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Review: For Cause and Comrades

Review For Cause and Comrades

For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War. By James M. McPherson (1997) New York: Oxford University Press, Pp. xv + 178, ISBN 0-19-509023-3 (hardback) $25.00 U.S.

Why do soldiers fight? Pulitzer-prize winning Civil War historian James McPherson grapples with this question in his deeply researched and engaging book, For Cause and Comrades. McPherson is a superb scholar and author of over nineteen books and numerous articles on the Civil War, most notable among these is Battle Cry of Freedom, recipient of the Pulitzer Prize, published in 1988. He is the George Henry Davis ’86 Professor Emeritus of United States History at Princeton University with a PhD from Johns Hopkins University, awarded in 1963. In For Cause and Comrades, McPherson offers very balanced and researched approach to the Civil War, typically a very emotionally charged topic. His writing style is eminently readable and his arguments convincing.

McPherson analyzes martial motivations leveraging French military historian, John A. Lynn, methodology of examining motivation at three levels: initial, sustaining, and combat. The initial motivators deal with why men enlisted; sustaining with what kept the armies together; and combat with how men steeled themselves for battle (12).

McPherson evenly spaced twelve chapters across the book to carefully analyze his primary sources of diaries and letters from soldiers on both sides of the Civil War. In doing so, he worked to weigh his data in a reasonably representative fashion from the demographics of the soldiers in the conflict. He statistically balances the values and demography of the ideals and opinions of the writers with their representative places in the armies of the North or the South. In doing so, he hoped to ensure that no one point of view would be given inappropriate weight. In addition to breaking down the basic views of North and South, he worked to further determine whether the writer was a volunteer or a draftee; officer or enlisted; wealthy or common. McPherson paints a convincing portrait of soldiers on both sides of the conflict in well-balanced proportion to their role and place in the ranks. From this complex but convincing composition, McPherson draws his plausible, if not entirely original, conclusions. McPherson further balances his assessment with the widely reported findings after World War II and Vietnam on the same topics of combat motivation. This conveys a sense of ubiquity in modern soldiers and outlines some of the fundamental differences in the Civil War, the Second World War, and the Vietnam War.

The book focuses on the fundamental ideologies of the Civil War. The overarching motivator at all levels was honor. Honor in personal courage; honor in fighting for comrades; honor in preserving union (or fighting for liberty); and honor in defending home, hearth, and family. The conclusions are not as simple as that, however. McPherson describes complex dualities that exist in both the North and the South. For example, he describes the sustaining power of faith and religion in “the most religious [armies] in American history” (63) followed by a detailed discussion of the power of hate and revenge in both armies, but primarily the South. Unfortunately, McPherson does not offer deep insight into the conflict of hate and Christian fighting and simply dismisses it as normal in the eyes of the soldier.

He notes soldiers in during most of the Civil War were volunteers and that volunteerism had a dramatic impact on the motivations of those soldiers. The reasons men initially volunteered are largely predictable: duty, honor and adventure. Duty and honor to fight for the soldier’s home against an enemy is complexly related to the ideals of each side. The North asserted an ideal of union and responsibility to the legacy of 1776 and that revolutionary spirit. The South asserted an ideal of freedom from tyranny and the same spirit of ’76 strangely on behalf of human slavery. Adventure is a Victorian ethic acknowledged by soldiers of both sides who expressed a deep desire to “see the elephant” followed by a near universal regret for having done so (30). The sense of adventure rarely survives first contact with true combat and is not a deep or prolonged motivator and McPherson argues that once it fades, many soldiers adopt honor and courage as more sustaining motivators.

Sustainment of an army is a critical challenge of any commander. The unit must be built cohesively and remain cohesive through the length of the conflict. McPherson suggests several contributors to sustaining an army during a long war: honor, religion, brotherhood, ideology, and support at home. After the initial search for adventure and rage militaire fade, the army’s spirits are buoyed and challenged by victory or loss on the battlefields, doubt surrounding support from home, political events near and far, and fear that the overwhelming sacrifice will have been in vain. McPherson argues religion and ideology played crucial roles in North and South to keep the armies intact. Deep religious faith took hold in both armies, but most significantly in the South. McPherson reminds us that the chaos of war leads to fatalism and concern for one’s soul driving the combatants to seek refuge in religion. The soldiers, therefore, believed they were truly good Christian soldiers, marching off to war. While the strength of religion was more dominant in the South, ideology was strongest in the North. Both sides leveraged ideals of freedom, but the North fought for union and, McPherson argues, ultimately for abolition (118, 130).

Combat motivation initially is fed by a sense of adventure and ideals, but those fade upon contact with the enemy. McPherson clearly tells how soldiers, weary and exhausted from battle do not march forward into a hail of bullets for glory or union or slavery or abolition or even God. They march forward out of a sense of personal honor and acknowledgement of the comradeship of arms. He writes that soldiers would rather die before showing cowardice or being labeled a shirker. He gives accounts of soldiers fighting while ill and legitimately excused from battle to prevent even the suggestion that they were shirkers (79). Almost as pervasive as honor and comradeship, there was universal hatred for shirkers. McPherson claims that only half of the men actually did the fighting while half found ways to not be present on a battlefield (6). As a result, his claim that men were motivated not to fail their comrades or show cowardice (77, 80) is somewhat misleading. It is possible at least, that men aspired to such goals of courage and honor and those who fought, fought for those reasons.

