Divinely Ordained

Jackson Lears

  • BuyA World on Fire: An Epic History of Two Nations Divided by Amanda Foreman
    Penguin, 988 pp, £12.99, June 2011, ISBN 978 0 14 104058 5

For generations, the American Civil War has been shrouded in clouds of millennial nationalism. Few events in US history have been as susceptible to providentialist narratives of inevitable moral triumph: stories of an exceptional nation reborn into its modern form, cleansed of its original sin of slavery and ready to shoulder its redemptive responsibilities in the drama of world history. Professional historians, no less than popularisers, have succumbed to this siren song. Even historians on the left, otherwise sceptical of nationalist military crusades, have embraced the dominant narrative of the Civil War. As in the historiography of World War Two, scorched earth tactics – systematic assaults on civilians, uncompromising demands for unconditional surrender – can be justified in the name of a crusade against evil. Few Americans of any ideological persuasion are willing to question the logic of total war when it results in the victory of freedom over slavery (or Fascism).

The problem with this perspective is not that it exaggerates the significance of slavery – no one except a few neo-Confederates questions slavery’s centrality in the conflict – but that it too easily blends with the self-congratulatory complacency of the American civil religion, flattening the complexity of motives and reducing tragedy to melodrama. The quest for historical understanding is engulfed by the condemnation of the obvious wrong. ‘It was his business to inveigh against evils, and perhaps there is no easier business,’ Trollope said of the anti-slavery MP John Bright, a theatrical orator who couldn’t be bothered with political detail. Celebrating the Civil War as a triumph of freedom over slavery is equally easy.

A few decades ago, US historians tried to complicate this heroic narrative. Guided at times by Gramsci’s concept of cultural hegemony, Eugene Genovese, Eric Foner and David Brion Davis conceived slavery as a mode of organising labour, as well as a system of racial domination. This led to the recognition that advocates of ‘free labour’ had economic as well as humanitarian reasons for opposing slavery, and that the Northern victory – by identifying freedom with the ability to sell one’s labour in the marketplace – reinforced the cultural hegemony of laissez-faire capitalism. This was not to suggest that the South was a pre-capitalist society (as Genovese at first implied): on the contrary, slavery demanded the degradation of human beings into commodities. But it did help to explain why, after the war, most Northerners were willing to leave the freed slaves to the mercy of their former masters – to leave them with ‘nothing but freedom’, in Foner’s phrase. The emphasis on competing ways of organising labour, however partial and problematic, allowed interpretation to reach beyond the boundaries of moralistic uplift.

Uplift had a resurgence with the rise of Reagan, whose smiley-face chauvinism encouraged the proliferation of triumphalist historical narratives. The 1980s saw the return of millennial nationalism to Civil War historiography, both academic and popular, most prominently in the Pulitzer-prize winning synthesis of James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom (1988) – whose title alone suggested that we were back on familiar terrain – and in the sepia-tinted sentimentality of Ken Burns’s documentary. In McPherson’s influential work, a fixation on racial rather than class relations ensured that there would be no more discomfiting questions about the ambiguities of ‘free labour’. While he acknowledged the role of contingency on the battlefield, there was never any question that he was chronicling an inexorable march of freedom.

Since the 1980s this self-congratulatory mode has remained dominant. With few exceptions (notably Harry Stout’s brilliant ‘moral history’, Upon the Altar of the Nation), popular big-picture accounts of the Civil War continue to create an atmosphere of moral clarity and inevitable progress. To be sure, the historiography of slavery has exploded: dozens of works have detailed the human devastation it wrought, as well as the slaves’ struggles to sustain their own dignity and secure their own liberty. But as one of the leading historians of slavery, Walter Johnson, recently observed, much of the newer scholarship has been incorporated into the triumphalist narrative. The reductio ad absurdum of this process was George W. Bush’s speech in the summer of 2003, on Gorée Island off the coast of Senegal – a notorious depot in the slave trade. By resisting injustice, Bush announced, ‘the very people traded into slavery helped to set America free.’ Even the traffic in human flesh could serve America’s divinely ordained mission.

Amanda Foreman’s remarkable new book suggests that it takes a foreigner to clear the air of cant. By taking the British perspective, she captures the full complexity of the war: the confused aims and mixed motives of the combatants, the misperceptions of the foreigners whose favour they courted so assiduously. The result is a rich account on a stunningly broad canvas, populated by a fascinating array of characters. Mythic figures (Lincoln, Grant, Lee, Jackson), seen afresh, acquire sharper outlines. Second-tier players have their moment in the limelight: the secretary of state William Seward drinks too much and blusters about invading Canada; the US ambassador Charles Francis Adams keeps a stiff and chilly distance from London society, managing to seem both unformed and overly formal; the Confederate envoy James Mason says ‘chaw’ for ‘chew’, calls himself ‘Jeems’ and offends British officials with his crude racist remarks; the Southern spy Belle Boyd charms influential men with her deft flirtations. Meanwhile a motley British crowd jostles for involvement in the struggle: prodigal sons down on their luck, soldiers in search of adventure, journalists eager for a scoop. And more than a few British subjects, who share the misfortune of being on US premises at the wrong time, find themselves kidnapped into the Union or Confederate army.

The overall effect of A World on Fire is to remind us that the Northern victory was a near thing. The outcome remained in doubt until November 1864, when Lincoln’s re-election reinforced Union success on the battlefield, ensuring that the Federal government would refuse to negotiate peace with the Confederacy. For more than three years, British sympathy for the South had remained strong enough to supply the Confederate navy with ships and the Confederate army with ordnance, as well as to sustain substantial public support for a negotiated peace. Within the United States, Northern support for the war was ambivalent in many areas, especially as war aims widened from preserving the union to ending slavery: a move that strengthened support for the North in Great Britain. Southern opinion was divided as well, but grew more united and more embittered in response to the brutalities of the Northern invasion, which plundered cities, laid waste the countryside and left 50,000 civilians dead.

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