The South vs. The South: How Anti-Confederate Southerners Shaped The Course of the Civil War by William W. Freehling

Freehling, William W. The South vs. The South: How Anti-Confederate Southerners Shaped The Course of the Civil War. New York:
Oxford University Press, 2001.

William W. Freehling, in The South VS. The South: How Anti-Confederate Southerners Shaped the Course of the Civil War had one main purpose, to answer the question of why the Confederacy lost the Civil War. Freehling believes that the defeat of the Confederate nation came from two corners; Southern white anti-Confederates and Southern black anti-Confederates. The author believes that the failure to control Maryland, Missouri, and Kentucky, key border states, is the main reason the South failed. Had they controlled the manpower and industrial capabilities of these states, it would have lent great strength to the Confederate nation. Freehling spends the first part of The South vs. The South carefully examining how the Union was able to secure the border states and keep them secured. A fresh perspective is offered here to an old argument. Some historians focus on the external factors, like battles, and contend that they were the reason the war was lost for the Confederates, but Freehling focuses on the internal causes, giving a more comprehensive viewpoint to the American Civil War.

The author, William W. Freehling was born in 1935 and grew up in Chicago. He received his M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley. He wrote his Ph.D. thesis under Professor Kenneth Stampp, author of The Peculiar Institution. Freehling has taught at Berkeley, Harvard, Michigan, Hopkins, and has endowed chairs at SUNY, Buffalo, and Kentucky. He and his wife, also an American history author, reside in Charlottesville. Author of numerous histories, Freehling published The Road to Disunion, a two-volume set dealing with secessionists that were a History Book Club main selection and received the Owsley Prize, The Reintegration of American history: slavery and the Civil War, Prelude to Civil War: The nullification controversy in South Carolina, 1816-1836, and one of his newest books, Showdown in Virginia: The 1861 Convention and the Fate of the Union, published in 2010. For this book, he won the Jefferson Davis Prize.

The South vs. The South is packed full of information and very accessible to the reader. Freehling divides the material into four parts. Part one, “The Other House Divided,” begins with the Union’s strategy. The Union’s stats outstripped the Confederacy’s by miles. Free labor state’s population outnumbered slave labor state’s by 19 to 12 million, had two times the railroad tracks, and five times the industrial output. However, as Freehling points out, the North still had the larger obstacle when trying to overpower the South. The Confederate troops could remain stationary and allow the North to walk hundreds and hundreds of miles, over difficult terrain before they could engage the enemy. Their superior railway system did not help the troops once they reached the Confederate states. Abraham Lincoln recognized that the Union’s task would be made much easier if the Southerners were to be pitted against other Southerners. “Lincoln also knew that much about the prewar South invited a divide-and-conquer strategy.” (p. 16)

Freehling does an excellent job of helping the reader understand where and why the prewar split in the South happened. The institution of slavery covered the upper two-thirds of the South and some northern areas. Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin made slave labor obsolete and the industry was pushed further south. “As the southernmost South belatedly became the Old South, our Old South, the northernmost South became ambiguously southern.” (p. 17) Freehling believes it was this ambiguity that led to a war of Southerners against Southerners and allowed the North to gain a foothold there.

When slavery slowly played out in the upper Southern states it was an ordinary progression to become free labor. This caused a natural division within the middle South area, most noticeably in eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina, culminating in the loss of white troops that would have otherwise been raised. The Border South preferred neutrality, not wishing to help either side and decided to bar the warring factions from entering the neutral terrain.

Part two then becomes a focus of the Southern white anti-Confederates. Freehling can be no clearer on Lincoln’s priorities, “…First, go after whites; only then go after blacks.” (p. 47) Though Lincoln despised the border state’s neutrality, which benefited the Confederacy’s bid for disunion, an act of treason. Kentucky was the last holdout of the border states and Lincoln left them alone in the hopes that time would see their way clear. Again, he was skillful in his handling and the Kentuckians were eventually swayed to his side.

Freehling, using what he considers the most accurate Civil War troop data, illuminates how white men from these border states swelled the Union numbers and severely handicapped the pro-slavery states. Interestingly, 200,000 border whites joined the Union army and another 100,000 from Middle South. These 300,000 extra men replaced the Union soldiers who died for the first two years. While “The Confederacy had to adopt a controversial draft of white men a year before the Union faced the necessity.” (p. 61)

The central focus is in part three of the book and deals with the Southern black anti-Confederates. Here, Freehling adeptly reveals the most obvious reason for the Confederacy’s failure, and ultimately the author focuses on the answer to his earlier question of how the Confederates lost. Southern white anti-Confederates helped to conquer the Confederate heartland during the first two years of war and the southern black anti-Confederates, “…mostly residing in the black belt South, especially helped retain the Confederate heartland during the last two years of the war, after overcoming whites’ rejection of black troops.” (p. 85) The reader would do well to read Freehling’s notes, especially those starting at chapter six to have a better understanding of the sources he used.

The truth exhibited in Lincoln’s August 1862 public letter to Horace Greeley shows the absolute determination of President Lincoln to secure the Union at any cost. As Lincoln explains in the letter, “official duty…is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it.” (p. 87)

Freehling’s descriptions of the African American people entering and infiltrating the North are especially well written. Halleck’s General Orders #3 barred fugitives from invading army lines and also spoke of expelling present fugitives from the army’s camp. Despite this order, troops figured out that by allowing the escaped slaves into camps they could do the work that the white soldiers disliked. The Union’s use of runaway slaves helped mold the army into a powerful antislavery bureaucracy. The army’s general in chief, Henry Halleck, wrote Ulysses S. Grant of Lincoln’s plans to use freed African American men in several capacities. Lincoln knew that as long as Confederate’s still had their slaves it allowed more white soldiers to fight, but if he enticed the slaves away from their masters it would cripple the Confederate army. Freed slaves would be used for the defense of forts, laborers, and cooks, which greatly strengthened the northern army. Northern African Americans and ex-slaves became soldiers as well for the Union army.

The final part in Freehling’s monograph finds the author discussing the last of the battles before the war ended. Here, he also delves into African American anti-Confederate resistance, and how this affected Northern Policymaking. However, when Freehling generalizes that the slaves chose a nonviolent form of resistance to win northern whites’ assent, he gives little citation for this argument, which greatly hurts his credibility. He reflects upon the Confederate’s loss and knows that there is never a single reason that wars are won. He states that all of these factors, Abraham Lincoln, American racism, paternalism, slavery, emancipation, and bureaucracy are just some of the contributors.

The appeal of The South vs. The South is that it provides something for all readers; from seeing the Confederate defeat from a new angle, the role of the border states, and how the freed slaves so impacted the pro-slavery states. The author’s argument that the division between southern society, specifically those of the Old South and the border southern states, hastened the Confederate defeat by strengthening the Union, was well thought out and presented. He weaves military, political, and social histories together without compromise to one or the other. Most of the information presented here is not novel, but Freehling writes in such a provocative and imaginative way that the reader willingly gives over to critical thinking, even on historical problems that have been dissected for decades. Freehling does not lie in his prologue when he says, “Sagas of courageous soldiers, of colorful generals, of bloody combat, with a nation’s fate at stake—here is stuff for riveting epics.” (p. xi) This book is not only informative but a very gratifying read.

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