This is a very well-researched and written book. McPherson is known for his approachable style that succeeds in conveying the point without burying the reader in details. His research sources and analysis lend very fair balance to his findings which, while not terribly original, confirm that certain common motivators prevail in nineteenth, twentieth, and likely twenty-first century soldiers.

Unfortunately, McPherson lacks a certain depth in discussion of some of the more complex aspects of martial motivation. For example, he fails to appropriately address the conflicts of fighting for liberty by fighting for slavery and hating an enemy so perversely who is praying to the same God who commands “love thy neighbor.” Although those are subjects broad enough to fill volumes, a more insightful discussion of them would have materially improved a solid work.

Letters and diaries are usually tricky sources for the historian. Both are greatly distorted by the writer who is not explicitly compelled to write either accurately or objectively. Regardless, the volume of mail and dairies written during the war by the soldiers free from censorship who were beneficiaries of an effective post system cannot be ignored. McPherson deliberately draws from the mass of writings a generally statistically representative sample of material. That feat alone cannot be understated.

McPherson’s approachable style and casual treatment of some of the more complex aspects of martial motivation leave this book best read by the well-educated public. It is informative to the professional historian and should compliment his understanding of the cause and effects of war, but for that John Keegan’s The Face of Battle may be better. Regardless, For Cause needed to be written and does inform debate on what soldiers of both North and South were thinking and feeling during the war. Any text that convincingly describes war as hell should be written. McPherson does not exalt war or its heroes or villains. He treats them fairly while convincing the reader that “seeing the elephant” is not worth the price of admission.


George Mason University                                                                     Carl Allard Young

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March 15, 2010 Posted by | American Civil War | , , | Leave a comment

Review: The Confederate Nation

Review Thomas The Confederate Nation

The Confederate Nation: 1861-1865. By Emory M. Thomas (1979) New York: Harper & Row, Pp. xvi + 384, ISBN 0-06-131965-1 (paperback) $15 00 U.S.

“To fulfill Southern nationalism, Confederate Southerners had to slaughter some of the sacred cows and overturn some of the shibboleths that had previously defined them as a people.” (p.144) The clear summary of Professor Emory M. Thomas’ 1979 work captures the angst and challenge the South faced as notions of Southern sectionalism rose with radical fervor, congealed into a new confederate government, gave way to Southern nationalism, transformed into a Confederate identity, and failed both on the battlefields of the civil war and in the minds of Southerners. Thomas received his PhD from Rice University in 1966 and prior to publishing The Confederate Nation published The Confederacy as a Revolutionary Experience and The Confederate State of Richmond in 1971 followed in 1973 by The American War and Peace: 1860-1877. He is a prodigious Civil War scholar who taught at the University of Richmond and retired as the Regents Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Georgia. He grew up in Virginia and primarily taught in the South throughout his career.

As a scholar of the Old South during the Civil War, he is a conservative writer seeking to expand understanding of the South and with The Confederate Nation successfully charts the genesis, rise, maturation, collapse, and fall of Southern nationalism. In this pursuit, The Confederate Nation is an extension of arguments he published in The Confederate State of Richmond and his dissertation, The Confederacy as a Revolutionary Experience. The Confederate Nation is a well-written and engaging book that charts the internal revolution of Confederate ideals that initially elevated Southern sectionalism into nationalism as a conservative revolution centered on protecting the Southern way of life that ultimately caused Southern nationalism to crumble as protecting the Southern way of life became impossible.

In developing the foundation to his arguments for conservative revolution, Thomas insightfully describes an Old South that in the mid 1800s began to close their minds to alternatives to their way of life and drew the conclusion, “Questions about the Southern way of life became moral questions, and compromises of the Southern way of life became concessions of virtue and righteousness.” (p. 4) The ubiquitous Southerner was developing a bi-polar interpretation of the world around him. He was at once for all things Southern and against all things Yankee. While the argument is logically plausible, Thomas does his work a great disservice by not better defining who this Southerner is. There are weak attempts to define the Southerner as statistically white, non-slave owning, supportive of anti-democratic ideals of aristocracy and puppets of the landed aristocracy, and mobile. Southern mobility is his most damaging argument. He offers no evidence to their mobility and no evidence of the Southern everyman’s political agency yet he presses the issue by describing the Southern everyman as a middle class in an agrarian society. Without proven mobility or agency it is hard to assign the moniker middle class to an uneducated, politically silent (or at least complicit) agrarian class.

Thomas attempts to set the stage for a general wellspring of common zeal that held a common view of the Southern way of life and yielded a common voice eager to protect that way of life. Unfortunately, one has to accept significant claims on weak evidence in order to move forward with the book. Accepting Thomas’ argument, however, yields a picture of a conservative revolution that rises in the mid-1800s with the increasingly strong development and adherence to a Southern regionalism. Thomas successfully paints the picture of a South identifying itself as Southern simultaneously as it identifies itself as American. Gradually, over the antebellum period, the Southern identity takes primacy over an American identity as Thomas argues Southerners felt betrayed by the greater American identity which, at its core, is more liberal and open to change. Thomas convincingly uses the Brooks-Sumner incident in 1819 as a herald to the Southern identity and associated honor which must be protected and later with Robert E. Lee’s decision to fight for the Southern cause in 1861 as the full development of this psychological shift.

