Reliving the Civil War

Author, editor, and critic, RICHARD E. DANIELSON has been a lifelong student of the Civil War period. He is not surprised at the current public interest in that part of our history, but he wonders why it should arise at just this time.

by RICHARD E. DANIELSON

1

TO THOSE of us who for the last ten or twenty or fifty years have found the Civil War1 a most fascinating subject, it has always seemed strange that only a relatively small number of our fellow citizens agreed with us. Times have changed. The great American Public has discovered the Civil War. So have the American publishers. The present spate of books based in one way or another on the War testify to an almost indiscriminating demand for something, anything, about a war decided some ninety years ago.

And why not? This was our war. It had everything— heroism and cowardice, honor and dishonor, draft-dodgers, “ bounty jumpers,” and hosts of volunteers. Moreover we were not opposed on either side by aliens, by Japs or Koreans or Chinese or Germans; it was Americans against Americans. Confederates could understand the mystique behind the Federals’ cry for freedom and Union; and similarly the Federals could understand — if they did not approve—the Confederate defense of their “rights,” including the right to secede. It was an immensely costly war in blood and treasure, a war of great battles and long marches, of ravaged countrysides and burned cities. Hardly a village, North or South, but mourned the loss of brave young men, and old men too. I have read somewhere that at the end of the War tihe average age of the soldiers in the Army of the Potomac was seventeen years and a month or two. Immigrant soldiers from foreign lands who could barely speak English learned something at first hand of the American dream. It produced men of authentic genius; it exposed inflated mediocrities. It was a horrible war; it was magnificent; and, in a strange, sad way, it made this nation.

Of the books on Civil War themes which I have read recenlly, three were novels, five were biographies, and one was a general history of the War as seen with Southern eyes. Of the biographies, Hudson Strode’s Jefferson Davis, American Patriot (Harcourt, Brace) covers the life of Mr. Davis from his birth to his election as President of the Confederacy. It is the first of two volumes, the second of which will be chiefly devoted to his career during his term as wartime President.

Mr. Strode took on — as he well knew—a difficult task in his expressed purpose of persuading the American people not only that Mr. Davis was a man of integrity, courage, and ability (which most students of his life would concede) but that in addition he was a warmhearted man — in the words of one of his friends, that he was essentially “lovable” and that he “always had a keen sense of humor.” Rightly or wrongly, the impression prevails that actually he was, like the famous Mr. Winterbottom, a cold stern man. His critics claim that he suffered from illusions or delusions concerning his own military genius, that he was a bad judge of men, that he played favorites unwisely, that he was tactless and unduly austere in his relations with military men, but above all that he was cold, almost frigid in his temperament and character.

Mr. Strode has had access to a very considerable body of hitherto unpublished family letters and other papers which, together with personal interviews with members of the Davis family, have convinced him that Mr. Davis was a misunderstood and misjudged man. He feels that he has “discovered” the real Jefferson Davis.

Better men than I have reviewed this book with enthusiasm and have called it the “definitive” life, “easily the best life of Jefferson Davis yet written.” I do not have the arrogance to dispute the findings of such authorities, but I am waiting to see what the next volume will demonstrate. At this writing I cannot feel that Mr. Strode has proved his point.

In Clifford Dowdey’s stimulating story of the Confederacy, The Land They Fought For (Doubleday), a very different attitude toward Mr. Davis prevails throughout. To Mr. Dowdey he was a pedant and a continual sufferer from fixed and often stupid ideas. Toward the latter part of the War, indeed, Mr. Dowdey sees him as almost, if not quite, demented. Certainly as President Davis’s errors of judgment became more and more apparent he was bitterly criticized in Richmond and was perhaps unduly charged with responsibility for events which he could not control. In The Desolate South, by John T. Trowbridge (Duell, Sloan & Pearce-Little, Brown), a reissue of a book published in 1867, the author says: “From the day I entered Virginia it was a matter of continual astonishment to me to hear the common people denounce the Davis despotism,” and other contemporary sources agree that the President was immensely unpopular.

Mr. Dowdey is concerned with the structure of the Confederacy and with the personalities who controlled it or seemed to control its destinies. Incidentally, he thinks of the struggle between North and South as beginning in 1832 and continuing in a kind of cold war until Secession and Sumter. I gather that he believes that the rigidity of the Confederate system, both political and military, was maintained by the stiffness and opinionated character of Jefferson Davis. I imagine that Mr. Dowdey is a fairly unreconstructed Southerner, and his compact history and critique of a vastly complicated subject is colored by likes and dislikes which give a fresh and personal quality to his writing. It is a book which Northerners who also have their likes and dislikes could and should read with attention. Mr. Dowdey’s stature as an historian of the War, established in his earlier works, is steadily growing.

