Friday, October 24, 2014

The War Between the States: America's Uncivil War by John J Dwyer

Every so often I try to review a solid non-fiction book here on Vintage Novels. Growing up, I never liked the idea of non-fiction much. It always seemed dry and uncompelling to me. The real drama and poetry, in my experience, lay in fiction.

But then I realised that the difference was not between exciting fiction and dull non-fiction. The difference was between writing that showed the providential love of God, as against writing that demonstrated a barren and meaningless conception of existence, a view of history in which events occur chaotically and pointlessly. In other words, the right kind of non-fiction is written from a worldview that sees history primarily as a story woven by a kind and benevolent Creator.

See it from this angle, find the right kind of history book, and you'll discover that no story is as breathless, as heart-wrenching, or as glorious as the story of the world.

John J Dwyer's magnumopus, a comprehensive history of the American War Between the States, is a worthy rendition of one chapter of this story.

Part 1 of The War Between the States, "Causes of War", covers the 70 years or so leading up to the conflict, including chapters on topics such as nationalism, secession, the tariffs, the nullification controversies, slavery, and worldview--all the many issues over which North and South clashed before war finally broke out in 1861. This was, perhaps, the most valuable section of the book, since it works hard to set the record straight on a few myths that have sprung up to surround the war--for example, the idea that slavery was the primary issue, or that Americans of the time were either rabidly pro-slavery or rabidly abolitionist. Part 1 also features a number of contributions from writers such as Douglas Wilson, Steve Wilkins, and George Grant (those familiar with these men's writing style will be able to spot their contributions!) and includes what I take to be a summary of Wilson's highly controversial book Black & Tan (which nevertheless has garnered acclaim from prominent historians).

Part 2, "The War", is a sweeping account of the whole conflict, year by year, on every front. Dwyer does an excellent job of giving us an eagle's-eye view of troop movements, major battles, and strategies, without getting bogged down into minor details. Part 3, "Post-War and Reconstruction", deals with the bitter peace that followed the war, with interesting details on the Ku Klux Klan, Reconstruction's shattering impact on racial relations, and the presidency of Ulysses S Grant.

On top of this, the whole book comes packed with maps, beautiful paintings by John Paul Strain, lyrics to popular songs of the period, and biographical features on over eighty prominent men and women.
The will of majorities must become the supreme law, if the voice of the people is to be regarded as the voice of God; if they are, in fact, the only God whom rulers are bound to obey . . . We must contemplate people and rulers as alike subject to the authority of God . . . If then, the State is an ordinance of God, it should acknowledge the fact . . . God is the ruler among the nations; and the people who refuse Him their allegiance shall be broken with a rod of iron, or dashed in pieces like a potter's vessel. Our republic will perish like the Pagan republics of Greece and Rome, unless we baptize it into the name of Christ. - James Thornwell, on behalf of the Southern Presbyterian church, to the Confederate Congress.
This book was an unusual pleasure to read. Author and editor John J Dwyer has done a magnificent job; his love for his topic makes the history come to life. There's also the fact that he's worked closely with one of my favourite historians, George Grant, and includes the research of another, Otto Scott. This is a book I can feel right at home in. Take that as a recommendation, or not, as you will!

But perhaps the thing I loved most about this book was the extraordinary nature of the people and events themselves. I might as well admit at this point, that the book will not exactly foster in you a deep admiration of the North or of Lincoln, unless a hesitant respect for plotting deviance counts (fun fact: the Maryland state song until 2001 included the line "the despot's heel is on thy shore" and called upon its citizens to "avenge the patriotic gore that flecked the streets of Baltimore", in reference to the troops Lincoln sent to fling Maryland legislators into prison to prevent them joining the Confederacy). In stark contrast stands the chivalry and ideals of the gentlemen of Virginia. There was Stonewall Jackson of the brilliant Shenandoah campaign, who remained unnaturally fearless in the face of enemy fire because of his faith in God's ability to protect him for as long as he was needed on the earth. There was Robert E Lee, who broke all the rules and won battle after battle with forces a fraction of the size of his enemy's. There was RL Dabney, the staunch preacher and theologian who became Jackson's chief of staff and one of the leaders of revival in the Southern camps. There was Jeb Stuart and his cavalry, Stand Watie, the Indian general who was the last to surrender, and yes, there were a bunch of Northerners too (the book was more even-handed than this review will be).

