Southern Historical Society Papers/Volume 02/November/Review of Count of Paris' History
SOUTHERN HISTORICAL SOCIETY PAPERS,
A Foreign View of the Civil War in America.
[The following review from the facile pen of Mr. W. Baird, of Essex Co., Virginia, is important as pointing out some of the errors of a book which is being widely circulated, and which some of our Southern papers even have warmly commended without reading.]
History of the Civil War in America. By the Comte de Paris. Translated, with the approval of the Author, by Louis F. Tasistro. Edited by Henry Coppee, LL. D. Volume I. Philadelphia: Joseph H. Coates & Co. 1875.
It would be absurdly extravagant praise to say of this bulky volume what was said, with such pointed severity, of the reply to Bentley, published under the name of Boyle, in the once famous controversy concerning the letters of Phalaris, that it was "the best book ever written by any man upon the wrong side of a question of which he was profoundly ignorant." It would, indeed, be much nearer the truth, strong as such language certainly is, to pronounce it the worst book ever written under such circumstances.
It would seem well-nigh impossible for the mingled force of prejudice and ignorance to go farther, great as their powers confessedly are. Such sentences as the following, taken from the preface, read like the bitterest satire upon the work they introduce: "Notwithstanding his (the author's) legitimate preferences for the cause he served, he has endeavored to preserve, throughout his narrative, the strictest impartiality. He has examined with equal care the documents that have emanated from both parties, and if his work be a reflex of the vicissitudes in the midst of which it was prosecuted, he believes that it possesses at least the merit of precision and sincerity."
With the sincerity of the writer we have no particular concern. Let it be as perfect as it may, it could only serve to add another instance, unhappily but little needed, of the amazing extent of human blindness and self-delusion. Of his precision—if by precision, in the sentence just quoted, accuracy be meant—we propose to give a few of the most prominent among almost numberless illustrations. It is, in effect, in virtue of this claim to peculiar impartiality—an impartiality supposed naturally to belong to the author's position and antecedents and because of the undue weight which it is likely to have on this account, among persons not well acquainted with the facts of the case, that we have thought it worth while to notice a few of its most glaring errors and perversions.
At this point we find ourselves seriously embarrassed and impeded by the very variety and wealth of our materials. The text absolutely swarms with blunders. Errors, misconceptions, misstatements, confront us on every page, not to mention the arrogant prejudice and elaborate one-sidedness that pervade the whole, as instanced in such samples of judicially impartial historical narrative as the following:
"In short, the mere fact that a simple Kansas farmer named John Brown, who had been ruined and persecuted by the slave-holders, sought to wreak his revenge upon them in Virginia, and had gathered together a dozen of fugitive slaves at Harper's Ferry, was sufficient to arouse a terrible sensation in the South. It was thought that a civil war had broken out; preparations were made for a great uprising, and it was found necessary to send regular troops from Washington to seize this man, who expiated upon the gallows the crime of having frightened the proud Virginians."
"Whether by accident or intentionally, the Confederates selected the 4th of March to adopt a new flag, and on the day when Mr. Lincoln entered upon the discharge of his functions, the Stars and Bars, as the banner of the rebellion was called, were audaciously displayed in seven States."
Comment would be superfluous; and it is necessary, moreover, that we should hasten to a more important part of our subject than the taste and temper of the historian. The task of selection, as we have said, is difficult amidst such distracting abundance, but a beginning must be made, and we will take as our first instance a blunder neither more nor less gross than the swarm of others which give the work perhaps a chance of surviving as one of the curiosities of literature. On page 84 of the volume before us we meet with this truly remarkable statement:
"The North, through an imprudent exercise of the spirit of conciliation, had allowed the constitution to be violated by shameful compromises. The barriers of the free States had been lowered that the fugitive slave might be restored to the planter." Now, from these sentences, it is really very hard to extract any meaning whatever, and we would be inclined to throw the blame upon the translator, and suppose that he had, through haste and inadvertence, done his author a grievous wrong, but for the number of similar passages that keep it in countenance in the course of the following pages.
To what "shameful compromises" does the Count of Paris refer? If to those by which slavery was excluded from or admitted into the Territories of the Union according to a certain geographical line, whatever he may think of the propriety of such enactments, it is absurd and self-contradictory, from his point of view, to call them unconstitutional. Nothing can be clearer than that if Congress had a right to legislate slavery out of the Territories, it had also a right to legislate it into them. If it had power over the subject at all, that power could only have been limited by its own discretion. Or is it the fugitive slave law itself that he considers a shameful compromise, violative of the constitution? If so, this is indeed an instance of being wounded in the house of one's friends. Whatever the sins of the North against the constitution, she is perfectly clear of this, nor have we ever heard her charged with it before by her bitterest enemies. Has the Count of Paris ever read the constitution of the United States? Is he aware of the provision contained in article 4, section 2, paragraph 3, of that instrument? Does he recollect the language held, not by Southern leaders—the favorite objects of his denunciation—but by the foremost jurists and statesmen of the North, by Story and Webster, indeed by all men of all parties, whatever their opinions upon the subject of slavery and the propriety of the provision in question, who have undertaken to discuss the point, with the single exception of himself? Is he acquainted with the "higher law" literature? Does he know by whom and upon what grounds the constitution itself was denounced as "a covenant with death and an agreement with hell"?