A much more colorful biography of a much less admirable man is Sickles the Incredible by W. A. Swanberg (Scribner’s). As this book has already been reviewed in the Atlantic, I shall be brief.

Daniel Sickles was a Tammany politician from New York, elected to Congress in 1857. Already notorious as a profligate, he seemed to be fond of his young wife, Teresa, in spite of his open infidelities. When, however, he discovered that she was having an affair with Philip Barton Key - the son of the author of our national anthem—he murdered him, in Washington’s Jackson Square, firing four or five times at the unarmed man. He was acquitted, owing to the ineptitude of the District Attorney and to the strong battalion of lawyers — including Stanton, later Lincoln’s Secretary of War—retained in his defense. And, of course, there was the “unwritten law.”It did seem, however, that his political career was destroyed.

But not at all! Nobody and no event or circumstance could keep that bouncing, resilient spirit down. After Sumter fell he enlisted a brigade and became, after long delays, a brigadier general. He was in many ways a good soldier and he won the respect and affection of his men. But he was wildly ambitious, insubordinate, and a passionate intriguer. At Gettysburg he almost lost the battle when, contrary to orders, he advanced his corps far beyond his allotted station, where they were decimated and where he lost his famous leg. It was typical of this strange man that alter receiving his very serious wound, he feared that his men would lose heart if they thought him mortally wounded. “He requested a bearer to remove a cigar from a case in an inside pocket and light it for him. He was carried away with the Havana projecting jauntily from his mouth.”

Mr. Swanberg does not minimize Sickles’ obvious deficiencies of character, nor does he uphold Sickles’ military claims and pretensions. He states facts and lets the reader draw his own conclusions.

2

MACKINLAY KANTOR’S Andersonville (World) bears out in a striking way the overwhelming interest of the public in the Civil War. Month after month it has been high on the best-seller list. If Andersonville told an agreeable story, one might understand its popularity, but it tells a dreadful story of filth, disease, starvation, and every form of horror. The response of the public to this powerful, furious book could hardly have been predicted, even if the continuously growing number of readers and students of the Civil War had been anticipated. Mr. Kantor’s book is unforgettable, but it is not hammock fiction, and its continued popularity is really bewildering.

It is perhaps in spite of Mr. Kantor’s descriptions of the horrors of Andersonville that this book seizes and holds the attention of its readers. The author has used the powerful device of telling the life stories of young men from New York or Ohio or Vermont or Maine or Pennsylvania from boyhood until their capture and their inevitable death in Andersonville. There are the stories of Nathan Dreyfoos, of Ebe Dolliver, of Seneca MacBean, of Father Whelan, of Johnny Ransom, of Willie Mann who loved clean, clear water, of Judah Hansom who tried to tunnel his way out, of Meriwether Kinsman who learned to play the fife and was the youngest in the regiment — “the smallest of all the fifers" — all ending in the noisome sink of Andersonville. In these stories Mr. Kantor is exceptionally surefooted. He knows the period and the places which he chooses to describe. Some of these short fictional biographies are infinitely moving, and in them to my mind lies the great strength of this book.

A novel which I thoroughly enjoyed and which I consider a real contribution to Civil War literature is The Horse Soldiers by Harold Sinclair (Harper). This is a fictional account of an exploit by an understrength brigade of Federal cavalry. The hero of the book, Colonel Jack Marlowe, was given the apparently impossible assignment of taking his troops from the latitude of Memphis and Corinth to break the Southern Railroad from Vicksburg to Meridian, through the heart of Confederate Mississippi, and bringing them out as best he could. With five day’s rations they started out on a raid which took them sixteen days and brought them to Federal-held Baton Rouge. Colonel Marlowe sent one body of his brigade back to their base after five days and detached another company to break the Mobile and Ohio Railroad. His own force did great damage to the Southern Railroad and carried out the destruction of road and rolling stock wherever possible. They were surrounded by superior and hoslile forces converging on them from the north and south and west, and could not possibly have escaped destruction if the element of good luck on Marlowe’s part and of some ineptitude on the part of the enemy had not permitted it. They were an utterly exhausted body of men and horses when they reached shelter at Baton Rouge, but their exploit was both a great morale builder and one which inspired the imagination of every cavalryman.

