Title Reviewed:
A History of the Southern Confederacy

Author Reviewed:
Clement Eaton

Author:
Allan Nevins

Date:
1955

Source:
Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 51, Issue 1, pp 65-68

Article Type:
Book Review

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A History of the Southern Confederacy. By Clement Eaton. (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1954, pp. ix, 351. Index. $5.50.)

This compact, scholarly, judicious history of the South during its great struggle fills a place all its own. "I have sought to achieve a balance between the social, political, and military history of the Southern Confederacy," writes Dr. Eaton, and in this he has been successful. Whereas Robert Selph Henry's The Story of the Confederacy is primarily a military narrative, and E. M. Coulter's The Confederate States of America is most important for its socio-economic materials, Dr. Eaton's work blends all the elements of the story in just proportions. Built largely on the immense amount of monographic work done since 1900, it is an excellent compendium of generally accepted facts and conclusions. It also contains, however, no small amount of fresh research in newspapers, unpublished diaries and memoirs, and letters. The MS Journal of Robert G. H. Kean, for example, sheds light and color on dozens of pages; the letters of Augusta J. Evans are used with almost equal effectiveness. While these materials do not buttress any fresh interpretations or offer any strikingly novel facts, they do give the book originality and carry into its pages a refreshing realism.

Realism, indeed, is the most striking quality of Eaton's treatment. It is unflinchingly candid and honest. The seamy side of the Confederacy is presented without reservations. Most Southern soldiers, he writes, did not know for what they were fighting. This was just as well; for (he says) their struggle was in one aspect simply a refusal of the South to accept modern change and live in the nineteenth century. He is frank about the caste system in Southern society and the gap it often opened between officers and men in the army. Not merely does he restate the familiar verdicts on Jefferson Davis' difficulties of temper, Toombs's and Stephens' sulking, the incompetence of James Mason abroad, the selfishness of Joseph E. Brown and Zeb Vance, and the blunders of Pemberton and Bragg. He dares to say that many Southern girls were vulgar, illiterate slatterns; that Southern armies (like Northern) had almost countless skulkers and deserters; that the South finally experienced a most unheroic loss of morale. Slavery to Dr. Eaton is an ugly institution, and he bluntly asserts that "the vast majority of field slaves became disloyal when the Federal armies approached."

Eaton's gift for condensed utterance is remarkable. He has compressed into 300 pages what many historians would require 600 to say, and his compression means no loss of precision. Every subject is given us in a nutshell, from chaplains to the traits of generals, from diplomacy to medicines, from prisons to the strategy of great battles. Necessarily, his treatment is more largely topical than narrative. In not a few instances we wish that the author had allowed himself more room. His discussion of Confederate diplomacy, for example, while in the main perfectly adequate, suffers from the fact that he does not have space to take a broad view of European complications 1861-65. Inevitably, also, the compression, and the topical organization of the book, squeeze out of it most of that color, sparkle, and narrative suspense for which general readers now look in any book on the war. The vitality of history resides to a great extent in detail and in story-telling, and for neither of these does Dr. Eaton have elbow space. His style also suffers from compression, for while clear and weighty, it lacks richness, humor, and literary grace. But it should be added that he has a keen eye for telling quotations, from the very characteristic utterance of a Mississippi college boy in 1861, "I cannot study and I wish to join a horse company," to the profound observation of Howell Cobb near the end of the war: "If slaves will make good soldiers, then our whole theory of slavery is wrong."

While every chapter is good, the best are those for which Eaton himself lays claim to special originality: on logistics, strategy, and Western campaigns. For both North and South, military and industrial organization in wartime, and the provisioning, equipping, and transport of troops have been egregiously neglected. James Ford Rhodes mentions munitions but once in his history. The chapter on "Soldiers in Gray" is also well done, while that on Southern culture, though sometimes degenerating into a mere enumeration of titles of newspapers, books, songs, poems, and translations, furnishes a more impressive account of the subject than that of any other historian. Throughout the book, it is both a strength and a weakness of Dr. Eaton that he is almost entirely factual. Those who wish an objective treatment will like his strict adherence to what is proved or provable. Others, however, will wish he had done much more to present his personal views and interpretations. His book would have gained not merely in interest, but in depth and energy. The chapter in which he comes nearest to providing personal interpretation is that on "The Loss of the Will to Fight," and it therefore has qualities lacking elsewhere.

We may well be grateful to Dr. Eaton for so able, thorough, and balanced a summation of the subject. A similar book on the Northern side of the conflict is much needed. Many of us will regret that he did not emerge from his studies with a set of strong personal views, a philosophic point of view, and did not put more interpretive power into his work. We may also regret that he did not allow himself an extra hundred pages for more narrative and portraiture. But he has admirably achieved what he set out to accomplish, and has given us a history which, if never moving or exciting, is thoughtful, learned, accurate, and complete.

Columbia University Allan Nevins



Published by theĀ Indiana University Department of History.