I find the charge of presentism one of the most annoying things someone can say to a historian. Every historian is deeply affected by the times in which they live. There is no such thing as pure objectivity nor history disconnected from politics or everyday life. Each generation brings its own perspective to the field. Moreover, current events make us ask different questions about the past. Such is the case with Emory M. Thomas, who, in the context of American actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, wants to understand why Americans plunged into war in 1861 without serious thought as to the consequences.
Thomas prefaces his book with this statement: “I know and insist here that issues about slavery and race inspired secession among Southern states. Anyone who still doubts this truth should read Charles B. Dew’s Apostles of Disunion.” No question about that and a good way to clear the decks in a book about the start of the Civil War that is almost exclusively about whites. Not that this is a detriment. Rather, Thomas sees leaders in both the Union and Confederacy making decisions that would transform the country and kill 600,000 people without much serious thought about what such a war would look like.
Thomas’ argues that Americans went to war in 1861 because they did not understand the costs of the conflict. Or as he puts it, “the Civil War happened because nearly no one had a clue about what they were doing. Public and private discourse was loud and long and wrong about what might happen if war broke out.” This is not at all different from 2003 when we went to war with Iraq. Although Thomas doesn’t really explore this, a romanticized and superficial view of war has led Americans into many of our wars. A crisis of masculinity helped lead the U.S. into the Spanish-American War and World War I. Memory of World War I’s horrible reality helped build the isolationist movement that remained strong until the eve of World War II and it’s not like Americans really romanticized war during the height of the Cold War. It was too real and scary and world-ending. Even Vietnam was hardly proceeded with the kind of public sabre-rattling of 1861 or 1898 or 2003. But beginning with Reagan’s wars in Central America and especially during and after the first Gulf War in 1991, a lot of Americans decided that kicking ass should be the basis of our foreign policy. While this came into question after Somalia, the rise of video game culture combined with the cheap patriotism of the modern Republican Party (more flag lapel pins!) to create an atmosphere of Americans ready to fight some wars. Iraq didn’t turn out to be the video game so many Americans thought it would be. All three dates were periods when heroic war veterans were dying off or had died off relatively recently and America had seemed to lost its martial characteristics that many men (and some women) believed we needed back.
The particulars of Thomas’ book are as interesting as the general premise. He faults Lincoln, and I think rightly, for never understanding Southerners, even though he was born in Kentucky and married into a slaveholding family. He truly believed until the end that the mass of the South was ready to affirm loyalty to the Union if just the secessionist cabal could be beaten back. While there was significant opposition to the Confederacy in the South, a majority of southern whites in most states clearly supported their leaders in secession; the pro-Confederate aftermath of the war only reaffirms this. Because of this Lincoln was slow in preparing for the war and after it started slow in understanding what it would take to win the conflict. His persistence in this belief later undermined Reconstruction when Andrew Johnson and southern apologists would cling to Lincoln’s extremely generous plan for reconciliation to sabotage any possibility of postbellum racial justice.
Thomas argues that Jefferson Davis, as a relatively experienced military officer in a nation sorely lacking in military experience, had a somewhat more developed idea of what the Civil War would look like. He knew that the Confederacy faced long odds and would have to defeat a much more developed and economically advanced nation to win. But he also thought the Confederacy could win that war due to it fighting on its own soil. That he had a better sense of what modern war would look like yet still plunged into it does not make one feel very good about Davis, a man who seems deeply unpleasant from any angle.
The Northern and Southern public hardly helped the situation. Both sides thought a war would be good for a weakening national character, a sentiment even stronger in the North. The South on the other hand, steeped in Sir Walter Scott and contemptuous of industrial capitalism (even though it benefited them tremendously) basically believed the North wimps that were not even deserving of the basic rights deserving men of honor. This is why Preston Brooks beat Charles Sumner nearly to death in 1856 rather than challenging him to a duel. Honorable men fought duels, but Sumner had proven himself below the southern idea of manhood. Both sides thought the war would be quick, relatively bloodless, and re-energizing to a generation too distant from a martial experience. And boy would both sides be wrong.
This very short book is also written in an entertaining fashion with long (and often hilarious) quotes from contemporary newspapers slandering the Union or Confederacy as the case may be. North Carolina’s residents eat mud, Texans are horse thieves, Yankees are cowards and fools. The Dogs of War would be a great book to bring into the classroom or for an enjoyable yet thought-provoking evening reading on the nature of why people decide to kill each other.