Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Book Review: Ordeal by Fire

A Fair Trade Book

Happy Independence Day, Gentle Readers. (No, I'm not online; this is a pre-scheduled post.) There are more jubilant ways to celebrate the history of the United States than a consideration of the American Civil War, but in some ways today's book pick can be considered cheerful conservative reading: as a nation we have survived being much more bitterly divided than we are now.

Title: Ordeal by Fire



Author: James M. McPherson

Date: 2010

Publisher: McGraw-Hill

ISBN: 978-0-07-743035-1

Length: 671 pages

Illustrations: black and white reproductions of photographs and other documents

Quote: “Many [non-slave-owners]... aspired to become slaveholders, and...achieved this goal. Moreover, given the traditional patterns of kinship...a nonslaveholder was quite likely to be a cousin or a nephew of the planter down the road. The big planter was in the habit of treating his poorer neighbors once or twice a year to a barbecue—especially if he happened to be running for the legislature.”

If you’re interested in the social history of the United States in the 1850s, 1860s, and 1870s, more than the details of military history or the horrors of war, this is the Civil War history book for you. What you’ll like: lots of detailed documentation of the political countercurrents within the North and South, the historical anomalies of Northern districts that seriously debated secession and Southern districts that declared their “secession” from Confederate States and loyalty to the Union, and how the political thought of the mid-nineteenth century could be considered to have shaped more recent or current thought.

What you’ll not like: in order to get high school or college credit for reading the history of the Civil War, you’ll probably still have to read some other book that goes into more detail about the battles and the horrors. Ordeal by Fire was written by historians who’d already written that sort of books, for people who’d already read them. In this book McPherson can talk about economic conditions within a state or region without taking the time to explain the order in which battles were fought there; he can mention Gettysburg, Corinth, and Cold Harbor in one sentence if he feels like it, and occasionally he does.

Ordeal by Fire is particularly concerned with providing facts for those who want to try to understand race relations in the nineteenth century. For that purpose, it’s not perfect. It’s all too literally Black and White; McPherson’s “West” is Arkansas and Illinois, not Kansas and Oklahoma. This is understandable, since little was published about what was then the far-western territory, but a major weakness. McPherson also overlooks one of the grimmer realities of the Trail of Tears—the number of biracial, triracial, or even apparently “full blood ‘Indian’” people who identified with Christian churches and White, Black, or occasionally multiethnic communities, but retained some loyalty to the ruined Native American communities from which their relatives were banished. According to the old story, at least, no Real Cherokee would shed tears in the presence of the enemy, so it was those multiethnic types who stayed behind who watered the Trail with their tears. Arguably this minority group was enough of a true minority to have no impact on the outcome of the War, although the fact that McPherson doesn’t choose to mention Stand Watie, the most rebellious Rebel of all, or John Ross, who I think made the best of all contemporary comments on the War, does not alter the fact that they existed. The Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, like the border States of Maryland and Missouri, had its own peculiar sort of Civil War in which those who favored the Northern or Southern causes did some damage to each other while contributing relatively little to either cause.

In order to have a War Between the States people had to think of each State as a solid bloc of people committed to one side or the other. This was, of course, inaccurate; states, counties, towns, and families had their own Civil Wars. Often overlooked in elementary school history books is the fact that none of the Confederate States had a 100% secessionist population. Several Southern counties and congressional districts declared themselves to have seceded from their States and remained part of the United States; their Congressmen stayed in Washington, and the U.S. Congress continued to recognize their votes. (In Virginia, notably, those dissident loyalists were the ones who agreed to allow West Virginia to be counted as a separate State.)

But if you want to understand the various kinds of race tension that were operating between Black and White Americans, and different demographic groups within each of those categories, Ordeal by Fire excels. Among other things it contains President Lincoln’s relatively less popular First Inaugural Address, in which Old Abe affirmed that ending slavery was neither his intention nor (as he then believed) his right, and the passage from the Confederate  Constitution specifying that slavery would not be abolished by the Confederate government (although the Confederate government would later recruit Black soldiers with the promise of freedom). It also discusses the people nicknamed “Butternuts” and “Copperheads,” found especially in Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois (where a lot of poor relations of Virginia families had settled), who couldn’t be called Southerners but whose political opinions and personal loyalties could often be identified as “Southern.” (“Butternuts,” the rare but tasty fruit of a native American tree, described the culture; “Copperheads,” the venomous snake, described Northerners who actively supported the Confederacy.)

McPherson also presents lots of quotes from the leaders of various organizations and movements, including but not limited to the Federal and Confederate army leaders, that bring their (sometimes distinctly strange) personalities to life. You knew that President Lincoln and General Lee failed to command more aggressive, decisive strategies, which might have been more humane in the long run, because both of them were just too decent human beings and both were sort of partial to the Washington area; any map of the military movement of the Civil War is enough to illustrate that. You might not have known that, although General Grant was a tacky guy who had sometimes been a drunkard, Vice-President Johnson was capable of embarrassing even him.  (The Southern-born future President was obviously very conflicted...McPherson shows how he acted out his conflictedness.) Readers also get to know Generals Bragg and McClellan especially well, and President Davis, another study in conflictedness.

