Title: The Martyr
Author: Liam O’Flaherty
Genre: Depressing Historical Fiction
Rating: 3 of 5
This fictionalized account of the capture of a small town in Ireland requires a basic understanding of the Irish Civil War. The edition that I read included a basic overview in the introduction, but my knowledge of Irish history was sketchy enough that I had to supplement from Wikipedia.
This falls into the “War is stupid and depressing and twists people into something ugly” category of war fiction rather than the “honor, heroism, and glory!” variety. O’Flaherty examines the character, motivations, and ideologies of people on both sides of the brother-against-brother conflict. Characters range from a vengeful atheistic communist soldier of fortune to a pacifistic religious officer with a martyr complex (both on the same side) and every shade of zealotry, nationalism, and religiosity in between. There is as much conflict within most of the characters as there is between characters (pacifism vs. patriotism, vengeance vs. love, faith vs. fear, etc.)
After a lot of angry disillusioned “ugliness and heartbreak of civil war and macho soldiers” stuff, the story devolves into an increasingly outrageous faith vs. atheism confrontation which ends with neither side in a particularly flattering light. I appreciated the book for a look at a part of history I hadn’t read about before and for some astute observations about the darker side of human nature, but it certainly wasn’t an enjoyable read.
Title: Learning from the Germans:
Race and the Memory of Evil
Author: Susan Neiman
Pages: 386 (plus citations, indices, etc.)
Rating: 3 of 5
I reject the romanticized “Lost Cause” interpretation of the American Civil War. A perusal of the Declaration of Causes of Seceding States, the “Cornerstone” Speech, and similar primary source documents makes it very clear that for the decision-makers in leadership the war was fought to preserve slavery (whether that is what individual soldiers felt they were fighting for or not). This book is driven by this understanding of the Civil War and the Confederacy coupled with a recognition of the shameful evil of slavery in America and its racist legacy (“Jim Crow,” etc.).
The author, a Jewish American philosopher who currently lives in Germany, explores the difference between how Germany and the US have dealt with government propagated racism in their past history. No direct “more/less evil” or “more/fewer victims” comparison is made between Nazism and slavery. The comparison is in how these events are memorialized, acknowledged, defended, excused, atoned for, and/or (her favorite phrase) “worked off.” Personally, I have pondered this idea before and was interested to see a scholarly book on the topic. It ended up being a very different book than what I was hoping for.
The book meanders through history, the author’s personal experiences (mostly living in Berlin & visiting racially charged locations and racial reconciliation groups in Mississippi), and her own philosophical/political thoughts. Much of it felt scattery and as if she were trying to talk through her ideas on paper and come to conclusions as she was writing. As she does this, she comes from a philosophical/political perspective somewhere to the left of Bernie Sanders, and tends to attribute the worst possible (usually racist) motives to those of other political persuasions.
Overall, I did find much to appreciate and ponder in this book even though there are areas where I would strongly disagree with the author. I would love to see this same topic taken on by someone whose forte was history rather than philosophy.
Title: Our Man in Charleston:
Britain’s Secret Agent in the Civil War South
Author: Christopher Dickey
Genre: History (American Civil War)
Rating: 4 of 5
This book provides a unique Brit’s-eye view of the American Civil War. Even though “Secret Agent” appears in the subtitle, don’t expect a convoluted spy yarn. This is the story of British consul Robert Bunch whose tireless activities mostly involved schmoozing politicians and sending his superiors reports on the society and goings-on in Charleston (and the South in general).
Bunch’s disgust for slavery and the cruel, pompous hypocrisy of Charlestonians high society filled his reports as he kept his superiors abreast of the political developments up to and beyond South Carolina’s secession. With his Southern friends and acquaintances he hid his disdain well enough that none of them realized how much he abhorred their “peculiar institution” and how foolish he found the “fire eater” secessionists. According to the author, Bunch’s reports on slavery in the South and the possible revival of the African slave trade contributed heavily to Britain’s refusal to fully recognize the Confederacy (good man!).
Besides offering Bunch’s point of view, the book gives a decent overview of the national political maneuvering before and during the war. This includes both the jockeying to preserve slavery that led to secession* and relations between Britain and both the USA and CSA. The political maneuverings involving Britain and the African slave trade were something with which I had only a passing acquaintance from previous study, so I found them particularly interesting.
