Thursday, April 11, 2013

Cook, Barney & Varon: "SECESSION WINTER: When the Union Fell Apart"

[Secession Winter: When the Union Fell Apart by Robert J. Cook, William L. Barney, and Elizabeth R. Varon (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013). Softcover, notes, reading guide, index. Pages main/total:98/127. ISBN:978-1-4214-0896-5 $19.95]

Secession Winter is a publication spawned from three Cunliffe Lecture Series [University of Sussex's Marcus Cunliffe Centre for the Study of the American South] presentations by historians Robert Cook, William Barney, and Elizabeth Varon. The introduction establishes the big picture, but the essays drill down to either specific events or smaller segments of broader themes, all significantly associated with the controversial five-month period surrounding the winter of 1860-61.

By providing numerous examples from the private writings of religious leaders and wealthy slaveowners, the opening essay by William Barney highlights the Upper and Lower South divide over the moral implications of slavery. Unlike the Upper South, which had more acceptable outlets for anxiety, doubt, and debate, the Lower South's guilt over slavery (conscious or not) could only be expressed through a form of "denial, repression, and projection that so distorted their perception of reality, ... the whites in the Lower South ignored all the risks involved" (pg. 10) in secession. For Cotton Belt planters, secession was the only relief from being constantly peppered with northern abolitionists assaults on the moral foundations of their society. One always treads on shaky ground when attempting to psychoanalyze previous generations, but there is surely something to the idea. One's own life experiences find retrenchment in the face of withering criticism, whether the target recognizes he or she is in the wrong or not, to be a far more universal human response than one of reflection, openness to opposing views, and commitment to change.

Elizabeth Varon's piece on Robert E. Lee's decision to resign from the U.S. Army makes several interesting points. In it, she interprets Lee's public and private justifications for his action (only defense of Virginia and family are mentioned in his statements) as rebukes of both northern and Confederate radicals. The qualification is such that many newspapers questioned his loyalty well into the war, at least until the Seven Days. According to Varon, Lee as committed southern nationalist developed later, with the binding effects of the war's bloodshed and shared sacrifice on and off the battlefield. This probably accurately describes the transformation of many Upper South conditional unionists. She also notes the secessionist propaganda value (unintended by Lee, of course) of Lee's resignation and acceptance of the leadership of Virginia state forces. It was a significant demonstration that the separatist movement, so resoundingly rejected by Virginians a short time earlier, had a place for well respected moderates.

Robert Cook's final chapter examines the use of selective historical memory in the promotion of causes, both for the Union and for secession. Both sides promoted self-serving interpretations of the meaning of the American War of Independence, with northerners emphasizing shared history and nationalization and Deep South secessionists trumpeting the right of revolution. Republicans and their allies constantly raised the specter of a Slave Power conspiracy as reason to reject further compromise in the issue of extension of slavery in the territories. On the other side, southern partisans proclaimed the existence of a popular northern led war on slavery, while not mentioning the Kansas-Nebraska Act nor the fraudulent Lecompton Constitution that a northern Democratic president endorsed. Throughout, Cook uses an apt term, the "grievance narrative", to characterize the use of synthetic history -- selection of politically useful supporting elements while discarding "inconvenient facts" -- as a means of marshaling popular support for a cause.

Readers seeking all encompassing treatments of events from this period would be best advised to consult seminal works such as those authored by William Freehling, Kenneth Stampp, David Potter, and Russell McClintock [Secession Winter's reading list considers Stampp, Potter, and McClintock to be the Big 3 on the subject], but those already intimately familiar with the literature should still be able to find points of interest in the three essays comprising this collection*.

* - Varon, especially, considers her views expressed in her essay to be different from all previous interpretations of Lee's resignation. At the two poles lie Douglas Southall Freeman's influential opinion that it was a decision Lee was "born to make" and Alan Nolan's much more recent view that it was one of base treason. In Varon's opinion, the mass of other published explanation attempts can all be ultimately traced back to Freeman's emotional foundation. In contrast, Varon lends the most weight to a calculated thought process on Lee's part.

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