Understanding, not Propaganda: Ludwell Johnson’s North Against South, by George Bagby

North Against South, written by the venerable Dr. Ludwell Johnson of William and Mary, is a concise history of “the War” and Reconstruction.  It is a unique work of enduring value.  The most recent edition, published in 2002, contains several valuable prefaces.  Johnson writes there that the nationalist myth of the War commonly simplifies the conflict, condemns the Southern section, and transforms a complex tale into a morality play.  Reflecting on his own early education in Richmond, Virginia, Johnson notes that this myth left him dissatisfied, and early planted in him a desire to know the story of his own people and section. In his last preface, written shortly before his own death, the professor notes that the cult of political correctness has effectively silenced academic discussion on some topics, while some points must be “accepted without question.” This has, he says, turned some parts of history into propaganda to serve ideology rather than promote understanding of a complex human story. This is precisely why North Against South ought to be read.

The value of this book lies in its manageable length and richness of detail. It is written for the amateur, although the scholar will enjoy the details enough to wish it had footnotes. The work is significant because Johnson clearly illustrates the ethical complexity of the War and its aftermath while many other popular histories minimize this matter. The bloodiest and most destructive conflict in American history requires justification, and this proves troublesome to Nationalist and radical propaganda.

The reasons used to justify the North’s decision to go to war have ranged from abstract ideals of Union, to immediate emancipation, all the way to radical schemes to redistribute property and displace entire societies in the name of theoretical justice: the last an admitted failure that would have justified the War in the minds of some “historians.” As Russell Kirk wrote in The Conservative Mind, moderns have “swallowed Rousseau whole,” and then sought more extreme thinkers. A similar trend has revealed itself in how the establishment academy and media examines our own Civil War. Abstractions of Union satisfy less in an age where the State Department assists Kosovar and Syrian secessionist movements and Saddam Hussein was “worse than Hitler” for killing Kurds to preserve his own Union. Emancipation itself is less satisfactory as a justification because it resulted in the peonage of sharecropping, while the War left all Southerners, black and white, hungry, enfeebled, and financially ruined for generations.

Contemporary historians like Eric Foner have dreamed of finding justification through a Stalinist-style revolution of land seizures and exiled populations.  In fact, revolutionary revisionism is the dominant note in current writing on the war and its aftermath.   This unbending Marxism is a sign of  both the poverty of the ideological academy and the weakness of the radical line on this subject, for the cost of the War never has equaled the benefits even on the terms the radicals have laid down.   Johnson and his peers in historiography provide a much-needed antidote and and deserve continued attention. Rather than focusing on current concerns or fashionable political notions, Johnson focuses on what the people of his period said, did, and believed. He attempts to judge them according to their own standards, and see their actions as they themselves would have seen them.  In a sea of Fonerite Stalinism, Johnson is a refreshing haven of sanity.  Nonetheless,  tale is as tragic for a Southern Lee as it is for a Northern Henry Adams, for the centralizing powers unleashed by the War changed North, South, and West for the worse.

Johnson begins with an analysis of sectional tensions that span the dozen years before the War. He does this, as the old school of American historians were wont to do, by outlining the great compromises between the sections from the days of Clay, Webster, and Calhoun. That old age of statesmen was characterized by citizens who, as Aristotle notes, were able both to rule their fellows and to be ruled by them. Johnson chronicles two aspects of this era very well: the conflict between the reforming spirit with the revolutionary spirit, and the consequences of power without the need to compromise with an opposition.

The work may be roughly divided into three sections: the Prelude, the War, and Reconstruction. The Prelude is an invaluable, brief account of the personalities and actions of the 1850’s, along with many excellent quotes that well illustrate the attitudes and priorities of the men of the period. Here, one will learn of William Seward’s uncompromising sectionalism, the extremist origins of the Republican Party, the bloody career of John Brown, and the final showdown of Presidential candidates in 1860, which pitted three weak advocates of the status-quo against Lincoln – the most sectional and radical candidate ever nominated. The contrast between the fading generation of deal-making statesmen, like Webster and Calhoun, with the extremists of the years before the War reveals a decline in political wisdom.

