Title Reviewed:
Americans Interpret Their Civil War

Author Reviewed:
Thomas J. Pressly

Harold M. Hyman


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 50, Issue 3, pp 304-307

Article Type:
Book Review

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Americans Interpret Their Civil War. By Thomas J. Pressly. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1954, pp. xvi, 347. Bibliography and index. $5.00.)

America's Civil War and Reconstruction have produced a literature of vast size and increasing complexity. It is time that historians have set themselves to the task of distillation, a task well begun by this survey of the historiography of the brothers' war. It is an extensive body of writing which the author oversees. The accounts date from the crash of Sumter's guns to the latest available scholarship, range across ninety years of differing written opinions concerning the causes of events and the roles of individuals. Thomas J. Pressly has analyzed and arranged these opinions into chronological and topical categories, which act alone makes this a useful volume.

The first four of the eight major sections into which the book is divided deal with the war years and the two decades following. Historians, amateur and professional, took to their pens in defense of their sections, and their productions reflect their partisanship. Villains abound in the accounts by men who wrote of war during that war or soon thereafter, men who suffered personally or vicariously from the vicissitudes of battle and Reconstruction, men who saw at stake in their writings posterity's view of their cause. Northern writers (Von Hoist as example) condemned the South to a historical hell as slave imperialism and Union destroyer; Southern writers (Pollard, Davis, Stephens) castigated the North for enjoying its seduction by abolitionists and Republicans. With deft strokes Pressly has presented these disparate views, and with them the names of many writers little known to general readers and perhaps to many students of the period.

Time, the healing action of newer issues of politics, economics, and social change, lessened sectional exacerbation. By the 1880's the "bloody shirt" was fitter raiment for election oratory than for footnotes, This interim period (from approximately 1880 to after the turn of the century) is encompassed in the book's fifth division. It was the period when Von Hoist was succeeded by Schouler and Burgess was beginning his fruitful seminars. Rhodes, McMaster, Hart, Wilson, Turner, and Channing appeared on the academic and writing scenes, and produced treatises on the Civil War dominated by new standards of objective scholarship. Factors more complex than the merely political found place in their writings; documentation became a disciplinary tool well calculated to reduce passions and increase accuracy. Such men made value judgments, but refrained from wholesale censuring, refused, if I have read their works correctly, to permit facts to become distorted in order to fit their pre-conclusions. Pressly looks with nostalgic appreciation at the accomplishments of these "nationalist" historians, for he soon evidences to the reader that much of their constructive neutrality has been absent from more recent analyses of the Civil War period.

The remainder of the volume is devoted to this more recent and current acrimony among writers on the rebellion. Opening this latter phase is the commanding figure of Charles A. Beard who omitted moral considerations in order to stress social changes as products of economic causes. Tracing Beard's thesis, Pressly underscores the implications of the former's reasoning, indicates the neo-Calhounite position that reasoning produced, suggests that history may also make strange bedfellows. For with Beard came a chorus of Marxist critiques of older interpretations of the Civil War, critiques often constructive if overly shrill. The author wisely places Beard in the social protest context of his time and identifies him as a supremely important spokesman for that time. The section on Beard is, in the reviewer's opinion, of substantial merit.

In a somewhat too rapid finale, the author treats with many of the major figures in the revived sectional interpretations. The names of the scholars who have dominated Civil War studies (and students) from World War I to today (Phillips, Randall, Craven, Milton, Barnes, Cole, Owsley, Nevins and many others) share insufficient space in which their theses are bared to comparative view. "Confusion of Voices" as a title fits this entire section as well as the concluding chapter, where the author applied it. For Pressly makes clear that Americans have been and are saying in 1954 many of the same things about the Civil War that their literary grandparents said in 1861. And, dismayingly, the revived sectionalism is perhaps as subjective today as it was ninety years ago. Perhaps the moderns are more sophisticated in their arguments, as surely they are more careful in research. But it remains true, despite important "new nationalists," that sectionalism has rerisen in the never too placid Eden of historical scholarship. On this somber note Pressly closes his account.

Perhaps this work is over-ambitious in including so many writers (many of less than first importance); perhaps fuller attention to major figures might have borne better analytical fruit. The major defect, indeed, rests in the cursory examination of important historians to which the author is reduced in the latter portion of the book. To this reviewer, Randall was more than merely "sentimental," Aptheker was more perceptive than Pressly conceded, Nevins more positive in his views than suggested.

Pressly deserves praise for his accomplishment in presenting this survey of intellectual history, and for providing the student and general reader with a useful summary of the major literature of the Civil War. And, considering the world in which Pressly writes, it is a matter of moment to have this important reminder that honest men may differ in their interpretations of events.

Earlham College Harold M. Hyman

Published by theĀ Indiana University Department of History.