Thomas builds on the establishment of antebellum Southern identity to 1861 when South had to develop its own government in the wake of secession. While Southern nationalism was crucial in creating a Confederacy, Thomas says, “the fundamental goal of the Southern revolution was the preservation of the Southern life style as Southerners then lived it” (p. 65). It was at this point the challenge of radical conservatives began to surface as embodied in the Montgomery Debate. The radicals who spurred the South to secession faced the very limited objectives of the revolution they facilitated. Southerners wanted to preserve status quo antebellum, not institute a new way. As a result, the Montgomery Debate’s cautious movement forward coupled with a Confederate Constitution that was very similar to the one it meant to disband set the stage for a very defensive approach to Southern independence, militarily and politically. The cautiousness was displayed by other Southern states who did not rush to join the Confederacy until after Lincoln called for volunteers to go to war.

Once hostilities began, Thomas describes the South as caught between the world it wants to protect and the world it must become to survive. Survival won the political day. The South needed a strong central government, a unified strategy, and most importantly, victories on the battlefield. The cries for independence fell quiet to a Confederate President Davis who ran the government and the war effort with singular effort, rapidly cashiering any who would oppose him or show independence of thought without due deference. As the war drew on, continued sacrifice would alter the character of the South so much that Thomas describes it as “more Confederate and less Southern” in character (p. 166).

Ultimately desperation led to the abandonment of most of the Southern ideals. Southern war crimes grew in tragic scope, slaves were granted freedom in exchange for military service, the female ideal was abandoned in the harsh realities of war, and Southern honor was in doubt at the highest levels as even Davis supported notions of guerrilla warfare. The very ideals the war was fought over were abandoned in the desperate hours prior to the war’s conclusion. Thomas says, “”Having sacrificed or been willing to sacrifice most of the ideological tenets they went to war to defend, ultimately Confederate Southerners we willing to lose their national life in order to save itself” (p. 305).

Accepting his troubled definition of the Southern everyman allows the reader to follow an otherwise well-crafted argument that charts the rise and fall of a conservative revolution. Thomas argues it begins with identity and develops into cause as regionalism gives way to nationalism. He points out the risks to a nationalist movement constrained by conservatism, whereby change to secure the national ideals must come at a cost to the ideals of independence. The challenge to create a central government began the long process of compromise that Southerners themselves were fundamentally opposed to. Compromise led to desperation and the Confederate nation became nothing like the Old South it was formed to protect.

Thomas’ argument was logically convincing and showed obvious flaws in Southern political thinking of the 1850s and 60s. Pulling from solid evidence, Thomas argues his points for an intellectual audience well-versed in the chronology of the Civil War. His is not an overtly narrative history of the war, but a political history of the birth and death of the Confederacy. Thomas’ argument could be improved with a more careful definition of the South he examines. His reluctance to make many strong assertions throughout the book makes his curiously adamant assertion of the South as a mobile, middle class society all the more confusing. It did not seem that the South’s mobility or middle-class mores had much to do with the rise and fall of the Confederacy and should have been avoided.

Regardless, the book is an excellent study in conservative nationalism and should be added to any library on the subject of the Civil War South. Although the book cannot stand completely alone as a seminal work, it offers a unique, conservative perspective to Civil War political study.

George Mason University                                                                                                  Carl Allard Young

March 15, 2010 Posted by | American Civil War | , , | 1 Comment

Review: Crisis of Fear

Review Channing Crisis of Fear

Crisis of Fear: Secession in South Carolina. By Steven A. Channing (1970) New York: Simon and Schuster, 1970 pp. 293, ISBN 671-20516-1 (hardcover) $7.95 U.S.

“Secession was a revolution of passion and the passion was fear” (p. 293). Dr. Steven Channing’s political-historical drama analyzing the power of fear in South Carolina’s political society prior to the Civil War is a well-written and engaging. The South was gripped in paralyzing fear deeply rooted in guilt and apprehension over their human chattel. The South was dreadful of the liberal democratic changes embodied in the emerging Republican party of the 1840s and 50s. Southern politicians masterfully capitalized the root fears to generate a powerful political base and inordinate national influence all focused on protecting the South’s primary interest: slavery. The fires of fear were built and fuelled to an unquenchable flame that spilled over into war as a direct result of Republican victory in 1860.

Published in 1970, Dr. Steven A Channing’s text offers a powerful early entry into revisionist history. It reflects trends of the late 1960s and early 70s in American history careful re-examination of the histories of darker periods of the history of the United States. When published, this book was well-received and won the prestigious Allan Nevins History Prize. Channing received his PhD from the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill and has taught at the University of Kentucky, Stanford University, Duke University, and the University of Genoa, Italy and was a research fellow at Johns Hopkins University. He has published several Civil War era texts and since the 1980s has gained recognition as an Emmy award-winning filmmaker. Presently, he is the head of Video Dialog, Inc. a production studio focused on developing high-quality, historically-focused films. From his varied background and writing in Crisis of Fear he exposed few overt biases and admirably approached his investigation of South Carolina’s political leaders with a commendable degree of objectivity given the sensitivity of the topic he examined.

