Taking Sides with the South
A Disease in the Public Mind: A New Understanding of Why We Fought the Civil War
By Thomas Fleming
Publisher: Da Capo Press
Pages: 384 pages
Review Author: Christopher Gawley
Does the Civil War matter anymore? We recently passed the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, the most momentous battle in U.S. history; can we now consign the subject to the dustbin? Is it simply a footnote to America’s legacy of racial animus? No, this conflict still matters — and for many more reasons than race. For those who care about concepts like tyranny, limited government, subsidiarity, and the principles that animated our independence in 1776, the Civil War ought to matter. And like most things we think we know — and were taught — the truth is far more complicated. A war between two overwhelmingly Protestant peoples fought over a century and a half ago may seem to have little relevance for Catholics today. But many of the ideas and values Catholics care about — and many of the forces that seek to stamp out the free exercise of religion in the U.S. in our time — played definitive roles in the Civil War.
While it is tempting to align with the Copperheads, the Northern anti-war and anti-Lincoln Democrats who sympathized with the South, by doing so one runs headlong into true detestation of slavery. A similar contradiction manifests itself when one is attracted by the antebellum South, by the culture of the South, by the very idea of the South — but with an important difference. Notwithstanding the South’s sin of slavery, the antebellum South represented noble virtues and aspirations like tradition, manners, honor, hospitality, and duty far better than its eventual conqueror ever did. For a traditional Catholic, the antebellum South — its very ethos — is far more resonant and familiar than any other American subculture or time period. Thus, one must bring a fair amount of suspicion to any Lincoln hagiography or demonization of the South. In our time, knowledgeable haters of the South are, perhaps just beneath the surface, people who likely hate the Catholic Church as well.
In any honest evaluation of the Civil War, one must recognize the incongruity of vanquishing a democratic people at the point of a gun in the name of liberty. Seeing what a centralized, power-hungry, and war-mongering monstrosity the U.S. federal government has become, one cannot help but sympathize with those souls who stood up to the incipient leviathan. Contrarily, it is difficult to sympathize with a federal government that practiced “total war” against a people who had democratically chosen to sever the bonds of fraternity and country. The South’s emphasis on states’ rights and limited government is preferable to a bureaucratic, all-powerful state.
Thomas Fleming’s A Disease in the Public Mind promises a new understanding of why we fought the Civil War. This reviewer, however, didn’t find much that is new in it. The gist of the book is that a growing sectional myopia and obstinacy on the question of slavery ultimately set in motion a series of events that culminated in an unnecessary war. The disease, according to Fleming, was both abolitionist intransigence and a similar hardening of Southern opinion on the question. Fleming details the American political history of slavery leading up to the war and focuses on certain historical figures and their opinions of both slavery and sectional strife. Thus, we see what Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Tyler, Lee, and others felt about America’s peculiar institution and its potential to destroy the Union.
All of this introspection over the question devolved into a near paralysis of political action. Many key American figures knew that slavery was a cancer on the body politic, but they simply did not have the will or the gumption to figure out how to excise it. In time, fatal sectionalism exploded into war. Fleming finds many lost moments passed over by historical characters who could have taken — who should have taken — steps to avoid the eventual calamity of the Civil War. He analyzes factors that aggravated the build-up to war, three of which are the rebellion of John Brown, the race war in Haiti, and the diffusion of slaves in new U.S. territories.
It is fair to say that Fleming detests John Brown. Brown is one of the most divisive figures in U.S. history: He was a violent ideologue and abolitionist, and an absolutist of the first degree. Fleming mocks Brown for both his hubris and folly at Harper’s Ferry, where in 1859 he and twenty-one of his followers seized the U.S. arsenal as part of a failed effort to liberate Southern slaves. Fleming paints Brown as a bipolar murderer lacking any compassion for his victims. He spends an inordinate amount of time on Brown, in part because he sees Brown’s failed raid as a key component of the sectional conflagration that began less than two years later. Brown’s group was defeated and Brown himself was eventually hanged.
In a similar vein, Fleming castigates the inflammatory William Lloyd Garrison, founder and publisher of The Liberator, an anti-slavery journal, as a flashpoint for growing discord. In both men Fleming sees agitators and absolutists who put pure ideology over a practical solution to the slavery problem. Fleming sees these self-righteous purists as culpable for the blood of the Civil War by their very intransigence. One struggles to disagree with him.
Fleming tells the story of the Haitian race war to highlight its effect on the minds of slave-holding Americans. In 1804 a great massacre followed the creation of the Haitian state in the former French colony of Saint-Domingue, marking the end of French civilization on the island. The former slave population — now armed and in control — slaughtered every white man, woman, and child it came across (with a few exceptions). At the orders of Jean-Jacques Dessalines, leader of the nascent Haitian state, as many as five thousand whites were killed. Thus did Saint-Domingue, the most prosperous colony in the Americas, end in a complete race war culminating in racial genocide. While it is hard to set aside the cruelty and barbarity of slavery and its effects on the Africans in Haiti, the massacre is a further stain that still haunts Haiti today. Fleming paints a picture of American Southerners who were cognizant that they too might end up like the French in Haiti — murdered by their own slaves. When Nat Turner, a black slave from Virginia, rose in revolt and, with seventy followers, carried out his 1831 slaughter, albeit on a much smaller scale (killing approximately fifty whites), the South was enflamed by fears of Haiti.
Haiti fueled an idea held by some thinkers in slaveholding regions that the only protection against a race war was through the diffusion of black slaves throughout the newly acquired territories. The danger of a slave revolt and race war was thought to increase in proportion to the disparity of slave and free populations. In Haiti, where slaves outnumbered free Frenchmen by a margin of ten to one, the revolt was deemed preordained. The South feared that the growing, and confined, slave population would create a similar imbalance. The North’s insistence on not admitting future slave states only exacerbated this fear. The election of a firmly “free soil” U.S. president in 1860 was the final straw: The chain of secession began in South Carolina and ended in Virginia. Fleming seems to contend that allowing slaves to diffuse into future American territories would have eventually contributed to slavery’s demise.
A Disease in the Public Mind is educative on the political question of slavery. Fleming’s thesis, though, is difficult to divine, and in a way he channels the notoriously cynical Oliver Wendell Holmes, who didn’t like abolitionism, slavery, or war. Fleming confuses any form of strongly held conviction with blind absolutism. Judging from pure readability, his book is both interesting and informative, but judged on whether it adds anything new to the body of extant Civil War history, it is best described as underwhelming.
Many history buffs love the Civil War era (a.k.a. “the War of Northern Aggression”). I recently read a very fine novel about Gettysburg but couldn’t quite bring myself to finish it. I knew how it would end, and I didn’t want to see Pickett’s charge smashed. The wrong side lost. Even though I agree with Lincoln on the question of free soil (at least as of 1860), I cannot help but fault him and the North for savaging the South in a total war and in contradistinction to the fundamental concepts outlined in the Declaration of Independence. In the end, I still root for the South — or, at the very least, for Southern values.
“They do not know what they say. If it came to a conflict of arms, the war will last at least four years. Northern politicians will not appreciate the determination and pluck of the South, and Southern politicians do not appreciate the numbers, resources, and patient perseverance of the North. Both sides forget that we are all Americans. I foresee that our country will pass through a terrible ordeal, a necessary expiation, perhaps, for our national sins.”— Robert E. Lee
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