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The Civil War: The Truth And The Legend
August 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 5
The final truth of history is an evasive and a many-sided thing. It is what really happened, and it is what men have thought really happened; it is what men did, and the emotions that moved them while they were doing it; it is the hard facts that lie under the gloss of romance, and it is also the gloss itself—for the act of dreaming can be as important as the thing dreamed of. It is infinitely complex, a house of many mansions, something that never quite becomes fixed.
So the story is never really finished. Each generation comes to its own conclusions, and the ultimate meaning has a way of lying, half-hidden, just over the top of the next hill. So “the lesson of history” remains fluid; perhaps, in the end, it is nothing much more definite than the demonstration that human life is a many-splendored thing of infinite variety and an all but incomprehensible complexity.
We have, for instance, the American Civil War. Here was a great convulsion which tore the country apart and put it together again in a strange new way, a process of violence and bloodshed that, in one way or another, has affected all of the lives of every American since 1865, and which will go on having its effects for generations to come. It is both terrifying and fascinating; we are not yet quite sure what it all meant, and it remains subject to almost any number of interpretations. The one certainty seems to be that Americans of this generation cannot leave the subject alone.
The war gets diverse treatment, in this summer’s lot of books.
The treatment begins with Clifford Dowdey’s The Land They Fought For , a solid history of the southern Confederacy in which the Lost Cause remains defiantly and unalterably lost, the slashed flag still afloat over the haze of far-off battle smoke, a moving and impassioned treatment of the war by a writer who neither asks for quarter nor shows much inclination to give it.
Mr. Dowdey goes back to first principles; in a way, he discusses the war from the standpoint of a totally unreconstructed Rebel—a Rebel who, having the modern vantage point and having studied all of the records and read all of the books, is still disposed to take his stand just about where his forefathers took theirs. He recognizes that in writing about the Confederacy he is dealing with a legend—the great legend of the South, “formed almost in equal part by the glorifiers of the South and by its attackers, even vilifiers, from the North.” The legend was a long time in forming, and many people contributed to it—John C. Calhoun and William Lloyd Garrison, Nat Turner and John Brown, the magnates of the cotton kingdom and the men who sent “Beecher’s Bibles” off to Kansas. Somehow it bound together the upper and the lower South, which had little in common aside from the legend; out of it. finally. came the war itself.
The Land They Fought For, by Clifford Dowdey. 438 pp. Doubleday & Co. $6.
It is still very hard for Americans to be wholly objective about that war, and Mr. Dowdey does not even try. He is telling about his South and his war, and when he writes he strikes fire. When he discusses the events which led up to the war—which he does, in vast detail, through the first hundred pages of his book—he sees it, not as an “inevitable conflict” but as a war forced on the country by a number of designing and unscrupulous men, a great many of them men from the North. The South, as he sees it, stood for self-determination, a principle currently honored all across the land; southerners in 1861 felt that the war had pretty largely been forced on them, and Mr. Dowdey today feels very much the same about it.
A man writing this kind of book is obviously taking his chances. Yet the value of this contribution is not lessened by the fact that, like any strategist taking the offensive, Mr. Dowdey has left himself open to a series of damaging counterattacks. For what he has produced here is a story of the Confederacy as men who believed in the Confederacy saw it. You may disagree with his conclusions if you like, but he does give you a broader picture of how the war came and what it meant when it did come; for the emotions, the hot passionate convictions of men acting under extreme stress, are as much facts of history as anything else. There are many truths about the Civil War. Here is one of them.
There are few surprises in this book. Lee is still the great knight, the final embodiment of the legend, the man in whose own person the meaning of the dream came to survive. Davis is the inept politician, who tried to conduct a revolution by due process of law and wound up by losing everything. And Sherman and Sheridan are the great villains, who left a heritage of bitterness still visible today and who did as much as any northerners could do to create the “solid South” of blessed memory. In the old southern tradition, this is a very conventional book.
But it is also very much alive, and therein lies its genuine value.
Turn now from this presentation of one aspect of the war to a very different presentation of a very different aspect—Jay Monaghan’s Civil War on the Western Border . Here is the difference between night and day, with the southern legend, the origin of the war and the things at stake having a violently contrasting guise.