Tuesday, September 11, 2012

What We're Reading: New History


Decided on the Battlefield: Grant, Sherman, Lincoln and the Election of 1864, by David Alan Johnson


The popular history of the American Civil War has always focused heavily on what might more properly be called its military history rather than its political history. Military history seems to make for a more dramatic account, and its details can be reconstructed with less ambiguity than the political undercurrents, which become more elusive it would seem with the passage of time. Unfortunately, Johnson’s contention that the election was determined by important victories of Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan on the battlefield, whatever the merit of that argument, puts the focus, once again, on military events, and we get an overview heavy with an account of military engagements rather than one that gives us a fresh view of the politics of the era The connection between the unsteady progress of Union arms and the political mood of the country are made more by way of anecdote, and while we are left feeling instinctively that the thesis holds here, the case has not been demonstrated in any conclusive way by the evidence presented.

That may be one of the least troubling aspects of this “popular” history. Decided on the Battlefield abounds in editorial sloppiness, has an unprofessional tone that undermines its narrative credibility, uses cursory and antiquated research, and is rife with errors in understanding, interpretation, and analysis. On at least three occasions the names of Sheridan and Sherman have been mistakenly used one for the other and you must make the appropriate correction in the passage in order for it to make any sense. William O. Stoddard is correctly identified as a member of Lincoln’s White House staff, and then less than 20 pages later is referred to as the Secretary of State (William Seward was of course the Secretary of State) and this error is repeated in the index. Johnson makes the case for Lincoln being a savvy politician, but also refers to him as being “unscrupulous,” a characterization he does not support. He uses the partisan and derogatory sobriquets of certain generals repeatedly as he makes reference to them, and has a sarcastic and mocking tone when he discusses others, all of which undermines the presumed objectivity that is supposed to give historical narrative some of its authority. And then there is just plain nonsense. Johnson says that apparently Lincoln never heard the old saw about bad weather boding well for Republicans and badly for Democrats on polling day. Well of course he didn’t. Nobody had. It wasn’t an “old saw” in 1864--the Republican Party itself was barely 10 years old at the time. He berates the Democratic candidate George McClellan for not leaving his home and campaigning more, but a Presidential candidate getting out and campaigning across the country was not the convention in 1864; this was a much later development in American politics. It was considered gauche and demeaning for a candidate to do this in 1864, as it had been in previous elections and was for many years following. Lincoln didn’t leave Springfield to campaign nationally in 1860, and when his opponent Stephen Douglas tried to do some limited campaigning he had to create the ruse of travelling to visit his mother back east. It was a pretension for which he was widely ridiculed.

This book contains no bibliography of sources consulted, and as becomes readily apparent from the notes and citations, Johnson relies upon popular narratives that are 40 and 50 years old now, Bruce Catton, Shelby Foote, and Carl Sandburg prominent among them. Many of the facts and interpretations in these sources have been disputed by scholarship since that time, and it is disturbing to note that there seems to be little if any recognition or use of major Civil War scholarship that has been written since then. Johnson maintains that the economic reasons for the break between North and South were “every bit as responsible for the war as slavery.” This is a viewpoint that has been largely discredited by serious scholarship in the last 40 years. His contention that a Democratic victory in 1864 would have resulted in dissolution of the Union is also poorly supported. His reading of the Democratic platform of 1864 is not supported by the platform text, and he tells us we are to dismiss as political guile the Democratic candidate George McClellan’s strong insistence that he would not accept an outcome to the war that involved anything but the preservation of the Union. There was never anything less than a sizable majority in the North, composed of Republicans and pro-Union Democrats, committed to the preservation of the Union, and there is no evidence the South would have found any terms acceptable for its preservation.

If there is any doubt about Johnson’s misunderstandings, one need look no farther than the concluding chapter of his book, where he engages in the pointless exercise of imagining for us a picture of what the present United States would look like today if the Confederacy had been granted independence. He constructs a fanciful political history of the country and the world up to the present day. Beyond its improbable and purely speculative nature, this alternative history fails to answer how the central and intractable cause of the war, the need for slavery as an economic system to expand into the territories, was resolved. And most importantly it takes no recognition of the more fundamental challenges that the continuation of slavery and the dissolution of the union would have presented to what Lincoln so aptly termed a “new birth of freedom.” There seems to be no understanding of what the capitulation of the North would have meant to the development of American concepts of freedom, equality, and the nature of labor, or the development and viability of democratic systems of government around the world. In other words, it reflects little if any understanding of what the war was about and why the Union victory was important.

But what is perhaps most annoying is the author’s attempt to give readers an understanding of his subject by reference to an irrelevant and inappropriate analogy. Three times in asides the author makes a comparison between what he calls the “peace Democrats” in 1864 and the opposition to the Vietnam War, even suggesting that at one point Lyndon Johnson could have survived politically if only, like Lincoln, he had finally found the right general. This comparison proves nothing other than that he understands even less about the war in Vietnam than he does about the Civil War. The only virtue of this book is that it should make readers appreciate more deeply the dedication of the professional historian who spends a lifetime studying the events of an era, who struggles to understand their nuances and meaning, and who labors to amass the evidence through original research to support his conclusions.