In two parts and across nine chapters, Channing consistently developed his central thesis that fear drove the South to secession. The untitled Part One of the text builds the case for a showdown in 1860 by examining the Southern political climate and psychology as a reactionary, ultra-conservative, fearful place and way of thinking. He argues the fear was fanned by the John Brown Raids. “John Brown had plunged a knife deep into the psyche of Southern whites, and life would never be quite the same again” (p. 23). The absolutist terms Channing uses indicates his perception of Southern mentality at the time. He successfully argues that Southerners collectively reached the point of absolutism and the crisis was boiled down to black and white, anti-polar extremes. To feed the fears of a general slave uprising, he cites the role of increased vigilance patrols, arson claims and fears, and increased violence towards slaves, free blacks, and outsiders. Channing exposes the reactionary nature of the South and examines Southern failure to acknowledge the true root of their fears: slavery and the guilt and hypocrisy born of slavery.

Channing’s strength lies in his ability to deftly perceive the Southern psychology. His second chapter deals with the memories and thoughts of the South leading up to 1860. He convincingly tells of a society growing increasingly paranoid about its stability. In the face of the total collapse of its societal order, the South grows almost despondent and blindly accepting of the upcoming war. He tells of a South that was “aware that some day the ultimate question would be fairly drawn – Union or slavery …” (p. 67). Southerners were caught in a contradictory whirlwind that would ultimately prove to be a self-fulfilling prophecy and lead to war. Northern efforts trying to placate Southern fears were answered with the ire of Southern leaders. Northern efforts at postponement or appeasement provided ample opportunity for South Carolina’s political radicals to raise the stakes higher and expand the hysteria and, therefore, their political influence. Channing balances the radicals thirst for power and fear mongering with an overly cautious and conciliatory Unionist and cooperatist sentiment from South Carolina’s moderates. Because of the moderates’ norms of caution, they were unable to answer the radical’s popular advance. Channing describes a Southern political culture where open debate is stifled and reaction to contradicting views carried harsh penalties.

In Part Two, Channing relays the events leading to war. His comfortable style of writing imparts the feeling of chaos, helplessness, and acceptance leading to war. His story is much like that of a massive head-to-head train collision. The South is in a position to avoid it, but it decides to watch the ensuing wreck instead. Channing’s depiction of the demise of the Democratic Party over the course of the party conventions during the summer of 1860 shows the complete failure of rational thinking that gripped South Carolina’s leadership that summer. Further complicating the story and contributing to the tragedy, South Carolina found itself in the unfortunate position of wanting revolution but not wanting to be the leaders of that revolution. Instead, they wanted to be the first among the backers of secession. When Alabama, Mississippi, or Virginia decided they did not want the responsibility of leading the revolution, South Carolina found itself in the position of having to start the revolution as a result of the hysteria they directed. Channing describes a self-induced disaster.

South Carolina so effectively whipped up fear of its black inhabitants in a fight to protect the status quo that it backed itself into a corner and, Channing argues, had to resort to war immediately upon a Republican victory. By November 1860 secession, and to a very real extent war, was a foregone conclusion. The political leaders essentially tipped the first domino and the rest fell with a chorus of popular support, the noise of which prevented any parties from withdrawing from the precipice of war.

This well-written book offers much insight into the South Carolina mind and opens much debate about the control of the political class over the populace. It also encourages debate on what sort of democracy the South exercised in the mid-1800s. Channing summarized it best when he said, “”Plebiscitary democracy triumphed in South Carolina” (p. 285). In plebiscitary democracy there is a fine line between ordered democracy and mob rule. Channing’s warning is clear: mob rule comes at a tremendous cost. The book is well-written and a worthy read. It is representative of impressive study in 1970 as it undoubtedly informed and impacted a generation of historians emerging from the historiographical challenges of the 1970s and 80s. In 2010, the text informs the reader of the collective psychology of a complex society and subsequent work could benefit from more complex approaches while leveraging this solid foundation. With forty years of historiography and research to build upon, there lies an opportunity to examine Channing’s thesis with a far deeper exploration into the complexities, contradictions, and dualities of Southern political science.

Regardless, the text was extremely well researched, pulling from a vast archive of personal, political, and professional correspondence and reporting to paint a picture of the South. By leveraging the somewhat reluctant leadership of South Carolina to tell the story it magnifies the crime of secession in its tragedy. The people of the South were led to believe secession was possible and was good and that an independent South would prosper. No true leadership rose to prepare the South to go alone. South Carolina ended up starting a fight it only wanted to instigate, not actually lead.

Ultimately, this text should be included in any Southern historian’s library and is a foundational part of his understanding. As a part of a larger study, text could benefit from more modern approaches in an effort to paint the fullest possible picture, but taken as a forty-year old work, it is a superb starting point.

George Mason University    Carl Allard Young

February 22, 2010 Posted by | American Civil War | , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: On the Threshold of Freedom

Review Mohr On the Threshold

On the Threshold Analysis

On the Threshold of Freedom: Masters and Slaves in Civil War Georgia. By Clarence L. Mohr (1986) Athens: University of Georgia Press, pp. xxiii + 397, ISBN 0-8203-0941-9
(paperback) $35.00 U.S.

Professor Clarence Mohr has been the chair of the Department of History at the University of South Alabama since 1998 and re-released his work On the Threshold of Freedom in 2001 through the Louisiana State University Press.  Originally published in 1986, On the Threshold was selected as the 1987 winner of the Avery O. Craven Award from the Organization of American Historians.  Mohr is a long-standing professor of history and a prodigious writer with dozens of articles, anthology entries, reviews and six books with three books in progress.  In On the Threshold, Mohr argues the war and the crisis of the South made Southerners enemies of slavery and facilitated its demise beyond the direct effects of emancipation and the loss of the war itself.  He discusses the end of slavery and the challenges of antebellum events and the war on slaveholding society in Georgia.