The account of the War in North Against South is brief and fair, though any amateur will turn with greater satisfaction to Foote, Catton, or Freeman for richer details.  Johnson shines in his assessment of strategic choices made at the highest levels, his illustration of leadership qualities and deficiencies, and illustration of the economics of the War. He concludes that the Confederacy, despite a paucity of war materials and industry, clearly had the best military leadership, as Lincoln’s sad parade of military disasters and dismissals shows. The South clearly did more with less because of better men, and fought until she suffered the deaths of 20% of her citizens of fighting age: a ratio not duplicated even by the Soviet Union in World War Two. Even so, the defenders killed many more invaders than they lost in casualties.

The final section on the complexities and paradoxes of Reconstruction is, for one who knows the literature, an indispensable guide and summary to a complex and infuriating subject. The South’s failure to win independence resulted in a dozen years of military occupation, suspension of the rule of law, and the unopposed dominance of the Republican Party over the Federal government. The Whig historian blandly measures the actions of the Federal government during this period as more similar to expectations now, thus tends to judge the transformation of power as expected, justified, desirable, or inevitable. Johnson’s value is in showing the abnormality and political madness of what Clement Eaton called the “Tragic Era.” While they had no rivals for power, some Republican leaders channeled Robespierre and Marat in demagoguery and platitudes, but all were engaged in the wholesale fleecing of the South and the West by passing out land and bonds to railroads and other special interests. Although Johnson doesn’t detail it, one of the more bizarre tales from the era is one of Sherman’s generals, the opium-addicted Robert Scott, who was elected a Republican governor of South Carolina while most whites were disenfranchised. He presided over a legislature of illiterates who passed out cash to railroads that never laid a mile of track, and paid for whores with state bonds.

North Against South is a good starting point for any reader who wants to know the basics of what we Southerners call “the War,” and a sturdy reference for anyone who teaches it. Johnson’s approach is based in the primary sources, and the most valuable quotes from the era fill his pages. The War is the most central event in American history as well as the most controversial. The good professor gives us a strong and terse judgement of the traditionalist on the War. This book is sure to frustrate any radical and warm the heart of every patriot. This is essential reading for any Jeffersonian.



The Fleming Foundation

18 Responses

  1. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    My records indicate I bought my copy in 2009. I have moved it up on my reading schedule. I have been reading, on and off; interrupted by Feser’s books on Aristotle, Aquinas, and the Scholastics; Henry’s book on reconstruction and Craven’s book on the coming of the war. All while I have started to relearn my high school Latin. So many good books, so little time.

  2. Robert Reavis says:

    God bless you, Mr. Vant Sant ! Every activity you describe is like striking a blow for civilization! I am befuddled by out military Academies exaggerated emphasis on STEM. But not at all surprised. How in Heavens name did Dr White ever manage to last so long in that environment?

  3. Robert Reavis says:

    And thank God for no footnotes. Good gracious!! What a good review otherwise!

  4. Robert Reavis says:

    Men will have pomp and mystery surrounding important things, and therefore the historians must, consciously or unconsciously, tend to strut, to quote solemn authorities in support, and to make out the vulgar unworthy of their confidence. Hence, by the way, the plague of footnotes.

    These had their origin in two sources: the desire to show that one was honest and to prove it by a reference; the desire to elucidate some point which it was not easy to elucidate in the text itself without making the sentence too elaborate and clumsy. Either use may be seen at its best in Gibbon. With the last generation they have served mainly, and sometimes merely, for ritual adornment and terror, not to make clearer or more honest, but to deceive. Thus Taine in his monstrously false history of the Revolution revels in footnotes; you have but to examine a batch of them with care to turn them completely against his own conclusions–they are only put there as a sort of spiked paling to warn off trespassers. Or, again, M. Thibaut, who writes under the name of “Anatole France,” gives footnotes by the score in his romance of Joan of Arc, apparently not even caring to examine whether they so much as refer to his text, let alone support it. They seem to have been done by contract.

