Dr. Scott Nelson’s take on Bitterly Divided: The South’s Inner Civil War (2008)

Introduction: Guest Blogger–Dr. Scott Nelson

My first meeting with Scott Nelson—perhaps better described as his first “encounter” with me—came at the 2009 Southern in Louisville. Following an uneventful panel, the topic of which now escapes me, I meandered down the escalator to find the author of Steel Drivin’ Man working quietly at a table in the hotel lobby (which, after about 2pm, doubled as the bar). Now, common courtesy would have typically prompted me to leave Dr. Nelson alone with his work—but any graduate student who has lived through the trauma of the doctoral application process understands that such an opportunity for ambush simply cannot be squandered. With my conscious sufficiently suppressed, I introduced myself to Dr. Nelson and, much to my delight, spent the next twenty minutes talking about memory and Confederate guerrillas with the Legum Professor of History at William and Mary.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Dr. Nelson accepted our invitation to guest blog for Bowtied and Fried with the same enthusiasm that graciously entertained a wide-eyed MA student in Kentucky. As the author of numerous articles relating to the “Civil War experience” and as the co-author of A People at War: Civilians and Soldiers in America’s Civil War (2007), Dr. Nelson’s review of David Williams’ Bitterly Divided: The South’s Inner Civil War (2008) comes with excellent credentials. The content of the review speaks for itself so, I will simply say that, in the process of outlining what he calls the “little battle over this short book,” Dr. Nelson ultimately underlines how historians are still heavily burdened with the task of sorting out and affixing meanings to the Civil War for both scholarly and public audiences—even as the looming shadow of its sesquicentennial grows…

– MCH

A review of David Williams, Bitterly Divided: The South’s Inner Civil War (New York:The New Press, 2008) by Dr. Scott Nelson

Historians of the nineteenth-century may have already heard of this book, as it has received savage reviews in Reviews in American History, the Journal of American History and an extended article-critique in Civil War History. This book is an extension of Williams’s impressive 1998 University of Georgia Press monograph, Rich Man’s War: Class, Caste, and Confederate Defeat in the Lower Chattahoochee Valley. In this new book, Williams moves past the close archival work he did on the homefront in Alabama and Georgia to examine the Confederacy as a whole. At the title suggests, Williams sees a Confederacy wracked by internal conflict, an internal conflict between haves and have-nots that contributed to Confederate defeat. Williams shows how the conflict manifested itself in the territorial conflicts of the 1850s (chapter one) and greatly troubled Confederate enlistment (chapter two). Chapter three is an interesting survey of the recent work on upcountry guerilla conflict. Chapters four and five show the organized opposition to the Confederacy among slaves, Creeks, and Seminoles. While few American historians will be surprised to discover internal conflict in the South during the Civil War, the quotations and stories are told in a lively narrative fashion; the book is designed for a popular audience. Williams uses the rich primary research he did in manuscript collections around the country when he was writing Rich Man’s War. They work even better in this book. But the author makes what appears now to have been a tactical error of footnoting Rich Man’s War rather than giving the full manuscript citations from the hundreds of manuscript sources and rural newspapers he read back in the 1990s when preparing that book.

The opposition to Williams has come from Gary Gallagher, his former colleage Mark Neely, and his former student Peter Carmichael, who criticize Williams for citing his own work too often, and selectively quoting the work of historians with more nuanced interpretations of Confederate disunity. All three reviewers regard Williams as naïve in believing that a divided Confederacy could have fought a war for four years. They are also critical of Williams’ not having cited Gallagher’s book The Confederate War (Harvard University Press, 1997). That book was a previous assault against what we may call the “Bitterly Divided” school whose members are no slouches: William Barney, Ira Berlin, Drew Gilpin Faust, William Freehling, Stephen Hahn, and Stephanie McCurry. Unfortunately The Confederate War rests almost entirely on printed secondary sources: the ruminations of Confederate officers, planters, and plantation mistresses about how unified the Confederate Army was and how little internal conflict was manifested on the plantation or battlefield. We might call this school the “Purty Much United” school. Yet most of the works cited in The Confederate War were selected and transcribed decades after the war.  Perhaps not surprisingly these diaries and official reports show a Confederacy united against a common foe. By comparison Gallagher tells us, the North was also divided.

