By Jeff Rogers
The Sesquicentennial of the Civil War is now upon us and, to the extent that over-strained state and federal budgets will permit, official commemorations have already begun. The 150 year anniversary of the war also presents an opportunity to publishers to capitalize on the intensified interest in the Civil War these events may spark in the general public. While every year publishing houses, both large and small, release a large number of books related to the war, this year in particular has seen a significant surge in books from well-known historians aimed at a popular audience. Emory M. Thomas, The Dogs of War: 1861 is clearly of this sort. Among the most highly regarded and influential historians of the American Civil War for the past 40 years, Thomas has written several books which have focused on the Confederate experience. Among these are The Confederacy as a Revolutionary Experience (1971), The Confederate Nation, 1861-1865 (1979) and Robert E. Lee: A Biography (1995). These books have long become fixtures in Civil War historiography and have influenced a generation of historians writing about the war and the Confederate South’s struggle for independence.
The book under review here, however, is different from those listed above and, while not without some merit, it is doubtful that it will have the same influence. It is not, as the title might suggest, a narrative of the pivotal events of the first year of the Civil War. Instead, in a short 92 pages of actual text, Thomas attempts to explain why the war happened in the first place. He states his answer to this question on the first page of the Preface. “I contended here,” Thomas says “that the Civil War happened because nearly no one had a clue about what they were doing.” This is a fairly good summation of the argument Thomas makes throughout. In fact, a reader of Thomas’s extended essay might assume that what Thomas is really suggesting is that Americans in 1861 were a fairly dimwitted lot who completely bungled their way into war. This may very well be true but even reactive decisions made without much thought have their explanations. Thomas’s explanations leave one somewhat dissatisfied.
Americans in 1861, North and South, did, as Thomas claims in The Dogs of War: 1861, harbor many illusions about themselves, the enemy and the nature of war. This was as true of those in positions of political and military power as it was for everyone else. As any good amateur historian of the war can tell you, Americans, both North and South, went to war eagerly, expecting a short contest in which the Yankees or the Rebels collapse after the first taste of battle. Neither side was fully prepared for war or its horrible reality once it arrived.
There were, however, some who did see what would follow if the path of war was taken. Most of the ones Thomas mentions were older, wiser men with military experience such as General Winfield Scott, who was the commanding general of the U.S Army at the time of Abraham Lincoln’s election. Scott advised the incoming administration to seek compromise, let the South go, or anticipate a long, costly war. Lincoln’s advisers and cabinet members were not interested in any of the options Scott offered, and Thomas accurately describes the inadequacies of these people, such as the corrupt Secretary of War Simon Cameron, for the contingencies of the moment. As for Lincoln, Thomas has many wonderful things to say about him. He was “a great man” and “an extraordinary president” and we learn of Lincoln’s early views on race and how he “grew” to become the Great Emancipator, his earlier “Negrophobia” being excused because he was, after all, a man of his time.
It is Thomas’s comparison of Lincoln with Jefferson Davis, however, that forms the core of The Dogs of War: 1861 and it is here that one finds the most to ponder. Upon becoming President Lincoln lacked substantive military experience and thus may have been somewhat blasé about the prospect of war. Indeed, Lincoln may have, as other historians have argued, naively believed that a short war might result which would be a minor affair with few casualties and little destruction. More importantly, however, Lincoln was profoundly out of touch with Antebellum Southerners and knew very little about the South beyond what he read in newspapers. Lincoln believed that most Southerners were like the Midwestern farmers he knew so well in Illinois, men who simply were looking to get ahead in the world. He was incapable of imagining that a majority of Southerners favored secession and would fight any effort to force them to remain in the Union. Lincoln was convinced that support for secession was thin and concentrated among the narrow class of the Southern planter elite. Because of this he felt no need to compromise or carefully consider his campaign or post-election language, believing that once the hotheads who presided over the secession conventions were thrown out by the Southern masses all would be well. This miscalculation not only reveals Lincoln’s shortsightedness in the spring of 1861, but how he must have interpreted the events of the preceding decades leading up to the secession crisis; Lincoln simply believed much of the anti-Southern rhetoric that emanated from his fellow Republicans.
