Thursday, June 25, 2015

Reading about the Confederacy - Note for a lecture, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United"

John Williams,

Faced with the horrific murders in South Carolina and the ensuing debate
over the appropriateness of the Confederate flag, it’s even clearer than usual
that history is not a dusty book on a shelf. There has been more written about
the Civil War than you could read in a lifetime, or a hundred lifetimes. But for
those interested in learning more about the Confederacy — its people, its
soldiers, its descendants — these five books offer a start:

image from

“Mary Chesnut’s Diary”

Chesnut’s wartime diary is perhaps the most remarkable documentary
account of daily life in the Confederacy. She was the daughter of a wealthy
plantation owner in South Carolina. Her husband was an aide to Jefferson
Davis, the Confederate president. Her diary entries closely follow the events of
the war, as in this excerpt from March 11, 1862: “This terrible battle of the
ships — Monitor, Merrimac, etc. All hands on board the Cumberland went
down. She fought gallantly and fired a round as she sank. The Congress ran up
a white flag. She fired on our boats as they went up to take off her wounded.
She was burned. The worst of it is that all this will arouse them to more furious
exertions to destroy us. They hated us so before, how now?”

Elsewhere, she captures the emotional tenor of the times. On June 9 of
the same year: “When you meet people, sad and sorrowful is the greeting; they
press your hand; tears stand in their eyes or roll down their cheeks, as they
happen to possess more or less self­control. They have brother, father, or sons
as the case may be, in battle. And now this thing never seems to stop. We have
no breathing time given us.”

In the New York Review of Books, William Styron wrote that the diary
“has its greatest value for the modern reader in the extraordinary panorama it
presents of a culture being rent asunder.” He was writing about “Mary
Chesnut’s Civil War,” an edition of the diary annotated by the historian C.
Vann Woodward, which won the Pulitzer Prize in History in 1982.

“Lee” by Douglas Southall Freeman

No figure is more closely tied to our notions of the Confederacy than
Robert E. Lee, and Freeman’s epic biography, first published in four volumes
in the mid­1930s, remains the fullest portrait. The series was abridged to one
volume in 1961. Reviewing the abridgment in The New York Times Book
Review, Dumas Malone said that Freeman’s book explains “as no one had ever
done” how Lee “became the man he was.” The eminent Civil War historian
James M. McPherson said Freeman’s biography did “more to shape our image
of Lee — indeed of the Civil War — than perhaps any other work.”

“Roll, Jordan, Roll” by Eugene D. Genovese

Mr. Genovese’s sweeping look at the lives of slaves and masters in the
American South won the Bancroft Prize for American history writing in 1975.
Mr. Genovese, who saw slavery as a paternalistic system and wrote about ways
in which owners recognized the humanity of their slaves, has been criticized
for playing down the violent racism at the heart of the institution. But he has
been praised for other contributions to our understanding of the period. In
The New York Times Book Review, David Brion Davis said the book “covers an
incredible range of topics and offers fresh insights on nearly every page.” In
The New Republic in 1994, Edward L. Ayers called it “the best book ever
written about American slavery.” Likewise, in a 1988 letter to The New York
Review of Books defending some of his criticism’s in Genovese’s work, Michael
Kazin wrote: “As a nonspecialist, I consider ‘Roll, Jordan, Roll’ to be the best
book ever written on slavery in the United States.”

“Patriotic Gore” by Edmund Wilson

Wilson’s mammoth effort from 1962 is an attempt to understand the war
through a mixture of literary criticism and biography. It includes brilliant
evaluations of the writings of Abraham Lincoln, Harriet Beecher Stowe,
Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee, as well as other less famous figures, about
whom Wilson is just as piercing. Alongside his literary opinions is historical
analysis about the country, as in this passage about Lee:
There is nothing about Lee that is at all picturesque, but his
dignity and distinction are impressive, and this memoir helps us
better to understand the reasons for his lasting prestige in the North
as well as the South — why a New Englander who had served in the
Union army like the younger Charles Francis Adams should have
wanted to have a statue of him in Washington. The point is that Lee
belongs, as does no other public figure of his generation, to the Roman
phase of the Republic; he prolongs it in a curious way which,
irrelevant and anachronistic though his activities to a Northerner may
seem to be, cannot fail to bring some sympathetic response that
derives from the experience of the Revolution. The Lees had been
among the prime workers in our operations against the British and the
founding of the United States.
“Confederates in the Attic” by Tony Horwitz

Mr. Horwitz’s breezy, smart, occasionally very funny book from 1998
recounts his tour of the modern­day South, and various characters who remain
fascinated by (and in several cases, obsessed with) the Civil War. Yes, there are
war re­enactors, but many other types besides. In The New York Times Book
Review, Roy Blount Jr., who knows from the American South, called it “the
freshest book about divisiveness in America that I have read in some time,” a
“rattling good read” that is “an eyes­open, humorously no­nonsense survey of
complicated Americans.” Mr. Blount described a few of the characters found in
the book: “a die­hard defender of the Confederate flag who is married to a
Colombian and speaks fluent Spanish; another who is a fan of the scabrous rap
group 2 Live Crew (‘Anything the state’s against, I’m for’); yet another whose
first name is Soren, after Kierkegaard, and whose middle name is K, after

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