Funny Civil War Shirt Designs

So, I’m going to post a few links to fun products I’ve found related to the Civil War.  In particular, Civil War shirts.  Novelty clothes are all the rage these days, and I personally love it.  Maybe it’s cheesy, but wearing history-themed shirts is a fun way to express my love of history while also expressing my dry sense of humor.  For the record, I’m not connected in anyway to any of these businesses or artists.  I just thought they were fun and wanted to share some in one post.

Check out this Robert E. Lee shirt over at

And for the reddit fans out there, this Lincoln, Cat Lover shirt at the same site.

Or this Lincoln shirt that quotes his famous “Drop beats, not bombs” line from his second inaugural.  I personally own this one and love it.  It’s got an image of Lincoln with a boombox, droppin’ some street knowledge on the nation.

Now, in most cases, when you search online for civil war shirts you’re going to get cheaply made shirts with an Internet meme image plastered on it.  But at least in the case of the Lincoln shirt I can vouch for it. It’s a bit thin, but perfect for summer.

Any readers out there have personal favorites they’d like to add?

Book Review – The First Total War by David A. Bell

Note:I recently published two entries here and here, which brought this blog up to 49 posts.  I figured why wait to hit that big number 50?  So here’s a review I wrote in college, resurrected from my plethora of saved files, hopefully it helps some student out there understand The First Total War by David A. Bell.

The First Total War, A Deep Analysis of Napoleonic Power

Book Cover, The First Total War

Book Cover, The First Total War

The notion of “total war” has fascinated military and social historians since the devastating world wars, and most historians mark those events as the beginning of the age of total war. In The First Total War, David A. Bell challenges that idea and places the beginning of total war during the Napoleonic Era. Bell, a Harvard educated historian of French history, is charting a new kind of military history, one which examines the culture of warfare, not just the analysis of battles and generals. The decline of the old aristocratic ways of fighting wars, combined with the literary and philosophical ideas about perpetual peace following a final catastrophic conflict led to the birth of a new, more violent form of warfare in revolutionary France. Bell argues that understanding that such warfare originated there allows the reader to understand the current ideas about apocalyptic war in the modern world. First, he challenges the contempt many modern historians have for the 18th Century aristocratic style of warfare. While it is difficult for modern minds to understand the formal, play-acting style of fighting, Bell argues that the very things people ridicule 18th Century warfare for is the very thing that enabled war to be limited in death and destruction. Second, Bell traces the development of philosophical and literary thoughts about the nature of warfare, especially the transition from thinking of war as a normal and consistent part of life to thinking about war as an unusual exception. That transition directly led to more extreme warfare because it made nations see the Napoleonic Wars as a last great war that would usher in an era of perpetual peace. Finally, the eruption of total war itself begins in the Vendee and spreads to irregular guerrilla wars in Italy, Spain and Portugal before ending in Prussia, where total war began official government policy backed by royalty. Bell’s writing style is very interpretive, as he builds arguments and often breaks the narrative to compare his subject (warfare from 1792-1815) to modern day events.[1]

The aristocratic mode of fighting wars dominated the 18th Century and has drawn much criticism from modern historians, yet Bell looks back upon that time with nostalgia. Without ideology and ideas of nationalism, total war was exceedingly rare. However silly the rules of war may seem to a modern observer, they succeeded in limiting the destruction caused by wars and acknowledged the reality that war is a part of human existence, not something that will ever disappear.[2] Here and throughout his book Bell gives brief biographical sketches of the prominent players in each event or theme he examines. We are introduced to the duc de Lauzun, who perfectly represents the aristocrat who can both fight in battle and perform flawlessly at court. Lauzun’s later execution also symbolizes the death of the aristocratic way of fighting, at least in France. Such biographical sketches are expertly interwoven throughout the book to humanize and serve as stand-ins for abstract ideas such as the Enlightenment, honor and brutality. As a narrative device the biographical sketches make the great changes understandable to the average reader. Even his sources sometimes benefit from a brief biography. D’Holbach, a prominent source of Bell’s that argued for the end of aristocratic warfare and notions of honor, is quoted as saying that war was an exception due only to bad rulers fighting for petty causes. “The state of society is a state of war of the sovereign against all, and of each of its members against the others.”[3]

