The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War
© 2008 H.W. Crocker III
This is not a book I’d expected to read, because as a Southerner who’s been reading different views about the war for twenty years, I figured I knew what its take was already. Crocker’s comic novel about George Custer, though, piqued my interest in more of his works. I found in this politically incorrect guide a double surprise; first, it’s largely biographical, telling the history of the war through the lives of the men who made it happen, with friends meeting each other across the battlefield – and secondly, it’s distinctly Southern but not obnoxiously biased. Crocker’s appraisal of the men on both sides of the conflict makes it possible to find them interesting an admirable even if a reader disagrees with their politics or actions. While it has an odd structure, those who know little about the War and want to learn more about its background and the characters who fought in it will find it entertaining and often provocative.
Crocker begins the book with a history of the sectional disputes that led to the war, as well as the cultural and legal background that the South drew on to inspire, explain, and defend its bid for independence. In short: the States began as separate colonies, created separate Constitutions for themselves prior to the Revolution, and agreed as sovereign states to create a confederation for mutual benefit. Each region of the new country had its own economic and political interests, and increasingly those interests conflicted: the South did not like shouldering 90% of the tariff-funded Federal government’s expenses, especially when those same tariffs made the industrial goods it needed more expensive, and the North resented the wars that Southern expansionism often embroiled the Union in. Slavery was an indelible part of the competition between the sections, as the North wanted to constrain slavery not only to prevent Southern political power from growing, but to squelch competition between free labor and cheaper slave labor. The increasing militancy of northern abolitionists, which threatened to create chaotic slave revolts that could and would claim the lives of innocents (as happened with Nat Turner and John Brown’s attempted revolts – Brown’s claimed the life of at least one free black man), created a poisonous identification with and perverse loyalty between the South and the wretched institution. Faced with the threat of reckless abolitionism instigated by its political proponents, the new Republican party, the Deep South responded to Lincoln’s election by seceding from the Union. They joined it voluntarily; they would leave it voluntarily. Lincoln responded with a call to arms, prompting the Upper South to join its sister States. Few wanted a national divorce, but fewer still would tolerate remaining in an abusive relationship. A union that could only be maintained through jackboots and bayonets was no union at all.
After creating an outline of the war by taking readers quickly through a score of the conflict’s most pivotal battles, Crocker moves to the meat of the book – the biographies of a dozen or so generals from both sides who played their parts in the drama to come. This is the meat of the book not only because it constitutes nearly 2/3rds of the book’s text, but because in getting to know these men readers realize how poorly conventional narratives fit the facts. A narrative survey of a war makes it easy to reduce things to a story that makes sense, but human personalities, human characters, are rarely tidy enough to box up. Crocker’s array of characters includes titans with instant name recognition, like Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, U.S. Grant, and Sherman – but he deliberately includes men with little name recognition today, like the southern Unionist George Thomas, and the slavery-opposed Confederate A.P. Hill. The review of these notables makes it obvious that while slavery was a central political cause of the war, it had almost no bearing on the reasons why men supported or opposed secession, let alone fought in the war . Many of the Union personalities here were as racist as any stereotype of the Klan, and actively despised abolitionism, while the Southern men who have grown up alongside blacks are more charitable, if paternalistic. Lee and several other Confederates believed in the Union, despaired to see it rent asunder – but their loyalty to their home states, which they considered their nations far more than the abstract entity that was a fifty-year old political agreement, took precedence. One Union general wrote to his Confederate friend before the war began that, as much as he hated to see his compatriot on the Other Side, had he been born a Virginian instead of an Ohioan, he could see himself making the same choice. The biographies deliver full, complicated takes on these men’s lives, making it possible to admire and mourn them at the same time. I found myself interested by most of the men, even the loathsome Sherman, who along with Sheridan brought total war to the American continent, denuding the southern landscape and reducing thousands of civilians to starvation. Crocker engages in some light historical editorializing along the way, commenting (for example) that Longstreet’s doubts about Lee’s plan to attack the Union center at Gettysburg became a self-fulling prophecy: he delayed his advance so long that there was little artillery ammunition left to cover the advance, exposing the his corps to far more abuse during its advance.
Although I found much of interest in this book, as a standalone title it’s a bit limited, being chiefly biographical. I didn’t need anything in the way of background personally because of prior reading in this subject, but readers new to the subject might appreciate more detail. The biographical studies, though, go a long way to helping paint a picture of the actors’ mixed motives and divided loyalties, which are overlooked in the “Civil War as anti-slavery Crusade” narrative that has lodged in the minds of people who are so badly served by the education system that they’re not positive what century the war was in. Unfortunately, as with many books, those who would learn the most from engaging with it are the least likely to try. (One thing I’ve learned about goodreads is how cretinous many readers are — one-starring books they’ve never read and never plan to read. )
Some Interesting Quotes:
“Lincoln may have been right in thinking that he was bound to preserve the Union. But it was not the Union that was preserved. A union implies that two different things are united; and it should have been the Northern and Southern cultures that were united. As a fact, it was the Southern culture that was destroyed. And it was the Northern that ultimately imposed not a unity but merely a uniformity.” – GKC
“I saw in States Rights the only availing check upon the absolutism of the sovereign will, and secession filled me with hope, not as the destruction of but the redemption of Democracy….Therefore I deemed that you were fighting the battles of our liberty, our progress, and our civilization: and I mourn for the stake which was lost at Richmond more deeply than I rejoice over that which was saved at Waterloo.” – Lord Acton
“I wish to live under no other government, and there is no sacrifice I am not ready to make for the preservation of the Union save that of honour. If disruption takes place, I shall go back in sorrow to my people and share the misery of my native state, and save in her defence there will be one soldier less in the world than now. I wish for no other flag than the star-spangled Banner and no other air than ‘Hail Columbia’. I still hope that the wisdom and patriotism of the nation will yet save it.” – General Robert E. Lee
I’ve read a few books on the American Civil War (as you know) and intend to read more – both fiction and non-fiction – occasionally. I *think* I have 5-6 in various piles somewhere with more on my Wish List. It’s an interesting conflict for lots of reasons, including the fact of how it’s become so highly mythologised and part of the greater ‘culture war’ going on in your country.
One of the books mentioned in the afterward here is “The Glittering Illusion”, about how British support of the Confederacy leads to a cozy relationship between the UK and the CSA, with dramatic effects in World War 2. I want to get a copy but have promised myself a Mexican dessert if I make it through November without buying a book.
The war is much less prominent in southern culture than it used to be — all of the members of the Sons or Daughters of Confederate Veterans I know are older, and young people get a lot of their military history through video games, so the Civil War may as well not exist. Even southern identity getting shallow and cheap these days, almost just used to sell t-shirts and countrified pop music.
Interesting review & quotes… GKC, is that Chesterton?
I learned about the Civil War as a child and again in a college history course. It was sobering to learn how divided the country was, years before war even started. These days… I’m (guiltily) less interested in this bit of history. Mainly because I tend to view it like any other 19th-century war – largely driven by economics and full of atrocities that make you wonder what exactly was going on in hearts and minds. I’m sick of seeing it romanticized on one side or the other. Perhaps it is worth learning about, just to remind people not to treat the subject glibly.
The very same! 19th century Catholics were much more fond of the traditional, agriculture south than of the proletarized, industrial north.
If you are interested in a survey of the ACW, James McPherson or Bruce Catton are generally well regarded. Shelby Foote has the best narrative but it’s Gulag Archipelago sized.