Confederate Reckoning – Stephanie McCurry

Power and Politics in the Civil War South

I was very afraid of this book when reading the preface.  There was quite a bit of modern buzzwords about feminist theory and gender politics.  I’ve been burned before by books on even Ancient history suddenly being tarred by modern political posturing and trying to fit the more complicated values of the past into a simplistic framework to fit modern theories.  Marxist historians used to be especially prone to this.  Real life is a lot more complex, and a good history needs to remember that.

It did not take long to show that my fears were groundless, and that this is one of the most valuable corrective histories I’ve come across on the Civil War.  The author starts out with a direct expression of the nature of the Confederate Experiment – that the founders of the CSA intended to produce a Republic for White Men, and founded on a bedrock institution of Slavery.  This has been evaded for various reasons by the ex-Confederates after the war and by historians since.

The first case study is an examination of the secession campaigns in 1860.  The speeches of pro-secession speakers was avowedly based on fears of amalgamation between the races, claiming that Lincoln was elected by black votes.  The campaigns, even in South Carolina, featured armed bullies showing up at meetings to intimidate loyalists. Even there tensions between the upper class and lesser folk had to be papered over to gain the point.  Other states, like Georgia, were likely only won by fraud.  Even the official result of 54 percent for secession is hardly a mandate.  One of the first acts of the new independent Georgia was to define a treason statute giving the death penalty for allegiance to the Union.

In theory, women had no part of this political action, as their sphere was defined to be the home.  However, soon imperfections in this view were evident.  When resistance to the Confederate state began, there were serious questions if a woman, as not really a citizen, could be treasonous.  In practice, though, these mothers and wives of disloyal men were routinely harrassed, sometimes to the point of torture to get information.

The separation of women from the state continued to break down as the war continued.  As more and more men were pulled into service, and killed there, the problem of relief for soldiers’ wives became acute.  The CSA government was built as a war-making device, and to suddenly have to divert significant resources to nationwide welfare programs was a constant distraction.  And to lobby to get these claims, women had to group and lobby from a local to national level.

The strain became even worse with the bread riots led by women in the late war period. As prices rose, the food kept by the government or by speculators became a matter of resentment and finally, mobs of women took matters into hand and looted shops and warehouses. While the lawlessness was troubling, the government response was conflicted since the claim that women were not being sheltered from want was undeniable.

The issue of slaves became a problem too, for similar reasons.  The conventional excuse for slavery was that slaves, like children, were not responsible enough on their own.  Thus slave relations were a personal issue between master and slave, and not a government matter.  And again, slaves were purposely not part of the Confederate State.

So the war at once started to disrupt this pattern.  Slaves would flee to, or inform US forces about military matters.  If caught, masters usually resisted severe punishment. As the war continued, more white men left slaveholding regions so actual enforcement became difficult and counterproductive.  Slaves often left and lived off in woods for months at a time.  Owners resisted calls to divert slaves to the military for labor – partly out of fear they might be mistreated, partly out of fear they might lose them entirely.

As the end grew closer, the disjunction between the image of slaves and the reality grew more apparent.  Overt violence was not common, but reports of a kind of watchful waiting that the owners found unsettling were common.  And if the masters fled the plantation, slaves routinely took over and looted them.  This happened to Jefferson Davis and his brother themselves.

The final rock that broke the image was the fight over slave soldiers.  In the end, the overt need for more soldiers to preserve the nation could not quite prevail over the idea that each master could keep control over his own slaves.

Even to someone like me, that has read hundreds to thousands of Civil War books and articles, this book showed me something new and added depth to matters I already knew from the rare mentions in other books.  This will definitely stay on the shelf with the other important books in my collection.

Europe Between the Oceans – Barry Cunliffe

9000 BC – AD 1000

I picked this up a while back because of its wide coverage. It turns out it is a textbook, so it has the pluses and minuses of that.  It has lots of maps and pictures, covers a lot of ground but is a bit thin on an overriding theme.  It has some broad strokes but also goes down and shows diagrams of particular excavations.

