Bitter Fruits of Bondage by Armstead Robinson

Screen Shot 2014-05-04 at 6.05.10 PMThere is an interesting story behind the book, Bitter Fruits of Bondage: The Demise of Slavery and the Collapse of the Confederacy, 1861-1865 . Civil War scholar Armstead Robinson passed away in 1995. He had been working on this book for years but never completed it. Since his death, a number of scholars pieced together the manuscript and selected evidence and arguments (from diverse and often conflicting segments) to make this book the best representation of Robinson’s voice as possible.

By the time it was finally published in 2005, Robinson’s book was far out of date, even though Edward L. Ayers’s jacket blurb says otherwise. This book is a child of the 1980s – when social historians were searching for the internal divisions that destroyed the Confederate States of America. Their efforts sought to disprove Lost Cause arguments suggesting northern superiority in men and material did the Confederacy in. Had Robinson published his book back then, it would have been a monument in the historiography. As it is now, it is a window into the past, but not useful to advance the understanding or challenge more recent scholarship on why the Confederates lost.

The point of this book is simple enough: The southern way of life was unable to provide the support necessary to sustain a war effort – specifically, slavery sapped nationalism from the very beginning.

Robinson highlights the class tensions between slaveholders and increasingly bitter yeomen and other nonslaveholders. This is a familiar tale (see also William Freehling’s The South V. The South on internal dissension) of a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight. Slaveholders duped everyone else into waging war, and it then became apparent (because of substitutes and 20 slave laws) that the nonslaveholders were fighting to maintain a system that only benefited rich whites – all the while the very same rich whites were weaseling their way out of the army.

Meanwhile, slaves were fleeing to Union lines in great numbers, denying the CSA their labor and handing it over to the US war effort. This served to exacerbate growing tensions between the white classes. Bread riots at home and huge desertion rates suggested that Confederate soldiers and civilians were not behind the war effort – particularly an effort conceived on the premises of a “slaveholders republic.”

Arguing that an internal class conflict eroded the white southern will to sustain a bid for independence is to confront directly the heritage of the Lost Cause. Many things: the peculiar configuration of Confederate mobilization, the genesis of popular discontent with the war effort, the failure of agricultural adjustment, the birth of state rights ideology, the halting attempts by Jefferson Davis to cope with rampant internal dissension, the disintegration of Confederate society – all of these stemmed from the Confederacy’s failure to preserve stability on the home front. The Civil War South discovered that it could not sustain wartime slavery and simultaneously retain the allegiance of the nonslaveholding majority – and thus…the Confederacy was destroyed from within.

Now I disagree with this argument entirely – I believe that the overwhelming majority of white southerners supported the cause – despite the grumblings that take place when a society goes to war. They supported independence and slavery – even the nonslaveholders had a stake in the system. But I suggest reading this book – it is a great time capsule of sorts. And although published early in the 21st century…it is a nice window into the historiography of the 1980s.

With compliments,

Keith

Love Him or Hate Him – Dan is the Man

Screen Shot 2014-05-03 at 7.57.20 AMThink what you want about General Daniel E. Sickles. But you cannot deny that the man lived a storied life. A few highlights: he murdered his wife’s lover in broad daylight in Washington City, then escaped punishment by utilizing a “temporary insanity” defense – the first in legal history. He nearly destroyed (or totally saved, depending on perspective) the Army of the Potomac on July 2, 1863 at Gettysburg by marching his corps way way out in front of the Union line of battle without orders – he lost his leg, and later won the Medal of Honor for gallantry. The one-legged Lothario even had a romantic tryst with Queen Isabella II of Spain…and may have dabbled with a few other ladies of the royal Spanish court – ¿Quien es mas guapo del mundo? Senior Dan.

Today, May 3, is the 100th anniversary of Sickles’s death. I was recently reading Glenn LaFantasie’s book on Little Round Top and he made note of the ambiguous wording of one of Sickles’s obituaries: “No one with warm blood flowing through his veins can read the obituary notices of Gen Sickles without a certain thrill of admiration.” One cannot not readily tell whether the author celebrated the general’s life or applauded his death. I’ll leave it for you to decide.

With compliments,

Keith