Bitterly Divided: The South’s Inner Civil War
by David Williams
Publisher: The New Press
One of the most enduring images of the Civil War is that of the unified South, a tight-knit collection of ideologically like-minded citizens bound by a common cause and united in their political, economic and social beliefs. The only problem with this down-home, corn-pone, Old Virginny nostalgia that still holds sway in America is that it’s total bullshit, as historian David Williams argues in far more academic terms in Bitterly Divided: The South’s Inner Civil War.
Exhaustively researched, expertly written and drawing conclusions that challenge many conventionally accepted “truths” about the nature of the wartime South, Williams convincingly shows how the Confederacy essentially fought what he refers to as a “two-front” war: one against the Union army and another one against internal Southern anti-war activism. Each chapter systematically discusses a different form of this dissension, including soldiers refusing to enlist, deserting the Confederate army and, in numbers estimated at 500,000, actually fighting on the Union side; food riots and looting sparked by wealthy planters refusing to grow staple crops while soldiers and civilians starved; and the role both slaves and poor non-slaveholding whites played in challenging the Confederacy’s slave-based economy and war effort. Central to Williams’ depiction of a fractured South is class conflict, which he views as one of the key drivers that sparked such resistance from these states’ have-nots. The author notes that the Southern delegates who voted for secession over the objections of the Southern majority came from the wealthy landowning and slave-holding class, while soldiers’ letters frequently were filled with disillusion as they described the conflict as a “rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.”
Williams avoids the type of Great Man history that has long plagued Civil War research. What emerges is a portrait of the South that is more complex than previous scholarly accounts and pop culture have allowed, with the author suggesting that such sources have contributed to an overly simplistic and largely inaccurate image of the South during these war years. With the stories of social consciousness and opposition to minority rule it recounts and the staggering number of primary sources it utilizes, Bitterly Divided can be read as a study of how – to borrow a term Williams uses throughout the book – “common folk” shaped both the course of their daily lives as well as the war. It is similar to the method Williams followed in previous books A People’s History of the Civil War and Plain Folk in a Rich Man’s War, but more consistently revelatory and easily accessible for a general audience.
Some readers will undoubtedly view Williams’ book as an attack on the South. It’s not. Certainly it is a critique of the Confederacy – and, more specifically, the wealthy politicians and upper class that marched the South towards secession, with disastrous results – as well as the economic and social divisions that defined the South during the war and several decades after. If anything, Bitterly Divided is a repudiation of the lost cause mythology that reduces Civil War-era Southerners to racist caricatures and ignores the overwhelming evidence that the war remained unpopular among most Southerners. Along with Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering, it is one of the few recent Civil War books that places the war in a new context, offering readers with a view of the South that should dispel any remaining notions of a Confederacy whose policies enjoyed broad public support throughout the South.