- Military Necessity: Civil-Military Relations in the Confederacy
Paul D. Escott believes the Confederacy was a "militarized society" in which the power and influence of generals pervaded civilian life (71). Military necessity, he maintains, drove Confederate political leaders to abandon civil liberties, undermine states' rights, and sacrifice civil control of the army. Many parts of the story are well known, particularly how the central government suspended habeas corpus, imposed burdensome taxes, impressed crops and livestock, introduced conscription, and required internal passports. Escott has himself trod this path in earlier work, including After Secession: Jefferson Davis and the Failure of Confederate Nationalism (1978) and Many Excellent People: Power and Privilege in North Carolina, 1850–1900 (1985). In fact, his new book is largely a work of synthesis and conceptualization, rather than a product of original research. That said, Escott has added an undeniably fresh dimension to our understanding of the familiar by showing the extent [End Page 100] to which the military fashioned pivotal civilian policies. He stretches a point here and there, but by and large, his analysis is reasonable and balanced, his interpretation containing much truth.
This is not to say that amid Escott's well-constructed arguments occasional gaps and missteps fail to appear. Some of them are surprising, and, in that respect, the book is a great notion not fully realized. His multilayered definition of civil-military relations does not encompass the interaction of noncombatants with the soldiers of either army. He acknowledges that military imperatives operated in the North but maintains that U.S. politicians were not affected by them to the extent seen in the Confederate States. The point is debatable, and Escott skims over it too lightly. He does a good job of showing the geographical reach of the military's influence but gives a mistaken impression of the military situation in large parts of the Trans-Mississippi. This shortcoming may be attributed to overreliance on Robert L. Kerby's book, Kirby Smith's Confederacy: The Trans-Mississippi South, 1863–1865 (1972). Not to question the value of Kerby's work, but much has been written about the Trans-Mississippi in the intervening decades, especially the past dozen years. The most telling gap is the guerrilla war, whose absence is both unaccountable and regrettable. Every part of Escott's thesis could benefit from its inclusion, and two aspects of the guerrilla war seem especially pertinent. First, government efforts to regulate the guerrillas reveal much about the Confederacy's military strategy, a topic Escott otherwise treats in detail. Second, and even more important, the government's failure to manage the guerrilla war contributed mightily to public demoralization and estrangement from the government, another Escott theme.
Of course, once alerted to such pitfalls, readers can easily maneuver around or compensate for them while still benefiting from Escott's clearly stated intentions. A bit more frustrating is Escott's seeming hesitancy to say what this all meant for the Confederacy. Did the militarization of society injure or benefit the nation? Might its leaders have followed an alternative path? Here we find not so much gaps or missteps as a curious vacillation. On the one hand, the author says that as corrosive as government policies became, the rebels had little choice in adopting them. He even spots a universal element in the Confederacy's predicament. When war puts a nation at risk, he says, military necessity always acquires "coercive power." Indeed, the "central lesson" of the Confederate experience, Escott concludes, is that war's "corrosive" influence on society gains force as military crises deepen (xiv). He also believes that while the philosophical underpinnings of the Confederate States may have [End Page 101] been strained and endangered, they never broke or disintegrated. On the other hand, having acknowledged all of this, Escott frequently expresses "surprise," even "amazement," at the scope of military influence on Confederate civilian policies. So which shall it be? Beneficial and necessary, or injurious and foolish? Escott understands the inner turmoil, contradictions, and unexpected changes that defined Confederate history...