In his provocative new book, The Confederate War, author Gary Gallagher revises the revisionists.
By Richard F. Welch
Over the past 15 years an influential school of Civil War historians–now perhaps the dominant orthodoxy–has argued that class, race and gender divisions so wracked the South that the Confederacy was foredoomed to defeat. Exponents of this position contend that the Confederacy lacked both the necessary nationalism and the requisite popular will to support a war for independence. A corollary position holds that the Confederacy squandered its resources with an offensive strategy whose high cost undermined what little nationalism existed and thus hastened the hour of defeat.
In general, the writers who promote that thesis–and the list is long and impressive–maintain that most Southerners had despaired of winning the war by 1863 and that a population genuinely committed to the Southern cause would have fought longer and harder before submitting to Northern domination. That view constitutes a revision of the widespread interpretation that the South was crushed inevitably by superior Northern power. The wheel may now be turning again. In his provocative new book, The Confederate War (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., $24.95), Gary W. Gallagher, professor of history at Pennsylvania State University and a familiar face on the Civil War circuit, revises the revisionists.
Essentially, Gallagher charges that by focusing on the narrow, if trendy, triumvirate of race, gender and class, followers of the new orthodoxy limit their understanding of the history of the Confederacy. Since the revisionists concentrate on home-front issues and slight the military side of the struggle, it is not surprising they conclude that fissures within the Confederacy brought down the struggling nation. According to Gallagher, such assumptions have caused historians to lose sight of “the fact that a majority of white southerners steadfastly supported their nas-cent republic, and that Confederate arms more than once almost persuaded the north that the price of subduing the rebellious states would be too high.”
Drawing heavily on primary sources to support his argument, Gallagher tackles the main claims of the revisionists one by one. Especially compelling are his chapters on the closely related factors of popular will and nationalism. Here, Gallagher charges that the revisionists have engaged in the selective use of sources to arrive at their verdict that internal dissension drove old Dixie down. He claims that they have ignored the large body of evidence showing that most whites, regardless of class or gender, supported the struggle for independence until their field armies were forced to surrender. Gallagher finds little support for the argument that many Southerners suffered pangs of guilt regarding slavery, or that Southern women were alienated from their rebellious menfolk. He suggests that this interpretation more closely resembles politically correct fantasy than historical reality.
Gallagher demonstrates the power of Southern nationalism by referring to the numerous accounts in which Southerners spoke of “their country,” as opposed to separate states. The author suggests that much, if not most, of the current insistence that the South lacked a national identity springs from late-20th-century ideological preconceptions, which maintain that conferring the status of nationality on the South might give legitimacy to a slave-holding society–an unthinkable condition in the current intellectual climate.
In this, Gallagher echoes fellow historian Eugene D. Genovese, who has observed that in today’s academic climate, “to speak positively of any part of this southern tradition is to invite charges of being a racist and an apologist for slavery and segregation.”
No investigation of the Southern war effort can be considered complete without addressing the war’s human and material costs. Yet Gallagher charges that the revisionists overlook or underrate those crucial factors in framing their analysis of Confederate defeat. Using stark statistical evidence, he refutes the frequently voiced contention that the Confederacy lacked popular support. He reminds the reader that the Confederacy mobilized from 75 to 85 percent of its draft-age men, as opposed to 50 percent for the North. Additionally, one in three Confederate soldiers died in the war, as opposed to one in six for the Federal armies. Gallagher questions how Americans would have reacted to a one-in-three death rate in World War II–which would have resulted in 6 million casualties.
Despite the incredible casualty lists, Gallagher finds that widespread support for the Southern cause continued into the spring of 1865. Indeed, despite staggering losses and high desertion rates, Gallagher estimates that Lee’s army was approximately the same size at the onset of the campaigning season as during the last three years of the war. In comparison, while suffering fewer losses and virtually no material damage within their own borders, at least 200,000 Federal troops deserted during the war. Northern civilian morale was never put to the severe tests endured by the Confederacy, but the evidence from Pennsylvania in June and July 1863 strongly suggests that apathy was the predominant Northern response to invasion and occupation.
Gallagher challenges those who argue that the South should have adopted a purely defensive strategy or undertaken large-scale guerrilla warfare. The former was impossible because of the expectations of the Southern people, and the latter was out of the question if the slave population, whose labor allowed the Confederacy to field such a large percentage of its white men, was to be kept effectively under control. Gallagher also believes that defensive tactics undermined rather than encouraged Southern morale and frequently led to sieges in which the South lost heavily. In contrast, he finds that Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, with its impressive string of victories, was largely responsible for keeping the Confederate hopes alive until the surrender at Appomattox Court House.
The weight of evidence reaffirms his premise that the Confederacy surrendered because the North had broken its military resistance, not because of internal dissension. In Gallagher’s estimation, the South’s ultimate admission of defeat was both realistic and rational.
It was not, he makes clear, for lack of trying. Gallagher invites those who doubt the enduring hold of the Confederate experience on Southern affections to review the popular campaigns to memorialize the “Lost Cause” throughout the South during the latter part of the 19th century.
The Confederate War is a significant and thought-provoking addition to the current body of Civil War literature. Gallagher has returned the focus of the war to the theater in which it was decided–military operations. In doing so, he demonstrates the enormous human, financial and material investment that white Southerners put into the struggle for independence.
Solidly researched and sharply argued, The Confederate War cannot easily be dismissed by the “internal causes” historians. Consequently, it is likely to rekindle debate among both academics and popularizers, which is all to the good, particularly in the current stifling climate of political correctness.