Early on the book Bell relies heavily on the works of literary giants and philosophes to define the nature of warfare. In doing so Bell implies that the thoughts of these educated elites can represent the thoughts of the masses. He recognizes that there are limits to how far this sort of generalization can go, but understandably there were few tracts written about lower class or uneducated people about their feelings for the war. And since the philosophes were widely read among elites and often enjoyed favor at court it is in fact reasonable to assume that they influenced official policy. Perhaps the most importance influence on how the aristocrats viewed war was a man named Fenelon. His best known work Telemachus outlined his philosophy that war was a scourge to be avoided at all costs, directly challenging the aristocratic notion that war was nearly a sport. “War may sometimes be necessary but it is the shame of the human race.”[4] The abbe de Saint-Pierre was another prominent intellectual who advocated for a utopian vision of international cooperation. It was this sort of anti-war mentality that took root and inadvertently triggered the most violent paroxysm of war the world would see until the Twentieth Century. Bell’s reliance on the works of these early philosophes effectively sets the stage for what will come in the French Revolution and Napoleon’s reign. Their principles accurately reflect the Enlightenment thinking that was sweeping Europe and was the justification for the French Revolution.

Finally, Bell comes to the topic of total war itself, once he has detailed the changes in thinking among elites. The people have become riled up for total war by the French Revolutionary governments; they have been taught to believe a final apocalyptic war is needed to free the world from tyranny and preserve their new liberal system. And so the French initiate total war, a concept that Bell defines as mobilization of the population (which seldom resulted in expected numbers), brutality towards the opponent, and including civilians among the targets of military action. The French efforts to eliminate royalist opposition in the Vendee resulted in a brutal campaign of extermination. Bell quotes Republican general Francois-Nicolas Salomon: “Since this is a war of brigands, we must become brigands ourselves. We must, for a time, forget all military rules.”[5] Bell attributes a variant of this quote from many sources throughout the book, from the Revolution right up to the modern United States. It represents, in a phrase, what his book is about: the abandonment of civilized rules of war. Bell’s new form of cultural military history is best represented by his treatment of battles. The nature of the battles is at the forefront, not the tactics or strategies involved in the battles. Similarly, Bell does not overuse dates in discussing his battles, for they are not relevant to his argument. Used sparingly only to give context to events his is careful not to inundate the reader with statistics except where they are necessary in evidencing the brutality of total war. Dates are rarely used and given only to provide context, the book is more about ideas. While the book is organized in chronological order, the reader is only introduced to relevant battles. Instead of being a comprehensive history of campaigns, only the battles that best reflect his thesis of total war and dehumanization of the enemy are used. The crackdown in the Vendee, the revolts in Italy, Spain and Portugal are all used as examples. Drawing from eye-witness accounts, Bell paints a picture of horrific war. By the first decade of the 19th Century soldiers who felt they were taking part in a great historical event began recording their thoughts, and serve as the backbone of his depiction of the invasion of Russia and other trials. Official reports from officers in the field report the telling brutalities committed by rebels and French regulars. Staying true to the cultural elements his book are based on, Bell also frequently resorts to artistic depictions of battle to reflect changing sensibilities. Initially paintings by the likes of David beautify death in a noble cause, but by the time the Napoleonic Wars were grinding to a halt the depictions had turned grotesque, showing severed limbs and propaganda.[6]

No book is perfect, however, and Bell’s largest mistake is overlooking the prevalence of the aristocratic way of war in the rest of Europe. The change in France is clear enough, but he only sporadically mentions how the rest of Europe failed to adapt. But he fails to credit the Duke of Wellington with defeating Napoleon and seems to ascribe Napoleon’s defeat to the guerrilla warfare. One wonders if the effectiveness of such irregular warfare is overstated in military histories, and while Bell has introduced new ideas to the field of military history, perhaps he has not broken with all traditional ways of thinking about war. The book is academic: it has an introduction, a clear argument, and frequently breaks the narrative to discuss historiography and historical debates, but his prose is fluid and accessible, and his thoughts are organized effectively into a narrative that even a novice to French history will enjoy. In his introduction Bell writes that the targeted audience of his book is average readers. His goal is to get readers re-thinking their assumptions about the evolution of warfare, and admits scholars may find little new in his book. In this Bell certainly succeeds. Maybe the facts are old but the analysis is new and even scholars can benefit from reading The First Total War.

On the whole Bell’s work is revolutionary. It opens up the often stagnant field of military history to new avenues of research and new ways of thinking. Effectively weaving biographical sketches in with relevant battles and trends in the way the masses looked at war, The First Total War is a deep analysis of the way Europe–Frenchmen especially–abandoned aristocratic modes of war and embraced a new era of violent total war to achieve ideological goals. A well-researched argument and narrative substantiated with relevant and effective primary sources serve to make this book a must-read among military and cultural historians for years to come.


[1] Frequently, the American war and occupation in Iraq.

[2] David A. Bell, The First Total War: Napoleon’s Europe and the Birth of Warfare as We Know It (New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2007), 316-317.

[3] Bell, 69.