Perhaps because this book is based on the fact of Grierson’s famous raid and the names and characters only are fictional, the impact on the reader is definitely effective. The author knows what many people nowadays do not know: the actual logistics of cavalry on the march. There is no romance in this book, but the characters of the officers, the noncoms, and some of the men are so clearly drawn and so thoroughly convincing that one does not feel the lack of any romantic interest and would rather resent it if a love affair had been pulled in by the ears. I can heartily recommend The Horse Soldiers, “a novel of the Civil War,” as a thrilling and inspiring book.

Fletcher Pratt has written a valuable book, Civil War on Western Waters (Holt), concerning the naval activities on the Mississippi and other rivers. Where the Confederates put their trust in fortifications which meant defensive warfare, the Northerners happily combined aggressive tactics by the Army and Navy. Their team play was excellent, and as a result they were in the long run completely successful. This is a concise and adequate account of this important phase of the Civil War.

Commendable books in their respective categories are Robert E. Lee by Earl Schenk Miers, one of a series of Great Lives in Brief, for those who have not the time or the energy to read Mr. Freeman’s R. E. Lee in four volumes. This is an excellently written, concise, and sympathetic biography.

Another biography of Lee is Gray Fox by Burke Davis (Rinehart). In one volume, but a larger one than Mr. Miers’s, Mr. Davis, who is by no means a slavish admirer of Lee’s talents, has created — mostly from contemporary documents— a very fine picture of Lee as a soldier and a man. My only criticism of his judgments is that he is perhaps somewhat unkind to Longstreet, particularly on the part he played at Gettysburg; but that is a matter of endless debate and personal opinion. On the whole, Mr. Davis has written a temperate, lucid, and appealing study of this great American.

Not many people think of Abraham Lincoln as an inventor—which he was — or as particularly interested in ordnance. Lincoln and the Tools of War (Bobbs-Merrill) by Robert V. Bruce shows the continued pressure during the Civil War to provide the Northern Armies and the Navy with the best arms which could be procured or invented. At the very beginning the great problem was to supply the troops with rifles instead of smooth-bore muskets. Once this hurdle was taken, there was a steady attempt to provide breech-loading rifles and repeating rifles and even machine guns — an effort constantly discouraged by the Ordnance Department conservatives and encouraged by the President. I can recommend this book as providing an additional instance of Lincoln’s many-sided character, and as a study in the actual procuring of better and better equipment for the men who fought on the Northern side in the Civil War.

I wish that space permitted a more adequate review of Lincoln Reconsidered by David Donald (Knopf), a collection of essays dealing chiefly with Lincoln and his problems. Such chapters as “Getting Right with Lincoln,” “Herndon and Mrs. Lincoln,” “A. Lincoln, Politician,” “The Folklore Lincoln,” indicate the author’s approach toward certain aspects of the Lincoln myth. It is not a debunking of Lincoln, for whom Mr. Donald has deep respect and affection, but rather a gentle assessment, a common-sense, witty, and erudite analysis of certain unrealities which have grown to be accepted as Gospel truths in the average American’s thinking about Lincoln and the Civil War. It is a book which had to be written and it could not have been written with more wisdom, better documentation, or more charm than in Mr. Donald’s “Essays on the Civil War Era.” We should be grateful to this author for a book which will be valuable to everyone.

However outstanding are Andersonville, Sickles the Incredible, The Horse Soldiers, and Lincoln Reconsidered, the new reader of the Civil War can well return to some of the classic books on this subject, such as Henderson’s Stonewall Jackson, Douglas Southall Freeman’s Lee and Lee’s Lieutenants, and Sandburg’s Lincoln. Of course there is always that greatest repository of firsthand testimony by the actual contenders, Battles and Leaders of the Civil War. The four volumes of this famous work, of which a great part appeared in the old Century Magazine, represent one of the very greatest editorial conceptions and performances in our history. It was the brain child of Robert Underwood Johnson, and it still stands unique in breadth and depth of information. In any event we may say of Civil War books, old and new, as Dryden said of The Canterbury Tales, “Here is God’s plenty.”

  1. I use the phrase “Civil War" as against the Southern term “The War Between tlie States" because it is handier to write; also because it was a civil war.