The Last Days of
William C. Davis
One of our favorite writers has summed up the American Civil War as follows:
"It's at the top of the love list for many amateur historians. In terms of sheer quantity of red juices leeched into the ground (see the introduction to Edmund Wilson's appropriately named Patriotic Gore) the war between the North and the South was a dandy.
"As the recent Touched By Fire points out, it was also a grossly unfair war --- if wars by their very nature can be considered to be 'fair' or 'unfair.' There were nine million inhabitants of the South (one-third of whom were black) --- as opposed to twenty-two million in the North. In addition,
Telegraph, factory and farm figures were all six to seven times greater in the North than in Secessia, and except along the Maryland-Missouri border, the unseceded states were little disturbed by actual combat. Washington possessed foreign recognition, functioning credit and fiscal structures, and existing government institutions.
"It was the first 'living-room war' (photography had been discovered some fifteen years before). It contained all the necessary elements of tragedy --- family against family, ancient feuds brought out in the open and resolved by legalized murder --- the rivers of blood that Civil Wars always seem to inspire.
"It was nakedly and shamelessly futile: slavery was on the decline, and would have gone out of existence by the start of the 20th Century from determinism (the economic structure of the industrial revolution and the ownership of humans are incompatible).
Given this imbalance --- it should have been a quick in-and-out war. But, as with World War I (for which, technologically, it was the precursor) it went on and on, draining resources, ruining the land, killing almost 650,000 men, wounding another 200,000. The tolls for death and disfigurement were four times greater than those of World Wars I and II."
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With this background, the nature and the characters involved in the last four months of the war should make for fascinating reading. Lee was forced to husband his troops and supplies and avoid what would have been a fatal last battle. He tried to buy time so that feelers being extended to Lincoln for humane terms of surrender could come to some conclusion. Even so, after Vicksburg and Gettysburg, whole cities were being overrun in the South --- Richmond, the capital, had fallen --- and the military, the civil service, documents, all the governmental apparatus (and gold) had to be quickly moved out of northern Virginia.
The two main protagonists over the end of the Confederacy were President Jefferson Davis and Secretary of War John C. Breckinridge. On April 4, 1865, Davis had actually issued a proclamation, stating that the loss of Richmond was an advantage, because
our army [is] free to move from point to point, and strike in detail the detachments and garrisons of the enemy; operating in the interior of our own country, where supplies are more accessible, and where the foe will be far removed from his own base, and cut off from all succor...
Breckinridge, on the other hand, had communicated directly with Lee, and was far more willing to face the hopelessness of the situation and to work for a quick end of what had become a catastrophic military situation.
The demise of a country, like the demise of a star, constitutes a fascinating show, and a good historian --- like a good astronomer --- should be drawn to the natural drama of it. Unfortunately, William C. Davis is a plodder, plowing an old field with a slow mule and little else. He marshals all the facts, but once they are all in hand, scarcely knows where to put them.
Historical upheavals should cause a worthy writer to reflect that drama in worthy prose, but Davis' response, for example, to the Presidential proclamation noted above, is,
One could almost feel sorry for the plight of the Union armies as he depicted their disappointment to discover that the fall of Richmond did not, as they expected, signal the end of the Confederacy.
As patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, sarcasm should be the true sign of a historian on his uppers.
What we would suggest is that Davis --- the author, not the president --- be offered a sabbatical by his august university. He could retire to a quiet place --- Gettysburg, say --- lock himself in a room with a few appropriate texts, dedicate himself to the intense study, not of historical facts, but the preferred style of good historical writing.
Any of the works of Churchill would be a suitable model, for he writes with power, wisdom, humanity (and even, at times, humility). Gibbon's complete Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is a must, as are the works of Thomas Babington Macaulay. Too, we would call his attention to Shakespeare's historical dramas. Memorizing a few key passages --- as we were forced to in Miss Brugh's tenth grade History class --- might be of considerable help to foment the implied poetry that is natural to assured writing in English.
Thucydides: of course. Homer --- without a doubt: The Iliad, the classic of war poetry, deserves at least two weeks of reading and rereading, as does War and Peace, The Red Badge of Courage, and, as always, Barbara Tuchman's splendid studies of pre-WWI shenanigans.
Faulkner's civil war stories would give good human background to a lost cause in the final rictus --- as would Hemingway's dispatches from the Spanish Civil War. Leon Wolff's superb In Flander's Fields would communicate the harshness of a war that seems never to end, and Gerard J. De Groot's recent and highly original The First World War, would give our writer lessons in the art of novel literary and historical structure.
It is our hope that if Davis spends a few months steeping himself in these masters of language, he might well emerge a more sensitive writer, might even --- dare we hope? --- arise from the morass of the more than forty books (forty!) he has put out so far; perhaps be able, at last, to give us a classic --- one that would not be instantly remaindered by the good fellows at the Civil War Book Society, but, instead, be treasured by those of us who seek not only laudable scholarship, but a mastery of the written word, and a worthy historic style.
--- Lolita Lark