Sunday, September 28, 2008

Book Review "Bitterly Divided"

I'm thoroughly enjoying doing these book reviews, and am really starting to find and refine my style and approach. There are lots of ways to break down a book, and for an alternative tack that is very effective, please avail yourself of the Civil War Librarian's efforts or those of Brett Schulte at TOCWOC. I've been following these blogs for some time and find the book reviews to be very well done. Onwards to today's effort...
Dr. David Williams new text, entitled "Bitterly Divided" brought with it the promise of a discussion of dissent within the Confederacy and an examination of the effects of this turmoil on the Confederate war effort. This was a topic I felt had been heretofore underserved in my reading and education on the Civil War, and I thus proceeded with great anticipation.
In his introduction Williams asserts "between 1861 and 1865, the South was torn apart b a violent inner civil war, a war no less significant to the Confederacy's fate than its more widely known struggle against the Yankees." So we have a text setting out to not only illustrate southern dissent, but to show how it had a striking effect on the war's outcome. He then sets out to prove this ambitious hypothesis by working through: the battle over secession, the struggle at home and women's revolts, draft evasion by the rich, desertion and Unionism, emancipation and black resistance, and finally, Indian insurrection.
Dr. Williams takes on a substantial task with his premise not only of a Confederacy riven by dissent, but that this same dissent spelled doom for the Confederate effort. He has a tall order to fill, and we are provided with reams of anecdotal data to establish this hypothesis. By anecdotal, I mean letters, diaries, individual quotes, editorials, etc. These anecdotes do a reasonable job of painting a picture of dissent throughout the South, but let us remind ourselves of the import and relative strength of an anecdote.
While it is a primary source, and thus strong in that respect, an anecdote is the isolated opinion or action of one or a handful of people. They can be very emotive and descriptive, and are used to great effect in many aspects of historical writing (not to mention in today's local and even national news broadcasts.) That said, they are not adequate for describing the overall effect or opinion of a larger body, ie, they are not generalizable. We cannot ascribe the opinion or action in an anecdote to an entire army, population, race, etc. To illustrate from another profession; in the medical literature the anecdote is the weakest form of evidence for proving the efficacy of an intervention.
This same weakness is present in "Bitterly Divided." For example, we are given his descriptions of deserters being tortured, maimed, and killed, women rioting over food, troops writing about their reason for desertion. While these anecdotes are provocative, sad, and illustrative of parts of Southern society struggling with itself, there is no way to generalize that behavior across the Confederacy. What is needed is some data collection and interpretation to help prove this general discord. Why not a map of the Confederacy with locations of food riots pinpointed? How about tables showing anticipated muster numbers with discrepencies and numbers of deserters? Show me the research and the hard data, the population studies and large-scale analysis, this is supposed to be an academic effort!
Each of the components of southern dissent addressed carry multiple anecdotes, but we finish each segment not just without the backing of data, but without any link to outcome either. Recall that Dr. Williams' hypothesis is that this dissent had a tremendous effect on the war's outcome; however, he does not tie these events to reverses in the field or seminal, destructive changes in Confederate policy or war aims. Yes, this dissent existed, but a causal link to the final endpoint of Confederate defeat is not established.
To be sure, Dr. Williams attempts to provide this sort of evidence, but time and again, he places an unsupported statement without footnote or reference into the text. That is something I cannot take seriously. An example: on page 55 in discussing absence from General Lee's army, Williams states "thousands of men like Atkins abandoned the army that fall and winter, but few were volunteering to take their place." No reference is given.
But most egregious is not the fact that these bold statements are not just unsupported, they are inconsistent as well. In addressing the issue of southerners fighting for the Union Army we have the following, all without footnote or reference:
"...the Union may not have been preserved, that chattel slavery may not have ended when it did, without the service of nearly half a million southerners in Union blue." (Pg 7)
Then we have this, "In total, about three hundred thousand southern whites joined the Union armies." (Pg 150-151)
Finally, and in the last sentence of the book, Williams writes, "And so the Confederacy was defeated, not only by the Union's military - nearly a quarter of which was comprised of southerners - but also by southerners on the home front." (Pg 250)
Simply put, the tremendous inconsistencies and lack of references in this series of quotes puts the veracity of the whole premise into serious question. (Note: for some excellent examples of how a rigorous academic analysis is done, please see Joseph Glatthaar's article "Everyman's War: A Rich and Poor Man's Fight in Lee's Army" in the 9/08 edition of "Civil War History", or the appendix of Gordon Rhea's "Cold Harbor".)
As I moved through the sections and saw these same issues of anecdotal glut and broad, unsubstantiated statements, I was hoping that the final chapter called " the People at Home" could somehow tie this all together. Unfortunately, Dr. Williams managed to send this whole train off the tracks when he wrote, without context, notation, or proof:
"Certainly defeats on the battlefield sapped the Confederacy's will to fight, but those defeats came largely because so many soldiers had already lost their will to fight and deserted the army." (Pg 243)
Dr. Williams doesn't prove his hypothesis with good data, and then launches an absurd assertion in the tail end of his book. All I could say when I read that was "What?!" All Confederate General George Pickett would have said (and did say in regards to the Confederate defeat) is "I think the Army of the Potomac had something to do with it."
This book does give voice to the idea of Southern dissent both in the antebellum period and during the war itself, and it is an important voice. Dr. Williams does demonstrate that the South had significant internal strife to deal with, and this is a worthy topic. His effort would have been much better spent in perhaps linking it to our memory of the South today and the Lost Cause mythology. Instead, he attempts to link it to the ultimate defeat of the Confederacy and, on the basis of poor and unsubstantiated data along with some downright bizarre assertions, comes up far short.

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