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The Civil War: The Truth And The Legend

May 2024
11min read

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.

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.

Then he developed a knack for quarreling with Jefferson Davis—the two men eventually became bitter personal enemies, with disastrous effect on the Confederate cause—and he was eventually sent west, to be second in command to another Johnston, Albert Sidney Johnston, and to inherit command of the luckless Army of Tennessee after Johnston was killed at Shiloh. And now nothing went right for him. Shiloh was lost, and many people assumed unjustly that it was all Beauregard’s fault. Ill health caught up with him, and Davis replaced him with Braxton Bragg. Beauregard was sidetracked with the command at Charleston, redeemed much of his fading reputation by defeating the northern attempt to capture that city in 1863, redeemed more of it by his stout defense of Petersburg in 1864, served under Lee for a time, and was shelved again with a western command in which both the organizational setup and the general trend of the war kept him from being effective.

In the end, he was a man who somehow had not quite been the great figure which he and everyone else had expected. He was, says Mr. Williams, a good general but not a great one; as a northern war correspondent remarked, he summed up as a first-class second-rater. Yet his name had trumpets right to the end, and it still rings with a fine romantic sound.

After the war, oddly enough, this perfect exemplar of the Confederate legend departed from the legend entirely. The postwar Confederate general, by tradition and often enough by actual fact, was a displaced person laboring under great difficulties: a professional soldier who could no longer practice his profession and so had to resort to difficult but dignified expedients in order to earn a living. But it never worked that way for Beauregard. He made a success of things; first as a railroad man and then—to the chagrin of the traditionalists—as highly-paid front man for the great Louisiana Lottery. He died rich, one of the few Confederate generals who managed it, and as a result the postwar legend by-passed him. In a land whose heroes were supposed to live in honorable poverty, Beauregard grew wealthy. In addition, he carried on his feud with Jefferson Davis right to the end, and when Davis died Beauregard refused to ride in his funeral procession. At the last he was probably more honored in the North than in the South.

But he was one of the most interesting of all the Confederate warriors, and Mr. Williams has produced a truly first-rate biography.

The Confederate portrait gallery is singularly rich in interesting characters, when you get right down to it, and General Richard Taylor was one of them. The son of former President Zachary Taylor, he was a sugar-planting grandee of the old school; he fought ably in Virginia, in the trans-Mississippi and in the cotton South; and after the war he wrote one of the best of the participants’ books, the engaging and eminently readable memoirs titled Destruction and Reconstruction , published in 1879. This book has now been reissued, edited and introduced by Richard Harwell, and it is a welcome addition to anyone’s Civil War library.

Taylor was proud, even haughty, not overly popular with his fellows; a man of decided opinions, which he had no hesitancy in putting down on paper. He fought under Stonewall Jackson in the famous Valley Campaign, and left an unforgettable pen-portrait of that eccentric military genius which every Jackson biographer since then has drawn on without stint. Then he fought under Lee in the Seven Days, and if he considered Lee’s strategy admirable he thought his battle tactics atrocious; the conduct of the fighting, he said, “was nothing but a series of blunders, one after another, and all huge.” There was, he said acidly, a great deal of praying at headquarters, but none of the activity which would have given the Confederates enough knowledge of the ground they were fighting on to insure a final and complete victory.

After the Seven Days Taylor was sent west, where his career was anti-climactic. He did as well as any man could have done, probably, in connection with the Confederacy’s ineffectual attempt to save the lower Mississippi valley, he won distinction in the victorious resistance to Nathaniel Banks’ abortive Red River campaign, and he served competently thereafter in the declining days of the war in lower Mississippi and Alabama; was, in fact, the last Confederate army commander east of the Mississippi to surrender.

Destruction and Reconstruction , by Richard Taylor, edited by Richard Harwell. 380 pp. Longmans, Green and Co. $7.50.

After the war, Taylor was like a cork. He had been financially ruined, like so many other wealthy planters, but he bobbed back to the surface, restored his fortunes, traveled widely in the North and in Europe, and got on friendly terms with such diverse persons as the King of Denmark, the Prince of Wales, and President Ulysses S. Grant. He came to accept the restored Union, but between reconstruction in the South and the scandalous graft of the Grant era in the North he felt that the country had fallen on very evil days, and in his memoirs he spoke his mind about it, leading a northern reviewer to comment sadly on the “lack of poise and self-control” in his book. Presumably, that bothered Taylor not at all. He said what he thought, and his book is still worth reading.

In all the Confederate legend, no figure has shown more vitality or drawn more attention than that of The Confederate Woman; and the lady is allowed to speak for herself in Heroines of Dixie , a compilation of excerpts from diaries, journals, letters, and published and unpublished recollections put together by Katharine M. Jones. As Robert Selph Henry points out in his introduction to this book, while the Confederacy’s final defeat is often attributed to a cumulative loss of the will to fight, the really surprising thing is that the will to fight lasted as long as it did; and for that endurance, the women of the Confederacy were in large part responsible.

Heroines of Dixie , by Katharine M. Jones, with an introduction by Robert Selph Henry. 430 pp. The Bobbs-Merrill Co., Inc. $5.

Here is the war as they saw it, in a long series of vignettes that catch almost every aspect of the struggle except that of the battle encounter itself. There are selections here from the writings of women as well-known as Mary Chesnut and Varina Howell Davis; there are others from the pens of wholly obscure women—farmers’ wives, private soldiers’ widows, people who were just trying to get along as best they could and carry their part of the war burden without too much complaint; and the book as a whole makes an uncommonly moving and informative narrative, into which the editor has intruded herself with intelligent restraint.

And here, finally, is one more of those innumerable “truths” about the Civil War. Like all the others, it is an essential truth; not the whole story, perhaps not even a major part of it, but nevertheless one more piece in the mosaic, which would not be complete without it. And while it is truth, it is also part of the legend; for the legend itself, in all of its guises, is simply one more aspect of the underlying reality.

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