A Fire-Eater Remembers: the Confederate Memoirs of Robert Barnwell Rhett.
IN THE NEVER-ENDING QUEST TO EXPLAIN the Civil War Between the States, three major themes usually crop up: Why did the South secede in 1861? Why was the Confederacy so difficult to operate and manage? Why in 1865 did many of those who initially encouarged secession attribute it to causes other than those voiced in 1861?
In our own day and time, the causes of secession are often reduced to two points: states' rights and slavery. At least with Mississippi, however, Professor Christopher J. Olsen sees secession as the ultimate act of masculinity. Mississippi, he tells us, had a strong--very strong--antiparty tradition, and this, coupled with an exaggerated sense of "machoism," led to that fateful day in early 1861 when Mississippi followed many of its Southern brethren into the uncharted waters of the Southern Confederacy.
"Most politics," Olsen says, "revolved around networks of friends and neighbors, a set of community bonds driven by face-to-face relationships." This statement certainly does affirm the assertion by the late Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill that "All politics is local." And, when one considers that the roads, by-ways, and highways of that time in Mississippi were less than conducive to widespread travel, this "localism" becomes even more apparent.
Despite the "anti-party" tradition, Olsen does tell us about the impact of Jacksonian "Democracy" on Mississippi, the activities of the Whigs, and the rather significant incursions of the "Know-Nothings" in the mid-1850s under the leadership of former President Millard Fillmore. Notwithstanding all these political activities, it appears that it was still "masculinity" that brought about the sectional crisis of 1861. In one four-page span (pp. 187-190) of what might be called "over-kill," the author uses the words "men," "manliness," "masculinity," "man," and "manhood" some twenty-five times to denote the strong influence that "macho" played in Mississippi secession. He says (p. 191) that the "spontaneous sense of crisis [in 1861] was a product of the state's political culture and men's understanding of honor, masculinity, and Christian virtue." In other words, the young vibrant males of the "Magnolia State" were called upon to "stand up" as "men, and defend their communities" (p. 167). The other cotton states, including Alabama and particularly Georgia, similarly permitted the emphasis on Southern manhood to lead them into secession.
In Apostles of Disunion, Charles B. Dew does not speak to Southern "manhood" when he talks about all the "ambassadors" sent out to Southern states (even those who were not wavering) to convince them that the right thing to do was adhere to the dictates of the Montgomery Convention in February 1861, and follow those assembled there out of the Union. Overwhelmingly, these "Apostles of Disunion" based their advocacy of secession on Northen opposition to slavery. The commissioners went from state to state, giving especial attention to those states that were undecided, like Kentucky and Virginia, proclaiming that the majority North had seriously mistreated the minority South over the past one hundred years or so. The issue of states rights did factor into the secessionist movement (maybe this was such a "given" that few of these "apostles" even referred to it), but the issue of slavery was the primary, overwhelmingly important motive. According to S. F. Hale, "commissioner" from Alabama writing to B. Magoffin, the Governor of Kentucky. "... [T]he election of Mr. Lincoln is hailed not simply as a change of administration, but as the inauguration of new principles and new theory of government, and even as the downfall of slavery."
Henry Lewis Benning, "commissioner" from Georgia to Virginia, told the citizens of the Old Dominion why Georgia had seceded: "It was a conviction, a deep conviction on the part of Georgia, that a separation from the North was the only thing that could prevent the abolition of slavery." On and on these arguments went in late 1860 and early 1861: it was slavery that the South was out to protect. And it may fairly be stated that if it had not been for slavery, perhaps a compromise could have been reached between the North and South even to the point of preventing the Civil War. It was only after the conflict ended that people like Jefferson Davis, Alexander Stephens, Benning, and Hale began to claim that it was a principle of "states rights," and only states rights, that brought on this horrible civil conflict. It was slavery, and not some kind of "wounded manhood" that produced this great national trauma.
As a governing body, the weakest part of the Confederacy apparently concerned the workings of its executive offices. The Confederate President, Jefferson Davis, did not win high honors with leading members of the Southern government. And this point is well taken in William C. Davis's edition, A Fire-Eater Remembers: The Confederate Memoir of Robert Barnwell Rhett. Mr. Rhett was, as is well known, in the company of such as William L. Yancey and others who vehemently pushed the idea of a slave-based "Southern Empire" in the Western Hemisphere. Born Robert Barnwell Smith, in Beaufort, South Carolina, he formed his ideas, and "countenanced neither disagreement nor dissuasion" (p. xi). Owing to his personality, he became a bitter enemy of C.S.A. President Davis. He wanted the President to buy a war fleet from England with cotton--a proposal agreed to by the East India Company. Davis demurred, stating a "want of means," although "millions of bales of cotton were purchasable ..." (p. 42). The President called for the purchase of fourteen thousand small arms. Rhett was astonished at this tiny amount and agreed with General P. G. T. Beauregard, who exclaimed, "Good God!... Surely you must mean at least one hundred forty thousand" (p. 43).
The method of conscription also caused serious rifts between President Davis and this determined "fire-eater." If the Confederate soldiers had been called into service by the states, apparently all would have been well with Robert Barnwell Rhett. Instead, they were drafted by the now hated regime of Jefferson Davis in Richmond, which, according to Rhett, richly deserved to be ignored and disobeyed.
