Friday, October 26, 2012

Bitterly Divided

Bitterly Divided: the South's Inner Civil War
© 2008 David Williams
310 pages



Why did the South lose the Civil War? Was it the strengths of the Union -- a better rail network, a superior manufacturing base, more soldiers? David Williams doesn't think so, emphasizing rather the great weakness of the Confederacy, its divided populace. In Bitterly Divided: the South's Inner Civil War, he demonstrates that the south did not fight the war as a unified body. In Williams' view, secession and war were forced upon the population by a few self-interested planters, who instituted the first draft in American history to compel the masses to do their fighting for them. Such an idea flies in the face of modern southern nationalists,  but the evidence here does bear out that the the south was a land set against itself during the planters' insurrection, and its disunity -- not Union armies -- may have well led to is demise.

Williams' narrative is energetic and direct.  After first establishing that the war was, in fact, about slavery, with a ruling planter aristocracy forcing secession conventions on the states to defend the ailing and embattled institution of slavery against anticipated attacks, Williams notes how quickly popular support for the conflict waned after the first few months. Despite an initial outburst of patriotism following Lincoln's call for volunteers, most "plain folk" quickly lost interest in fighting what they perceived to be someone else's cause. The falling out of volunteers prompted the confederate government to pass the conscription act,  forcing everyone, even those without a stake in slavery, to fight to defend it.  Curiously, though, the planters themselves passed legislation exempting slaveholders from the draft and providing a means of escape for the wealthy who didn't have quite enough slaves (20) to qualify as indispensable.  These same planters also took advantage of the wartime uptick in demand for cotton, and the increase in prices brought on by the Union blockade -- neglecting food in the process.

 This selfish neglect deprived the common people food, and wives wrote to their husbands lamenting of their impending starvation. When the price of food climbed, in part owing to speculation, southern ladies took a page from the books of the French revolution and stole the food  from merchants at gunpoint. The news of their loved ones’ misery, coupled with that of their own, prompted millions of soldiers to start deserting, so much so that Lee and Davis were fretting over their shrinking numbers only two years into the war.  Meanwhile, rebels-against-the-rebellion were hiding in swamps and raging guerilla war on the confederacy, tying down troops and cooperating with slaves, who were not only deserting or killing their masters, but likewise taking up arms – sometimes officially, for the Union cause, joining millions of white southerners who chose to fight for the north in defense of the nation. Nearly a quarter of Union soldiers came from the south. In short, the Confederate government’s enemies didn’t wear blue and weren't massed on one front: they were everywhere. The Confederacy failed because it was a corrupt, abusive institution from the start which never earned the loyalty of the people it claimed to govern.

This is a lively retelling of the story of the Civil War, and a heartening one, but it has its faults.  There's no denying the essential truth of Williams' account: the letters, newspaper articles, and government memos he relies on here firmly establish that corruption, abuse, and revolt against the same were rife in the south during the war years. The problem is that Williams hits the reader with a barrage of scattered incidents that doesn't bear the weight of comprehensive evidence. It's easy to pile on examples, but even an avalanche of anecdotes wouldn't do the job. More focused data sets are needed: military reports listing proportions of desertions, for instance.  What percentage of the planter class stayed home? As was the case with A People's History, Bitterly Divided needed more attention in the editing process. Repetition abounds, with some cases being cited three or more times. This borders on obnoxious given that the book isn't particularly lengthy.

Bitterly Divided has an excellent point to make, but it is in need of refinement. Presently, it makes for compelling if rough reading. I intend to pursue other authors in this area of scholarship, and will readily recommend Williams to others despite the book’s limitations.

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