The Confederate Reader: The War as the South Saw It
© 1999 Richard B. Harwell
Mention ‘The War’ in the South without any context, and most anyone will understand which one you’re referring to – the only War that has lasting import to the South, giving it a distinct story from the rest of the country. The Confederate Reader collects a wide variety of Southern primary source selections sourced from the War into one relatively small volume. The collection begins with an excerpt from the original bill of secession that South Carolina adopted in reaction to the election of Lincoln, and then rapidly expands to include everything from official military reports to letter & diary excerpts, with more miscellaneous items like comedic pieces also included. Theaters outside the main, like naval encounters and the victories of the CSA’s Cherokee general, Stand Watie, are incorporated here as well. The pieces are organized by year, and include introductions when appropriate from Harwell. Although he’s a southern editor & author, Harwell’s commentary is non-partisan, regarding the breakup of the Union and the war that followed an unnecessary tragedy. (He’s also edited and released a Union Reader which presumably mirrors this collection for Yankeedom.)
Though I’m no stranger to Civil War primary sources, having read excerpts from letters and diaries before, this collection’s variety of items offered a bounty of interest. I saw here sources often used in social histories of the war, including the recently-read Our Man in Charleston. Although this collection has a lot of informative value for someone who has only read military histories and the like, giving some sense of what it was like to experience the war across class lines, there’s also entertainment value – not just in the humor pieces, but through the joy of mid-19th century prose. One reads picks up a newspaper today and finds, for the most part, prose of the most pedestrian nature – but the battle reports and obituaries collected here have such grace and drama in them they’re practically literature, making them a pleasure to read even when they concern something tragic, like an unexpected death or the ruin of a great city. The collection offers surprise after surprise: the Battle of Gettysburg, for instance, was not regarded at the time as a mortal wound that made the surrender at Appomattox Courthouse inevitable, but merely a frustratingly incomplete victory: Lee had pushed the Yanks back for two days, but was forced to withdraw ‘in good order’ with many prisoners after realizing further reinforcements were making progress impossible. Whether this is a case of the public receiving problematic military reports, or simply a case of the scope of the defeat not being evident until after its repercussions had time to bear fruit, I can’t say. Some places were relatively untouched by the war, like Mobile – hosting Mardi Gras fêtes even under siege. There’s little included for 1865, in part because most publishing had ceased at that point, resources being unavailable.
The Confederate Reader should be of great interest to any ACW student, offering a non-politicized bounty of primary source examples to deliver a sense of how the war progressed from exultant rebellion to ruin.
A People’s History of the Civil War, David C. Williams. A bleak but thoroughly eye-opening exposure that examines the frailties and motives of those on all sides. No one emerges with an intact halo.
Pingback: May 2023 in Review | Reading Freely