Some years ago, after reading dozens of books about the American Civil War Between the States, I began to think I was getting a grasp of what happened and why. To learn the give and tug of the five awful years on the battlefields is relatively easy. One only needs to read the 3 massive volumes, the nearly 3000 pages, that Shelby Foote masterly crafted in his twenty year writing odyssey on a five year war.
I read Foote’s Civil War and have never recovered from his literary tour de force. Along with that, I read many other accounts of particular battles, larger campaigns, units in the war, and warfare itself. Most favored were the biographies. No Southerner can show his face in polite society without having read and savored the life stories of Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson. Along with those two key figures, there are the many others, generals, colonels, officers, and even private soldiers. Concerning private soldiers, Company Aytch by Sam Watkins remains one of the best books ever on the life of a common soldier.
Fiction joined fact as I ventured into the field of Southern literature and reveled in the accounts of William Faulkner, Caroline Gordon, Madison Jones, Allen Tate, and others. Although he is not classified as a Southern author, Michael Shaara recast the war, and in particular the Battle of Gettysburg, in The Killer Angels, which is an Iliad-type retelling soem of the conflicts within the greater conflict.
Often more painful to read were the accounts of the events causing the war. The fifty to eighty years of failed efforts to avert and avoid the divisive conflict are a study in futility. Certainly, neither Northerner or Southerner ever knowingly desired the extensive destruction that the war wrought.
Underlying the whole drama is the story of slavery. Slavery is the unpleasant glitch, the awkward and embarrassing national faux pas, the inadvertent slip of progress and enlightenment, the exegetically awkward Christian stance that gripped our nation for over a hundred years. The cure was, in too many ways, as painful and tragic as the disease.
As I stated in a recent post, I backed away from my extensive readings on the War. I had not learned all I needed to know. And I had not understood nearly all of what I had learned. As Andrew Marvell says in a much more interesting context than historical studies, “If only we had world enough and time.”
But the time was right to look again, to look afresh at the events that led to the War Between the States. But it was not the war itself or the impending class on American history that compelled me to read on the war. It was the author himself.
Thomas Fleming is one of the best and most prolific writers on American history. A large number of his fifty plus books have been on the American Revolution. His book Now We Are Enemies began his career more than fifty years ago as a historian and writer. His other books chronicle the role of Washington, the battles of the War for Independence, the details of the lives of the Founders, and the events that led to the conclusion of the war.
I am amazed at the number of books Fleming has written, which includes fiction as well as non-fiction. Adding to my amazement is the fact that he continues to pour out good books.
Fleming’s latest, A Disease in the Public Mind: A New Understanding of Why We Fought the Civil War, is a wonderful and delightful study. This book is a survey of the tensions regarding slavery that reached back before the American War of Independence. Men like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, often pilloried for owning slaves, were truly vexed over how to deal with the slavery problem.
In the long debate over slavery, people fell into several camps. There were unflinching defenders of slavery, mostly in the south. Of course, the problem wasn’t confined to the future Confederacy. There were many well-meaning people who truly believed that re-colonizing slaves back to Africa would solve the problem. There were many people who were truly terrified about the possibilities of a slave revolt, similar to what had happened in Haiti.
Then there were the Abolitionists. William Lloyd Garrison was the foremost. His answers were clear, direct, and totally unworkable. His efforts to deal with the problems did more to provoke and rouse the suspicions of the South than they did to help find a solution.
The ever opening new lands to the west provided more grounds for both debate and fears. Anti-slavery people, free soil people, and farmers from the north were vexed over slavery in the territories. Southerners could read the political signs. The states where slavery was not allowed or was fading were gaining in population. As northern Europeans poured into the country, they were desirous of latitudes closer to the Old Country, and they were looking westward. The battle to defend slavery was increasingly futile in the House of Representatives where northern populations were increasing the anti-slavery votes. The Missouri Compromise and other actions kept the Senate numbers somewhat even, but with the peopling of the west, that too would change.
It is interesting to speculate how and if slavery would have functioned in the western states. Ranching and the type of farming suited to the Great Plains would have called for different labor needs than the cotton-growing South needed.
There were continual efforts to do away with slavery. There were on-going economic pressures to maintain slavery. There were guilty consciences; there were profits to be made; there were sermons for and against slavery. Then finally, there was war.
Britain eliminated the slave trade and slavery over time through a series of legislative changes. William Wilberforce is a recognized hero in that effort. The U. S. had no Wilberforce. Even czarist Russia eliminated serfdom.
The fact that the United States fought a war—with various issues contributing to the conflict—that resulted in ending slavery is still a puzzle. Thomas Fleming is right on track in seeing the problem of slavery as a disease, a disease in the public mind.