- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 13, 2002


By William C. Davis
Free Press
478 pages. $35. Illus.

Russell F. Weigley

William C. Davis offers this history of the Confederacy somewhat apologetically, aware that many readers will assume that there is nothing new to be said about the subject. If anyone has the mastery of Confederate history needed to warrant attempting a new synthesis, however, it is Mr. Davis. In fact, "Look Away!" constitutes a new synthesis and much more.
For a comprehensive work, it rests to a remarkable extent directly on primary sources. Mr. Davis has searched archives all over the South to recapture especially the voices of citizens of every state and social level. "Look Away!" is a history of the Confederacy in large part as Mr. Davis' unexcelled expertise permits him to interpret it but in equal part as its inhabitants experienced and perceived it, including, as far as sources permit, its black inhabitants.
Because almost the entire life of the Confederacy was spent at war, the book has to be in part also a military history, but Mr. Davis in his wise sensitivity to the familiarity of much of his study has kept his military narrative to a minimum. Mostly, he relegates combat history to a set of brief interpolations into his main text, the latter emphasizing politics, ideology, and social and economic history. Remarkably and effectively concise, Mr. Davis' military vignettes are probably the most conventional part of the book. In them, Robert E. Lee reigns as the greatest Confederate general.
Mr. Davis develops the political part of his history in especially dense detail as he examines the Montgomery, Ala., convention that organized the Confederacy and the evolution of the convention into the Provisional Congress.
On the political influences and individual leaders shaping the Confederacy's institutions at the beginning, Mr. Davis' account supersedes any other. Anyone wanting to know how the Confederate government was founded will now have to begin with "Look Away!" What that investigator will find is even more fractiousness in Montgomery than we have customarily believed, personal feuds and partisan rivalries from the old Union barely papered over and very much a portent of difficulties to come.
Mr. Davis stresses how significant it was that the quarrelsome founding fathers of the Confederacy were unwilling to submit their handiwork to any sort of referendum by the similarly fractious voters. The founders were so aware of the fissions in Southern politics and thus of the uncertainty of public support for secession and the new government that they feared ruination from any general electoral test.
Without engaging, as this reviewer has done, in highly speculative thoughts that the Confederacy failed because of the lack of the will to win, out of loyalty to the old flag or some other source of ambivalence, Mr. Davis takes the solid, practical ground that his sources confirm the founders' doubts about what popular referendums might have shown at the beginning, and that the hardships and tensions of war frayed Confederate unity more and more harshly from that point forward.
Central to Mr. Davis' history is his exploration of Confederate ideology. He interprets the Confederacy as an experiment in democracy. Its founders and ongoing leaders were decidedly self-conscious about that. But the Confederacy was a peculiar democracy if its founders could not trust their creation to electoral scrutiny, a problem that in turn owed much to the further peculiarities of a democracy that was avowedly elitist, trying to reconcile democratic ideology with special pride and privileges for an establishment hierarchy at the expense of lower orders that were not confined to slaves.
The Confederate version of democratic ideology proved, indeed, to harbor too many contradictions to survive. Saying that may not be saying anything particularly new, but much of what, nevertheless, is new in "Look Away!" involves the pathos revealed by detailed examination of the efforts of self-consciously democratic yet elitist ideologues to hold the experiment together despite its inner contradictions.
Also, if it is not so new to state that the Confederacy fell apart internally, Mr. Davis' account is fresh in its unsparing demonstration that in time almost nothing worked. An economy dedicated to laissez-faire principle had to resort more and more to quasi-socialism, sometimes with impressive short-term successes but with final failure of practice and principle both.
A society dedicated to law and order as the bedrock of avoiding the worst consequences of social and economic inequities descended into chaos and often into criminality, with roving bands of draft evaders and simple thugs posing dangers on every highway and byway.
The institution of slavery, the preservation of which was the Confederacy's principal reason for being, became the worst of all the experiment's many vulnerabilities, as blacks seized control of their own fortunes, often just to flee to the Union Army but sometimes to join in the carnival of marauding and despoiling.
With President Jefferson Davis, the historian is more generous than may be fashionable. Acknowledging that the president too readily disregarded the sensibilities of others in a rigid devotion to duty as he saw it, the historian believes that the chief executive was remarkably flexible in the midst of unforeseeably revolutionary problems. No one could have done appreciably more to halt the descent into chaos.
If he is generous with the Confederate leader, however, Mr. Davis may be a degree too critical of the blatantly state-centered Confederate governors, notably Zebulon B. Vance of North Carolina and Joseph E. Brown of Georgia, who at least helped hold ruination at bay within their state boundaries.
General internal collapse was, in Mr. Davis' account, beyond the capacity of anybody to fend off indefinitely when the pressures of war and invasion impacted upon the Confederacy's internal strains and contradictions.
Mr. Davis acknowledges that the sheer overwhelming power of the Union, which wrecked Confederate armies and other resources from the outside, obviously has to be accorded a major role in explaining Confederate defeat. Yet he regards attributing defeat mainly to overwhelming exterior power as only a half-truth and an unfortunate source of the bogus Lost Cause myth that acquits Southerners of their own responsibility for the Confederacy's downfall.
In "Look Away!" the Confederacy essentially destroyed itself. Mr. Davis' authoritative history will make it difficult to resist that conclusion.

Russell F. Weigley, distinguished university professor emeritus at Temple University, is the author of "A Great Civil War: A Military and Political History."

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