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Dixie in Denial

How the Confederacy became its own worst enemy.

By 10.27.06

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This review by Florence King appears in the October issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe, click here.

Dixie Betrayed: How the South Really Lost the Civil War
by David J. Eicher
(Little, Brown, 338 pages, $27.95)

IF I KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT ARGUING with publishers it's a safe bet that the title of this book was not the author's idea. Dixie Betrayed: How the South Really Lost the Civil War is guaranteed to turn on the grassy-knoll set, making it a "selling title," something that fills publishers with glee and authors with despair.

The grassy-knollers will be disappointed at finding no murky conspiracy theories herein, but readers with an appreciation of the human comedy and a taste for irony and paradox will relish this energetically argued and engagingly written examination of the politics of self-destruction that should have been entitled Dixie in Denial: How the Confederacy Became Its Own Worst Enemy.

"The Confederacy was born sick," writes David Eicher, and placed in the waiting arms of history's finest Catch-22: Having seceded from a strong, centralized government, the South had to construct a strong, centralized government of its own if it wanted to be powerful enough to guarantee the sacred principle of States Rights. To free itself from one Union, it had to submit to another.

Leaders with a philosophical bent might have worked through this conundrum, but there weren't any. The Southern statesmen who dominated the Secession apparatus were the type Wilbur J. Cash called "beaux sabreurs," swaggering aristocrats or aristocratic wannabes who considered violent explosions of temper to be a gentleman's calling much like horsemanship or fencing, and who, moreover, lacked all conception of irony and paradox and believed introspection was for sissies. The only shade of gray they knew was the Confederate uniform.$tChief among them was Texas Sen. Louis T. Wigfall, a South Carolina planter by birth, who "explained" the South to a British journalist thusly: "We're a peculiar people, sir. You don't understand us, and you can't understand us.... We have no cities -- we don't want them. We have no literature -- we don't need any." With a sense of honor perpetually on hair trigger and antennae tuned to pick up the merest hint of a slight, Wigfall racked up, in the course of five months, two duels, several near-challenges, a fistfight, and a shooting affray, all abetted by his two-fisted drinking -- he was three sheets to the wind most of the time.

In 1859 he had seriously considered kidnapping President James Buchanan so that Vice President John Breckinridge, a Southerner, could succeed him. After seven states seceded following Lincoln's election, Wigfall rose on the Senate floor and declaimed, "We have dissolved the Union; mend it if you can; cement it with blood." The speech got him expelled from the Senate. In a bellicose frenzy, he rushed to Charleston to see if the bombardment had started. It hadn't, so Wigfall got drunk, rowed out to Fort Sumter alone, and demanded that the Yankees surrender to him personally. This act of derring-do made him the hero of the Southern press and won him the accolade of "fire-eating."

It kicked off a more-fire-eating-than-thou contest among rabid Secessionists who gathered in Montgomery, Alabama, to draft the Confederate Constitution. They included William Lowndes Yancey of Alabama, who killed his wife's uncle in a fight. Robert Barnwell Rhett of South Carolina, dubbed the "father of Secession," who cultivated a "stark, savage stare" and lashed out at the North for trying to destroy the "Southern Way of Life." Robert Augustus Toombs of Georgia, whose obscene vocabulary marked him as a textbook case of scatological mania, who lost a bid to be President of the Confederacy because-in this gang, mind you -- he drank too much.

And finally, there was Lawrence Keitt of South Carolina, whose brother was murdered by slaves. Keitt had accompanied Rep. Preston Brooks as a kind of dueller's second when Brooks caned and nearly killed the abolitionist Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts. Keitt had made a career as a despiser of government -- any government -- and, writes Eicher, "he couldn't stop; it was simply a way of life; his seething anti-government feelings couldn't screech to a halt, even in Montgomery. They would have to be redirected -- if not at Lincoln, then perhaps toward Davis."

DAVIS, AS IT HAPPENED, was the easiest of targets. If ever a man was shaped by a middle name, it was he. The youngest of ten children whose mother was 48 when he was born, he was christened Jefferson Finis Davis by a father who made sure everyone would know that he was unexpected, unwanted, and not to be repeated. An Abraham Finis Lincoln would have cracked jokes about it, but Jefferson Finis Davis did not crack jokes about anything.

Nor did he have the Lincolnesque touch in tragedy. Like Lincoln, Davis lost the woman he loved in his youth and a son in his presidency, but where Lincoln's bereavements were cast in conventional sweet sorrow, Davis's were pure Edgar Allan Poe. His first wife, Sarah Taylor (Zachary Taylor's daughter), died on their honeymoon -- some accounts say in his arms-from a swampland fever. He waited ten years before remarrying, at 36, a girl of 19, Varina Howell. They had several children, including a son who died in the Confederate White House in Richmond -- not in his bed like Willie Lincoln, but from falling out the window.

This was the man fated to herd Dixie's cats: insecure, repressed, rigid, suspicious, secretive, cold, and humorless. It says as much about the man as the nation he was to lead that the most famous line in his Inaugural address was: "All we ask is to be let alone."

