A large book on a big loss…

Richard E. Beringer, Herman Hattaway, Archer Jones, and William N. Still, Jr., Why The South Lost the Civil War.  Athens and London: University of Georgia Press, 1986.

This text exemplifies the roots behind this project.  Many years ago, this book was gifted to me and I have cast probably three glances at its contents since it moved into my home.  When I began this reading and writing project, this book sat towards the beginning of my chosen “initial shelf” almost daring me to start here.  It is a sizable piece whose main purpose is to explore past interpretations of why the Confederacy lost the Civil War, while also contributing its own ideas to this discussion that began as early as 1866 with a publication by John Russell Bartlett.

The authors envisioned the text originally as a series of papers for the Southern Historical Association annual meeting, then it was to function as a counterpart to David Donald’s Why the North Won the Civil War.  Neither idea proved particularly satisfactory to this group of historians, and they decided instead to have a conversation based on synthesis of some of the best historians’ works on the subject.  The authors pursued discussion of Confederate nationalism versus states’ rights, the blockade, battlefield success, economics, etc. BUT acknowledged that these factors were not alone in impacting the end result of the war.  In the end, Why the South Lost stands as a vital contributor to this discussion (ix – xi).

From the start, the text provides readers with a powerful context by introducing them to a historiographical discussion of how historians have dealt with these questions of loss in the past.  The human story in this case is developed from the perspective of the historians themselves – it is their arguments, their passions that come to life in this opening section.  Along the way, the authors successfully introduce how they will deal with questions of nationalism, morale, military explanations, etc.  For these four historians, their intent is to prove that the Confederacy essentially lost the will to continue fighting.  This was not, as the authors insist, a value judgement in any way but rather a belief that leaders had become aware of the damage the war was causing on a widespread level.

The text proceeds from here to both a chronological and topical approach which I found effective.  By introducing readers to these factors in groups, it made the arguments easy to follow.  Counter to some interpretations of the war that are often taught at the secondary school level and colleges in some instances, the South was not without advantage at the war’s outset.  The authors contend that the rifle and other weapons allowed forces to pursue tactical defensive initiatives with great success.  This section of the book argues that because equipment was, in reality, less of a problem than typically believed, the Confederacy had more issues due to a lack of morale or will.  After outlining some of this belief in the introductory section, several chapters in the second part offer thoughts on “spiritual resources.”  For one, there were large numbers of Southerners who had opposed both secession and the war that followed.  Secondly, there was a rather weak nationalism, a concept which I have explored earlier in reviewing Drew Gilpin Faust’s The Creation of Confederate Nationalism.  Finally, this section explores questions of religion and God’s place in “choosing” the winning side – the authors argue that religion was a source for believing in victory and the cause.

In the following part, the authors successfully revisit some of these questions (nationalism, morale, religion) while layering the conversation over a new topic of military action.  Some readers might find this method (repeated in the remaining sections) repetitive, but I found it generally effective in keeping the reader focused on the intent of the authors.  I’ll conclude my comments on the text thus far (again, it was a large book!) by expressing my admiration for undertaking such an effort in the days before electronic mail and easily accessible personal computers.  Several months ago, I read William Gibson and Bruce Sterling writing about how difficult it was to co-author The Difference Engine in the late 1980s (published 1990) – their comments centered on humor, the post office, and stacks of what we called “floppies.”  I don’t know how Beringer, Hattaway, Jones, and Still divided the labor on their work – I’m imagining each exploring separate interests, writing individual chapters and mailing them to their colleagues for a number of years while they worked their way through the project which probably began in the 1970s.  While two of the authors lived in the same state (North Dakota), the other two were working from Missouri and North Carolina, so distance, time zones, and a lack of “dropbox” all conspired to make the project a likely complicated one.

This thought leads me to a slight tangent that will have to be pursued at length in another post – it’s stunning what teachers and professors have to acquire for knowledge technologically speaking at this point in time as opposed to even the early 1990s.  At any rate, we’ll visit with Why the South Lost again tomorrow to wrap up the argument.

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