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An early scene in the classic movie Gone with the Wind shows a group of hot-blooded southerners embroiled in a lively discussion concerning the prospects of the inevitable war against the North. Between sips of brandy and puffs on cigars, the men shout things like "Yankees can't fight and we can;" "They just turn and run every time;" and "One Southerner can lick twenty Yankees." Perhaps the most interesting boast was that "Gentlemen can always fight better than rabble." Asked for his opinion on their pronouncements, Rhett Butler sagely replies "It's hard to win a war with words." In Damn Yankees!, George C. Rable has given us a marvelous study of the words used by Confederates to define, marginalize, and later demonize the northern foe. Rable convincingly illuminates an overarching thesis that "by painting the adversary in the darkest possible hues, propagandists can help turn the conflict into a holy crusade" (p. 16). Far more than merely a compilation of outrageous examples of wartime vitriol, Rable presents a clear and important message—emotions inspired by words (and vice versa) both "lengthen wars and poison the peace" (p. 52).
This work was the product of Professor Rable's well-deserved selection to deliver the 75th series of the Walter Lynwood Fleming Lectures in Southern History at Louisiana State University. Rable, the award-winning author of such books as God's Almost Chosen Peoples: A Religious History of the American Civil War and Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg!, became the first graduate of LSU's own doctoral program [End Page 88] in History to preside over this distinguished event. Rable leads us on a journey through which southerners sought, through their written and uttered words, to characterize their Yankee rival as an unworthy enemy who was "outside the bonds of civilization and even humanity." In this type of propaganda, there must be a foil which is "defined, denounced, and defeated" (p. 2). To accomplish this task, Rable consults a wide sample of historical evidence including political speeches, private correspondence, newspapers, and periodicals. The contributors range from famous politicians and generals down to lowly foot soldiers and non-slaveholding men and women. The result of this meticulous research is a first rate study of "a standard or orthodox denunciation of the Yankee enemy, based on broad themes" (p.4).
The first theme Rable identifies is the southern move to define the enemy as a contemptible, unworthy adversary. The overly arrogant rebels believed that there was no way the "vilest race on earth" would be able to compete successfully on the field of battle. Additionally, according to Rable, "describing the northerners as somehow racially distinctive made their supposedly fanatical and despotic character stand out" (p. 11). As this group of northern "hirelings" began to display military superiority, a shift in the nature of Confederate propaganda took place. As Rable notes, "The early dismissal of cowardly Yankees as unworthy foes gave way to linking their inherent cowardice to their cruelty" (p.66). Southern correspondence became filled with sensationalized accounts of murder, pillage, rape, and desecration of church and homes. The Confederates now painted the North as fighting a "war against humanity," with Confederate polemicists characterizing the Yankees as a destructive, barbarous, marauding band whose ultimate goal was the complete subjugation (if not extermination) of the South. Paradoxically, the inflamed rhetoric made the cessation of hostilities less likely, and the longer the war lasted, the more the viciousness of these themes intensified. Certainly all civil wars inspire a certain degree of emotion, but Rable fleshes out the unique degree of animosity shown by the southerners toward the [End Page 89] North. Perhaps this feeling was best summed up in the journal of one Eliza Andrews when she wrote, "I can't believe that when Christ said love your enemies, he meant Yankees" (p. 98).
Although Rable does a masterful job of organizing the evidence to paint the desired historical picture, this is not the only strength of this work...