On the Threshold is a deeply researched and complex text charting the changes in slave culture as the slaves evolved to become multi-generation African Americans in a static pre-war plantation culture developing complex cultural expressions in religious and social settings through the chaos and upheaval of the war where plantation life itself was uprooted and the social order destroyed.  A central theme in Mohr’s book focuses on the shift from the static plantation life to a dynamic, urban, industrial life as a result of the “refugeeing” of the seaboard slaves and their masters.  Mohr’s book is broken in to three major sections discussing the white reactions to slave rebellion, the stretching of slavery to the point of chaos, and various attempts at reform and what he refers to as “Confederate emancipation.”

The first section examines Southern reaction to the Harper’s Ferry uprising which fed a general paranoia throughout the South and especially in Georgia.  Defensive and suspicious Southerners became openly hostile to any outsiders, especially, Mohr notes, any Northerners who asked too many questions.  Politicians in Georgia benefited from this atmosphere of distrust and fear and they fanned the flames of concern for political gain leading to tacit approval of an increasingly violent society that directly threatened slave equilibrium.  Georgia slave-owners were cognizant of their tenuous position and Mohr describes them as openly fearful of revolts and uprisings.  After a rash of arson in Georgia towns, the violence expanded and even political efforts were made to remove all free blacks from Georgia or re-enslave them.  As the federal army seized control of the sea islands, blacks, slave and free, began enlisting in the Union Army to fight their former masters.

An encroaching Union Army; violence, spurred by fear and sanctioned by the state; and the unsettling of the plantation society introduced chaos and uncertainty into the lives of the white and black citizens of Georgia.   This is the second main theme in Mohr’s text as he charts the antebellum solidification of slave culture as a distinct Afro-centric culture and the tenuous hold on order held by the slave owners.  When war forces the plantation owners to decamp and flee to the interior of Georgia, the slaves see, for the first time, that the power of the slaveholder is not absolute.  Additionally, many slave-owners are unable to reestablish plantations in the interior, mainly, Mohr argues, because of wild land speculation and outrageous price gouging by fellow Georgians.  This forces plantation refugees to flee to the industrial areas of Georgia and slaves become laborers in the industry of war: hospitals, munitions, mining, metal, etc.  Mohr’s strongest and most detailed research is found in a seventy-page fifth chapter examining slaves’ roles in wartime industry.

Mohr’s third section discusses the changes in the slave system and largely failed attempts at reform of the slave laws in Georgia.  Building on evidence presented in the previous two sections, Mohr describes the cumulative effects of war on the white population, the unsettling effects of refugeeing, the impact of religion, and the deeper, strategic issues faced by the Confederacy.  The society of fear was maintained by confident, white plantation owners and politicians who became white soldiers generally stationed in Georgia at the beginning of the war.  As the whites began to leave, the power and strength behind the threat of violence left with them.  In Mohr’s weakest section, he describes this shift in power and strength as the beginning of the end of slavery.  He ties this to the opening of abolitionist and reform sentiment among the clergy who supported notions of black literacy and the legitimization of black marriages.  As the war drew to its inevitable conclusion, Mohr notes that foreign intrigue prompted Jefferson Davis to consider emancipation in exchange for Anglo-French recognition in the hopes of drawing the North to the peace table.  Mohr’s interpretation of the debate over arming the slaves would later be echoed by Robert E. Bonner in Mastering America as Mohr says, “At its deepest level the debate over arming the slaves involved a search for Southern identity and a quest for national purpose” (p.275).

Mohr’s argument is forceful and backed by solid, but disconnected evidence.  It is clear he did his best research and analysis on the slave involvement of the wartime industry.  He describes the slave participation in the wartime industry as vital and unheralded.  In fact, slave presence in industry with artisans was vital only because Georgia had no other choice.  There was no available pool of white labor from which to draw and there was a surplus of slave labor produced by the refugeeing of the sea island plantations.  Further, the evidence Mohr examines and copious tables he presents are drawn from incomplete sources which present a risk to his analysis.  His work represents a solid entry in the quantitative school of history, but the gaps in the data leave too much to the imagination to build such a definitive case.  Further, he closes with his weakest argument on the amelioration of slavery in Georgia.  His strongest premise was his reliance on political will and religious support but he is forced to admit that no significant legislation was passed on the topic prior to the end of the war.

Regardless, the argument is informative and highlights several often overlooked sections of southern wartime economy, namely industrial labor and the impact of refugees.  The text is ideal for serious scholars in Civil War social, economic, or political history and offers data that is worth reviewing.  In the fourteen years since the original publication, it may be worth re-examining the data and investigating potentially new sources of data for support or augmentation to his primary argument that societal upheaval drove the South toward emancipation as much as the war did.  On the Threshold is a dense but well-written book that greatly serves the study of the South and of the Civil War.

