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The Dogs of War: 1861 by Emory M. Thomas (review)

From: Alabama Review
Volume 66, Number 1, January 2013
pp. 73-75 | 10.1353/ala.2013.0001

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In The Dogs of War: 1861, distinguished Civil War historian Emory M. Thomas provides readers with a “Think Book” on the misguided assumptions Union and Confederate leaders had toward each other, and war in general, during the crucial months between Abraham Lincoln’s election and the First Battle of Bull Run (or Manassas depending on your preference). Thomas contends that “the war occurred because leaders and people on both sides made assumptions – tragically erroneous ones – that the conflict would be short, simple, and decisive” (6). Once the “dogs of war” were unleashed, the war became increasingly destructive. While Thomas does rely on some primary source material as he develops his argument, the bulk of the research derives from secondary sources. The Dogs of War offers some insightful analysis and contributes to the literature on the mentality of Union and Confederate leaders at the outset of the war. These contributions, however, are at times overshadowed by noticeable weaknesses.

The bulk of the roughly ninety pages of text focuses on Lincoln and Jefferson Davis. At times, Thomas appears amazed that Lincoln, who was born in the South and married into a family who had ties to the South, “never could grasp the depth and breadth” of white southerners’ commitment to disunion (18). Even as white southerners began passing secession ordinances, Lincoln remained confident that this was just posturing by a vocal minority. In the months leading up to Bull Run (Manassas) and for long time thereafter, the president was certain that if he could tap into white southerners’ latent fidelity to the federal government, the Union would be restored. Thomas is not shy about pointing out Lincoln’s lack of military experience and takes the president to task for initially surrounding himself with those who likewise had minimal military experience. One prime example was Secretary of War Simon Cameron, a man Thomas claims was “clueless about the war” (25). During these formative months of the conflict, Thomas readily acknowledges that Lincoln was not alone in relying on those with questionable military expertise: “most of those who began the American Civil War had little or no experience with combat and compounded their deficiency by failing to consult those who had” (32).

Thomas states that Davis hoped for a peaceful resolution that would result in Confederate independence, but planned for war. In this latter regard, the author asserts that Davis – who had fought in the Mexican–American War and served as secretary of war under Franklin Pierce – had a greater appreciation than his Union counterpart that war would last longer than a single battle. Even though Thomas generally lauds Davis’ military background, he characterizes the president’s decision to authorize the firing on Fort Sumter as a blunder that “allowed Lincoln to make him fire the first shot” (63). Instead of attacking the Union held fort, Thomas wished that the Confederate president would have shown more restraint and continue to work on a peaceful resolution before committing to armed conflict. As Davis prepared his nation for war, he was well aware that with fewer men and a deficiency in war–making materiel, the odds of his nascent nation achieving lasting independence was not in his favor. However, Thomas argues that Davis viewed the coming war as a “test of wills” that Confederates could win, even if it meant resorting to guerrilla warfare.

While Thomas makes several illuminating points, the weaknesses within the book are hard to ignore. Thomas’ central argument that there were profound miscalculations by both sides during the early stages of the conflict is not new. Given the short length of the book, the author’s use of excessively long block quotations and repetitive statements is distracting and takes away valuable space that could have been used to delve deeper into his arguments. More troubling are some of the author’s conclusions when he examines the similarities between the United States’ recent involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan with the Civil War. At one point in his comparison of the treatment of Civil War prisoners and Iraqi prisoners after the U.S. led invasion, Thomas marginalizes the deaths of Union soldiers at Andersonville by claiming that “Abu Ghraib makes Andersonville seem like summer...


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