  5. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    I wouldn’t be too quick to condemn Taine’s history. He was in many ways a conventional liberal nationalist but his study of documents had convinced him of the unholy horrors perpetrated by the revolutionaries. His candor in describing them is the chief source of latterday condemnations of his book.

  6. Raymond Olson says:

    Robert–Who wrote the paragraph on footnotes that you forward to us?

    I like footnotes that add relevant information. I wish they all were genuine footnotes, i.e., printed at the bottoms of the pages of the main text, not relegated to the back of the book. Most footnotes in most books in my lifetime are in fact source notes. If I were the dictator of scholarly publishing, I would strictly separate footnotes and source notes. Harrumph!

  7. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Clyde Wilson likes to say that footnoted texts are the honest form of plagiarism. You still a man’s argument and evidence and then you document the crime, which makes it all right.

    Once upon a time, when people read aloud, owned few books, but mastered the classics, quoting Homer or Horace without citation was a sign that one belonged to a community of thought and study. Today, when no one knows nothing, publishers demand that everything be footnoted, including famous lines of Shakespeare. When sources are hard to find or even simply a little difficult for the unlearned, source footnotes make sense. The other sort of notes can be useful to register dissent from established scholarly opinion without disturbing one’s argument. I plead guilty to overusing this technique, especially in early drafts of an article or book.

    From the vituperative tone and hostility to Taine and France, I unhesitatingly conjecture the source to be the irrepressible Belloc who for a time convinced Chesterton that the French Revolution was, despite a few excesses, just dandy. I admire and enjoy Belloc, but nobody’s perfect. I googled the quotation and it is from his essay “On Historical Evidence.”

  8. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    Thank you Mr. Reavis. When I attended the Naval Academy almost all degrees were in STEM areas. My degree was naval science with a minor in mechanical engineering. I was on the Superintendent’s List and the Dean’s List my first two years, but I found the courses to be very boring so I concentrated on reading my final two years and my grades declined.

    I almost failed physical metallurgy. I had an F going into the final but I not only aced the final, I got the highest score of everyone who took the exam. The professor gave me a C for my final grade even though he told me he would give me a B if I scored an A on the final. Apparently the honor system applied only to the Midshipmen, not the faculty.

    Later on I applied to nuclear power school. While waiting for my interview with ADM Rickover, I was reading a copy of ADM Rickover’s recent testimony to Congress in which he said that every naval officer needed to be an expert in some technical field. Of course I thought that was the dumbest thing I had heard in a long time. I decided right then that I did not want to get into Navy nuclear power.

    The demeanor and actions of the Navy Commanders who were directing the activities of those of us there for interviews helped in making my decision. They were being considered for command of various Navy nuclear powered subs and surface ships. ADM Rickover personally selected each CO. They carried bulging binders of nuclear power information, which they studied when they could, and all were terrified (my observation) that one of us interviewees would make a mistake reflecting badly on his capabilities.

    Now I had heard many stories about ADM Rickover ordering people out of his office during an interview. Not wanting to tell the Admiral what I thought about his ideas regarding technical expertise, I answered his first question, asked while I was still walking to the chair that the prospective CO had meticulously pointed out on his diagram of ADM Rickover’s office: “I don’t know sir.” The gouge was correct. The Admiral immediately responded: “If you don’t know, who does? Out! Out!! Get out of my office!”

    The question of course was why had my grades decline my second two years after having high grades my first two years at the academy. We will never know if the answer I had prepared would have convinced ADM Rickover. I subsequently went on to serve at sea as a conventional Surface Warfare Officer until I left active duty when I decided the Navy was no place to raise children, at least for my wife and me.

    After the Academies started to admit women, the curricula became more diversified.

