- Where was Alexander Vandegrift, commanding the 1st Marine Division on Guadalcanal, born?
- Where was George Meade, commanding the Army of the Potomac at Gettysburg, born?
The reason for these questions will become clear.
There comes a time in any historical project when an analyst should stop and ask: Does any of this make sense?
Or at least we should. This is where I’m doing just that. Some background…
JFK was in office when I first read Bruce Catton’s American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War. My mother cut out the Life Magazine articles during the Civil War centennial. But WWII beckoned–my father jumped into Normandy, so I studied both conflicts avidly,. Of course, Vietnam was in the headlines then…my sisters’ boyfriends all concerned themselves with it because they were of that age. I got to Gettysburg in ’69, then I went into the Army myself in ’73, three months to the day after the draft ended.
But the American Civil War kept calling me back while, after leaving the Active component, I made a living as a technical writer for thirty years AND stayed in the Reserves. Studying for my MA in American military history, I wrote extensively about the Civil War, more than I did any other American war. I wrote a book on Shiloh, another on the Pacific War, a few novels, and some short stories. Then came this germ of an idea: systematizing historical failure analysis, creating a methodology for what scholars do and buffs chatter about.
A buff knows how many cartridges a soldier’s pouch was made for; a scholar knows how that figure was derived and its effect on the fighting.
In a scholarly way, I’ve tried to look at the facts about the Confederacy, without romance or battle-smoke or blood or moonlight-and-magnolias. And I conclude that the Confederate leadership screwed up by leaving the Union in the first place, let alone starting the war; that they didn’t represent the interests of their constituents, and so as failure heaped on failure, support for the “cause” dwindled to nothing.
This. Is. Not. Conventional. Wisdom. And that’s a problem.
Alexander Vandegrift was born in Charlottesville, VA. Think that fact’s important to the study of Guadalcanal?
If not, why does George Meade‘s birthplace (Cadiz, Spain) appear in nearly every book about Gettysburg? How much more important is one than the other?
While I was writing about Shiloh, I was struck by the conflict’s somewhat uniform treatment by the secondary sources. The Civil War is treated as a special case by American writers. This was especially noticeable when I read John Keegan’s The American Civil War: A Military History (Knopf 2009). Keegan was no stranger to Civil War studies, having spent a chapter of his The Mask of Command (Penguin 1988) on Grant. But his take on the Civil War, as an Englishman, was of a different feel. He didn’t care where this general was born or who that general had snubbed in an earlier career. His straightforward analysis of the available facts without romance was why it was panned by the few Civil War scholars who actually read it. It simply lacked the Lost Cause romance and mystique, the dash of the bold cavaliers, the grim determination of the gallant butternuts fighting for their Cause…and Civil War Inc. noticed. If Keegan, in his equally magisterial The First World War (Penguin Random House 1999), had talked about Pershing’s upbringing in Missouri or about Terry Allen’s grandfather at Gettysburg, it would have been thought quaint…and dismissed as romantic.
To Civil War, Inc., it is vital.
“Everyone Knows” how the American Civil War should be written about–everyone American, that is. When writing or speaking about the 1861-65 conflict, the filter of the Lost Cause must always be applied. Nostalgia for the Lost Cause is required; romance expected, intimate derails of leader’s lives detailed. New information in the form of diaries and letters that confirm with already accepted wisdom are acceptable. No diary entities by Confederate soldiers that call Lee a poltroon or an arrogant old fool could be authentic or ever see print without a firestorm of protest and claims of fraud; if they do exist we may never know.
And here I am trying to say that the Confederacy screwed up from Day One, that the entire idea was madness.
A cottage industry of “counterfactual” history holds that making up events that did not occur is a valid historical interpretive method. Any lawyer introducing non-facts to a jury that they know are not facts might face disbarment. These “counterfactualists,” however, would have us believe that it’s OK, that somehow declaring that Jackson might have survived to Gettysburg and in so doing won the war is a legitimate argument that belongs in the history books.
If this study makes any sense, the Southern Confederacy was doomed from the start, and it doesn’t matter what one general in one battle did. Nearly everything I’ve looked at on the Civil War since the 1960s is a pleasant story. If I go any further than this blog on this project, am I saying that most writers didn’t do the work of analyzing where the Confederacy went wrong? Did they simply agree with what Pickett was said to have quipped about Gettysburg: I believe the enemy had something to do with it?
That should give me pause. Why doesn’t it?
There’s been a truism for writing and publishing about the Civil War: write what The South (TM) wants to see, or it won’t sell. This started in the late 19th century when public schools became more popular, and students needed textbooks. The Late Unpleasantness that was the War Between the States a mere generation before was presented from a distinctly “Confederacentric” viewpoint so that textbook publishers could sell them in the formerly Confederate states. Thus, history wasn’t written by the “winners” but by those who control the narratives for a given audience. In this case, American schoolchildren have for over a century gotten a distinctly distorted view of the 1861-65 conflict because the former Confederacy wanted it that way.
This slant was important from an economic viewpoint, but, too, it was important from a literary one. History tends to be rather dry in academic settings, and a certain amount of suspense is helpful. Yes, the results are known, but adding an element of struggle helps add interest for the reader. Combined, the factors of intentional bias in schoolbooks and the need for suspense–the latter reinforced by the former–have thus shown the American Civil War as a conflict that the Confederacy might have won…if only…
If I’m up against a built-in social and industry bias against my conclusions, what part of my analysis could be faulty? What part doesn’t make sense? Where could I have gone wrong? What facts did I not throw in? This is why I have this step in the method. Let’s see…
First Failure: Davis and the Confederate Congress Ordering the Attack on Ft. Sumter and the Cotton Blockade
The school of thought–predominantly among southern sympathizers–that says that Lincoln should have just surrendered Ft. Sumter in April of ’61 uses a legal argument called “reversion.” Their position is that when South Carolina left the Union, everything in the confines of the state reverted to state ownership.