The one major weakness that I found with the book is that the author almost always paraphrases or summarizes Bunch’s reports rather than quoting them at any length. I’m not sure if there are any direct quotes that are longer than a sentence in the entire book, and precious few of even that length. Maybe it’s just me, but this seems a bit sparse and interpretive even for a popular level history book.
Overall, I enjoyed the book and appreciated reading about the Civil War from a different perspective.
* The “lost cause” narrative of the Civil War that portrays slavery as a red herring is unsustainable in light of primary source material (e.g. secession documents) even if you ignore Bunch’s eyewitness accounts
Title: The Lost Indictment of Robert E. Lee:
The Forgotten Case Against an American Icon
Author: John Reeves
Rating: 4 of 5
Future Release Date: 6/1/2018 (Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC through NetGalley…this does not affect the content of the review)
In most of my school history books Robert E. Lee was presented as being practically the fourth member of the Trinity. Among many dedicated church-going people I know, it is a “known fact” that Lee was a godly man fighting for a noble lost cause (states rights, not slavery which he abhorred).
John Reeves calls this narrative into question with his well-researched book. As the title suggests, the main focus is on the treason trials promised by President Andrew Johnson after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Though he is clearly not very sympathetic to Lee, the author is fairly even-handed in his presentation of the facts; not cherry-picking just the ones that suit his purpose and admitting when contradictory reports (e.g. of Lee’s cruelty to the 197 slaves under his charge) render a point uncertain. The neutral examination of thoughts and attitudes in the North immediately following the war provides a helpful perspective that I had never read about before.
I feel that the book suffers slightly from a lack of focus as it leaps between the attempted treason trials, reconstruction, the character of Robert E Lee (including his inconsistency/hypocrisy regarding slavery), and the revisionist “lost cause” narrative. I am unsure whether the main goal was to simply describe the events surrounding the attempted treason trials as accurately as possible or to discredit the Lee-as-godly-hero mythos. Nevertheless, it was an excellent read that I would highly recommend for those who want to read about a forgotten part of post-Civil war history and for anyone who wants a balance to the usual hagiographic Lee biographies.
Title: The Myth of the Lost Cause:
Why the South Fought the Civil War and Why the North Won
Author: Edward H. Bonekemper III
Rating: 4.5 of 5
In my high school American history book (published by Bob Jones University Press) the Civil War (always referred to as “The War Between the States”) was presented something like this: This conflict was about states’ rights flowing out of conflicting priorities in the industrial North and agricultural South. Slavery (a largely benevolent institution) had practically nothing to do with it and was a red herring brought into the narrative by the despotic, manipulative Abraham Lincoln to bolster Northern support for the unjust war. Robert E. Lee was one of the greatest generals of all time and one of the godliest men ever (second only to Stonewall Jackson in his piety) who led the South in a series of glorious victories. In the end these saintly men lost their noble cause only because Ulysses S. Grant (a profane, drunken butcher) had access to unlimited resources.
I never found this narrative believable, so I was excited when I ran across this book. In it, Edward H. Bonekemper III declares this “myth of the lost cause” to be “revisionist history” and “a tangle of falsehoods.” He vigorously backs up this assertion with solid research and well-constructed (though occasionally repetitive) argumentation.
His assertions that slavery was a brutal institution and that its preservation was indeed the primary cause of secession and the war are nearly indisputable given the primary source evidence he produces (e.g. the secession documents, the cornerstone speech, and similar primary sources from before and during the war). I would have liked to have seen him deal with the protectionist tariffs that my old history book went on about, but the evidence he did produce was damning enough without that.
Some of his analysis regarding Lee’s weaknesses as a general, Grant’s tactical acumen, and the winnability of the war for the South may be a bit more open to interpretation, but I found most of it compelling. I have seldom read a book where Lee is spoken of with anything other than practically religious awe or Grant with anything better than a dismissive attitude, so this part of the book definitely enhanced my understanding of the Civil War.
Overall: if you are at all interested in American Civil War history you need to read this book. Yes, the author has an axe to grind, but that does not change the value of his research in the pursuit of truth (even if you do not completely agree with the conclusions he draws from it).