Thomas acknowledges all of this about Lincoln, yet Thomas believes Lincoln’s “greatness” remains intact. In the end, perhaps it is true that victory erases faults and magnifies virtues for seldom do we hear of Lincoln’s faults. Thomas does absolve Lincoln of too much. He was born in Kentucky and was married to a Southern woman in Mary Todd Lincoln. He had served with Southerners in Congress. He ought to have known Southerners better than he did. As a man seeking the highest office in the land, however, he can be rightly charged with having a myopic, Northern-centric view of the country. He fundamentally misjudged both Southerners and the larger political situation during the spring of 1861, a moment when a clearer view, one informed by the sound advice of those who knew both the South and the wrenching destruction that a war between the sections would bring, might have seen a path around the devastation. Lincoln’s shortsightedness added to the fatal mix which brought about conflict.
As laudatory as Thomas is of Lincoln, he is as curiously ambivalent about Jefferson Davis. Thomas reminds us of Davis’s famous “prickly” personality, his elevated sense of honor and his checkered career as a West Point cadet. According to Thomas’s criteria for greatness, Davis should have fared better in the book. Unlike Lincoln, Davis had substantial military service prior to 1861, having served in the Mexican War and as Secretary of War under Franklin Pierce. In light of that experience, Davis was left with few illusions about the prospects of war. He hoped that it could be avoided, but he believed that secession would be resisted by force. He also knew that a war with the North would be difficult to win. When notified on February 9, 1861 that he was now the President of the Confederate States of America Davis was solemn and stoic. His wife Varina described his appearance at that moment as “grieved.” In contrast to Lincoln, Davis had not sought the office which would define him, and he knew the days ahead would be arduous. Thomas entertains the odd notion that Davis, like other Confederate Southerners, held some sort of death wish which motivated him, seeking his own and his society’s destruction. He also argues, somewhat incongruously, that Davis was convinced he and the South could win, and he gives Davis some credit for his “offensive defense” strategy in fighting the war, although he gives it only the briefest of summations and does not offer an account of why if may have been inadequate. “Davis lost,” Thomas says, “but at least he seemed to know what he confronted.” Despite perceiving the road ahead and nonetheless doing his duty as he understood it, Davis was not “great” but only perceptive. Lincoln, who terribly misjudged his Southern countrymen and the prospects of war, was “great” but only after growing beyond his earlier racist views and winning the war.
Taking his title from Marc Antony’s speech in Act III of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Thomas’s intends his book to be a history teaching virtue by example and warning. In the background of Thomas’s discussions of the personalities and events of 1861 is another war, a more recent one, that of the ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Thomas clearly believes that, as in 1861, Americans eagerly chose to enter those wars based upon illusions about themselves and the enemy. The larger lesson from both instances is this: “The dogs of war, once unleashed, go where they will, and warfare usually defies the efforts of either side to control it. Assumptions about quick and painless victories are often facile and rarely accurate. The experience of the American Civil War still offers lessons: War is very serious. War begets chaos.” These are wise words, if obvious. Still, if The Dogs of War: 1861 leads readers to think more carefully about how the United States enters wars and embrace a more thoughtful foreign policy, then it will have achieved something of value. However, what knowledgeable and well-read students of the war will not obtain from the book is the “revisionist” rethinking of the opening events of war that Thomas promises in his preface. There is too much here that is conventional and that has been said before. This is may be explained by the audience to which the book is geared and the timing of its publication, but it need not have been so. Several recent books on the causes and course of the Civil War do present challenging new interpretations that genuinely attempt to revise and rethink the dominant interpretation of the war. Books by Marc Egnal, David Goldfield and William Marvel’s multivolume reframing of the four years of the war all have provocative and new things to say and are heartily recommended.
Jeff Rogers, Ph. D. is Associate Professor of History at Gordon College.