'Confederate War': a nation built by combat

September 14, 1997|By Michael E. Ruane | Michael E. Ruane,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"The Confederate War," by Gary W. Gallagher. 288 pages. Harvard University Press. $24.95

A month after Abraham Lincoln became president in March of 1861, a young North Carolina military officer who had just quit the U.S. Army sent home a newly minted Confederate banner.

William Dorsey Pender, 27, the West Point-trained former dragoon, wrote his wife, Fanny. "It is yours as much as mine and by it you must stick."

It was still a week before Fort Sumter and almost two months before his state would join the fledgling Confederacy. But Pender's pledge would stand - taking him, two years hence, to a ridge outside Gettysburg where he would give his life for the strange new flag he had sent his wife.

But what exactly was it that bore Pender and millions of other white Southerners through the calamity of the Civil War? Was it nationalism? Patriotism? And why, in the end, did it shatter so quickly in the spring of 1865?

Historian Gary W. Gallagher scrutinizes these and other matters in his contrary and fascinating new study of the brief, bloody life of Southern nationhood.

Gallagher is a neutral Los Angeles native who begs to point out that he had no relatives who fought in the war. And though he has written mostly about noted Confederate captains, he teaches at thoroughly Yankee Penn State.

But he begins by saying that no other segment of white Americans has ever endured what the Confederacy did during the Civil War, and so stubbornly persisted in the face of catastrophe.

Seventy-five to 85 percent of its available draft-age white men entered the service, he says, for example. And at least 258,000 - or one out of every three - did not come home alive.

Yet recent and not-so-recent historians, Gallagher writes, have portrayed a brittle Confederacy fractured by moral, social, sexual and economic divisions that collapsed because its weak populace lacked the will to form a nation.

In fact, the author contends, with prickly revisionism and barbs at the "sheltered confines of ... academic dialogue," it was quite the opposite:

Built chiefly around the tough sinew and phenomenal success of Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, the secessionists built a legitimate nation that thrived in the face of great adversity and crumbled only when its spine was broken at Appomattox in 1865.

Social woes and fissures in the Confederacy have been overblown by scholars who find it difficult to credit the resilience of a society dedicated to slavery's perpetuation, Gallagher suggests. Academics uneasy with the idolatry of Lee's legendary men have unwisely pushed to the background the role of the army in knitting the fabric of the Southern nation, he contends.

Even military historians critical of Lee and his aggressive strategy have lost sight of how near his costly but spectacular victories came to winning Southern independence, Gallagher writes.

Gallagher's Confederates, though bent on the preservation of human bondage, were fanatically devoted to their cause and, at times, almost saw its triumph.

They "have made an army," the British leader William E. Gladstone said of them in 1862. "They are making ... a navy; and they have made what is more than either - they have made a nation."

Until historians face that and explain more fully how and why it happened, the author writes, "the story of the Civil War will remain woefully incomplete."

Michael Ruane is a military reporter in the Washington bureau of the Philadelphia Inquirer. A Civil War buff, he previously covered the Pentagon for the Knight-Ridder News Service.

Pub Date: 9/14/97

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