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.