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Civil War History 47.3 (2001) 262-264

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Book Review

A Fire-Eater Remembers:
The Confederate Memoir of Robert Barnwell Rhett

A Fire-Eater Remembers: The Confederate Memoir of Robert Barnwell Rhett. Edited by William C. Davis. (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2000. Pp. xx, 152. $24.95.)

Like most revolutionaries, Robert Barnwell Rhett of South Carolina, the so-called Father of Secession, exercised little influence after the revolution he had sought to effect was actually consummated. Just as men like Thomas Paine and Samuel Adams played lesser roles in the war for American independence than they had before, so too did Southern fire-eaters like Rhett, William L. Yancey, and Edmund Ruffin find themselves relegated to relative obscurity during the struggle for Southern independence. [End Page 262] Nevertheless, it is important for those seeking to explain the causes of these two great revolutionary events in American history to understand the thinking of those who played such a prominent part in instigating them. Thus, William C. Davis, the former editor and publisher of Civil War Times and one of the most prolific historians of our generation, has performed a notable service in making available Rhett's memoir of the Civil War years--a task rendered all the more daunting by the South Carolinian's almost illegible handwriting.

Rhett began the original draft of his memoir about a year after the war ended and completed it in the fall of 1870. There were two subsequent drafts, fortunately for the editor, both in the hand of Rhett's second wife Katherine, whose penmanship was vastly superior to that of her husband. The first and third drafts are currently housed in the Aiken Rhett Papers at the Charleston Museum and the second in the Robert Barnwell Rhett Papers at the South Carolina Historical Society in the same city. Davis has skillfully integrated the three versions to form a coherent and enlightening memoir that covers the period from 1860 to 1865.

In general terms, Rhett's wartime memoir reveals that he was a strong proponent of free trade, state sovereignty, and the federal Constitution as originally written and strictly construed; a bitter opponent of efforts by the North to convert the federal union into what he termed a "consolidated" government; and above all, a strident and unrelenting critic of Jefferson Davis and his performance as chief executive of the new Confederate nation. Indeed, Rhett later concluded that his vote for Davis while serving as a member of the Provisional Congress was the greatest mistake of his life. Among other accusations, Rhett faulted the President for his failure early in the war to authorize Confederate commissioners to make commercial concessions to potential European allies, for his failure to utilize cotton effectively either to force European nations to intervene in the conflict or, later, to bolster the currency, and for such military blunders as the failure to reinforce Pemberton at Vicksburg and his removal of Joseph E. Johnston from command of the Army of Tennessee during the Atlanta campaign.

There is no doubt that Rhett was an irascible, strongly opinionated, often abrasive ideologue in his political discourse. At the same time, however, he was a devout Christian, a doting father, and an affectionate husband to both of his wives. For the editor, the latter were Rhett's only redeeming qualities. In all other respects, according to Davis, the fiery South Carolinian was arrogant, selfish, manipulative, and unfair to all whom he criticized. Perhaps so, but in his zeal to defend President Davis, the subject of one of editor Davis's recent books, the latter has become nearly as partisan as Rhett himself. Although it is appropriate for an editor to correct obvious errors and to explain more fully incidents mentioned only superficially in the text, it is hardly necessary to rebut almost every position taken by the author of the text. Yet, that is what editor Davis has done in this book. There are only 106 pages of text, compared to 41 pages of notes--most of which consist of gratuitous...


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