"States Rights wounded the United States," writes Eckerd, "but it destroyed the Confederacy." From the moment Davis took office, everywhere he looked he saw the 800-pound gorilla of States Rights, and then pretended that he hadn't seen it. Admitting that it was really there would have demolished his idealized mental picture of the Confederacy as a strong, unified new nation with himself at the head, wielding the authority that leaders need to win a war.

It is axiomatic that a nation going to war needs a regular army under a unified command, but Davis's efforts to form one were immediately challenged by governors who invoked States Rights as a rationale for controlling their own troops. The most troublesome was Gov. Joseph Brown of Georgia, who demanded the right to say how Georgia troops were supplied, who commanded them, and even when and where they fought.

The governors used the same argument against conscription -- "the most alarming stride towards consolidation that has ever occurred," Brown howled. Tennessee agreed: "If agents of the Confederate Government had the right to go into any State and take therefrom the men belonging to that State, how were States Rights and State Sovereignty to be maintained?" The blind spot just got bigger; the phrase agents of the Confederate Government is already beginning to sound like a synonym for damnyankees.

Several disputes cut too close to the bone to bear discussion and were tabled repeatedly. One was the establishment of a Supreme Court. The name alone was enough to set off the usual suspects, who latched onto the phrase "fatal stab" to describe their reactions. William Lowndes Yancey warned that the power of a Supreme Court over state courts "would subvert and destroy the power of the States." Others still blamed the old Supreme Court for the United States Bank, an act which had strengthened Federal authority. And Louis T. Wigfall, apropos of nothing timely, delivered a prolix eulogy to the long-dead Chief Justice John Marshall of Virginia, bewailing the fact that his "imperial genius and unspotted virtue should have been so long connected with the old Supreme Court." But worst of all, a Supreme Court had to rely on precedents, and as yet there weren't any; a Confederate appellate court would be forced to use U.S. precedents, an intolerable blasphemy. The matter was tabled.

Equally traumatizing was the authority to suspend the writ of habeas corpus and declare martial law. Many Confederates saw this as the ultimate sin of big governments and did not want to grant Davis the power no matter how desperate conditions became. When eventually he did suspend the writ in Portsmouth and Norfolk, he got hate mail and threats from Virginians.

The Confederate Constitution as originally written did not mention Secession. Some thought that this was hypocrisy on a par with the U.S. Constitution and maintained that honor and philosophical purity demanded an Amendment guaranteeing the right to secede. This should have been greeted as a triumph of logic; after all, if you can't secede from the Confederacy, who can you secede from? But the proposal did not sit well in the Southern subconscious. Phrases such as "an aggrieved State shall be allowed to go in peace" posed a threat, triggering visions of Pandora's box that no one wanted to explore too closely. "The whole thing was dropped as a dangerous idea," writes Eicher.

The question that cut closest to the bone and was tabled most often was the use of slaves in the war effort. Male slaves had been subject to short-term impressment for labor since the start of the war, but as time went on the debate centered around whether to arm them and use them as soldiers. "Inimical to our cause" was the common tight-lipped objection, though the specific underlying fear was expressed more floridly by Louis T. Wigfall. There was also the fear that they would desert if they got too close to Yankee lines. To prevent this, someone put forth the insane idea that the government buy 100,000 slaves from their owners and give one to each white soldier.

But it was the question of how to reward slaves for their service that led the Davis government into the ultimate Catch-22. If the North won the war, they would be emancipated, so the only possible reward the South could offer them was emancipation. But if the Davis government took this step, it would be an admission that governments had the power to free slaves, which would have been an endorsement of the Emancipation Proclamation.
They finally passed a slave-soldier bill, but no slave ever saw action in the Confederate Army. They were still drilling when Richmond fell.

THE SOUTH'S FESTIVAL OF DENIAL did not end with Lee's surrender. In a deliciously wry Epilogue, Eicher demolishes the accepted wisdom that history is always written by the victors as he regales us with the story of the Second Denial.

The North did not see any point in boasting about its victory and preferred to forget the late unpleasantness and get back to the good old Yankee business of making money. Southerners, however, decided that Appomattox was all a mistake because the Confederacy had actually won the war. It stood to reason; they had the best generals and had won so many battles that it could not be said that they had sustained a military defeat. No, it was that they had been crushed by "overwhelming numbers and resources," as Lee put it in his farewell to his troops. There was no fault to be found in the South's fighting; it was the lack of war materiel and the huge supply of foreign immigrants who enlisted in the Union army as soon as they got off the boat.

To prove it, Southerners took up pens as they had once taken up arms and fought the war all over again on paper. The literature that Louis J. Wigfall had insisted the South did not need was needed now, and the revisionists answered this new call to the colors, turning out so many fervent histories, biographies, and memoirs that an anonymous wag gave them the collective title, "An Unbiased Account of the War Between the States from the Southern Point of View."

By the end of the 19th century, abetted by the well-oiled publicity machines of ancestor societies such as United Daughters of the Confederacy and Sons of Confederate Veterans, the revisionists had convinced not only the South but much of the rest of America as well to see the Confederacy as the apotheosis of romance and to accept as revealed truth the mystique of the Lost Cause.

Students of the Civil War will like this book, but students of human nature will love it.

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About the Author

Florence King is the author of Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady, The Florence King Reader, and, most recently, STET, Damnit!: The Misanthrope's Corner, 1991 to 2002 (National Review Press).