The technology of nineteenth-century warfare makes any study of a nineteenth-century war particularly gruesome reading. Though Ordeal by Fire is mostly about the cross-currents of opinion, there’s no getting around the barbarities and atrocities. Among the barbarities and atrocities was the use of ex-slave soldiers. The North, at least, was concerned about not obviously putting all the Black soldiers where they would immediately be killed...although nearly all of them were; the reason why veterans of the “Colored Troops” were easily overlooked was that almost none of those “Colored Troops” lived to become a veteran.

Descendants of Union soldiers like to think of their ancestors as humanitarians who wanted to emancipate all the slaves and give them their rights. In fact a handful of Northerners—mostly in the Peace Churches—really did want that; General Howard, rare among Northerners, actually wanted "freedmen" to have jobs, schools, hospitals and suchlike, and succeeded in founding Howard University. More Northerners, like Lincoln, really wanted to resolve the socioeconomic problem of slavery by sending all the “freedmen” somewhere else. A truth unpalatable to many Northerners is that many of the “Butternuts” had chosen to live in “Free States” not because they hated to see human beings oppressed by slavery, but because they hated Black people, whom they didn’t recognize as fully human, and didn’t want to see any of them at all. In the absence of clear orders to exploit the slaves for war purposes, which was what the Emancipation Proclamation really was, Billy Yank was probably more inclined to kill slaves than to recruit them onto his side.

Johnny Reb, of course, had had to accept the idea that Black people were a different and inferior sort of life form in order to live with the slave system. This did not keep him from relating to Black people as individuals. He probably recognized a few as friends or even as poor relations, some as what Zora Neale Hurston called pets, most as “brothers to the ox” who deserved just enough good treatment to keep them fit and willing to work, and just an occasional specimen who had “gone crazy” or “turned vicious” who deserved harsh punishment. Slaves and slavemasters could not coexist in either real love, trust, and good will, or a total absence of those things. To a severely limited extent they learned to trust each other. So when the Confederates promised freedom to slaves who joined their army, there was no plan to send masses of those ex-slaves to be massacred, but also no particular intention that enough black veterans would live to form a parade unit, nor any plan for allowing any great number of them to live as “freedmen” in the Southern States. There was some vague, idealistic talk about sending the “freedmen” to the Western territories and letting them fight the war with the native people in which General Custer famously died.

In practice...there were a lot of Black soldiers on both sides, and very few Black veterans. The plain fact was that Confederates dropped like flies. The faithful slave who enlisted to serve beside Johnny Reb wasn’t likely to come home. Neither was Johnny. Nineteenth-century hygiene, the Southern climate, and the exigencies of a war that had gone on longer than the country could afford, killed thousands of men, and also horses.

There was some practical consideration of encouraging “freedmen” to organize separate-but-equal all-Black towns and schools, an idea that quickly lost popular support...partly because, in some cases, it worked. The historically Black schools were badly exploited in many ways, including pressure to lower their standards, but they were better schools than the extreme racists in the North wanted to have to recognize. The Roosevelt Administration tolerated Zora Neale Hurston’s documentation of the survival of a viable all-Black town—hers—under the heading of “folklore,” but the twentieth century was almost over before most Americans got around to reading Hurston or admitting that her own story was not only a “good story,” but also historically true. If thinking about this kind of thing raises your blood pressure—in either an infuriating or an inspiring way!—then Ordeal by Fire will raise your blood pressure.

Also discussed in Ordeal by Fire was Sherman’s famous, though unofficial and unworkable and therefore worthless, promise to give all the ex-slaves “forty acres and a mule.” Most history books in the twentieth century tried to skim over the whole history of the debate about re-allocating farmland to break up the big plantations and make slaves into small farmers...because in fact that history was relevant, and unsatisfactory, for both sides in the Cold War. In practice, if a thousand acres had been worked by five hundred laborers, even if the owner wanted to divide the land among those laborers and the laborers wanted that overworked played-out land, there obviously aren’t going to be enough small farms for each couple. Nature did not intend farming to become “large-scale”; whenever it does, although machines and poisons and bioengineered crops can’t demand civil rights, the large-scale farm is always forced to rely on short-term strategies that become unsustainable and counterproductive in a few years. McPherson does not discuss the implications of the facts of the 1870s for modern farmers and “social planners”—that’s beyond the scope of Ordeal by Fire—but he deserves kudos for presenting the facts, fairly and in enough detail to be useful to modern farmers and “planners.”

James McPherson (born in 1936) is still alive at the time of posting, so this is a Fair Trade Book, even though, ouch, those prices! The Amazon link to the cover of the copy I physically own will try to sell you the Kindle version; if you're using the book for a college class your teacher may order you to get the Kindle version for online class exercises, in which case you're just stuck paying the full price. For a real book, if you're willing to read one of the older editions, this web site can go as low as $15 per book + $5 per package (only one copy of this book per package, but you could squeeze in a thin paperback or picture book along with it) + $1 per online payment, from which this web site would send $2 to McPherson or a charity of his choice. For the current edition, we can offer $75 per book + $5 per package + $1 per online payment, from which we'll send $8 to McPherson or his charity.