“We have sung of the soldiers and sailors, but who shall hymn the politicians?”
—Herman Melville

The great classicist and poet A.E. Housman once wrote that the work of a scholar in the humanities is not like that of a scientist examining specimens under a microscope—it is more like the work of a dog searching for fleas. Housman thus punctured the scientific pretensions of some humanists and made an appeal for the old-fashioned virtues of painstaking work, common sense, and humble judgment. As another great British scholar, Veronica Wedgwood, put it: “History is an art—like all the other sciences.”

It follows, and is indeed a truism, that all historians are biased. None escapes entirely the effects of his allegiances and preoccupations. But it is also true that some historians are more competent—and more honest—than others. Yet another great English historian. Sir Herbert Butterfield, suggested that it is best to trust those historians who are aware of and admit their own biases and who, as much as possible, separate the scholarly task of determining what happened and why from a personal moral judgment of these events—and that it is well to suspect and discount those historians who are eager to make sweeping moral condemnations, forgetting not only that there are at least two sides to every question but that we have all of us been exhorted to “judge not, that ye be not judged.”

In regard to the Great Unpleasantness in the middle of the last century, which is still the central event in American history, good history continues to be written by serious and honest scholars, despite the reign of an official dogma which casts that great and complex happening in the most simplistic and misleading moralistic terms, as a righteous crusade for the suppression of wickedness. (What Robert Penn Warren called the national “Treasury of Virtue” with respect to the Civil War is very obviously the parent of political correctness.) The authors of the present literary selections are creatures of our time, their political values correct and unexceptional. But their honesty and competence as historians allow them to tell stories that are unfashionably true, though sometimes they do it a little too apologetically.

Unlike the other recent biography of Bedford Forrest by Brian S. Wills, so neatly and justly skewered by J.O. Tate in Chronicles (“Lastest with the Leastest,” December 1992), Hurst’s is a real contribution despite the fact—or perhaps because of the fact—that he is not a professional academic. Wills’ biography contributed nothing new in data or in idea except to deconstruct the fascinating story of Forrest according to the canons of political correctness and psychobabble. Hurst, by contrast, has developed new material pertaining to the obscurities of Forrest’s antebellum and postbellum life, and the more familiar history of the incredible campaigns he has retold clearly and well. Moreover, he is able to put Forrest in the perspective of his times, which is what a historian should do, rather than merely invoking labels. As Hurst points out, the American figure Forrest most resembles is his fellow Tennessean of a generation earlier, Andrew Jackson. The difference between them was that courageous, quick-witted, self-made Southerners could not play the same national role in Forrest’s time as in Jackson’s. Among the most interesting parts of the book are its presentations of Forrest’s relation with black people after the war—another exceedingly complex historical situation that has been misrepresented by sloganeers. Hundreds of black people attended Forrest’s funeral, and during Reconstruction he was berated by a Union officer from Connecticut for not working his plantation laborers hard enough.

In a private conversation with an Englishman after the war, R.E. Lee is supposed to have been asked who was the greatest soldier produced by the American war and to have unhesitatingly replied: Forrest. Richard Taylor won fewer victories than Forrest, but those he did win exhibited a similar ability to triumph by skill and will against long odds. In the Red River Campaign in Louisiana in the spring of 1864, Taylor, with vastly outnumbered and under-equipped forces, defeated a huge federal military-naval expedition. (Of course, the federals had the misfortune to be commanded by one of many Republican political generals, “Commissary” Banks of Massachusetts.) After Forrest, Taylor may have been the best nonprofessional general produced by the war, though the South Carolinian Wade Hampton is also a contender.

Together, Taylor and Forrest represented extremes of Southern society: Taylor the well-educated, wealthy, cosmopolitan son of a President; Forrest the unpolished, self-made son of a frontier blacksmith. The two men, at such times as they collaborated, got along famously. Taylor had the respect for Forrest that all good soldiers had, and Forrest is reported to have said of Taylor: “He’s the biggest man in the lot. If we’d had more like him, we would have licked the Yankees long ago.” Both gave their all (which was a great deal) to their cause, and both ended the war shattered in health and fortune.

Taylor’s biographer is clearly not sympathetic with the conservative, aristocratic values and way of life that his subject followed, but he is able to examine them with judicial impartiality. For the terrible simplifiers of American racial history, such impartiality complicates the evidence: Union forces devastated Taylor’s plantation, thereby incidentally turning his slaves out to starve. (They also nailed the family pets to a barn.) And consider the remarks of Sherman, then a Louisiana college president acquainted with Taylor, just before the war: “If they [Southerners] design to protect themselves against negroes and abolitionists, I will help; if they propose to leave the Union on account of a supposed fact that the northern people are all abolitionists . . . I will stand by Ohio and the Northwest.”

Stanton Garner’s The Civil War World of Herman Melville shifts our attention from the soldiers of the South to the civilian North: a dense and detailed (perhaps too dense and detailed) account of Melville’s life, art, and mind in relation to the war. The book is an original contribution, with many virtues. It is not only literary history, but social and intellectual history as well.

