- A 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.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 33 No. 11 · 2 June 2011
Jackson Lears treats John Bright unfairly (LRB, 19 May). Bright may have been a ‘theatrical orator’ but it’s not true that he ‘couldn’t be bothered with political detail’ or that he only picked easy targets. His opposition to the popular Crimean War led to his vilification in the press, accusations of treachery from other MPs, and the loss of his Manchester seat in 1857.
Vol. 33 No. 12 · 16 June 2011
Jackson Lears writes that ‘in October 1861, when General John C. Fremont freed the slaves in the parts of Missouri his troops had occupied, Lincoln publicly repudiated him and the larger goal of abolition’ (LRB, 19 May). Fremont issued his abolition decree in August 1861 not October. It applied only to the slaves of rebels and only in areas over which Fremont had no control. Lincoln sent a private letter urging Fremont to rewrite his order to conform to the Confiscation Act passed by Congress a few weeks earlier. Under instructions implementing that act issued by Lincoln’s War Department on 8 August 1861, all slaves voluntarily entering Union lines in the seceded states were emancipated. Thus in his letter to Fremont, Lincoln was hardly ‘repudiating’ abolition. On the contrary, his order extended emancipation to a loyal state for the first time. Lincoln explicitly told Fremont that he did not disagree with the ‘principle’ on which the general’s edict was issued. Fremont refused to do what Lincoln asked unless directly ordered. Only then did Lincoln publicly require the insubordinate general to rewrite his order. The issue was civilian rule over the military, not emancipation.
Vol. 33 No. 13 · 30 June 2011
Jackson Lears asserts that 50,000 civilians were killed during the American Civil War, and that these casualties were deliberately inflicted (LRB, 19 May). The figure originated with James McPherson, who in a footnote in his Battle Cry of Freedom suggested that ‘a fair estimate of war-related civilian deaths might total 50,000.’ Non-combatant casualties were not inflicted as a result of policy; rather, civilians died from malnutrition, disease and exposure. Two-thirds of the soldiers who died in the Civil War also died from these causes rather than on the battlefield; that some indeterminate number of civilians perished in the same way is not surprising. The US issued emergency rations to hundreds of thousands of Southern civilians, black and white, not only during the war but after it.
Lincoln required ‘unconditional surrender’ only in the sense of demanding the restoration of the Union. Both sides recognised that compromise on this issue was impossible. Lincoln insisted on emancipation only when it became a military necessity, and even at the very end of the war advocated compensating slaveholders.
Despite what Lears and many others claim, the North did not valorise wage labour as an ideal, or even consider it a form of freedom. Lincoln spoke for everyone when he equated freedom with the ownership of productive property. People who remained hired labourers for life did so ‘because of either a dependent nature which prefers it, or improvidence, folly or singular misfortune’. African Americans were denied land not on the basis of any idealisation of wage labour but because of racism.
Nor was Union policy vengeful or vindictive. The defeated Confederates were treated with unprecedented leniency: they were quickly restored to their full civil and political rights, and admitted to both Houses of Congress. Lincoln’s pledge of ‘malice toward none, with charity for all’ was meant exclusively for the white Southerners, not for their human chattels; one cannot easily compromise between a group of people willing to kill in defence of slavery, and slaves pining for freedom.
When Lears asserts that only a few diehard neo-Confederates claim that the war was over states’ rights rather than slavery, he should mention that tens of millions of white Americans are today proud Confederate loyalists. The Republican Party is dominated by these zealots. The Republican governor of Texas, Rick Perry, has claimed that his state retains the right of secession. And Alabama has just enacted a law requiring that all immigrants carry papers documenting their legal status at all times, thus re-establishing the pass system formerly imposed on slaves and free blacks, which today’s Confederate states would reinstate if they could.
Vol. 33 No. 15 · 28 July 2011
Clifton Hawkins provides me with an opportunity to clarify the ideology of ‘free labour’ that pervaded the North during the American Civil War (Letters, 30 June). Free labour involved more than the opportunity to sell one’s labour or the product of one’s labour; it also implied the promise of accumulating property through hard work, of becoming a self-made man. This ethos of success through striving disdained dependency and exalted individual autonomy. Once slaves became formally free, enfranchised US citizens, it was easy for Northern politicians (and consistent with free labour ideology) to leave them to their own devices. So it was not simply racism, as Hawkins claims, but racism combined with free labour ideology that allowed the North to let white elites reassert their dominance in the South – though the counter-revolution met much resistance from poor blacks and poor whites alike, and in some places took decades to accomplish.
Hawkins argues that the war’s 50,000 civilian casualties ‘were not inflicted as a result of policy; rather, civilians died from malnutrition, disease and exposure.’ In fact, for three years invading Union armies shelled cities, torched farms and laid waste the Southern countryside. They were following orders, and none of the generals ever pretended otherwise. Grant told Sheridan to turn the Shenandoah into a ‘barren waste … so that crows flying over it for the balance of this season will have to carry their provender with them.’ When your official war aims include cutting off the enemy’s food supply and destroying its capacity to function as an organised society, you are bound to create conditions in which civilians will die from ‘malnutrition, disease and exposure’, not to mention as a result of fires and explosions. Civilian casualties were a direct result of Northern strategy.
This does not mean that the North was more vengeful or murderous than the South. As I suggested, Confederates were as eager as Federals to commit atrocities whenever they had the chance. What it does mean is that the label ‘total war’ still applies to this conflict. It also helps to explain why even many anti-slavery Britons were appalled by the carnage and eager to promote peace. They felt this way in part because they could not believe that the North was truly united behind a war against slavery. There were many reasons for their scepticism, as Amanda Foreman shows in A World on Fire, not least the racism that pervaded Northern society.
This is Foreman’s most significant achievement, at least with respect to contemporary public discourse. She demystifies a myth at the core of American civil religion, the belief that the Civil War was a humanitarian mission to rescue the slaves from bondage. According to the mythic view, which Barack Obama has publicly embraced, American military history can be understood as a series of virtuous crusades. The Civil War has become part of this usable past, one of the most important of many US military operations conducted allegedly in the service of humanity, stretching from the American Revolution to the latest misadventure in Afghanistan. Hawkins is rightly concerned about the governor of Texas, Rick Perry, and other secessionist zealots whose neo-Confederate rhetoric justifies crypto-fascist policies. I addressed a subtler menace: the widespread longing, perhaps more common among sentimental liberals than conservative curmudgeons, to regenerate recalcitrant folk in backward lands – by force if necessary.
Ringoes, New Jersey