Book Review: The South vs The South by William W. Freehling



The South vs The South by William W. Freehling:  An Entertaining Disappointment


After discovering Kevin Levin’s “Civil War Memory” blog, and thanks to my own experiences with neo-Confederates and myth-building, I grabbed a couple of books on southern history during the American Civil War.  Two of them dealt specifically with internal divisions in the Civil War, Freehling’s The South vs The South and Bitterly Divided: The South’s Inner Civil War by David Williams.

I first settled down with The South vs the South, which clocks in at 206 pages.  A really brief read in terms of historical works, the primary focus of the book is to draw attention to the importance of the border state whites and black runaways as the critical factor in Union victory in the Civil War.  He pushes back against the traditional narrative that Northern manpower and industry alone won the war, though doesn’t refute it entirely.  Freehling tries to take a more holistic approach to the war, which makes more sense to me than single-issue explanations.  I’ve never been a fan of ideologues, in politics or in history, so it never made sense to me to rely on single issues to explain a historical outcome.

Freehling wrote the book as a response to Gary Gallagher, a renowned Civil War historian, giving addresses promoting a unified South theory for the war.  While much has been made of Northern internal divisions (Copperheads, Peace Democrats and Knights of the Golden Circle, oh my!) less attention has been paid to Southern in-fighting.

That the North had an advantage in manpower and industry is not disputed here so much as expanded upon.  How did the North attain that numerical advantage? And how did they maintain such important railroad and industrial advantages?  As an invading army, the North would need far more soldiers than the Confederacy would need.  Plunging deep into hostile territory, the North would have to leave large occupying forces behind as it advanced, which would eat away at that numerical advantage.  So with the playing field thus leveled, how could that numerical advantage be so overwhelming?

The answer is Southern anti-Confederates.  White and black people of the South, especially the border South, opposed the Confederacy and flocked to Union ranks.  Freehling does a good job of explaining Lincoln’s deft handling of the border states–especially Kentucky and Maryland–in which he delayed turning the war into one for emancipation to continue receiving massive recruiting levels in those states.

Over 300,000 Southerners fought for Union, enough to offset most of their casualties from the war.  These anti-Confederates helped the Union in twofold ways.  First, by joining the Union they deprived the Confederacy of much-needed men.  Second, runaways fed valuable information and served as guides to Union armies that helped cut swathes through the Confederacy and also strengthened the Union cause numerically and morally. Despite internal divisions, Kentucky, Missouri, Maryland and Delaware stayed loyal.  And even large chunks of Tennessee and the new state of West Virginia helped the Union cause.

Furthermore, Baltimore, Maryland was an all-important hub for rail travel and rail repair.  By staying in the Union, the Confederacy was deprived of an important industrial tool and a stronger geopolitical position.  Without an advantage in rails, the Confederacy couldn’t hope to stop all avenues of Union invasion.

Freehling’s book is an accurate and interesting summation of events, but it is only superficial analysis at best.  I was struck by the lack of primary sources.  Freehling made interesting arguments and is a talented writer, but I expected to learn much more about Southern divisions.

The first portion of the book is the strongest.  In it, Freehling discusses the importance of border state whites to Lincoln’s war effort.  They provided men, moral support and denied support to the Confederacy, and by staying in the Union those states enabled the Union to start the war much closer to goals like Vicksburg and Atlanta than otherwise would have been possible.  The modified Anaconda Plan that was followed by the Union in the war was made possible because of this geographic starting point. Has Kentucky, for example, rose up for the Confederacy the Union would have had to expend much blood and treasure just to reach Forts Donelson and Henry where Grant started his war.

The second half of the book is devoted to black runaways and soldiers.  Unfortunately, this is the weakest part.  Freehling breaks no new ground in this.  Here it reads like a very superficial essay.  The reader is also left feeling like those were the only two areas where dissension occurred in the Union.

I’ve started reading Bitterly Divided: The South’s Inner Civil War and after just a few pages, it seems like it goes into much greater detail and depth than The South vs the South.  I expect that one to be more intellectually stimulating.

Interstellar Trailer Released and the Teleology of History

Head over to Youtube to see the trailer for Interstellar, Christopher Nolan’s new film and (inevitable) masterpiece.  Nolan’s work has always been a cut above the rest of Hollywood.  Since he started directing big budget flicks (2005’s Batman Begins) he’s always blended action, adventure and mystery with intelligence.  He insists his movies are just “popcorn flicks” but everyone can see they are something much more.  Interstellar is the story of scientists who unlock a way to travel the universe through wormholes.  If I’m not mistaken, those wormholes also cause the characters to time travel.  Nolan’s movie is based on some theoretical science that goes way above my pay grade, but only Nolan could find a way to incorporate hard scientific theory into a “popcorn” sci-fi movie with an all-star cast headed by Matthew McConaughey.  

What does Christopher Nolan’s movie have to do with history, and therefore with this blog?  The teaser trailer features images of humanity’s achievements including surviving the dustbowl and reaching the moon.  McConaughey’s voice narrates the images, which are interspersed with a few snippets from Interstellar itself.  The triumphant images end with a montage of America grounding her space fleet and symbolizing a halt in our endless pioneering ambition. His speech is inspiring and challenges humanity to continue to reach for the stars.  “Our greatest achievements cannot be behind us,” he says.  “Our destiny lies above us.”  Unknowingly, this dialogue parallels a common theme in historical works.  Are our best days really ahead of us?

Teleology is a philosophical point of view that argues that things exist for a final end.  In history, this philosophy often shapes narrative.  Events happen to bring about future events.  Causation and all that.  Inevitably the historians argue that the future events will be improvements on the past.  When they look back on history, they often see a rising progression in humanity’s “civilization.”  We become more advanced, smarter, healthier, morally superior.

A perfect example is the argument over gay rights.  When someone opposes gay marriage or equal rights, we often say they will be on the wrong side of history.  This statement contains an assumption that the future will continue to improve morally.    We saw this sense after World War I, as well.  After such massive destruction, few people anticipated another large scale war was even possible, much less likely within twenty years.  The future, it is assumed, is always better.

That’s not necessarily true.  History isn’t linear.  Rome was a very advanced society, but when it collapsed centers of learning disappeared, health deteriorated, and an argument could be made that Europe became more “savage” and decentralized before.  Another philosophical paradigm of history is a cyclical viewpoint.  The rise and fall of empires and civilizations.  They’re closer to the mark, but still wrong.

Future history has not yet been written.  We need to constantly strive to advance our society according to our morals and our principles.  We need to reach for the stars, and hopefully Interstellar helps rekindle that pioneering spirit in the world, and especially in America.  We cannot assume the future will be better, we cannot get comfortable.  We can’t say “it (whatever it may be) can’t happen here.”  Similarly, we can’t expect to collapse and fall, like an inevitable cycle.

The future is what we make of it.  I’m glad to be reminded of it.  By a movie trailer, no less.