February 21, 2010 Posted by | American Civil War | , , , | 2 Comments

Review: Honor and Violence

Review Wyatt-Brown Honor and Violence

Bertram Wyatt-Brown. Honor and Violence in the Old South. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986. x + 245 pp. $19.95 (pbk), ISBN 0-19-504242-5

Fortunately it is rare that such a troubled text as Honor and Violence appears in print. Nevertheless, there are exceptions; this one lives in re-print. Professor Emeritus Bertram Wyatt-Brown’s Honor and Violence is a 1986 abridgement of his 1982 tome, Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South. In 1983, the reviews for Southern Honor offered enough criticism to strike fear into the heartiest writer.

Professor Wyatt-Brown, a native Pennsylvanian, was fifty when his Southern Honor was released and fifty-four when Honor and Violence was published. He is the product of a high academic pedigree including undergraduate work at Sewanee and King’s College of Cambridge with a Ph.D. from John’s Hopkins. As a native Pennsylvanian, one can only speculate that he bristled at the deeply southern collegiate experience of Sewanee in the 1950s. From the text of Honor and Violence, and the benefit of the twenty-four years since its publication, it is clear that this text is an example of 1980s aggressive revisionist history with post-1970s influences of anthropological history infused in a tale of a complex, dualistic society living largely by mob rule. Wyatt-Brown explores the meaning and expression of honor as southern whites applied it to their lives. He views southern ethical habits as the basis of regional distinctiveness and that helped justify slavery. Further he suggests the honor of the society was held up by the society and it was community rule that dominated individual and collective decision-making.

The text is broken into two parts, the first establishing the foundations of the honor culture and the latter the collective southern ethic. To foretell his turbid methodology, he opens with a discussion of the literary influences on culture and society writ large. To do so, his first chapter recounts a New England story of a man ridden out of town on a rail. It is disappointing Wyatt-Brown did not attempt to draw from the southern panoply of literature to set the stage for his discussion.

Professor Wyatt-Brown’s following discussion over what he terms the “Primal Nature of Honor” is, however, more effectively constructed and fundamental to the cause of his thesis. He describes honor as an all-encompassing element of life and thought in the antebellum South. Honor was immortal and derived its value from the opinions of others through a complex but well-understood, and apparently, well-adhered social hierarchy. Of the notions of honor, gentility, family, and sexual honor, he delves deeply into notions of sexual honor as “the most curiously ambiguous aspect of [honor] in the American South” (p.35). He is particularly challenged by the ideal of a southern woman who is to be “not only ethereal but also hardworking, politically aware (though never ‘to mingle in discussion’), and prudent in household management” (p.35). As he is the son of an Episcopal bishop, it is ironic that he is deeply troubled over this complex description of a woman. This notion has Old Testament biblical roots in Proverbs 31: 10-31 and is distinctly not southern in origin.

Regardless, he builds a convincing case that honor provides structure and implicit discipline for an ordered and hierarchical society. The details of this ubiquitous southern society of honor are exposed through dualistic and conflicting expressions of gentility, the absolute order of the family, and expansive discourse on sexual honor. Gentility was sought as a measure of worth derived from a requirement to be sociable, learned, and pious. Sociability is at once a function of the dispersed geography with sparse accommodations for entertainment and refuge from the dangers of travel. As such, southerners were expected to be consummate hosts at all times to all peoples – with exceptions. Wyatt-Brown says southerners were so hospitable that it became a deep competition for the notional title of most hospitable. This, he argues, drove the conspicuous consumption on the surface of southern society. Wyatt-Brown then points out that this was a façade; that the tropical climate drove any sense of order or purpose out of the culture and therefore the picture of superb hospitality was a mirage and that there was a rotten core of filthy living and begrudging grace of hosts. Wyatt-Brown argues that the wayward traveler would find no warmth of southern hospitality without detailed letters of introduction and a complex set of favors owed to someone on the traveler’s behalf.

Family honor, however, was the backbone of southern society. Highlighted by the ritual of passing names from generation to generation, he argues that the value of family bloodline was unquestioned. As the bloodline is passed through the children, they are raised in a conflicting world of violence and neglect compared with motherly affection and overindulgence. What is least convincing about this argument is his implication that southerners are unique in this expression of child-rearing.

The largest of his foundational chapters deals with sexual honor. Wyatt-Brown paints a picture of a singularly depraved and sordid society. The essence of his argument centers on the dichotomy between women’s weakness and power. It would have been better argued from a Foucaultian point of view about power and points of leverage instead of a stale discussion of women’s matriarchal power over hen-pecked husbands balanced against the abject dependency of women and their requirement to marry to avoid barrenness and shame. The same Foucaultian point of view could better describe the black-white sexual relations as well while highlighting the differences and the social preeminence of the white classes over the black.

Wyatt-Brown’s second half builds on the foundations to paint a more complete picture of the composite society. Honor fueled the seemingly opposed inclinations of hospitality and competition which played out to predictable, and, according to Wyatt-Brown, entirely southern responses in the arenas of hospitality, gambling, and duels. All are intertwined he argues with some collective social sense of who was whom and their respective status on the social ladder. Hospitality, gambling, or even dueling could serve as the steps on the social ladder insomuch as one did not attempt to climb too far too fast.

