Friday, September 26, 2008

Book Review: Confederate Cause and Conduct

I wrote it about 1 AM, so this won't exactly be a college level book review. I'm not going to be too detailed, these are just some thoughts...

The Confederate Cause and Conduct in the War Between the States by Hunter McGuire and George L. Christian

This is a reprint of a book originally published in 1904. I like old books. No- I love old books.

First of all, why did I choose to read this one? Because 1) it was a relatively inexpensive book compared to others, and 2) it was a product of the veterans themselves, not a historian.

The context in which the book was written makes an interesting story. After the war between the states, the Southern veterans organized the United Confederate Veterans (UCV) to preserve the memory of their cause. The UCV continued to assemble annually even after the turn of the century. Strangely enough, even as Civil war veterans lived, history was being sanitized with an early form of political correctness. Schools were adopting the familiar and simple formula that said: Confederate South = evil and slavery. North = righteousness and freedom. The Confederate Cause and Conduct in the War Between the States is a collection of reports put together by the Virginia UCV History Committee in reaction to the history books being used in public schools. This book was compiled and issued by the Confederate veterans themselves so it is first hand account of why the South took up arms against the Union Army.

There were a number of topics addressed in the book:

• A historic cultural rift existed between North and South since the 1700s.
• Discussion of a controversy regarding the number of troops supplied by North Carolina and their role in various engagements.
• Treatment of Union POWs held in southern prisoner camps versus the treatment of Confederate POWs held in the North. Summary: Confederate POWs suffered inhumane conditions as a matter of policy while Union POWs suffered inhumane conditions because the South was running out of food. The Union refused to exchange prisoners knowing that they would be burden on Southern resources.
• A lengthy discussion of the South’s legal justification for secession. This section was interesting because they used legal opinions and newspaper articles almost exclusively from the North.
• The economic reasons for the war.
• Differences between Southern and Northern foraging and the destruction of Sherman’s march.

As a product of my environment, the big topic I wanted to read about was slavery. It’s interesting that this topic takes up such a small portion of the total work. You’d think that if they were trying to backpedal on the slavery issue, they would have spent more of an effort to talk their way out of it. Rather you get the impression they’re saying “We weren’t fighting to keep slavery; here’s how we felt about it, now lets move on to the real issues.” The William and Mary Quarterly reviewed this same book in 1908 and said, "the Southern cause is freed from the taint of slavery..." (see link)

The first section in the book was written in 1899 by Dr. Hunter McGuire, a Confederate veteran. He writes:

“Does any man living know of a soldier in this State who was fighting for the negro or his value in money? I never heard of one. …The South fighting for the money value of a negro! What a cheap and wicked falsehood!”

Were these old guys prejudiced? Definitely. The authors are honest about it, but they maintain the case was the same in the North. The slave narratives establish this fact as well, that the Northern soldiers were only sometimes seen as liberators. They were often feared by the slave community for the same violence they enacted upon Southern whites. This you won't hear in high schools. (In order for us to believe what is correct and sensitive, then our education must be tightly controlled). Most of American culture at the time was ingrained with very firm views about the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon race and this point comes across strongly in the book.

The people of the North were not civil-rights conscious egalitarians. It mentions how U.S. Grant, commander of the Union Army, refused to let his slaves go until after the North won the war, while Robert E. Lee let his family’s slaves go free in the early years of the war simply because he felt slavery was wrong. The book also makes plenty of references to Lincoln’s attitude toward slavery and race relations, which I don’t have to repeat here.

The book makes reference to black soldiers in the Confederacy but builds much of its argument from a few anecdotal sources rather than military roster information. It is interesting nonetheless. Here is a quote regarding an instance where a group of 72 slaves were asked whether they wanted to volunteer (not forced):

“… the fact that five out of every six of these negroes, were then ready to volunteer and go to the trenches, showed conclusively how truly they regarded the Confederate cause as their cause as well as that of the white people of the South.”

Official black regiments were merely local guard units and weren’t a part of the regular fighting force until 1865- but not until 1865, when the war was already lost. Too little, too late.

I was amazed to learn that the South had already been working on a plan to free the slaves. Have you ever heard that in school or in the media? No, of course not.

So the question was not whether or not slavery should end. The question was HOW should it end. The South didn’t think the issue was worth a war. I also learned from this book that the South outlawed the importation of slaves (either because the black population had grown to a threatening size or as a way to let the institution die out with the passing of the last generation of slaves), while the slave trade continued by the Northern private sector. In fact, the overwhelming majority of slave ships were registered in New England.

So why was it such an issue in the South? After reading this book, here is my interpretation of history:

The average Confederate soldier didn’t take up arms to keep slavery because it wasn’t in his interests. Family-size farms competed against slave holding plantations much like locally owned stores compete against Wal Mart today. Slavery was the big business of that era.

Nobody went to Iraq to fight for Halliburton, but often in time of war big businesses take advantage of the opportunity. In the same way, I think the slave trade saw the War between the States as an opportunity to protect itself from being outlawed.

And the North wasn’t fighting to end slavery (remember, the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t apply to slaves in the North). They were fighting to keep the Southern States from seceding. Why? The bulk of tax revenue for the federal budget came from the Southern States. Also, the South was the location of major international trade ports. If the South left the Union, the federal government would have no way of keeping the South from raising tariffs on Northern goods or lowering tariffs on foreign goods. It meant a drastic shift in economic power between two regions that had had political differences for generations.

Abolition was the moral banner that the North needed to wave to stir the emotions of its people in a protracted and highly unpopular war.

The book ends with two papers written by Dr. McGuire, General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s surgeon. The first paper is kind of a tribute to Jackson’s memory. The author recollects the general’s abilities, personality, and his resolve and leadership while in the heat of battle. The second paper is a moving account of Jackson’s last days after being severely wounded. The book closes with these words:

“Presently, a smile of ineffable sweetness spread itself over his pale face, and he said quietly, and with an expression, as if of relief, “Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees;” and then, without pain, or the least struggle, his spirit passed from earth to the God who gave it.”

This book is a snapshot from history, a glimpse into the way people thought in the early 1900s and they way they remembered the War. The people of that time should be remembered for showing amazing courage and enduring harship that we cannot understand. Confederate soldiers, Union soldiers, slaves fighting against the invading North, former slaves fighting for the Union, American Indians, the women and children who survived Sherman's march... all of them true Americans.

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