Review: The Confederate War

The Confederate War by Gary W. Gallagher

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I don’t have the best grasp of history. I can hum a few bars from the twentieth century, of course, but go further back than that, and certain events are just dim lights in the darkness. Obviously, I’m not a historian and the subject is kind of, well, large, but I remain thankful that I live in the age of Wikipedia. This doesn’t fix all ills, but it definitely helps. So, given my poor grasp on the American Civil War, I was actually looking forward to sitting down with this book for class and getting a timeline on the damn thing. Unfortunately, that’s not what this book offers at all.

The Confederate War is a response to the main narrative about the South’s loss in the American Civil War—its collapse and military defeat, certain historians argue, was inevitable. But historian Gary W. Gallagher thinks historians are letting hindsight blind them. Ask not why the South collapsed so soon, but how it persisted so long. The popular will of the South, the staunch nationalism that was never quite defeated, and its focus on legitimate military strategy were all major strengths for the South—strengths that, at the end of the conflict, could not overpower the Union. Using diaries, letters, newspapers, and other primary sources, Gallagher examines the South as a people who did not know that time was going to run out for them, but as a budding nation trying to assert its independence.

I’ve just been chatting a little with Jenny about reading order—specifically, the order to read Neil Gaiman in. Since I read American Gods, my favorite novel by him, first, it’s hard for me to go back to Neverwhere and judge it on its own merits, because I know Gaiman can do better. At the end of the day, though, it’s rarely hugely important to read one novel before another. But when it comes to academic texts on other texts, it is. Gallagher spends much of the book enumerating the historiographies of the American Civil War that he’s reacting against—so much so, in fact, that it can be difficult to tune into the actual meat of his argument, which is actually quite interesting. Had I come to this after reading one or two histories of the Civil War with the perspective that Gallagher is fighting against here, I think this would have been better. Not fine, because Gallagher’s writing style can be very academic and inscrutable (despite the short page count), hence the confusion, but definitely better.

At the beginning of the book, Gallagher begs off any implications of being pro-Confederate by his own heritage as a man who has nothing to do with the South. In class, we often talk about the South as a scapegoat for America, hence the stereotype of the white Southerner as hideously racist. Given the immensely complicated history of the region, it’s a stereotype we almost deserve, but, then again, it’s not as if racism doesn’t exist in the rest of the United States. I think this scapegoating is presumably why historians are so eager to look at the American Civil War with the hindsight of the South’s defeat; in their view (and mine), they deserved to lose, and why Gallagher is so tentative about pointing out certain facts about the South during the Civil War that may have given them an advantage. But Gallagher is questioning the historiography to get at the truth instead of support a different argument, which is something I can definitely appreciate.

As for the argument itself, Gallagher’s obscure writing style still lights up when he shows us what he means, instead of punching holes in the unknown-to-me arguments of other historians. For instance, Gallagher’s self-appointed opponents often argue that the Confederacy should have used American Revolution-style guerrilla tactics, given their home field advantage, but Gallagher points out that the Confederacy wanted to be seen as a legitimate nation (in order to garner support from other nations), and such tactics were ungentlemanly, especially for the West Point-educated leaders in the military. Ultimately, Gallagher argues that while the will of the Confederacy faded with the defeat of their military, the nationalism was never quashed, giving us a South that still boasts a laser show showing Confederate generals leaping into battle. A thoughtful, interesting, and useful argument—too bad the packaging is so difficult to open.

Bottom line: The Confederate War, by examining the American Civil War in a context that does not assume the loss of the Confederacy, destabilizes the historiography of the Confederate South in order to get at historical truths that explain why nationalism persisted for a defeated half-nation. Unfortunately, Gallagher spends most of the book punching holes in the arguments of other historians, instead of laying out his own arguments, and the writing style can be inscrutable. Meh.

I bought this used book off of Amazon.

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