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.