The matter between Rhett and Davis finally became so malodorous that the former called the latter "an amalgamation of mediocrity and malignity," and he actually began publicly to appeal to General Robert E. Lee to take over the government. Perhaps Editor Davis had it right when he says that if "Davis had somehow enabled his armies to walk on water, Rhett would only have attacked him for getting the soldiers' stockings wet" (p. 142).
It was, of course, not just Rhett who, with no intermissions, went after Jefferson Davis. Davis's own Secretary of State, Robert Toombs, was a constant critic; but, most importantly, so was his Vice President, Alexander Stephens. The extent of these disagreements is well delineated in William C. Davis's The Union that Shaped the Confederacy. This book is the story of the long friendship between Robert Toombs and Alexander Stephens, both from Georgia, and both very instrumental in how the Confederacy was formed and how the war was fought against Union forces.
There is little "machoism" (as Professor Olsen would have it) in this book, either in Mississippi or elsewhere in reference to 1861. On the contrary, Toombs and Stephens started out as antagonists (each with his own sizeable following) on the matter of secession. At a gathering, Toombs spoke of "taking the sword" because of Abraham Lincoln's election (to which a moderate editor responded: "Let him take it ... and rum about six inches of it into his left breast" [p 4]). At the same meeting, Stephens warned that "good governments can never be built up or sustained by the impulse of passion" (p. 5). Even with Lincoln in the White House, he claimed, the Republicans would still not control Congress; thus, the slave states, with only a bit of help from Northern Democrats, could stay Lincoln and his cabinet's course. Just about everyone in the room applauded Stephens's message of moderation--except Toombs, who hooted at him and interrupted him nearly a dozen times.
The tide of events caught up with the two men with secession and then the formation of the Confederacy. Toombs and Stephens thought that Toombs would surely be chosen as president at the Montgomery meetings, but one night Toombs got too much into his cups and made a drunken fool of himself. The road was opened for Jefferson Davis.
Davis was a severe problem for both Toombs, who became Secretary of State, and Stephens, who became the Vice-President of the Confederacy. It was their growing animosity toward the Confederate president who, it seemed, only listened to personal counsels, that cemented the friendship between Robert Toombs and Alexander Stephens. Ultimately, Toombs gave up his position as Confederate Secretary of State and formed his own military unit, while there was one eighteen-month period when Stephens did not even come to Richmond at all in his capacity as Vice President of the C.S.A. It was apparent that many in Davis's own government hated him more than any Yankee ever could.
When the war ended, Stephens and Toombs and all other Confederates tried to restore some normal activities to their lives. Stephens wrote A Constitutional View of the Late War Between the States in addition to his Comprehensive and Popular History of the United States. Here, as editor Davis tells us, Stephens, "the man who declared in 1861, that slavery was the `cornerstone' of the movement" maintained now (after the war) that slavery was ancillary to the South's "true and heroic stand on states rights" (p. 244). And, of course, Stephens was not alone in changing his stance on the war's cause. More than one of the "apostles of disunion" did the same thing.
The friendship between Toombs and Stephens lasted until 1883, when Stephens died. Toombs gave the main eulogy, telling the vast assembled audience that "I come only to bring my tears." A scant two years later, Toombs joined Stephens, "embarking on those same waters" that his friend had already sailed (p. 254).
This quartet of books gives us glimpses of why the South seceded in 1861, how the Confederacy was apparently based on personality as much as, or more than, sound principles of government, and then how in 1865 apologists for the South switched to the desire to maintain states' rights to justify the conflict. Slavery was certainly too indefensible in 1865, even among wide areas of the South, for it to be admitted to be the cause of the war.
These books give the modern reader intelligent and varying causes of the United States' greatest trauma. Two of them, Dew's Apostles and Davis's A Fire Eater Remembers, show the extent to which some "fire-eating" Southerners were willing to take the country in 1861 to save their beloved institution of slavery. Davis's The Union that Shaped the Confederacy (the best of the four) shows us how sometimes great historical events can revolve around simple friendships. And, finally, Olsen's imaginative treatment of Mississippi secession (which started out as a Ph.D dissertation at the University of Florida) is valuable, among other things, for its gathering of local statistics from antebellum Mississippi. Despite some vagaries (the positing, for example, of "anti-party" tradition and then spending paragraphs and even pages discussing vigorous party activity), the book shows promise for future endeavors.
No book or group of books can be classified as "definitive" in reference to the Civil War; the authors in this review, however, have succeeded in helping to focus on some of the main issues concerning this conflict.
CARLTON JACKSON Western Kentucky University
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Title Annotation:||'The Union That Shaped the Confederacy: Robert Toombs and Alexander Stephens,' 'Apostles of Disunion; Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War' and 'Political Culture and Secession in Mississippi: Masculinity, Honor and the Antiparty Tradition, 1830-1860'|
|Publication:||The Mississippi Quarterly|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2002|
|Previous Article:||Interracialism: Black-White Intermarriage in American History, Literature, and Law.|
|Next Article:||Reading Southern History: Essays on Interpreters and Interpretations.|