Friday, August 29, 2008

A Provocative New Book On Dissent Within The Confederacy

My Dad and I were chatting the other night, and he brought up the movie "Cold Mountain", which he had just watched for the first time during an international flight. He asked me about the Civil War Home Guard depicted in the movie and the veracity of the violent and cruel tendencies shown. I said that there was certainly some truth, but how much is difficult to define.
Needless to say, I was unsatisfied with my answer, and despite having a solid background in Civil War historiography, realized that I had yet to come across a comprehensive treatment of the Southern home front that addressed gritty and controversial issues such as the home guard, Unionist support, guerilla warfare, the collapse of slavery, and desertion from the Confederate army. Basically, there was no good extant study of dissent within the Confederacy. I've found several essays and a few book chapters covering these issues (see Boritt's "Why The Confederacy Lost") but full-volume treatments have usually focused on larger scope topics like political unity, military strategy, economic impact, etc. Well, this void may have been filled by the latest offering by Professor David Williams of Valdosta State University, entitled "Bitterly Divided: The South’s Inner Civil War." Here is a review from Publisher's Weekly published on Amazon.com.
"This fast-paced book will be a revelation even to professional historians. Pulling together the latest scholarship with his own research, Williams (A People's History of the Civil War), a professor of history at Valdosta State University, puts an end to any lingering claim that the Confederacy was united in favor of secession during the Civil War. His astonishing story details the deep, often murderous divisions in Southern society. Southerners took up arms against each other, engaged in massacres, guerrilla warfare, vigilante justice and lynchings, and deserted in droves from the Confederate army (300,000 men joined the Union forces). Unionist politicians never stopped battling secessionism. Some counties and regions even seceded from the secessionists. Poor whites resented the large slave owners, who had engineered the war but were exempt from the draft. Not surprisingly, slaves fought slaveholders for their freedom and aided the Union cause. So did women and Indians. Williams's long overdue work makes indelibly clear that Southerners themselves played a major role in doing in the secessionist South. With this book, the history of the Civil War will never be the same again."
I emailed Dr. Williams to ask him about his book and previous studies of dissent and suppression within the Confederacy. He told me that aside from a "slim volume" published in 1934, no other works have been published. Dr. Williams also gave an interview to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which is a fascinating read.
There is sure to be some hue and cry over a review of this subject matter, and calls of "revisionist" are sure to ring out. Don't even get me started on how this term has a perjorative connotation! As scholars, academics, historians, we have a responsibility to reexamine old notions, unearth new data, and see if fresh conclusions can be drawn, even if they challenge widespread opinion fomented by the Lost Cause mythology. Of course this text will fly in the face of the concept of a docile, united, and motivated Confederace population rallying behind a cause that was established many years ago, but that's the point! We can only learn and discover if we challenge ourselves and our preconceptions.
Just like any other historical text; however, it must be analyzed using the first principles of good historical research, with as little emotionality as possible. If Dr. Williams has focused on primary sources and used well-sourced data in what sounds like an original study, then he may well be onto something. If his text utilizes secondary data and editorial comment, then it will end up on the scrap heap alongside books like "The South Was Right!" though somehow I don't expect this to be the case.
My reading list, which is always in flux, will need to be amended yet again to account for what may be an important book, and much love to my Dad for his incredibly prescient question! Way to go, padre!

2 comments:

Skap said...

Mark,

For a scholarly book that deals specifically with historical events represented by Cold Mountain you might consider Phillip Shaw Paludan's "Victims: A True Story of the Civil War (1981)."

Bjorn

Robert Moore said...

Mark, Considering your interests in dissenting views in the South, I'm in the process of developing my Southern Unionist Chronicles site. Although it is developed in blog format, it isn't a blog (just wanted to show there was more potential for the blog format than just blogging). I'm sure I will also examine dissillusionment among Confederates. You can find a link to the new site on the right side bar of my blog. Best, Robert