[4] Bell, 62.

[5] Bell, 170.

[6] The attempts at artistic propaganda were used to show how the public was being told to hate their enemies and think of opponents as sub-human. Specifically Bell cites the example of a British cartoon depicting Napoleon as a baby cradled in the arms of Satan. Bell, 255.

Book Review: Bitterly Divided by David Williams

A Review of Bitterly Divided

The book jacket for Bitterly Divided by David Williams.

The book jacket for Bitterly Divided by David Williams.

About a week ago I posted a review of William Freehling’s The South vs the South and mentioned that I would be reading a second book on the same theme. That book was Bitterly Divided by David Williams, and I just finished reading it this morning. After collecting my thoughts I perused some reviews of the book to get a general feel for how it’s been accepted in the scholarly and popular arena. I found that there is a little controversy about the book among historians, and there are two camps: those who find Williams’ thesis compelling and those who think it naïve and based on faulty anecdotal evidence.

Would it be too much of a cop-out to say I agree with both camps? Williams paints a much more believable explanation for the collapse of the Confederacy than the traditional “North had more guns and people” view. His book is also much more in-depth than Freehling’s while still being fairly short (250 pages). It also gives the reader a better idea of the depth and breadth of opposition to the Confederacy and the unique alliances it spawned.

As a narrative the book is entertaining, which is very important to me. Early on I learned that if you can’t write history in an interesting way you won’t reach as many people and thus, what good are you? A lot of the evidence is from secondary sources, his own prior works, and is largely based on anecdotal evidence. He does, however, have some compelling arguments about elections that seem to strengthen his argument for a wealthy minority pushing for secession votes through fraud. Here his anecdotal evidence blends with statistical evidence and strongly leads the reader to conclude that the majority of white southerners did oppose secession and war in early 1861, and that the white elites did a pretty bang-up job of rigging the system against anti-Confederates.

The complexity of white opposition to the Confederacy was barely touched on, and the heavy Marxist tone of the book prevents non-economic reasons from moving to the forefront of the argument. In Bitterly Divided, you get the impression that the South was on the verge of an anti-planter class revolution, but Williams never really proves how deep these sentiments went in Confederate society. Most of his evidence takes on an anti-planter attitude, but surely economic reasons weren’t the only reasons for opposing the Confederacy?

It also falters when dealing with Northern racism and the freeing of slaves. Freehling’s great accomplishment was in showing why Lincoln catered to the Border States, how integral they were to victory by swinging numbers, spies and geography in favor of the Union. Williams does not mention the need to handle the Border States with delicacy and instead paints Lincoln, abolitionists and much of the north as racist opportunists. Nearly every time Lincoln is mentioned he is painted in a negative light. In one instance Williams writes: “Though differing with Confederates on the issue of disunion, Lincoln was largely united with them in his racist views.” (p. 193)

I’m not arguing Lincoln was modernistic with his racial views, but countless other authors have spent a great deal of time and research showing how nuanced Lincoln’s racial views were, and how often his public statements did not mesh with his private thoughts and were based on political necessity, that it seems unfair of Williams to put Lincoln in the ranks of Jefferson Davis with one sweeping statement. He also highlights Army opposition to fighting for blacks. “As far as the federal government was concerned, neither slavery nor blacks had any business in the affair.” (p. 193) Yet soldiers were among the most heartily in favor of emancipation and pushed helping runaway slaves, as Freehling pointed out in his earlier book. In this book Lincoln and the Army come across as caricatures of Lost Cause mythology. In several other instances Lincoln is portrayed as an uncaring, unresponsive politician. Interestingly, Jefferson Davis comes off as more of an emancipator than Lincoln.

That’s not to say this is a Lost Cause book. Williams comes across as definitively anti-Confederate from an economic viewpoint. And he places a lot of stock in the agency of runaway slaves in securing their own freedom. Maybe there’s nothing more than coincidence to his coverage of Lincoln and Davis, but it stood out to me nonetheless.

Finally, in his concluding chapter he makes a curious statement and I don’t know what to make of it. In dismissing the role of decisive battles in crushing the Confederate war machine, he writes: “Certainly defeats on the battlefield sapped the Confederacy’s will to fight, but those defeats came largely because so many soldiers had already lost their will to fight and deserted the army.” (p. 243). Desertion may have been a problem for the Confederacy throughout the war, but it was not a crisis yet when Lee struck northward to Antietam and Gettysburg. In fact, the Army of Northern Virginia had a remarkably high cohesion and spirit d’corps. Only a holistic approach to the war will reveal why the South lost. In the final analysis, Williams’ argument that class warfare undermined the South will no doubt by important, but starvation and a lack of future resources to continue the war, as well as military defeat, is what defeated Robert E. Lee. And I’m not sure I got that from reading Bitterly Divided.

