H.W. Crocker III is a most provocative and engaging guide to the Civil War.
The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil
By H. W. Crocker III
(Regnery Publishing, 370 pages, $19.95)
AN OFT-REPEATED TRUISM is “History is written by the victors.” Certainly this has been the case of the War Between the States. Books written about the war must number in the hundreds of thousands by now, and generally they worship at the altar of the Union and the Great Emancipator Abraham Lincoln. And they keep on coming. The majority of Americans, if asked, would say that the war was principally about the national stain of slavery, that secession was illegal, that the South provoked the war, that the Union was worth preserving at the cost of 650,000 dead, that it was the only solution to the problem of slavery, and that Lincoln was our greatest president. Well, Harry Crocker doesn’t think any of these things are true, and in this enjoyable and provoking book he tells his readers why.
Crocker, a Californian novelist, editor, speechwriter, and amateur British Imperialist, is the author of an idiosyncratic book on the history of the Catholic Church, as well as a military history of the U.S. and other books such as Robert E. Lee on Leadership. His current contribution, the latest of Regnery Publishing’s popular Politically Incorrect Guides, takes on the “Civil War,” a.k.a. “The War of Northern Aggression” (or, as some post- bellum Southerners referred to it, “the late unpleasantness”). Make no mistake, Crocker’s sympathies lie with the South, and Part I of his book describes “why the South was right.” However, as one reviewer put it, he does so with “great scholarship, great story-telling, and great fun.” The book’s many informative sidebars full of interesting quotes and Civil War trivia show that Crocker, although serious about the justice of the South’s cause, maintains his light touch in provoking the reader to think differently about the War that changed us from saying “United States ‘are’ rather than United States ‘is’” and all that came with it.
In a brisk 337 pages, Crocker covers the causes of the war, the fractured 1860 presidential election, the role of the abolitionists, and Lincoln’s dilemma on how to handle what he considered a rebellion.
Crocker also covers the key battles of the War Between the States and offers some short insightful biographies of the outstanding generals (and cavalry officers) on both sides of this tragic conflict. Where could we find such generally admirable men of valor and courage today? What Crocker attempts to make clear is that the war was fought not over slavery but rather over Lincoln’s ruthless—and we presume sincere—fixation on the Union as the ultimate good for the citizens of the United States. From the Southern point of view, which is also Crocker’s, the Southern states were simply following the principles of 1776.
Crocker writes, “In their [South Carolina] Declaration, the delegates (all eminent men and not a rabble of revolutionaries) voted in a special convention 169-nil, that the Union now subsisting between South Carolina and under the name of the United States of America is hereby dissolved.” South Carolina had reclaimed its sovereign rights—and had done so on the very same grounds that Jefferson had laid out 84 years before: “whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government.”
This all sounds familiar to those who believe in the natural law principle of subsidiarity, according to which “a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to co-ordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1883)
This may explain why the official newspaper of the Vatican editorialized on behalf of the South during the war, and Pope Pius IX sent a hand-woven Crown of Thorns to Jefferson Davis, ex-president of the Confederacy, as he languished in prison after the War. Crocker puts it this way, “The Church in other words, was the natural ally of feudalism, federalism (or states’ rights) and conservatism. Given a choice between a religiously ambiguous nationalist (Lincoln) and a Catholic-educated defender of states’ rights (Jefferson Davis), it was no contest for the Pope.”
And there was plenty of opposition in the North to the war and to the sudden end of slavery that meant that Northerners could expect a large number of freed slaves to emigrate and compete with them for jobs. Crocker points out that
Pro-Southern Democrats were plentiful in the Border States but also as far afield as Ohio and New York City. Maryland’s were especially worrisome….But Lincoln’s deft suspension of civil liberties, imposition of martial law, and jailing secessionist sympathizers (including Baltimore’s mayor and police chief and thirty-one Maryland State legislators) alleviated most of the trepidation. All told, Lincoln’s administration jailed more than 13,000 political prisoners. The Supreme Court protested that the President had no right to suspend “habeas corpus.” Lincoln replied he had a war to fight. As he had the army on his side, and the Supreme Court did not, Lincoln won the argument.
As for the question of slavery and the necessity of the war to end it, Crocker asks:
Would slavery have persisted to this very day? No, it seems certain that it would have been abolished peacefully, as it found itself abolished everywhere else in the New World in the nineteenth century. Imagine that there had no been war against the South, and subsequently no Reconstruction putting the South under martial law, disenfranchising white voters with confederate pasts, and enfranchising freed slaves as wards of the Republican Party. Without that past, race relations in the South would have been better, not worse, and the paternalist planters would have arranged over time to emancipate their slaves in exchange for financial compensation.
And perhaps there would have been an African American president long before the recent election and much more rapid economic and social equality. History is full of what-ifs. However, this book could not be timelier. Where once there was the “Blue and Gray,” now there is the Blue and Red, and where once there appeared to be irreconcilable issues over the right to secession, the growth of slavery, tariffs, and economic domination, now there are clearly irreconcilable viewpoints on what some consider to be even more important issues, such as the right to life and the national tragedy of more than 40 million abortions since 1973, traditional marriage, and the overweening intrusion of government power not simply in the states, but in the personal life of American families. Rocky times could lie ahead. Avoiding violence of any sort is a priority. Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.
Matthew Kenefick is a Church historian who writes from Washington, D.C. and a Research Fellow of the Faith and Reason Institute.
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