To be more serious, I've occasionally heard it said in the dark and quirky corners of the 'net: "The South will rise again!" My polite "Ah, yes?" response has been replaced with a "God forbid." For one thing, there are no giants like Lee, Jackson, and Dabney left; most likely our culture has lost the ability to produce such men. For another, as John J Dwyer points out, it's debatable if the War should have been fought at all. Its cost was horrific, not just in loss of life but also in the loss of innocence and virtue that accompanied four brutal years of war. The armies of the North pioneered total war: as General Philip Sheridan responded to critics during his brutal treatment of Plains Indians in 1873, "During the war did one hesitate to attack a village or town occupied by the enemy because women or children were within its limits? Did we cease to throw shells at Vicksburg or Atlanta because women or children were there?"

The South did: on their march through Maryland and Pennsylvania to Gettysburg, Lee declared "I cannot hope that Heaven will prosper our cause when we are violating its laws. I shall, therefore, carry on the war in Pennsylvania without offending the sanctions of a high civilization and of Christianity." He enforced these ideals strictly. However, according to Dwyer, the sheer brutality of the war had, by the end of it, undermined these Christian ideals even among the people of the South. After reading this book, I had to wonder when the cost of war can ever be justified.

The War Between the States: America's Uncivil War is an excellent tool for understanding not just the bloody, horrifying, spectacular years between 1861 and 1865, but also the whole trajectory of modernism in the last century. Gripping, gut-wrenching, and comprehensive, I highly recommend it.

Find The War Between the States on Amazon or the Western Conservatory of Arts and Sciences.

I have also read John J Dwyer's fictionalised biography of Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, titled Stonewall. Although plagued by poor editing, it was a compelling and vivid picture of an extraordinary man living during an extraordinary time. I'm looking forward to reading the sequel, Robert E Lee, sometime soon.

4 comments:

Kim Marsh said...

Contrary to yourself I have always considered non-fiction history as having the best stories and characters. With the added advantage of it helping us to understand our condition and how we got into it. You look for the working of Providence in history. I have looked for the advance of"good" and for resolution of problems. Unfortunately there is much in history which only demonstrates the stupidity and wilful arrogance of humanity in the mass and individually. As regards the American Civil War you rightly highlight the good qualities of Lee and Jackson but however noble they made the appallingly wrong choice in supporting the Confederacy. The decision to defend slavery by force obviates any other reason for secession by it's sheer moral repugnance. I.confess my own admiration goes to the more flawed characters of Grant and Sherman who despite their own prejudices made the decision to stand by the Union and the decisions of it's government.
Regards Kim

Joy said...

"... the right kind of non-fiction is written from a worldview that sees history primarily as a story woven by a kind and benevolent Creator.See it from this angle, find the right kind of history book, and you'll discover that no story is as breathless, as heart-wrenching, or as glorious as the story of the world." Oh yes, Suzannah! I whole-heartedly agree - that is so when I love the study of history the best.

God bless!

Suzannah said...

Kim, I can't agree with you there--and I think it flattens the history out of recognition to say that the war was intended to "defend slavery by force". No doubt there were some who fought for this reason, but the issues were complicated (including the fact that the North urged instant freedom for slaves who were unprepared for it, by bloody uprising if necessary, without any economic reparations being made to the owners). A sizeable part of the population both North and South, Lee and Jackson for just two, were anti-slavery (in the William Wilberforce sense rather than the John Brown sense). Finally, Lincoln went on record to say that if he could have won the War without freeing a single slave, he would have done it. So, not so clear-cut as all that.

Joy, that's part of why I encourage my friends to read healthy and regular doses of non-fiction :).

kim marsh said...

Of course on re reading that phrase is incorrect. However I would query your"the North urged instant freedom for for slaves who were unprepared for it by bloody uprising if necessary,without any economic reparation being made to the owners.
Who in the North was urging this?
Who was responsible for the unpreparedness of the slaves for freedom?
Why should the owners of slaves who had.been enjoying their labour and were responsible for their bondage be entitled to any reparation? I still contend that slavery was the overarching reason for the war even if a significant number of participants were fighting for other reasons. The whole is a complex patchwork with no rigid pattern.
I suspect that we are unlikely to change each others sentiments on this matter which if argument is pursued honestly is not a problem.
I confess to being slightly envious of your predestinarian view of history which can otherwise appear rather bleak.
Regards Kim

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