There are several problems with the reversion theory. The first is that the law is murky regarding extra-legal actions like secession–not covered in any law anywhere in 1861. Thus, reversion may or may not have applied. We will never really know since the Confederacy didn’t even try a legal challenge. Furthermore, the land that Ft. Sumter was/is on was never a part of South Carolina. It’s an artificial island built by the US Army Corps of Engineers, owned entirely by the US Government. How could it revert to a legal entity that it never belonged to in the first place? And if they are applying a legal argument, in what jurisdiction is this argument to be applied? If the Confederacy was no longer a part of the Union, how could it have applied the law of a foreign country? There were no World Courts at the time–the International Criminal Court was a century and two world wars off. Where would the Confederacy go for what it would consider “justice?” It would appear as if South Carolina and the Confederacy wanted to eat their cake and have it too.
But, too, that claim of reversion points out another question: why didn’t the Confederacy simply sue the United States for possession? Was it even discussed? The answer is no. The Confederacy saw only one solution to the problem of Ft. Sumter: force if they did not capitulate or were not ordered to surrender. The Confederate congress and cabinet were both full of lawyers. Did a legal solution–absent the problems above–ever occur to them? There is no record of it.
And if force was the only answer, were they prepared for a wider conflict? No, of course not. They were not prepared for Lincoln’s call for the militia nor a declaration of rebellion. How could they have been? But both Davis and the Congress should have been prepared for both…that’s what good leaders do. But they were not. The cotton embargo was imposed when the blockade wasn’t even polite. It presupposed that cotton really was king…and it wasn’t. The Confederate leadership failed to do their due diligence to determine if Europe’s demand for their exports was enough to get Europe to help them out. If they had, perhaps secession might never have happened. What then? That’s beyond the scope of this study.
Worst Failure: Lack of Real Representation
As the fortunes of the war turned decidedly against the Confederacy, domestic support for the war dwindled in very large part because the leadership goals were not the goals–necessarily–of the led. Separateness to enable an institution that few had any stake in made less and less sense the longer the casualty lists became. As the Union armies moved through slave-holding areas after 1863, the wave of freedmen became even larger, and even those non-slaves who had supported the Confederacy no longer had substantial reasons to support what was truly a losing proposition. At the end of the war, the Peace Commissioners were only empowered to seek a cease-fire and a return to the status quo antebellum, a losing argument. Just who they thought they were representing is an open question.
Most Influential Failure: Lack of True National Identity
Richard Beringer, Herman Hattaway, Archer Jones and William Still, in Why the South Lost the Civil War (University of Georgia Press 1986), argued that the Confederacy failed because of a lack of civil religion. I argue that their civil religion–their peculiar institution of chattel slavery–defined everything that the leadership did. Each of the seceded states mentions their support of slavery; the Confederate Constitution enshrines it. State’s rights–the right to keep and maintain slaves–was mantra invoked before every battle, every argument, every discussion of the conflict–a conflict that defined the Confederacy. Their war and their national identity were tied up in that cause. Small wonder then that The Lost Cause should have been the primary reason for the conflict. Ironically, though Lincoln freed the slaves wherever the Union Army could not reach, it was the Congress that passed Amendment XIV that finally forbade chattel slavery…legally.
The Confederacy should not have been surprised that the war ended badly because the reason they were fighting not only was not popular even in the southern states, it wasn’t very humane, either.
Least Appreciated Failure: All Three Added Up to Catastrophe
Bad leadership, unrepresentative leadership, and lack of national identity is a disastrous combination. Each on their own would have been bad enough. Any two would have been worse. Combined, only failure could have been expected. Regardless of what generals survived what battles or what battles went one way or the other, the Confederate States of America was doomed to fail in the long term. Worse, they set themselves up for failure from the beginning. I have said it in the past, and I shall keep saying it: there is no scenario in which the southern Confederacy could have won a military victory that would have resulted in lasting and meaningful political and economic independence from the United States. There can be no debate of legal scenarios: under what law and in what court could secession arguments have been held?
But, too, would any judgment in any court that did not sustain South Carolina’s demands–and the demands of the slave owners of The South (TM)–would not have resulted in war, anyway? They wanted slavery legal all over–and they got it in Dred Scott. But it wasn’t enough. They wanted a reversal of the 1860 election. They wanted either a weak or a sympathetic chief executive who would allow them to do whatever they wanted to do. Ultimately, in a much larger sense, a civil war was almost inevitable because of this attitude. Every law, every legal move, every executive decision had to be run through the filter of the peculiar institution before 1860. Western expansion was slow because the slaveholders kept demanding decisions on the expansion of slavery. And the non-slave-holding states were held hostage by the impolite bellicosity of their slave-holding brethren.
Bad leaders, not caring what their constituents thought, led their country into an unwinnable war, supporting a policy that not everyone agreed with. Just how was such a state supposed to succeed?
This may be a fair analysis of the facts, but now…what to do with them? That’s for next time…
Wanna Know What Happened to Jimmy Hoffa?
The Safe Tree, Friendship Triumphs is now available. The final part of The Stella’s Game Trilogy follows JJ and Ann, Mike and Leigh for one more year–1986–and their adventures through two weddings, two gun battles, a fire…and some insight on one of the most enduring mysteries in American history: what ever happened to Jimmy Hoffa. Now available in paper-bound and many electronic media from your favorite booksellers.