In 1861 Melville was a literary has been, living in genteel poverty and chiefly remembered as the author of Typee. Moby Dick, published ten years earlier, had been a complete critical and commercial failure, its author barely tolerated by the controlling Boston mafia of American literature. Melville had, seemingly, already consigned himself to oblivion when the war revived his literary aspirations and he undertook to record and interpret it in poetry, the result being Battle-Pieces, a collection published in 1866. This work has generally been regarded as unimportant, the work of an author emotionally disengaged from his subject, lost in his own fantasies. To the contrary, Garner contends that it is the most important body of poetry produced by an American about the war and by a writer deeply engaged—an argument for which he makes a strong case.

One problem, of course, was that Melville’s book was too profound for its time, when popular Northern war poetry consisted largely of sentimental jingles and blasphemous pseudo-hymns. Though Garner does not put it exactly this way, another problem was that the work was politically incorrect: Melville refused to believe that God took sides in war and regarded the conflict between the American states as an immense tragedy bearable only when understood as part of the partially unknowable plan of divine providence. The outcome, for Melville, was foreordained and providential, a fact that did not however abrogate the ambiguity and pain of human action, decision, and suffering. (“O, much of doubt in after days / Shall cling, as now, to the war. / Of the right and wrong they’ll still debate.” “Power unanointed may come— / Dominion (unsought by the free) / . . . But the Founders’ dream shall flee.”) Consider these lines, reflecting on the employment of powerful artillery against the civilians of Charleston:

Who weeps for the woeful

City Let him weep for our guilty kind;

Who joys at her wild despairing

Christ, the Forgiver, convert his mind.

Garner’s book has many incidental virtues. Its author treats Melville, as indeed a 19th-century American should be treated, as a member of an extended family, not as an alienated artist of the modern type. Garner understands that Melville needs to be seen in relation to a huge circle of siblings, aunts and uncles, cousins, and in-laws whose viewpoints and experiences must be recognized as part of his creative material.

One advantage of this approach is that it forces the author to recognize and come to terms with the existence of the forgotten millions of Northerners who preferred McClellan’s civilized and limited war to Sherman’s terrorism against civilians; who resisted and resented Lincoln’s incipient dictatorship and destruction of the Constitution (Melville was probably kept under surveillance by military spies in New York); and who regarded defeated Southerners as erring fellow countrymen, better treated with magnanimity than malice. This makes for some very interesting neglected history. Garner also keeps tabs on other Northern writers in the course of his study of Melville: Whitman, who saw much of the war firsthand but was largely unable to rise above subjective experience; Hawthorne, whose views resembled Melville’s but who was in sorrowful decline; gentle Whittier, who, nearly unique among abolitionists, hated the sin of slavery but not the slaveholding sinner; Emerson, the morally irresponsible, egotistical, nasty, self-serving prototype of the American liberal intellectual.

It is a measure of our low contemporary estate that Reconstruction, the most corrupt and shameful episode of the whole of our national history, is now regarded as a great achievement, faultable only because it did not go far enough. Yet Melville was so appalled by the onset of Radical Reconstruction following a brief period of civility at the end of the war that he literally stopped the presses to revise his book, adding a long poem, “Lee in the Capitol,” and a prose “Supplement,” both pleas to the North for magnanimity and moderation. These wise documents should be read by all decent Americans concerned with understanding regional and racial conflicts.

Melville’s apprehension of the war as a tragedy in which no sweeping self-congratulation was justified by either side, though premature, was prophetic: it was the view that most decent Americans, North and South, came to have of the war when passions had finally died away. Melville thus anticipated what came to be a kind of national consensus in the late 19th and early 20th centuries regarding the American Civil War. This consensus, worked out in countless veterans’ gatherings and public orations, went something like this: Southerners would acknowledge that they were glad that the Union had been preserved and slavery abolished. They would be, moreover, good citizens ever after. In return, Northerners would acknowledge that Southerners, though in error, had fought courageously and honorably in the war and would promise to respect their history and its symbols. This agreement held for a long time, until 1993 in fact, when the United States Senate violated it by its churlish action against the United Daughters of the Confederacy, although Southerners have faithfully kept their part of the agreement. Even more repulsive than the Senate majority’s action was the historical ignorance it displayed and the vulgarity of the accompanying remarks. The senators should be reminded of the warning given by Melville’s fictional Lee, when he was called before the Reconstruction Committee of the Senate:

Push not your triumph; do not urge

Submissiveness beyond the verge.

The historical Lee had been more prudent and reticent. 


[Nathan Bedford Forrest: A Biography, by Jack Hurst (New York: Alfred A. Knopf) 434 pp., $30.00]

[Richard Taylor: Soldier Prince of Dixie, by T. Michael Parrish (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press) 570 pp., $34.95]

[The Civil War World of Herman Melville, by Stanton Garner (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas) 544 pp., $29.95]