The Civil War: The Truth And The Legend

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Mr. Monaghan, like Mr. Dowdey, believes that the conflict between the sections reached a stage of acute tension long before the bombardment of Fort Sumter, but he examines the business from a different vantage point. He is concerned with the troubles along the Kansas-Missouri border, and he makes it clear that while we may call the ultimate conflict a War Between the States if we wish, it was actually, and essentially, a civil war, with all of the trimmings—cruelty, unreason, violence for its own sake, bitterness that wove murder and night-riding in between battles, fantastic characters seeking personal advantage in a time of bewildering turmoil.

Civil War on the Western Border, 1854–1865 , by Jay Monaghan. 454 pp. Little, Brown and Co. $6.

The troubles along the border began with Stephen A. Douglas’ not unreasonable attempt to settle the free-or-slave argument in the territories through squatter sovereignty. Let the territories be settled until they are ready for statehood, said Douglas, and when that day comes let the inhabitants themselves say whether the new state is to have slavery or prohibit it. Then perhaps we can get away from the eternal argument between the abolitionists and the slave-holders and get on with our national business.

It was a good idea, but it backfired. Too many important northerners insisted that Kansas Territory must in that case be settled by men who would steadfastly vote against slavery; too many important southerners insisted that the majority of the settlers must be pro-slavery; and Kansas Territory became an arena where the conflict was intensified instead of shelved, and since both sides were more than ready to resort to violence to win their point, a full-fledged civil war got under way along the border as early as 1855 and kept on generating sparks until at last the flame could not be quenched.

So the “border ruffians” crossed over from Missouri, to stuff ballot boxes, sack the town of Lawrence, and put the fear into all free-soil emigrants; and so John Brown murdered five unarmed men in one night, and prepared himself for his mad venture at Harpers Ferry; and sowers of the whirlwind like Senators David Atchison and Jim Lane—an eccentric frock-coated troublemaker if there ever was one—did what they could to make the rising conflict literally irrepressible, so that Fort Sumter and all that came after it grew logically out of the Kansas trouble.

Mr. Monaghan has been uncommonly thorough in his study of this violent decade, and if his narrative occasionally is just a bit confusing it is because the events he is describing were confusing. There was little pattern to any of it. Even after formal warfare came, the Missouri-Kansas situation remained bitterly and turbulently informal. The generals themselves—weirdly contrasting personalities, from Pap Price and John Charles Frémont to Jo Shelby and Henry Wager Halleek—seemed to operate on the surface. Under them there was the terrible chaos of civil war with the bark on, with a brand applied to a settler’s barn, the theft of a band of horses, or a shot carefully aimed from ambush in the dark becoming as much a part of the program as regular battles in the open field between organized armies.

Indians went on the warpath, not always sure which side they were on. Guerrilla bands looted and killed with fine impartiality, the James boys learned their lessons here, and Wild Bill Hickok roamed the border, begirt with shooting irons, as a Union scout. American history contains few darker chapters, and the nation’s favorite myth—the myth of the Civil War as a knightly conflict, a swords-and-roses affair in which gallant gentlemen postured elegantly in selfless heroism—goes down in the dust. Mr. Monaghan’s book will add much to your knowledge of the Civil War. If Mr. Dowdey has presented one truth, Mr. Monaghan has presented a very different one, essential to and understanding of the war.

Yet there is a place for the myth; there were plumed knights in that war, and they did their best to live up to their roles. One of them—one of the most dashing and conspicuous of the lot—was that inevitable Creole, Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard, whose ill fortune it was to be quite unable to live up to the overpowering reputation which he gained at the very beginning.

T. Harry Williams gives Beauregard the full treatment in an excellent biography, P. G. T. Beauregard, Napoleon in Gray . He presents him as one of the most difficult of all the individualists in that surpassing collection of difficult individualists, the generals’ corps of the Confederate Army; a born romantic, always casting sidelong glances at the fine figure he was cutting, a first-rate engineer and a solid combat soldier who was forever getting entangled in impossible strategic plans which defied reality and ignored logistics but which looked fine because they were grandiose and dashing.

P. G. T. Beauregard, Napoleon in Gray , by T. Harry Williams. 358 pp. Louisiana State University Press. $4.75.

Beauregard was the first soldier of the South, in the beginning, the man who commanded the troops that reduced Fort Sumter. He was in charge of the Confederate outpost at Manassas, early in the war, and the first battle of Bull Run was largely his; if he was actually second in command to Joe Johnston there he managed to elbow Johnston out of the limelight, and the fight which briefly seemed to have thwarted Yankee hopes forever was considered to be largely his achievement.