Naming the American Civil War and the Battle over Interpretation

Naming the American Civil War

I don’t get to use neat tools as much as I’d like, but I was recently told about Google’s Ngram Viewer, which allows you to search and graph words and phrases mentioned in tons of books Google has scanned.  I got to thinking about the battles historians wage over civil war memory.  Whenever neo-Confederates, Sons of Confederate Veterans, or other “heritage” groups make the news, I am reminded of our endless battle over interpretation.  Some of us descend from Confederates and have a hard time grasping the real meaning behind the war.  Others have ultra-liberal agendas that swing interpretations the other way.

One of the areas people, historians and civilians alike, usually end up quibbling over is the name of the American Civil War.  What name most accurately refers to the causes and events of the war?  The War of Northern Aggression?  The War Between the States? The Second (or third?) American Revolution?  Was it really a civil war at all?

Instead of a traditional historiography of the Civil War, let’s take a look at Google Ngram Viewer and measure the usage of some of these phrases over time.  Maybe what we find will help us understand how different generations thought of the war.  Our choice of words and phrases can sometimes subconsciously reveal the way we think about issues in ways we often can’t explain through complex arguments.

So, without further ado, here’s the graph:

Google ngraph viewer graph of Civil War terms

Google ngraph viewer graph of Civil War terms


I used the following terms to describe the war:

  • War for the Union
  • American Civil War
  • War of Northern Aggression
  • War Between the States
  • Emancipation War

Those are all terms I’ve heard used to describe the war.  What we find is that during the war authors referred to it most frequently as the “War for the Union” and this usage peaked in 1865.  Almost immediately after the war it began to slip out of favor.  The American Civil War, while less popular, also grew during the war, and continued to grow after the war.  The steady increase over a greater length of time would suggest to me that more people were comfortable with this term than the others in the decades after the war.

Interestingly, the “War Between the States” didn’t seem all that popular until 1876, the year Reconstruction ended and the year white Americans tried to pretend the war was just a spat between friends and that everything should go back to normal (except without slavery as a legal institution).  While still the least popular of the top three choices, it rose along with them.  A similar moment of reconciliation occurred in 1898, when Northerners and Southerners united for the first time to fight a foreign enemy (the Spanish).  The year following, “War Between the States” replaced “War for the Union” while the latter declined into obscurity.

Things went along like this for a few more decades.  “American Civil War” and “War Between the States” had a direct relationship for the most part, both rising in usage.  Until, oddly enough, “War Between the States” actually replaced “American Civil War” in 1935.  And it didn’t just eke out a small increase, it skyrocketed.  “American Civil War” didn’t necessarily fall out of favor.  I imagine that the sudden popularity of “War Between the States” had something to do with the Civil War generation dying off in the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s.  We could call this the third major reconciliation event of Civil War Memory.  With their fathers and grandparents dying off, Southerners must have looked for a way to remember them while whitewashing the whole treason thing, and Northerners were happy to go along.

This was also the height of pro-Southern historiography, especially the Dunning School of Reconstruction history which postulated that Reconstruction was a horribly failed experiment in racial equality.  The Dunning School also put the Union and the Confederacy on equal moral terms when it came to war motivations, and solidified the already strong Lost Cause mythology many Southerners held close to their hearts.

The popularity of “War Between the States” peaked in 1941 and then plummeted.  By 1956, “American Civil War” was once again the most popular phrase for describing the war.  This went hand in hand with the rejection of the Dunning School historiography and a new, more balanced review of war aims and motivations.  This was also the time when historians were trying to place slavery and black military service back into a central role in the war.

By 1957 and interesting thing happened.  A new phrase emerged that Google Ngram Viewer hadn’t found in existence before: “War of Northern Aggression.”  I imagine this term was adopted by die-hard neo-Confederates who saw the recent popularity of the Southern cause slipping in scholarly and popular conception.  It never gained any sort of popularity and barely registers on the Ngram, but it is there.  It did continue to gain popularity right up until 2000, the last year of the graph.  Lest we forget that the 1990s were the height of right wing paramilitary threats, which often coincide with neo-Confederate mentality among non-historians.

Finally, “Emancipation War” barely registers at all, although the phrase existed since the war was new.  I imagine its usage was restricted to abolitionists hoping for an emancipation war, and Southern plantation owners fearing one.

In the end, “War Between the States” remains the second most popular term to describe the war in publications, but it has fallen a long way since its heyday.  “American Civil War,” admittedly a bit bland, reigns supreme these days, and by the looks of it will remain that way for the foreseeable future.