Monday, July 23, 2012

A People's History of the Civil War

A People's History of the Civil War: Struggles for the Meaning of Freedom
594 pages
© 2005 David Williams

No war has left such an impression on the American character as its civil war. That conflict (1861-1865) claimed more American lives than either World War 2 or Vietnam, and remains the only great war to have taken place on American soil. (The war of independence took place here, but didn't occupy or ravage the landscape to any comparable degree.) The memory of it lives on, especially in the south where people fly Confederate flags from their yards and speak still of states' rights and the Cause. Despite its human and material costs, when the war is spoken of it is usually romanticized, depicted a battle between good and evil -- though whether the good was the Union fighting to destroy slavery or the South fighting to defend its rights varies on who is involved in the discussion. Enter A People's History of the Civil War,  a merciless and fascinating treatment that exposes the weaknesses of traditional narratives and butchers illusions. It is both dynamite and bitter medicine -- powerful, necessary, and sometimes painful.

No serious historian would maintain that the Union invaded the South to free the slaves, or that the South severed ties with the Union purely in the defense of principle: anyone with an ounce of integrity would acknowledge contributing economic and material influences. At the very least one might say that the war was simply the violent expression of an conflict between two economic systems, that of the industrial and commercial north versus the traditional, agrarian south.  Williams' account is more direct: the war was about money and power, just the same as any war. Even the abolitionists were motived in part by greed: northern businessmen didn't want their expansion into the west having to compete with the free labor of southern powers.  Although Brooks' work is organized more thematically than chronologically (containing distinct sections on the role of women, labor,  the lives of soldiers, reaction to conscription, the governments' treatment of women etc) he jumps in feet first by critically examining the legitimacy of secession. Contrary to popular belief -- the Confederate government is more loved now than it was when it actually existed -- secession was not a popular mandate. Brooks reveals how election on the question of secession were rigged, stolen, or done away with outright by the planters who saw the election of Lincoln as a threat to their way of life.  Not only was the cutting of ties unpopular: so was the war that followed.  Economic powers in the north were patently unwillingly to allow the south's resources to simply walk away from the union. Following Lincoln's call to arms, support for the two governments' cause rallied briefly, but soon fell away, leading to conscription acts in both parts of the country and fostering popular resentment against the government.  Why did the South lose? The conventional answer of our usual narrative is that the South's lack of material resources doomed her against the industrious north...but Brooks notes on several occasions that the South never lost a battle for want of arms or ammunition: time and again, its weakness was the faltering support of the people for an uninspiring government and a cause not their own: Davis and Lee noted with urgent concern the rising deseration rates in their ranks as early as 1862.

The American Civil War was in short a rich man's war and a poor man's fight: not only was it created by the economic rivalry of competeing business interests, but these same men declined to take part in the fight once it was begun. When the initial emotional spasm of patriotism subsided and the volunteers fell away, both sides instituted conscription acts...but the wealthy were functionally exempt, either for practical reasons (because they could purchase substitutes) or by law (planters with more than twenty slaves were exempt from the draft).  At least the northern elites contributed to the war effort through industrial production: in the south, planters took advantage of increased wartime prices for cotton and shifted emphasis to producing it instead of food, leading to mass and chronic starvation that endured throughout the war.  The producers of war materials also looted soldiers and the government for all they were worth in selling supplies; a practice evidently a staple of American warmaking, for this was a principle complaint of Major General Smedley Butler's War is a Racket, dated 1935 and drawing on suppliers' behavior in the Great War.  The soldiers' experience was generally one of misery:  Brooks documents the inferior food, ghastly medical practices, harsh disicpline (promoted by the contempt of the wealthy officer class for the proles under their command), and the obscene misuse of soldiers using traditional tactics against modern weapons.  A massed body of men in bright uniform makes a marvelous target for the gunners, a fact that Europe learned in 1914. Little wonder that the soldiers and their families at home protested so mightily; little wonder that they deserted. The loyalty they had, Brooks wrote, was to their comrades: though "The Cause" rung hollow after the first year of conflict, few soldiers were willing to simply abandon their friends and comrades to the dangers of war.  They fought on not for the country, but for each other.

Alas, such solidarity is not to be found outside the soldiers' ranks. The war was a truly a civil war, not because it pit Americans from the north and south against one another but because it pit the common people against one another. They're horrifyingly fickle, "the people", first lyching one another for not supporting the war, then for supporting it;  while the tale has a reliable villain in southern planters, there are precious few heroes to be found here in this text where the abolitionists are viciously anti-labor;  the rich abuse the poor, men abuse the women, governments mistreat the Indians, and everybody hates the blacks.   The usual strength of the People's History series is that its infuriating and saddening accounts of exploitation are redeemed by inspiring feats when the people rally together and overcome their oppressors. That never happens here: the people are continually set against one another, and as the bodycount rises one looks for a small sliver of hope in the fact that at least the slaves were freed and the south was forced to modernize. No such luck:  freedmen were trapped in slavery by another name, tenancy-farming, or migrated northward to be abused in the factories by men who were just as fearful and prejudiced as planters of the south.  This is no account for the faint of heart: it will force those who believe in popular sovereignty to face hard questions.  How can a just and peaceful government be possible when people are so easy to set against one another? Such is the question posed to us by the legacy of the Civil War.

A People's History of the Civil War is a mighty contribution to American Civil War literature. It asks questions no other account would, explores facets of the conflict that would otherwise have gone hidden: it ignores military campaigns and politics to look at the lives of the people who were forced to fight and endure through the war. I read about the war obsessively during my high school years, and still time and again Brooks' work left me reeling.   As powerful as it is, it has its weaknesses -- the editing is rough around the edges, and as much as the pages are saturated with primary sources protesting the war or bewailing the rich,  it's easy to cherry pick --  but what it reveals is worth considering for anyone with an interest in the war.


  1. I have a few Civil War books coming up you should find interesting.......

  2. Oh, I'm sure! Getting any science reading done this summer?

  3. I'm certainly *trying* to read more science - I'm forcing myself to alternate the history stuff with anything other than history - otherwise I'd probably never get around to it!

    BTW - Another Civil War book landed on my mat today from Amazon [grin].


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