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.