The society that is compulsively focused on the social strata was therefore beholden to the social, collective conscience. Wyatt-Brown suggests the official southern legal system was so broken it was only natural for southerners to rely on the strength and authority of their social system of elite leaders who represented the collective conscience. As a result of reliance on the un-official societal authority, slave revolts and rumors therein led to a cycle of panics and violent quells. With tacit official sanction, the perverse system of justice led to a society built not on law but on the balance of lynching and charivaris. In melodramatic form, Wyatt-Brown relates the story of fifteen year old Susan Foster’s murder by her husband James Foster, Jr. as the quintessential example of southern justice. James Foster, Jr. was clearly guilty, freed by the legal system, whipped, tarred and feathered to an inch of his life, stripped of rank and possessions, and set free to disappear in to history.

The book told a tale of a depraved, mob-ruled, singular society rivaling the worst of the Celtic hordes and bacchanalian Roman orgies. In 1984, University of Arkansas professor Michael O’Brien described Southern Honor as an especially difficult and slow book to read. He concludes, “What made it painful was the spectacle of an author, writing in extensor about a culture he so obviously despises. His Old South is a unrelievedly miserable place.”

The arguments were not well woven and relied of erratic logical and rhetorical evidence from the Celts, ancient Germans, Romans, to New England literature. That southern society was built on notions of honor is reasonable, but it is arguable that most societies are built on the same fashion, be they Western, Eastern, or Tribal. Honor and Violence stripped out the necessary footnotes or endnotes that would enable a critique of the sources and leads one to conclude that this text’s intended audience was that of a more general reader. In an era of aggressive revisionism and accelerating racial changes in the United States, it is easy to assume this text was written for an emerging class of well-educated, semi-academic liberals looking to atone for the crimes of the American past. This text provides a damning, and not entirely believable, argument that the South alone existed in such a depraved state exerting overwhelming force through societal constructs over any element of discord, be they slave, female, aristocratic, or common.

Twenty-four years later, there is little to recommend this text. While written in a rolling and entertaining style with engrossing tales of cultural depravity, it offers a very one-dimensional study of a complex society. Professor Wyatt-Brown’s thesis is generally upheld by his rhetoric and logic and is therefore plausible if not believable. In the midst of the revisionist movement in the early 1980s it is somewhat understandable how the original version of this book, Southern Honor would be a finalist for the Pulitzer and American Book Awards. In 2010, the author’s failure to write objectively fails to illuminate academic discourse.

February 15, 2010 Posted by | American Civil War | , , , , , | 1 Comment

Review: Mastering America

Bonner Mastering America

Robert E. Bonner. Mastering America: Southern Slaveholders and the Crisis of American Nationhood. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. xxii + 328 pp. $16.46 (pbk), ISBN 978-0-521-54177-0

One should consider notions of nationality with notions of revolution as a fundamental component of that revolution. Revolutionary peoples should have an idea of who they, collectively, want to be after the struggles of revolution are complete. As a result, the fate of the revolutionary nationalism is tied to the fate of the revolution. For example, revolutionary ideals of liberty and representative democracy survived the war with England in the American colonies; liberté, égalité, fraternité survived the dark days in Paris and the maturation of modern-day France. The ideals of the revolutionaries, who lose, however, are often discarded with the fates of the traitors themselves. In Mastering America, Robert E. Bonner, associate professor of history at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, suggests many of the nationalist ideals of slaveholders not only contributed to cause of secession and the formation of the Confederate States of America, but also fundamentally contributed to the larger notions of American nationalism within the United States of America well beyond the American Civil War of 1861-1865.

Professor Bonner separates his work in three major sections dealing with the pre-war geopolitics, a larger view of proslavery Americanism, and Confederate nationhood. His discussion on geopolitics covers a wide range of topics intending to set the stage for how proslavery sentiment, political action, and religious support flourished in pre-Civil War America and describing the key elements of the national psyche at play. Prior to 1860, Bonner claims the strength of the Union was essential for slavery’s survival and was key in the development of southern identity. The westward expansion offered new territories to exploit while the economic boom of “King Cotton” fueled a level of relative wealth unparalleled elsewhere in the world. Additionally, a growing federal state provided a measure of protection against the Caribbean unrest, European incursions in the west, and Mexican incursion in the southwest. Federal strength thus protected the outer boundaries while the booming economic growth and westward expansion offered southern politicians increased clout in the Congress. Protected from without and politically supported from within, slavery was relatively secure in the southern states until the late 1850s.

The larger view of proslavery sentiment throughout America offers a more complex picture. Professor Bonner paints a picture of complex psychology where the American political and social conscience was beginning to sense its role in the larger world; where the larger Western world was beginning to loose its chattel; and where religion was called upon to defend both sides. At the heart of the intellectual battle is the hypocrisy of the Jeffersonian agrarians who extolled the virtues of liberty while demanding enslavement of whole peoples. Bonner cites such leading voices such as B.F. Stringfellow, who claimed “in a republic based on racial slavery, the institution, ‘elevates the character of not only the master, the actual owner of slaves, but of all who wear the colour of freeman’ “”(p. 88). Bonner responds by quoting the opposing voice of Edmund Burke who, seventy-nine years earlier, said, “the political capacities of white American masters had been sapped by their ‘unlimited right over the lives and liberties of others'”(p.88). Intellectual debate was also stifled by blind acceptance by southerners of “the orthodoxy of accepted truth” which “declare[ed] that further inquiry was unnecessary”(p.97). Bonner argued that southerners reached a point where debate was rejected and the truths of the sovereignty of slavery were self evident.

