Creeping nitwitism inspires Civil War book

July 03, 1996|By GREGORY KANE

Ken Davis, he of the "Don't Know Much About History" and "Don't Know Much About Geography" best sellers, sits in a conference room of The Baltimore Sun building and makes an observation that, in these days, should be shocking, but isn't.

"We are a nation of nitwits when it comes to understanding our past," said Davis, peering professorially from behind his glasses and sporting a black-and-gray beard. It is such creeping nitwitism that has inspired Davis, a New York City slicker, to write his books. His latest will probably find its way onto the bookshelves of Civil War buffs everywhere.

Davis' new book is called "Don't Know Much About The Civil War." (Did you think he'd change the pattern of the title? The guy's on a roll here.) He's subtitled it "Everything You Need to Know About America's Greatest Conflict but Never Learned." Davis is a bit of a Civil War buff, an interest that led to the book.

"I'm fascinated myself" by the Civil War, Davis acknowledged. "It was my passion." His passion led him to dig up little-known facts about the war, which may intrigue buffs and nonbuffs alike. Here are some examples:

President Abraham Lincoln jailed, without habeas corpus, about 13,000 Democrats during the war. Many were from Maryland, including nine Maryland state legislators whom Lincoln slapped behind bars to prevent their voting for secession.

"Whether that's despotism or the exigencies of the insurrection, he [Lincoln] felt he had the constitutional power to do that," Davis said of Honest Abe's heavy hand. My pal G. Elliott Cummings of the Sons of Confederate Veterans would, I'm sure, go with the despotism explanation. But I kind of like Abe. I'll cling to the exigencies of the insurrection explanation. Democracy can be a shaky thing, especially if you're trying to put down a rebellion.

"Marylanders were ready to burn bridges leading into D.C.," Davis said of those Free Staters with a taste for secession in their blood. "Baltimore and Maryland were teetering on the brink. If they had gone secessionist, D.C. would have been surrounded."

When Gen. Benjamin Butler marched federal troops through Baltimore, a mob attacked them. Butler imposed martial law and arrested the mayor of Baltimore and the police chief that same night, Davis said.

It was this same Butler who later would earn the name of "Beast" Butler for ordering that the women of New Orleans be treated as prostitutes if they showed any disrespect for Union soldiers. Butler issued his general order after a New Orleans woman emptied the contents of a chamber pot on the head of Union Flag Officer David Glasgow Farragut.

"Butler," Davis writes in what must be a classic understatement, "was not amused."

Most soldiers on both sides did not die in battle. They died of dysentery and other diseases.

"Simple sanitation could have saved thousands of lives," Davis believes.

The Andersonville prisoner-of-war camp in Georgia, where hundreds of Union soldiers died, is perhaps the most notorious. But the Union camps where Confederate prisoners of war were held deserve even more infamy, according to Davis.

"It's an even more shameful story," Davis said of the Confederate prisoners of war who died primarily of starvation. Union prisoners of war died in the South, where food was scarce. Not so for Confederate prisoners of war.

"They died in the midst of plenty," Davis asserted. "It was vindictive Union commanders who kept food from them."

Another well-kept Civil War crime secret doesn't appear in Davis' book. As in most wars, women were raped. Most of the victims in the South were black. The perpetrators weren't Confederate troops, but Union troops.

It is such sordid details -- death from disease, deplorable living conditions, the horrors of POW camps on both sides -- that, Davis contends, are noticeably absent from Civil War history. Also missing from most histories are the black contributions to the Union war effort.

"I grew up in New York, and I never heard of Frederick Douglass or the black contribution to the war effort," Davis said of the famed abolitionist and the troops whom Lincoln credited with turning the tide of the war in the Union's favor. It is Hollywood that is partly to blame.

"I hope if anybody learns anything from his book, it's that [the Civil War] was not as Hollywood portrayed it," Davis said. "The image of the happy slave was the most pernicious legacy of 'Gone With the Wind.' "

Gregory P. Kane's column appears Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays.

Pub Date: 7/03/96

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