The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

Civil War History: Kibbitzing

Posted on | July 10, 2021 | Comments Off on Civil War History: Kibbitzing

Last weekend, our faithful Wombat offered some suggestions for reading about the history of the War Between the States, and while I certainly endorse his recommendations generally, I must take issue with at least one of his comments specifically:

I am frankly unsure why Douglas Southall Freeman has the reputation he does. I tried reading Lee’s Lieutenants when I was younger, and compared to Bruce Catton, I found him turgid and prolix, on a par with the detail-obsessed official histories of the Army in WW2 that were nearly unreadable with their insistence on detailing what every single company of every single division was doing in (for example) the Battle of the Hurtgen Forest. Still, he had quite a reputation back in the day, and you can stick this, too, on your Kindle, and not throw out your back trying to lift the 400+ pages of the original edition.

If Freeman seems “detail-obsessed,” it’s because he had undertaken the demanding task of establishing the actual facts — in terms of troop strength, unit movements, command decisions, etc. — about Lee’s campaigns in Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania. Somebody had to do the work of going through the Official Records of the war, augmenting these documents with on-the-ground studies of the battlefields, consulting the memoirs and other accounts from key participants, to write the definitive history of events.

Freeman’s monumental four-volume R.E. Lee, A Biography, won the 1935 Pulitzer Prize, and his three-volume Lee’s Lieutenants: A Study in Command, published 1942-44, “shows how armies actually work” and “had a great influence on American military leaders and strategists,” to quote Wikipedia. Of Freeman’s work generally, let me make two solid points in his favor: First, that nearly all Civil War historians thereafter — including both Bruce Catton and Shelby Foote — were obliged to acknowledge their reliance on his work, and second, that so far as I am aware, no one has ever found a single error of fact in Freeman’s work.

As to other works, certainly Bruce Catton is the most readable of Civil War historians. Catton’s prose style, and his story-telling method, is a perfect model of narrative for any aspiring writer. I’ve re-read his Army of the Potomac trilogy so many times I’ve lost count. Sometime in the mid-1980s, I picked this up in a one-volume edition and was hooked immediately. Let any would-be writer consider how Catton begins the first volume, Mr. Lincoln’s Army, with the tale of an obscure figure, Col. Herman Haupt, taking a rowboat out to a ship docked at Alexandria, Virginia, where he fetches Gen. George McClellan to inform him about developments near Bull Run, where Stonewall Jackson has just landed on Gen. John Pope’s supply lines. As an example of feature writing — what we call the “anecdotal lead” — what Catton does here is perfect.

He has a complex story to tell, but instead of starting from the beginning and proceeding chronologically, Catton instead brings us into the story midway, at a crisis point in McClellan’s career, introducing us to the protagonist as a character in this historic drama, and then goes about the business of showing us the military problem that McClellan was called upon to solve. He does all this in such a way that even if you knew nothing at all about Civil War-era tactics and strategy when you picked up his book, by the time you reach the scene of the climax at Antietam, everything is entirely understandable. Catton’s prose style is clear and simple but also elegant, if you have an eye for such things, so that the reader finds himself drawn into the story with the excitement of reading a good mystery novel. Some of my Confederate friends have criticized me for preferring Catton, an unapologetic Yankee, to the Southerner Shelby Foote, but this preference involves no disrespect for Foote who, it should be noted, acknowledged his own debt to Catton’s work.

All of this is important to me personally, because it has something to do with how I acquired a notorious reputation as a “neo-Confederate” thanks to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Heidi Beirich. When I first gained Internet access circa 1995 — in the age of dial-up modems and Usenet groups — there were a couple of places where Civil War history was discussed in open forums. These became the online terrain of conflict because certain damned Yankees (among them Mark Pitcavage, later with the ADL) sought out every opportunity to turn discussion of even the most mundane matters of military history into an occasion to denounce the South for slavery and treason. Older readers will recall that the 1990 Ken Burns documentary on PBS had helped revive public interest in Civil War history leading up to the 125th anniversary of the war, and part of the effect of that was to attract a lot of liberal academics (Pitcavage was then a Ph.D. candidate at Ohio State) to pay attention to an area of history they might otherwise have ignored. This resulted in a politicization of history which has echoes to this day in the controversy over Critical Race Theory. Part of the reason for this was (a) in 1994, Republicans led by Newt Gingrich won control of Congress, and (b) in 1995, Timothy McVeigh blew up the Oklahoma City federal building.

After the OKC bombing, Pitcavage made himself into an “expert” on radical militias (McVeigh was on the fringe of the militia movement) and seemed to think that Southerners defending their ancestors in Civil War history forums on the Internet were would-be right-wing terrorists. And by God, I was not going to be insulted by any damned Yankee Ph.D.

You may consult some of my acquaintances from that era — I’ll offer Jeff Quinton, George Kalas and Gary Waltrip as witnesses — who can testify what Southerners were dealing with in those discussions, and refute any accusation that my involvement was inspired by “white supremacy” or any other manifestation of dangerous extremism.

All of this got dragged into Heidi Beirich’s crusade to smear Southerners quite generally with the taint of RAAAAACISM! Now that the SPLC has ruined its credibility by reckless employment of the “hate group” label against innocent conservative organizations, many would consider my own experience as one of Beirich’s targets as trivial, but I assure you it was very serious — and quite damaging — when I was at The Washington Times and the SPLC was coming after me circa 2003-2006.

It is just such libelous and insulting smears, part of a high-handed moralistic style of politics, that incited the Civil War. If you have read Catton’s The Coming Fury, you know he begins that story at the 1860 Democratic convention, where William Lowndes Yancey of Alabama is the leader of those determined to split the party, a decision that ultimately resulted in Abraham Lincoln’s election, and thus, the war.

How was it that the hotheaded Yancey obtained such power? Wasn’t it because of the insulting Yankee propaganda that had been circulated so widely during the previous decade, fomenting in the minds of many Southerners an attitude of rage? Among those in attendance at the 1860 Democratic convention was Richard Taylor of Louisiana, whose father Zachary Taylor had been the last Whig president of the United States. The younger Taylor was opposed to the radicals led by Yancey, and sought a compromise approach that might have averted the party split, but the hotheads carried the day. Well, what was the sequel? Yancey eventually made himself so obnoxious in the Confederate Congress that Ben Hill of Georgia conked him on the head with a glass inkstand, and Yancey died a couple months later at age 49. Meanwhile, the moderate Taylor found himself called to service as commander of Louisiana’s troops, served with distinction under Stonewall Jackson in the Valley campaign of 1862, and later commanded Confederate forces in the West.

Taylor’s memoir, Destruction and Reconstruction: Personal Experiences of the Late War is, from a literary standpoint, the best autobiographical account of that conflict, and one can read Taylor’s droll observations about the people and passions involved. Taylor was certainly not an admirer of the extremists (on either side) who fomented the deadly crisis, and this is perhaps the best lesson we can draw from that history.

The irresponsible rhetoric of politicians and journalists may incite a crisis that responsible people are required to solve, even though they strove to avert the crisis. When you behold the self-righteous demagoguery on CNN nowadays, ask yourself, what have any of those influential politicians and celebrity media millionaires ever done, personally, about the social problems they denounce in such lurid terms?

God forbid such propaganda should overwhelm the good common sense of the American people, and we repeat the tragedies of history.



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