  9. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    Regarding footnotes in this edition of Johnson’s book, the “Note to the 2002 Printing” and Chapter XIV, “A Biographical Note” are footnoted. Was that last chapter added to the 2002 printing?

  10. Charles L says:

    Just came across this while reading the introduction to James Hannam’s ‘God’s Philosophers’: “The hordes of footnotes that mill around at the bottom of each page of [Andrew Dickinson White’s] book ‘A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology’ give the illusion of meticulous scholarship. But anyone who checks his references will wonder how he could have maintained his opinions if he had read as much as he claimed to have done.”

  11. Robert Reavis says:

    Footnotes are fine and when properly used, very helpful to most of us. But to be honest, I lost interest in academic integrity a long time ago. Very few undergraduates even read what I would consider primary sources but these debates continue to rage even in our own day. I remember Finkelstein and Dershowitz, Vice President Joe Biden, even more recently Milania Trump accused of copying Mrs. Obama’s speech.

  12. Robert Reavis says:

    Ray, Yes, Tom is correct that was just an aside from Belloc. He has better quotes on the German usages of footnotes but I did not think my post would be taken seriously by anyone except as a compliment to Mr. Van Zant. I have probably attended more conferences in Rockford on the French Revolution than any other topic. Belloc is complicated, even brilliantly wrong at times, but his essays such as “Miniatures in French History” are still delightful reads.

  13. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Amen to Robert

  14. Raymond Olson says:

    Robert, Tom–Thank you. I’ve enjoyed the few of Belloc’s books that I’ve read enough to welcome suggestions for further reading.

  15. Ken Rosenberger says:

    To bring this back to the book under review, by coincidence, I came across North Against South only a month ago, and can’t recommend it enough. If you need to get all the Compromises and Acts sorted out—as I did—and want to know the complete cast of characters (starting with Ancient Thomas Jefferson in 1820), and learn what made the war “inevitable,” this is the book for you, or at least a good starting point. I followed it up with Robert Penn Warren’s bio of John Brown, Edgar Lee Masters on Lincoln and David Herbert Donald on Sumner, and, biases aside, now think I understand just how rotten the Republican Party was at its inception (the rotten core still remains—I’m talking about you, Mitch!), and why the South fought as hard as it did. Present day San Francisco has nothing on antebellum Boston. Imagine you are a hard-working citizen in a rather peaceful and pleasant agrarian country, and some tyrant in the industrial leviathan to the north (say, someone like HRC) invokes the will of God to annex and reconstruct you for your own good, how would you react? In any case, if you haven’t done so, read Ludwell Johnson’s eloquent and illuminating (footnotes or not) book.

  16. Ken Rosenberger says:

    One of the more brilliant and enterprising engineers I met at Georgia Tech (a good old boy from Milledgeville) had an audience with Rickover when he was about to graduate. Hymie began the interview by charmingly accusing ol’ Clint of wasting his parents’ money for the past four years. Clint quickly disabused him of that notion, describing how he’d managed to work his way through school at several jobs, and had even managed to put some money away. I think both of them left the interview with the conclusion that my friend wouldn’t be a good fit for the program. Clint went on to run a company that made construction machinery, a private concern that sold products to other private concerns that needed to turn honest profits to stay afloat. And had to pay taxes to help pay the salaries of government employees like the blowhard Rickover. But hey, as the Dubyas always remind us, freedom is not free. Thank you for your service to our country.

  17. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    Thank you Mr. Rosenberger.

    To be fair to ADM Rickover, as far as I can recall, the Navy never had a nuclear propulsion accident or incident, unless loss of subs Thresher or Scorpion were caused by a nuclear reactor problem. I think this has been ruled out for Thresher. The cause of the Scorpion sinking has never been determined.

    My personal belief concerning ADM Rickover was that he did a competent job starting up the Navy’s nuclear propulsion program, but outstayed his usefulness.

  18. Dot says:

    Mr. Van Sant: You must be familiar with the submarine manufacturing company in CN. I worked near there at a pharmaceutical research facility.