Overall it didn’t do as much as other textbooks I have that aren’t as complete – it just doesn’t have enough text to tie the particulars that are discussed and also give a feel for the overall history that sticks with you.  Perhaps it was intended for a course after conventional ancient history so they assume you know the ebb and flow of Greece, Rome and so forth so a lot of that is glossed over.

So it has interesting bits and pieces, but didn’t make itself into enough of a whole to end up being very memorable.

The Chickamauga Campaign Part 2 – David A. Powell

Glory or the Grave:  The Breakthrough, the Union Collapse, and the Defense of Horseshoe Ridge, September 20, 1863

This detailed look at the second (or third depending how you look at it) day of Chickamauga is the best treatment I’ve read yet.  Not only does it give additional detail on parts of the day often glossed over – I don’t think most other books do more than have a few paragraphs on the withdrawal from Kelly Field– but at many points an anecdote will be presented, then confirmed or questioned by appeals to knowledge presented or by other sources.

The scenario for this day of the battle is complicated.  Bragg’s’ Army is being reinforced by Longstreet’s Corps from the Army of Northern Virginia.  Rosecrans’ Union Army has been edging northward to block efforts to cut him off from the recently captured key rail junction of Chattanooga, TN.  Some good moves by the Union and fumbles by the hastily assembled Rebel army have preserved the Union force, now outnumbered.  Most of Longstreet’s troops were on the field for the first day, and at dark Longstreet himself arrives on the scene.

Bragg decides to reorganize the army overnight and give Longstreet half.  Normally, this would be a dubious decision, but given the chaos of the current command structure it probably was the right decision.  Just to complicate things even more, there an immense amount of confusion where various generals in the high command failed to make contact for an early attack.  Possibly this, too, was less of an issue than thought.  With the need for Longstreet to even find his command, and then organize it, a rapid assault by the other wing might just have led to even less unity of action than actually happened.  It is questionable that the Union made good use of the time.

The Union army was drawn up with a very thin, long line.  To the south, a major hospital complex had to be held until evacuated.  To the north, Thomas had a nice, compact position, but not one that protected the route to Chattanooga.  Thus he kept demanding more troops, but there weren’t enough to cover all the needs.

Rosecrans was starting to lose control of the situation.  Despite Thomas hoarding units like a crazy cat lady, he still respected him enough to send him more.  Thus he had virtually the southern third of the army in motion at once, edging northward and changing positions back and forth.  This confusion would cost them at a critical time.

When the Confederates to the north finally get going, they do manage to outflank Thomas on the north and cause some confusion.  Some of the dispatched units help repel this attack.  However, there were other units crammed into Thomas’ front that could and should have been pulled into a reserve for these contingencies.

Near noon, Longstreet gets going and smashes into the center.  In a final confusion of orders, Wood pulled his division out of line just as the attack started and created a hole.  The handling of this controversy is excellent – rather than the usual suspects, Powell gives all the details of both sides and points a finger at a new suspect for blame – the Corps commander McCook,  This chasm tore the army apart, and the lack of command control just made things worse.  Units were driven from the field, but thousands of others left under the orders of their commander without much cause, taking ammunition with them.  The corps commanders with the exception of Thomas went to pieces even more than the dire situation required.

A stand by some fragments was made on Horseshoe Ridge, to protect Thomas’ rear.  Luckily for the Union, a detached Corps to the north came south to add to the defense.  This line held for a time, but before nightfall Thomas had to leave the fleld in some confusion.  Again, the story of these retirements are told in great detail here.  A third volume will cover events after the night of September 30.

This is a great book.  It gives the history as best as we can understand it – it gives the arguments on both sides in controversies so we can decide the likely truth.  It tells the old stories and tries to confirm them, or cast doubt on them if they are post-war fudging.  It is fair to the scapegoats without necessarily exonerating them, and even identifies a few more.  And it is written in an interesting style that tells the stories of men on both sides, from privates to Generals.