Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War

Until last week, I hadn’t read anything just for fun all year. This interminable election has we of the scribbling class under a neurological overload of 24-7 news. That would be enough, but it’s merely an overlay atop the war, the economic mess, the Worst Congress in History and the Obamamedia feeding frenzy.

We — all of us — need relief. Not comedy or even parody (NBC News is beyond parody.)

And not all of us will get relief. But we history buffs always can take refuge in the study of years before our time. And, just in time, my friend Harry Crocker grants us all safe haven in his new "Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War" (Regnery, 2008, 340 pages). It’s not only a great read, it’s news. Even for those of us who have read and reread both Shelby Foote’s trilogy and Bruce Catton’s, Harry Crocker’s book is something new, refreshing and — above all — interesting.

I interviewed Harry last week. His views on the Civil War and our status quo are worthy of President Reagan. (Remember Reagan’s definition of "status quo"? He said, "[I]t’s Latin for ‘the mess we’re in.") Here’s an abbreviated transcript of the conversation.

Jed Babbin: Harry, your timing is impeccable. Russia invades Georgia, making us old Cold Warriors feel young again. And now we have the PIG to the Civil War, a good break from the daily news for every student of history. But why now? Why should we be studying the Civil War now, on the precipice of a nation-altering election?

Harry Crocker: Well, Jed, this election is hardly likely to be more momentous than the one of 1860. If nothing else, the book might help put things in perspective.

It also takes us back to first principles: is the United States a free union of sovereign states or is it a giant nation held together, ultimately, by force, where the Federal government calls the shots?

In my opinion, we got saddled with the wrong answer to that one.

JB: On 20 December 1860 South Carolina seceded from the Union. The idea of South Carolina seceding then seems as ridiculous as Joe Biden’s plan to let Iraq be partitioned into 3 separate-but-equal countries. Your book makes secession sound not only within South Carolina’s rights, but entirely reasonable. How could people even think in those terms?

HC: Well, it was easy. They read the Declaration of Independence. South Carolina believed that the federal government rested on the consent of the governed. It no longer consented, so it withdrew from the Union.

In the Declaration, Thomas Jefferson told the British that the colonies were actually sovereign states. He was wrong, but that idea is the foundation of American political thinking. It’s why the Constitution was approved by a vote of the states — not by some sort of national plebiscite.

As Jefferson Davis liked to say, the Constitution did not create a new American people. That’s a hard concept for folks nowadays to get their heads around but it’s true: the idea was that the people executed their sovereignty through their respective states.

In 1860, South Carolina directly reiterated the Declaration of Independence. America’s founding documents weren’t so esoteric then as they are now.

JB: The idea of total war — sparing no part of the enemy’s land, resources or even its people — was apparently the Union’s strategy after its initial string of defeats. You don’t argue with the point but you raise the question of whether it was morally commendable. Why? Is there something short of that which could have restored the Union and ended slavery?

HC: Well, a couple things on that point, Jed. First, Lincoln embarked on the war explicitly denying that it was a war to end slavery. That came later. And in any event, even if slavery had been at the forefront, how many of us believe that contentious political/moral issues among Americans, like say abortion, should be resolved by sectional warfare?

I guess that gets to the second point, too, which is that we’re really all Confederates now — though few willingly acknowledge this.

By that I mean that almost all of us believe that what holds our Union together is common consent, which was the Southern view. It would strike most of us as absurd that we need to hold Mississippi, Michigan, Missouri, and Maine together by force. And if it came to that, if the South seceded again, few of us, I wager, would think the appropriate response would be to blockade Southern ports, carpet bomb Southern cities, and send armored divisions over the bridges across the Potomac to attack the state where both you and I live.

JB: In the early stages of the Civil War, Lincoln fired a whole slew of generals. In the Bush era, we’ve not seen a single general removed — fired — for lack of performance. Who had it right: Lincoln or Bush?

HC: Lincoln. Somewhere or other I remember Lord Salisbury advising that one should never trust experts — they have too many vested interests at stake. Lincoln learned not to trust experts like George B. McClellan.

JB: There’s a lot of romance surrounding the cavalry of the Civil War. Why? It seems like the most famous of all cavalry generals – J.E.B. Stuart — can fairly be blamed for Lee’s defeat at Gettysburg. What did cavalry really accomplish?

HC: The cavalry were scouts and raiders, among other things, and could harry an enemy: Phil Sheridan did that for the North; Bedford Forrest did it for the South. As for the romance, well, in the South you had a whole culture of chivalry. J.E.B. Stuart played the knightly troubadour, and even a hardscrabble, gun-fighting hard-man like Bedford Forrest is gilded with a certain chivalry, especially in his treatment of women. But I think part of the romance too is removed from the purely military aspect, and cuts more to the idea of the Old South. Charm and manners often seem in short supply these days.

JB: You write that, in some ways, the United States would have been better off if the South had been allowed to secede and there had been no civil war. But that would have left slavery established for years, decades or centuries to come, would it not?

HC: No, probably not. Every other Christian country in the Western Hemisphere abolished slavery in the nineteenth century; I doubt that the South would have been much different. The percentage of slave-owners, especially in the upper south, was declining, not increasing. Of course, at the end of the war, under immense pressure, the Confederate Congress finally capitulated to the idea, articulated by Robert E. Lee and others, that the slaves should be emancipated and enrolled in the army.

If the South had been allowed to secede, it would have been heavily dependent on free trade and the diplomatic recognition and support of Europe, where it knew that its adherence to slavery was the one huge obstacle standing in its way. I think that over time, the South would have seen the necessity of removing that obstacle. There were some Southerners, like Jefferson Davis, who thought slavery was a positive good, and others, like Robert E. Lee, who thought it was an incontestable evil. But both Lee and Davis expected that slavery would fade away over time.

JB: Your love of history, your expertise, flow from the pages of the PIG Civil War. What are the two or three main points you teach in this book that others may have missed?

HC: Well, I think I’ll let readers draw their own conclusions, but I hope to entertain them along the way. Did you know, for instance, that one of Sherman’s sons, to the general’s disgust, became a Catholic priest (he presided over Sherman’s funeral) or that a good many Union generals, like Sherman and McClellan, loathed abolitionists? I devote most of the book to the leading generals of the war — and some of them, like Sherman, are delightfully quotable in politically incorrect ways. I’m obviously a partisan of the South, but I try to give the Yankees a fair shake, and even can’t help but like a few of them, like Custer — who presided as best man at a Confederate officer’s wedding at a Virginia plantation during the war, and hung around afterwards courting the belles. That, Jed, is chivalry in action.