear, however, that we are beyond examining interal conditions in a vacuum, which is where some studies fall short.   Our ability to unwind different forms of nationalism from complex local internal conditions is indispensable to understanding why military operations evolved from limited to hard war – to use Mark Grimsley’s language.  [I would also recommend Buck T. Foster’s Sherman’s Mississippi Campaign as another example of this approach.] 

I think we sometimes get wrapped up too tightly in certain distinctions.  I’ve tried to suggest that the distinction between internal and external explanations of the Civil War no longer carve up the historical terrain at its joints.  It is often noted that the Civil War created a situation where battlefield tactics failed to keep up with the technology.  Perhaps here we have a situation where recent historical interpretations have oustripped our ability to describe them accurately. 

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6 comments… add one
  • Darryl Pearce Jan 30, 2007 @ 0:09

    I also have been reading this book, This Mighty Scourge. I was prompted to read it after seeing the review in the Los Angeles Times. I’ve email the author of that review to see how his “incoming messages” might be remarkable.

    Nice to see your site and read your comments. I’m a re-enactor when I’m not technical writing. We do presentations at schools, perform at events and do the occasional back-hills, first-person events. It’s a great way to learn and teach history…. even if they are “long-legged yankee lies.”

  • Kevin Levin Jan 16, 2007 @ 18:26

    Hiram, — Nice observation re: Robinson. In many ways that book blends a bit of the traditional interal interpretation by giving a nod to the inevitability of Confederate defeat with what is now called the New Military History. I could have mentioned the book in my post, but it would have unnecessarily complicated things.

    Your point about Gallagher and McPherson and desertion and morale as a general barometer is well taken. In reference to Gallagher, I tend to interpret _The Confederate War_ as a synthetic study that pulls together observations that need to be analyzed further. It’s easy to read it as an overly simplistic picture of the Confederacy which I am not suggesting that you are in fact doing. You probably know that this book is essentially a set of lectures designed to assess the literature and offer a new point of departure. Desertion and low morale have often been taken for granted as conditions that taken together provide a sufficient explanation for Confederate defeat. Gallagher’s focus on examples of nationalism and high morale are meant as a prompt for further research. William Blair’s work on Virginia is a perfect example. He argues convincingly that low morale should not necessarily be interpreted as a sign of defeatism. Identification with the Confederacy and sustained enthusiasm for the war effort were highly contingent on more local conditions. This is also the case with desertion. In short the generalizations should be interpreted as a critique of the internalist emphasis on certain conditions as determinate. I’m not sure if I’ve made any sense here.

    Justin, — I missed that so thanks for pointing it out. That said, I’m not sure this is a case of McPherson caving in — coud be anything. Perhaps I am just naive.

  • Justin Felux Jan 16, 2007 @ 13:20

    I am likewise disappointed with this latest offering from McPherson. There is hardly any new material in it, and as you say, not much of what’s there is very analytical. I thought the best essays in the volume were the ones in which he reviews Woodworth and Flood, and the one about Jefferson Davis and Lee’s strategies for victory.

    Interesting note — if I remember correctly, the original version of the essay about textboooks was subtitled “The Southern Textbook Crusade,” but in this volume it is renamed “The Lost Cause Textbook Crusade.” I suppose the latter is more accurate, but I think it’s also indicative of McPheron’s unfortunate tendency to cow in the face of criticism from the Daughters and other such groups.

  • elektratig Jan 16, 2007 @ 12:55


    I think what you’re saying is that historians are correctly abandoning the assumption that this is an all-or-nothing proposition. Even minor events rarely have one cause. If I fall getting the paper at the end of the driveway, is the cause (a) the icy patch, (b) my treadless slippers, (c) my clumbsiness or inattention, or (d) the newspaper boy who should have thrown the paper on the porch? How about, (e) all of the above? All of them are probably “but for” causes of my fall (i.e., but for each, the accident would not have occurred).

  • Hiram Hover Jan 16, 2007 @ 11:21

    Along the lines of what you praise in Freehling’s work–Armstead Robinson’s Bitter Fruits of Bondage is another book that does a fine job of blending social, political and military history (I know you picked it as one of the best books of the year). Tho Robinson does veer towards using language about the inevitability of CS defeat, he assesses not just what white Southerners thought but what they did, and how it affected CS prospects at specific moments. Thus, he doesn’t treat desertion and low morale as general barometers of Confederate opinion over the course of the war (which is how they’re often treated by many historians, including Gallagher and McPherson). Instead, he assesses their significance at specific moments–during the Vicksburg campaign, and at Chattanooga, for example.

    The result is an account that assigns primary importance to “internal” or homefront factors, but seeks to demonstrate their importance in the context of a specific chronology of unfolding military events.

  • Charles Bowery Jan 16, 2007 @ 10:36

    I’m uncomfortable with the idea of inevitability in any form, including explaining the Civil War. Like you, I don’t think you can view the internal and external factors in isolation from one another.

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