A Civil War Manifesto?

21 12 2006

Yesterday I picked up a second hand copy of David Williams’ A People’s History of the Civil War.  (I buy most of my books second hand or otherwise deeply discounted.  Given the price of books these days, I don’t see any peoples-history2.jpgother way to build or maintain a decently sized personal library.)  For some reason Amazon lists this book as co-authored by Howard Zinn, vocal contemporary critic of the civil rights policies of the Kennedy Administration and author of A People’s History of the United States, a book mentioned in passing by Matt Damon’s title character in the film Good Will Hunting.  Zinn does provide a cover blurb for the book – “Williams perfectly captures what we mean by ‘peoples history.’  His book is a startling contrast to the other literature of the Civil War.”  Whatever any of that means.  Also, Zinn is listed first and foremost by Williams as the inspiration and encouragement for this book.

The chapter titles in this book read like a set list from a Pete Seeger concert:

Introduction: “The People at War”

1                    “All for the Benefit of the Wealthy”

2                    “The Brunt is Thrown upon the Working Class”

3                    “The Women Rising”

4                    “We Poor Soldiers”

5                    “Come In Out of the Draft”

6                    “My God!  Are We Free?”

7                    “Indians Here Have No Fight with the Whites”

8                    “Was the War in Vain?”

I welcome any comments or reviews from you readers.  I have no idea when I’ll get around to reading this one.

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8 responses

21 12 2006
Drew W.

“For some reason Amazon lists this book as co-authored by Howard Zinn..”

Bafflingly, Amazon frequently lists the person who writes the intro as a co-author. Even worse, they often list this person first! Authors must love that.

21 12 2006
Harry Smeltzer

Drew,

In this case, Zinn simply wrote the blurb on the cover. Maybe that explains why James McPherson is credited with having written somewhere in the neighborhood of 12,000 books…

21 12 2006
Justin Felux

He is listed as “series editor.” Zinn’s popular _A People’s History of the United States_ has spawned what I guess is a series of books that have the “people’s history” title (I’ve seen people’s history of the American Revolution, Vietnam War, Iraqi Communist Party). It’s like the way Gallagher is listed as an author on all those essay collections about various CW campaigns.

21 12 2006
Harry Smeltzer

Well then, there you go!

Thanks, Justin.

21 12 2006
Justin Felux

As for the contents of the book, from what I understand David Williams is a big proponent of the “internal conflict” thesis vis-a-vis why the South lost. In his recent book TV interview Gallagher said that Williams makes the best case for the internal conflict thesis, but that he ultimately is unconvincing.

Apparently Williams’s basic argument is that poor white Southerners were not ideologically committed to the Confederacy, and they only joined the Confederate Army out of social pressure, or the hope that it would help them find an avenue out of poverty. When they found that this was not the case, they began to desert by the thousands. Those who stayed in the army only did so out of fear of being shot for desertion.

Class conflict was inmeasurably important in the Civil War, as with any conflict, but I think Williams really oversimplifies things. He wants to portray the Civil War as an unfortunate consequence of the machinations of the rich on both sides, and portray the poor as both virtuous and anti-war.

When our library got a copy of the book, I skipped to the part about the New York Draft Riots. Williams portrays the rioters in a disturbingly positive light (much like Scorsese did in the movie _Gangs of New York_) and downplays the racist character of the riot, preferring to instead see it as a purely class-based upheaval.

I’m sure the book is a very interesting read, but I think the author’s anti-war, and pro-working class sentiments misguide his judgment at some point. Not that there is anything wrong with being anti-war or pro-working class — Karl Marx was an enthusiastic supporter of the Union. But Marx, I think, had a more thorough understanding of the Civil War than Williams does.

21 12 2006
Harry Smeltzer

Justin,

Thanks for the review. Those provided by Amazon contributors were worse than worthless.

I think it’s difficult sometimes to grasp just why private soldiers fought, so more often than not authors take the easy way out and try to fit the “causes” into some sort of formula. It’s this tendency toward one-dimensionalism that has focused my interest on individuals and how the times and events fit into the bigger picture of their lives. What we usually get is just the opposite.

22 12 2006
Steve Basic

Harry,

Like you, I got a copy of the book “el cheapo”, and agree that is the best way to build of the library here. As for the book, have heard from members of my Round Table who have read it, and they mentioned finding a lot of mistakes. By that I mean the book was poorly edited etc.

Have no idea when I will read it either, but will just say I’ll get to it…eventually.:)

Hope all is well.

Regards from the Garden State,

Steve

3 07 2008
David Williams

Justin,

Please see pages 277 and 360 for the role racism played in the riots and the impact it had on blacks in New York. The ground-work for the race-based aspect is laid out in considerable detail in earlier in the book (that’s what you get for skipping ahead).

I can’t even begin to speak to the ways in which you’ve over-simplified my view of internal conflict and Confederate defeat. Class-based to some extent, yes, but much more to it than that. Take a look at my most recent book, BITTERLY DIVIDED: THE SOUTH’S INNER CIVIL WAR, which is available now from the New Press (though the website still says “not yet released”). You may also want to check out the review in Publisher’s Weekly (just go the PW website and search for “Bitterly Divided”).

Happy reading.

David Williams

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