Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Look Away!

Look Away! A History of the Confederate States of America
© 2003 William C. Davis
496 pages

While most Civil War histories concentrate on military campaigns, Look Away! chronicles the history of the Confederacy from a political and social perspective. Its attempt to ignore military matters is almost futile given that the Confederacy was born in war and perished amid it, as its every institution (civic, social, economic) was ravaged by the war and driven into failure. The story of Look Away is one of a doomed nation, riven in contradiction from the start.  Examining the feuds between the southern Congress and its president, the implosion of slavery, the breakdown of law and order,  the trials of women and economic woes, it looks at the southern nation that lay behind the battlefront.  Though I initially avoided reading this on suspicion that it was the work of neo-Confederate ideology (I've seen it sold beside titles like The South was Right!), it proved appropriately moderate, neither overtly friendly nor hostile -- not that its presentation of slavery as the driving force of the war pleased the sputtering reviewer who announced that Gone with the Wind was a superior text to consult.
Davis  begins with the crisis leading to the secession of the southern states, and their gathering together to create a new constitution. The form of their confederate government makes plain slavery's role as a cause of the war; even if one ignores all of the defensive rhetoric from the time,  the fact that no Confederate state could ever dispense with slavery within its borders has challenges the "states' rights" crowd who maintain slavery was incidental. The southerners attempted to create a modified version of the US Constitution which emphasized the sovereignty of the individual states,  but the stresses of war would the dream.

Attempting to forge a nation from scratch in the midst of a war is no easy feat;  while the Continental Congress accomplished it, their task was somewhat easier. Their foes was an ocean away, its resources and attention scattered, its means of communication and transport largely the same as in the days of William the Conqueror.  The north and south, however, were intimate neighbors with intertwined borders: both could and would field armies in the hundreds of thousands, supported by the best of modern technology -- trains, telegraphs, and a robust factory system. The war would be total from the beginning, as Davis' account bears out.

His examination of the home front demonstrates how widespread military enlistment and conscription led to much of society simply failing apart for want of the men needed to maintain it. Not only were civil servants like postmen, peace officers, and the like taken, but so many men were absent either through enlistment or conscription that the farms were left undermanned and vulnerable not only to slave insurrections but raids from bands of highwaymen and deserters.

Complicating matters from the start was the divided political sentiment of the southrons who, though avowing agrarian democracy and political liberty, were led by a plantation elite jealous of their own power and dependent on slavery. The Confederacy was an oligarchy in the form of a democracy, Davis writes, and as the war continued the form of democracy wore off. Civil order collapsed, leaving parts of the south running on martial law, naked power, and the government proved no less dangerous to struggling farmers than raids as it began seizing crops as quickly as they could be grown. Not only was the army of little use in countering the violence of highwaymen, beset on all sides by the Union force, but  the state it served had become an agent of abuse itself. The best of the south's political class had fled Congress for the Army (war being less distasteful than the tenor of debate), leaving the government in the hands of woefully inferior personalities who were only too happy to spend their time bickering while Rome burned, and corrupted by all of the power coalescing in their hands. The longer the war wore on, the more power Richmond collected; not only through self-willed expansion, but by people depending on it as a last resort.  The Confederacy, having begun as a decentralized confederacy, was by war's end a welfare state; an astonishing journey that only war could taken a nation.

Although it offers brief military recaps to give readers an idea for the general course of the war, Look Away!  is first and foremost a history of the southern country at home as it attempted to be a people and a nation at war.  Not only does it offer readers a view of the chaos that the  average family would have been enduring through the war years, it imparts an understanding of the Confederate government far different from the one which exists in popular myth. It's a grimmer view, but one softened by the fact that Davis is plainly sympathetic to his subjects.  Look Away should definitely be of interest to anyone fascinated by the Civil War or southern politics.


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