Saturday, June 26, 2010

“Look Away!” A History of the Confederate States of America

By William C. Davis

The Free Press 2002

Reviewed by Bill Cunningham

Most people think of the Confederate States of America in terms of waging war against the Northern invasion. It is largely forgotten that for four years there were two sovereign nations on the American soil. The Confederates, in addition to supporting the war effort, had to go about the more mundane business of state craft such as raising revenues, allocating monies for public services, maintaining law and order, and making sure the mail got delivered.

It proved not to be easy.

The essence of the day-to-day life of the Confederate government is captured in this overlooked work by WBTS historian William C. Davis of Blacksburg, Virginia. Scores of tomes have dealt with the War, its generals and battles, but this creative work deals with the Southern nation itself—the Confederate States of America.

The Confederate States of America functioned with its own constitution, executive branch, judicial branch, legislation and seat of government. It’s interesting to discover how the strong states’ rights advocates learned that successful nation-building demanded the surrender of many local prerogatives. The Confederate political leaders were required to bring together a conglomeration of states into one cohesive country—galvanize it to fight a war and to govern its people at the same time.

“Look Away” gives one the impression that this monumental challenge was doomed from the beginning. At the organizational meeting in Montgomery in 1861, there were too many selfish interests, including slave mongering—fire eaters such as Robert Barnwell Rhett of South Carolina who had advocated secession as early as the 1830’s. He and others clashed with moderates who placed states’ rights as top priority and were even open to the possibility of non-slave states being admitted to the Confederacy in the future.

There was constant bickering between the states as to how much power should be centered in Richmond as opposed to the various state capitals. These founding fathers of the new nations of the South quickly found that nation-building was not as easy as once thought. Radical decentralization led to chaos and confusion when attempting to wage war and permit local autonomy at the same time.

The infrastructure of the South, especially later in the war when the Union forces gobbled up more and more of the Southern real estate, became increasingly difficult to maintain. Even law and order broke down as huge hunks of manpower were pulled away from small towns and villages leaving them exposed to lawlessness. In the lower South slaves outnumbers whites and they began to wander and pillage at will in some communities.

And then there was the political bickering and infighting which undermined the administration of Jefferson Davis. Davis pushed for more authority to be invested in Richmond and sought high tariffs to help finance the war effort. Both measures were seen as contradictory by some to the secessionists’ main purpose. President Davis is portrayed by the writer as having some strengths, but also burdened with an impossible task destined to failure by the very definition of his new country. Yet at the same time, in the end especially, Jeff Davis is cast as a stubborn fanatic, without vision and without the common sense to know when the Confederacy was beaten and on the verge of ruination.

It is the clear opinion of this book that by far the best selection for the job would have been Kentucky’s own John Cabell Breckinridge, and that if Kentucky had uniformly seceded early the job would have been his. He is correctly portrayed as a moderate, and one of the bright and shining lights of the South, equal in character and ability with Robert E. Lee. Historian Davis states that just prior to the war Breckinridge was the “most revered statesman in the South.”

He had served as vice-President of the United States from 1857-1861. Though obtaining his high military rank purely by his political reputation, he nevertheless became a very effective and well-respected commander involved in numerous major encounters. Very late in the life of the Confederacy, Breckinridge was appointed Secretary of War. By all accounts he “played a poor hand well”, striving gallantly to salvage what he could of a sinking ship.

At the end of the war, when President Davis became divorced from reality, Breckinridge—after conferring with Lee—put forth to the conquering Union General William T. Sherman his own secret peace plan. It would have made the readmission of the Southern states much easier and with less rancor than ultimately came with reconstruction. Sherman forwarded the proposal to Washington. Unfortunately Lincoln, who had previously shown favor to such a deal, died before it could be considered.

This dramatic information, along with other stories of the day-to-day life of the Confederate nation makes for very interesting reading by anyone enthralled with the history of the War for Southern Independence.

Closer to home, the book sadly reminds us that the brilliant career of John C. Breckinridge was permanently derailed by the War. It was not only Kentucky’s loss, but the nation’s.

Bill Cunningham is a Circuit Judge, serving Kentucky’s 56th Judicial Circuit. Judge Cunningham is also an author concentrating on regional history. His books include "Flames in the Wind," "On Bended Knee," "The Night Rider Story," "Kentucky's Clark," "Castle, The Story of a Kentucky Prison," and his own novel, "Children of Promise". His public career includes 30 years in the criminal justice system. He also served the United States in Germany, Vietnam, and Korea.

Originally published in the Winter, 2005 The Lost Cause

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