Some thoughtful soul, not I, would perhaps have some positive words about the present volume, and not without some justification.  There is much to be said in praise of the Library of America and the quality of its volumes in various categories of presentation, and in the past I not only have acknowledged such manifest merits, but have even assigned them as textbooks in my classes.  Not this time.  There are too many problems with this book, and with the series it concludes, for me to be able to recommend the acquisition of this volume, or even its perusal.

I was surprised to find here the repeated insistence that the Confederacy fought for independence—this twice from Jefferson Davis himself.  And there are episodes or pages in this compendium that I am glad to have read, pages that surprised me or shook me, but not nearly enough of them.  Worse, the expanding accumulation of minicontexts was increasingly disorienting.  I have not before encountered a representation of military matters so lacking in a sense of geography.  And the maps are downright annoying.

Now that doesn’t mean that the last months of the War Between the States are not a worthy subject—quite the opposite.  We cannot learn enough, let alone too much, about “the watershed of American history,” and that is just the point.  But it may mean that the history of everything as written by everybody is not the same thing as a representation of history, but rather a reproduction of archival selections—a history without narrative, if you like.  But I don’t like.  There are two reasons why I find the method, or structure, of this volume to be contrary to its historical purpose.

If we want to “know” American history, then it must be formulated in a memorable way, and in the present instance the conditions upon which the memorable depends are not there.  This point is not the most damaging one I can make, but it is sufficient in itself to discredit the book. The volume is not memorable (except in a few instances) because it is chaotically conceived.  It can only with considerable exertion be comprehendingly scanned, much less remembered, unless one has more or less memorized the sequence of events that occurred during the Civil War, and much else about it as well.

The commercial producers of this effort have reprinted positive blurbs on the back of the dust jacket, as is conventional; but, as is not necessarily conventional, at least one of these endorsements is not only untrue (“an engaging historical narrative”) but actually placed there because it is untrue.  The book cannot be engaging when it is as discontinuous as a strobe light, and as there is no narrative, it cannot be a narrative.

Now how can I put this politely, and why should I?  As a clever man once indicated, a pyramid is not an accident—to which I would add, neither is a jumble a narrative.  Reality may be a jumble, I concede, but what is memorable cannot be such, by definition.  Anyone who comes home and narrates the day’s events casts a structure on them and eliminates the dispensable details.  If the audience does not sense this creative command, its attention will wander.  In familiar or family relations, as in satirical fiction, the failure to sustain the line of exposition will only rarely be unnoticed or forgiven or not regarded with mirth.  A famous “novel” by the Rev. Laurence Sterne, and a famous short story by Eudora Welty, exemplify the point.

Though I could complain at length about this book, I think I have made the point regarding its self-defeating construction.  Though that is disastrous, even so it is not the worst problem, which is twofold.  The editor in his Preface concludes,

The goal has been to shape a narrative that is both broad and balanced in scope, while at the same time doing justice to the number and diversity of voices and perspectives preserved for us in the writing of that era.

Here the telltale use of “diversity” discredits the sentence, as the miasma extends to “balanced,” “justice,” and “perspectives.”  Shaping a narrative requires an overview that contemporary buzzwords, mantras, and markers of political correctness cannot provide.

And this challenge fades into another, which is the insistent citation of grievances with such an accent on the contemporary intensity of sesquicentennial tone that the bitternesses of those days sound a familiar note that is striking without the sesquicentennial framing.  When various Southern belles go through the motions about those exploitative, house-burning, chicken- and horse-stealing Yankees, we must acknowledge that somehow we had already heard about them; but also that nothing the outraged women said was not insisted upon by General Sherman himself.  The destruction was policy, and the idea of sanctified violence for peace and freedom has been national policy ever since.  Well, to the proprietress of Tara we would say, “Give it a rest, Scarlett!  You’re the damnedest Yankee of them all!”  But to Scarlett or to her creator we would also have to say of much of this material, “You did it better—and I remember it vividly.”  Margaret Mitchell opens a door to Commager’s The Blue and the Gray of decades ago, and various volumes of Douglas Southall Freeman, Edmund Wilson, Bruce Catton, and Shelby Foote, who subtitled his three volumes on the Civil War “A Narrative.”  So it was and had to be, with Homeric technique and Thuycididean vision.

As for the other side of the bitterness, the many denunciations of Southern character perhaps represent the heightened feelings of those days, but even more the passions of our own days—if we could be said to possess anything.  The horrors of the South, ensconced so conveniently today on “reality shows,” were a favorite theme way back when.  Although Appomattox, or rather April 9, 1865, is a long time ago, there has been a bizarrely distorting burden cast upon Clio: The Civil War can be addressed only to justify the results of it.  Nothing else can be learned.  Those cruel and barbaric people must be subjugated, if not killed—subjugated and militarily governed to preserve the Union!  This quaint formulation, bizarre in the early 1860’s and laughable (though not often laughed at) ever since, is hardly ever examined in the academic world these days, because it is rather exhausting to account for the miraculous preservation of something that had already shattered.  Was the model of Mr. Lincoln’s policy perhaps Dr. Victor Frankenstein, who preserved or animated body parts with a jolt of electricity pirated from the heavens?  Let’s recall that Victor eventually received the Mel Brooks treatment, proving once again that tragedy becomes farce upon repetition, as a student of dialectic once insisted.

The grotesque aspects of the Civil War have been sadly neglected or studiously ignored, unless they have something to do with Southern depravity.  Consider the nasty topic of mortality rates in the military prisons, for example.  The treatment of this embarrassing subject has almost always been lopsided.  Or again, in this book we have the many references to the Fort Pillow massacre which, though not justified by military significance, were part of the Northern propaganda machine, as the atrocities were held to justify retaliation in kind.  This dovetails all too well with the recent action by the city of Memphis to change the name of Forrest Park to Health Sciences Park, in part because the Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest was the commander of the besieging side at Fort Pillow.  Yes, this is the same individual whom Shelby Foote called “the greatest military genius that the War produced on either side.”  It’s true that there were atrocities, though not all of the story is represented here, but even these provocations cannot remotely justify what had happened between 1861 and 1863.  But that is the point: There are so many justifications for the unjustifiable!  Misbehavior in the Senate!  Nullification!  Slavery!  Secession!  Resistance to federal authority!  Resistance to massive armed invasion!  “Invasion” of the North!  Atrocities!  Occasional bad manners!  Consumption of barbecue, pimento-cheese sandwiches, and spirituous liquors!  Drawling!  Saying “y’all”!  Harvesting pecans!  Whistling “Dixie”!

The justification of the Civil War (I must explain that sesquicentennial is Anglicized Latin for justification) is so blaringly and glaringly brayed, it is actually odd or even suspicious that such a supreme, pseudoreligious transfiguration is even asserted—and I refer here not to this volume but to the national mythology.  Someone is worried about something—worried, perhaps, that General Forrest’s name might be changed to “Nathan Health Services” so that his remains and those of his wife could remain in the park, under the equestrian monument representing the heroic figure of the aforementioned selfsame General Services in the city where 20,000 people turned out for his funeral in 1877?  Or is someone worried that “the myth of the Lost Cause” might be reasserted in our distressed land—a land sorely beset by privilege and injustice—even though it is a myth that was lost, and is therefore hardly a cause?  But no one is concerned that a nation without a sense of irony or a sense of tragedy is hardly likely to comprehend its own history.  Such a culture might suppose that a book is no more than a thing with pages, and settle for that—and for this collage.


[The Civil War: The Final Year Told by Those Who Lived It, edited by Aaron Sheehan-Dean (New York: The Library of America) 886 pp.; $40.00]