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Reviews in American History 30.1 (2002) 51-57



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"United We Stand, Divided We Fall":
Examining Confederate Defeat

Wallace Hettle


William C. Davis. The Union that Shaped the Confederacy: Robert Toombs and Alexander H. Stephens. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 2001. xi + 284 pp. Notes, illustrations, and index. $29.95.

William W. Freehling. The South vs. The South: How Anti-Confederate Southerners Shaped the Course of the Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. xv + 238 pp. Maps, illustrations, notes, and index. $27.50.

Karl Marx was fascinated by the American Civil War. His work on America's second revolution belongs on the proverbial short shelf of indispensable Civil War books. While his writings are far from an infallible guide to the war and American society, they provide an object lesson in historical method. Marx's letters and articles seamlessly integrate the political, social, and military history of Civil War America. Of course, not all of these factors were given equal weight: Marx's approach to the war was dictated by his belief that the Confederacy's aim was "the extension and perpetuation of slavery." 1 The war would determine whether a slave labor or a free labor system would prevail in the United States.

Virtually all U.S. historians today share Marx's belief that the struggle over slavery defined the Civil War era. But Marx went a step further. While he closely followed events on the battlefield, he also injected a good deal of social determinism into his prediction of the military outcome. After the Emancipation Proclamation, he even declared in a letter to Frederick Engels that "I will wager my head" on the question of Northern victory in the war. Because he believed that the conflict was a social question, he predicted slavery's inevitable, if not necessarily speedy, demise. 2

In recent years, many Civil War historians have discarded Marx's belief that social factors could dictate the outcome of the war. Such writers, especially military historians, emphasize the unpredictable nature of a war whose results were contingent on battlefield outcomes. According to this interpretation, espoused most notably by historians such as James McPherson and Gary Gallagher, events on the battlefield best explain the course of a war [End Page 51] that the Confederacy could have won, and almost did. In this view of the war, the ultimate explanation for Confederate defeat must depend on the vagaries of combat. 3

William Freehling is a self-described Civil War buff, but he is clearly skeptical of the emphasis on battlefield contingency favored by so many Civil War historians in recent years. His approach to the Civil War bears a striking resemblance to that of Marx. In a recent collection of essays, Freehling has called for a different kind of Civil War history, one that provides for a "reintegration" of social, military, and political history into a cohesive narrative account of the war. 4 Yet Freehling's call for the "reintegration" of American history is not just an appeal for a unified reassessment of the past, but rather a call to social historians to use their work to transform our understanding of the military and political themes that have informed so much Civil War narrative history. His new book, The South vs.The South, seeks to recount the collapse of the Confederacy in a way that puts slavery and social history at center stage, not just as a cause of the war, but as the central factor shaping the outcome of the conflict. He has described an uncomfortable paradox for social historians--some of the most sophisticated social history of the Civil War, even that with great interpretive breadth, is written for a relatively narrow audience of specialists. At the same time, some extraordinarily narrow works of political and military history--traditional biographies, accounts of single battles, and accounts of single days of single battles--still find relatively large popular audiences. Freehling aims to provide a popular account that blends social history to reshape the military narrative of the war.

The South vs. The South...

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