Bonner also reasoned slavery’s support in the role of national identity is based on a large demonstration of religious support for slavery. Presbyterians, Methodists, Episcopalians, and Baptists all rose to provide divine approval for the institution of slavery and formed a southern view while paradoxically strengthening larger views of American identity. There were objections within each denomination, but the rejections succeeded only in producing schism in the Presbyterians, Methodists, and Baptists not any significant shift in the southerners. The result was a very strong, largely sectional, southern contingent of each marching forward to provide a religious basis for a slave-holding society. The South found an intellectual rationale for slavery and divine backing to give them a common voice behind their inordinate political power. The South formed what Benedict Anderson would call an imagined community with a common language of slavery against a common enemy of the north. In the 1850s, the strength of the Union was no longer as critical as before so the imagined community shifted to focus on the central issue of slave holding society.

To counter the civic influence of a louder politico-religious voice in the South as well as the inordinate political power of southern politicians, Bonner describes the Republican party’s consolidation of political power in the North. Bonner claims, as a result of the rising voice from below and the increasing power of the Republican party, in a Republican victory in 1860 “would come not simply a shift in national power, but a destruction of proslavery political capital that had been decades in the making”(p. 213). The proslavery voices that consolidated power in the South gave rise to an enemy with a focus on disrupting and destroying that power in the northern Republicans.

Bonner’s most convincing arguments came in his third section exposing the absolute logical fallacies and ultimate breakdown of southern nationalism. Bonner describes the atmosphere just before the election of 1860 as one later similar to the period just before World War I when all parties expected a purifying war experience to set things right. The South knew if Lincoln won there would be war and slavery would be under direct assault leaving the South politically impotent in the new Republican framework. The imminence of war focused the southern eyes on the common enemy of the Yankee who was the agent opposing God’s will for a slaveholding society. Bonner says, “Lincoln had done more to unite the South over the course of several months than they had managed through far and more considerable efforts over the span of decades”(p.220). The South would break away and war would begin, but the martial conflict with the Union would be one of many problems the South would face.

Bonner details the conflicts, logically, philosophically, and politically that would attack the Confederacy from its beginning on December 24, 1860 with the Secession of South Carolina. Suddenly, the ardent states’ rights activists had to rapidly consolidate a new federal power, raise a cohesive army, and go to war while drafting a Constitution and forming a new federal government. For the leading politicians, states’ rights no longer applied to the individual states of the Confederacy but of the federal Confederacy as a whole. Ideals of liberty and independence likewise applied to the whole Confederacy, not its constituent parts. Bonner highlights the war’s progression with Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ restriction of many civil liberties and ultimately the enlistment of the very slaves they were fighting to keep.

Bonner also describes the sudden loss of cohesion as soon as the Confederacy was born. There was no strategic vision in the South. Beyond the desire for slavery, the South could agree on very little. Even the Confederate Constitution offered little radical protection for slavery beyond an opportunity to address the issue at a later time. Southerners viewed themselves as inheritors of the revolutionary ideals of colonial America while confronting the notion of being “the world’s first proudly and self-consciously slaveholding republic” (p. 254) and defending their view in terms of martial paternalism on behalf of their constituent slave populations.

As the war drew to its inevitable conclusion, the specter of slave conscription logically nullified all that the war was fought over. The ideals that formed the South became hollow and the ideals of a larger American identity remained. The Lost Cause sentiment that grew after the war would seed more southern nationalism and unity than the South could muster before or during the war. Regardless, there was no significant debate over the South rising again. The defeated South adopted the nationalism of Union and set about beginning to deal with racism, not slavery.

Bonner paints a very convincing picture of a simultaneously coexistent and combative nationalism before the war. He supports his theory that the South needed the Union for a period to establish a certain measure of security. During that time, southern politicians gained power and influence at the same time a common voice in the press and the pulpit gave rationale and divine blessing for slavery. This increased sectionalism galvanized the North and the Republicans to confront the political inequities and imbalances of their southern brothers. Professor Bonner’s claim that secession and confederacy failed in part because the South could only muster enough cohesion to break away, not stay together. Simultaneously, the focus against slavery and the South brought the North together with fervent pro-union sentiment.

The careful analysis and weight given to religious voices, political voices, and press voices offers a unique picture of how southerners came to view the world. In essence, southerners saw themselves in a complex and contradictory light, at once espousing the ideals of liberty and Christianity while ignoring and shutting debate on the inconsistencies of holding human chattel.

Bonner is thoroughly convincing. His evidence is well researched and presented from several perspectives: religious, political, press, North, and South. This text is not for the typical Civil War buff interested in the great story of good versus evil or of theories of why the war was fought or what events transpired. This is a complex narrative of intertwining views of nationality and how they changed over time and offers a partial explanation of how the South was reintegrated after the war best suited for academic audiences interested in the broader complexities and better able to accept a history that does not neatly fit into a simple equation. Consequently, this text could benefit from more analysis of that reintegration process to determine how well and where the notions of nationality from the North or the South played in the post-war reunion.

Professor Bonner’s arguments for the influence, cause, and relationship of nationalism in the South and in the Union is well considered and an essential text. It does little to create unnecessary angst for the partial reader and does much to offer reason, logic, and defense for the impartial. As a result, many questions are answered, but many more are introduced. This work informs any intellectual study into the remaining questions and offers a new approach to existing questions about American nationalism.

February 1, 2010 Posted by | American Civil War | , , , , | Leave a comment