I had decided to take the Summer off and, since I am in college studying history, take a break from reading history over the Summer. Well, that didn'tI had decided to take the Summer off and, since I am in college studying history, take a break from reading history over the Summer. Well, that didn't last. I wanted to read something historical. But...
I have been forced to read many academic works since I've been in University. Some were really good, some were ok, a few were just plain silly, one was an obvious neo-Communist manifesto, one had to have been written while high or something drug related, while the majority were just terribly written. I have developed a love-hate relationship with academia since I've been in College. I love academia because it keeps alive the tradition of forcing younger people (myself included) to think about what they believe. (I'll leave political bias out of this...) However, I also hate academia because the way that it thinks.
Academia, since the end of the Second World War, has been downplaying the role of individual actions to impact history and even the role of 'History' in human affairs in favor of sociology. Leaving political biases out of this, it is understandable as the then current academic elite were teaching history as only about men of power and nothing else. However, in changing the way history is thought about, academia threw out history with the bath water. 'History' itself is rarely taught in anything beyond 100 level courses, at least as far as I can tell, and the current academic elite have become the same old, ossified dinosaurs who refuse to sanction any other thought besides their own as the ones they replaced back after WWII. Why is this important for this review?
I am a military historian. I study battles, campaigns, operations, strategy, the politics behind and during war, the lives and lessons of the great commanders and the individual stories of those who served on the front lines as well as those at home who kept the industry going, tilled the land and who wept when their husbands, sons, brothers and in some cases sisters and wives failed to return. I will admit, social history doesn't peak my interest, not in the slightest; Though I understand it's importance. As a military historian one of my five favorite avenues of study is my own nations Civil War, the American Civil War. It endlessly fascinates me. But one thing has always bothered me about the way that academia has taught the history of the Civil War. Besides the glaringly obvious bias against the military history of the war in academia (I have developed a theory that the reason academics, on a whole, shun military history is because it showcases, in great detail, how individual actions can impact global events, which rather goes against many tenants of sociology) I have been frustrated by the bald simplicity with which the history of America's greatest event is presented.
In academic, University settings at least, settings the history of the Civil War is seemingly dumbed down by the smartest minds in the liberal arts. The war is presented as a fait accompli, a necessary event that HAD to happen to present a favorable moral outcome on the issue of slavery. All Northerners were saints (that actually is beginning to change) and all Southerner's were terrorists worthy of Bin Laden (still some holdouts there but that, also, is changing). This is infuriatingly simple minded. Because of this I had sworn off any academic book, forevermore, dealing with the American Civil War. I had sworn to read only the popular military historians (the ones who actually sell books) as not only are they better written as a whole, but they are also largely free of the glaring political biases that show up throughout a large number of more academic works. Thomas J. Fleming, while I am not sure I could call him an academic as I don't really know, was, at least, an established name that I had heard of. I instantly hesitated when I saw his book at my local bookstore...but yet I felt compelled. I am glad I did.
Fleming's book details the entire issue of slavery and emancipation in the buildup of sectional political tensions that would eventually explode into the Civil War. For those who hated this book, you read it wrong. Fleming is NOT giving the South a free pass. Far from it. He shows the slave institution for what it is, but so much has been written about it as of late that there was no need to dwell so completely on the misery of the slaves themselves. Fleming's work was aimed at showing how this issue became a disease within the collective mind of the American body politic. Fleming does not let the South off Scott free, no he does not. What he does is show the issue of slavery, coalescing into an eventual three sided debate that will tear the country to shreds, literally.
Abolitionism started early on in the Republic's history going back to before the Revolution with the Quakers. It morphed into a sectional biased engine of propaganda by the time of the Civil War. Fleming makes a good point here; the abolitionists were fighting for a worthy cause, but they were fighting in the wrong manner. He points out, quite well in fact, that rather than forcing the slave owners to think about the moral wrongs of slavery and to consider a better way to generate regional wealth, they instead demonized an entire section of the nation. It is this argument of Fleming's, one I mostly though not entirely agree with, that causes the most controversy. And I think it is controversial precisely because it causes people who read this part of the book to think, and thinking is something that, sadly, much of the academic history of the American Civil War doesn't allow one to do.
The second part of the argument focuses on the slave owners. The revolt of the slaves in Haiti against their French masters ended so brutally that it created a Southern disease of the mind with the fear of a race war. The South was convinced, coerced by slave owners themselves, that if abolition took hold and the salves were emancipated then the South would face a race war. Nat Turner's rebellion didn't help this mind set any. Again, Fleming does not condone Southern actions, but it does seem that many people thought he did. Simply false. He does, however, counter the current argument that the war was a necessity. It clearly was not. The South was actually the wealthier of the two sections of the nation precisely due to slave labor, and the Southern politicians, as convinced of their own racial superiority as they were combined with dreading an American Haiti, were forcibly against any sort of compromise that would upset their 'peculiar institution'. Fleming points out, I think quite clearly, that the South indeed does need to shoulder much of the blame for the start of the War. As does the North.
Bring in the third part of the argument which, sadly, is not as developed as it could have been: northern racism. In the North the citizenry was experiencing an industrial boon and all the wealth and convenience that comes with such an event. They were also the place where the newest ideas and ideals of the age were being showcased. A traveling European scientist (forgot the name, sorry) shows up in the book. He staged a series of seminars all over the North showcasing how the different races were, scientifically, separated in terms of ability both physically and mentally. In other words this was pseudo-science that, unintentionally, fed into white northern racism. The Wilmot Proviso created the Free Soil movement which really meant Free Soil for Free White Men, and this movement drove the immigration of poor white northerners westwards. Though many joined abolitionist societies, few were willing to condone a complete intermingling of the African American peoples into regular society, most wanted to re-colonise them back to Africa. And during the war itself, most soldiers on the frontlines were not exactly keen on abolitionism or emancipation, if many did realize the economic necessity of ending slavery to help destroy the South's ability to wage war.
The final piece of Fleming's argument is that the war didn't need to happen. To me that should be a no brainer. No war ever NEEDS to happen. And yet the Civil War has been presented for so long as a moral crusade (a myth just as dangerous as the South's Lost Cause myth to be sure)that this line of thinking is seen as alien and even hostile to the truth. But it is the truth itself. Fleming points out that the United States was the only nation to fight a war, a war that he points out easily killed a MILLION young men (the accepted statistics are low balled), in order to end slavery. The British didn't have to. The French, despite Haiti, got rid of slavery in a peaceful manner. As did the Latin American states. Why not the US? It was because of the over-politicizing of this issue, the issue of slavery, that Fleming argues drove the nation to a needless and wasteful war. The scars of which are still present today.
And that's the final reason he wrote the book. The current scars. The United States is, sadly, again mired in political strife and controversy. The modern age of extreme polarization cannot be healthy for the nation, and Fleming wanted to show how a single issue could tear apart an entire great country if it wasn't handled right.
Fleming's book will be misunderstood by many on both sides of the argument. In today's polarized environment this should be expected. But for the few gallant souls who can actually replace their party line blinders they can actually be made to think because of this book. I hope many academics read this book. They are academics in the field of history for a reason: they are passionate about history. Sure they need to learn to write as well as Fleming does, but that's not why I want them to read this book. I want them to marry their initial passion for history with the realization that what they say has impact in some circles. They should learn that simplicity, even if it is well intentioned, is harmful when dealing with the seminal event of American history. I think debate is great, I hope academia can come to agree....more