To decide for ourselves, we must match up the quotations, and here Williams deserves his due. Williams cites a manuscript letter from a Georgia farmer to his neighbor complaining, “I didn’t vote for Secession – but them are the ones who have to go and fight now.” (61) We must square this with a competing quotation published in the Beehive Press that Gallagher quotes approvingly in which a soldier fears “that their families are left behind at the mercy of the Yankees.” According to Gallagher this letter is “representative of a large body of evidence,” (Confederate War, 31). But the few manuscript sources Gallagher cites come from the Lees, the Ramseurs, the Earlys, and the Keiths, many of them transcribed and reprinted. Do a score of Williams’s obscure handwritten letters equal a score of Gallaghers? I think so, and rather more so. By tracking back the footnotes in each work one is inclined to pass the palm to Williams, though we may quibble about interpretation.

I am reminded of E.H. Carr’s suggestion in What is History that we always study the archive where we have gotten our material, and to be especially critical of printed material. How did the material get here? Why was it selected? Who published it? Williams has asked these difficult questions, and for many years plumbed a body of difficult sources that suggest a widespread disaffection with the Confederate government in the heart of the Deep South, a place where one would expect to find near-unanimity among whites against an invading Union Army. Where much of the attack on the “Bitterly Divided” school has relied on published sources, Williams’s evidence for a divided Confederacy comes from careful research in a vast array of contemporary rural newspapers and hand-written manuscript sources. The conclusion I have drawn from the little battle over this short book is that if you write a book for a popular audience make sure that the footnotes and bibliography are as full as you can make them. As any observant general might have noted, those gentlemen are in the woods watching us right now.

Dr. Scott Nelson
The College of William and Mary

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4 Responses to Dr. Scott Nelson’s take on Bitterly Divided: The South’s Inner Civil War (2008)

  1. Angela says:

    While I have not read “Bitterly Divided: The South’s Inner Civil War,” I thoroughly enjoyed this careful and balanced review of the work. Dr. Nelson, your beautiful prose and attention to detail is much appreciated! Additionally, the closing advice to us all, that even little books deserve great bibliographies, is useful to old and young scholars alike. Thank you Dr. Nelson!

  2. RCP says:

    Thanks for this excellent review, Dr. Nelson. As Angela mentioned, complete citations are of the utmost importance in our work, and your review also reminds us to check the footnotes of others. Skepticism can often be corroborated by following a trail of citations. Also, having recently heard both Gary Gallagher and James Robertson referred to as “neo-Confederates,” I applaud you for an academic argument based around source material rather than name calling–with the exception of the enjoyable “Purty Much United” school.

    With regards to the work at hand, I am curious how Williams answers the charge that a divided South could not have maintained their embattled position for the duration of the War. I believe Stephanie McCurry, of the “Bitterly Divided” school, is the most recent scholar to address this, though Joseph Glatthaar has also waded into the Rich Man’s War discussion.

    Thanks again for a great post!

  3. MCH says:

    Given the recent up-tilt of scholarly attention paid to Civil War irregulars, I’m pleased to note that Williams factored the guerrilla war into his overall assessment of a divided Confederate war effort. Moving past Michael Fellman’s visions of rampaging juvenile delinquents and bloodthirsty “Outdoorsman Gone Wild,” T. J. Stiles (Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War) and Daniel Sutherland (A Savage Conflict) have added spectacular geographic depth and, in many cases, ideological legitimacy to guerrilla warfare and notions of the home front as a non-traditional battlefield.

    That being the case, how do critics of Williams or the “bitterly divided” school account (if they do at all) for what essentially constitutes a sovereign irregular war effort framed by Confederate ideology going on right under their noses? After all, Lee’s own papers acknowledge his disapproval of the partisan ranger program, Confederate bushwhackers, and Richmond’s inability to control these raucous “Border Confederates” in Missouri, Arkansas, and Kentucky…

    All of that aside, many thanks for this excellent (and debate stirring) review!

  4. Scott Nelson says:

    Hi all,

    I heard that the term neo-Confederate was coined in the journal _Civil War History_ the 1950s to describe Ludwell Johnson. I know Ludwell (he retired 2 years before I came to W&M) and think he’d disagree with both Gallagher and Bud Robertson about many issues. Heck, Bud and Gallagher disagree about a lot. I worry that the term neo-Confederate may obscure more than it reveals.

    I think there’s nothing inherently wrong about the neo-Confederate position; I strongly disagree with it (and with Ludwell) but find that I learn a lot from discussing the war with him.

    The question, I suppose, that Angela, RCP & MCH ask all revolve around the question of how an army can stay on the field if popular support is uneven. That’s a tricky question. One answer (Williams’s I think) is that an army in the field can make its own law, and did make its own law – it ultimately required submission, not wholehearted endorsement, in order to occupy territory. Widespread guerilla opposition would be the test of its legitimacy. That opposition did exist in some areas and not others. Another answer (Gallagher’s I think) is that the army & government overlapped, and that a majority of white Southerners voted for secession. Lots to chew over.

    Scott

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