The provision referred to is as plain as language can make it; so plain that it could neither be denied nor explained away. The only resource left was to acknowledge the obligation imposed by it in words, but to evade and nullify it in act; and for this triumph of astute and conscientious statesmanship, the leaders of the so-called Republican party were entitled to the meed of the author's discriminating and judicious praise. That he should have lost the opportunity, and actually bestowed instead a severe blow upon the heads of his allies, is a mournful example of the peril of fighting entirely in the dark.
This we would have supposed at first sight to be absolutely without a parallel, but a few sentences lower down we meet with an assertion that may well be allowed to contest the palm. "It (the slave power) could permit neither the territorial extension of the North nor the criticism of a free press beyond its boundaries." The last clause of this sentence contains such a flagrant absurdity that we can hardly suppose that even this author intended to say what his language actually conveys. If he did not the wording of the sentence should be so altered as to show us what he really did mean; if he did, the statement is too utterly baseless and preposterous to need or deserve contradiction.
The assertion in regard to the extension of Northern territory, if not so utterly and ludicrously absurd, is quite as much at variance with the facts, as the most cursory glance at the history of the country will suffice to demonstrate. Indeed, the ignorance that can alone explain or palliate such a misrepresentation would be inexcusable in a school-boy. What must be thought of it, then, in a man gravely assuming the functions of an accurate and impartial historian? Has the Count of Paris never heard of the ordinance by which Virginia bestowed upon the Union, in the direct interest of the territorial extension of the North, an empire not far inferior in extent to the France of our own time? Is he aware that from that period up to the beginning of the late war a territory nearly three times as great in extent had been added to the area of the Northern section of the Confederacy as to that of the Southern? Does he know that at the period of the first Confederation the area of the Northern colonies was to that of the Southern in the proportion of only about one to four? If the South could not, and did not, permit "the territorial extension of the North," how was this proportion so essentially altered as to give to the Northern section of the Union an overwhelming preponderance?
But we beg pardon for wasting time upon so perfectly obvious a point, especially as the author has done us the favor to contradict himself flatly a few pages further on. It is really unfortunate for him that he cannot determine which view of the matter is on the whole most favorable to the side he has espoused and abide by it. He would at least avoid by this means the necessity of attempting to maintain grossly inconsistent positions.
Our author, however, is by no means contented with the humble merits of painstaking research and accurate recital of facts. He is determined to show us that he can also reason, and accordingly, a little further on, favors us with his views upon the origin and structure of the Federal Government, in which he deals very summarily with the doctrine of States-rights and Mr. Calhoun, "the foremost statesman of South Carolina, who," he tells us, "soon came to be considered the palladium of the peculiar institutions of the Southern States." "It is sufficient," we are informed, "to sum up this doctrine in a few words, to show how specious and dangerous it was." Then follows a long passage, which we are sorry we have not space to quote, or, at least, to make copious extracts from, for the entertainment of such of our readers as may have time and patience to devote to their perusal. Certainly, in the sense in which Frederick the Great's verses were said to be "royal verses," this reasoning may be called princely reasoning. The great Southern political philosopher has little to dread from opponents like this.
We desire to call attention to but a single remark in the course of this argument, if indeed it can, by any stretch of courtesy, be so denominated. "The States themselves," says the author, in commenting upon the results of the States-rights theory, "would soon have been broken up by the claims of the counties of which they were composed to separate from them." In these few words is contained the root of the whole matter. Here is the pernicious fallacy which lies at the basis of the entire system of consolidation.
Unquestionably, it would appear to be a doctrine too utterly groundless, too palpably at variance with the plainest and most familiar facts, to require refutation, or even to be worthy of serious notice. And if it stood alone we might be inclined to pass it over, as merely another instance added to the long list of ludicrous mistakes with which ignorant and superficial travelers have adorned their works upon foreign countries. But the Count of Paris is here kept in countenance, not indeed by his own illustrious country-man, to whom he is most infelicitously and absurdly compared by his editor, but by Americans themselves, in whom this ignorant or willful misrepresentation is far more disgraceful. Exactly the same position, it will be remembered, was assumed by the late President Lincoln. Incredible as it seems that this should impose for a moment upon any human understanding, yet, as it has been made use of again and again by men whose station gave a certain weight and currency to their words, our readers will perhaps pardon us for devoting a brief space to this oft-repeated and oft-exposed fallacy.
Whatever difference of view may possibly exist among candid and well-informed men as to the relation of the States to the Federal Government, these are facts, concerning which, we presume, there can be no controversy between them: First, that counties are mere local subdivisions of the territory of a State created for purposes of convenience by the legislative power thereof, and liable to be altered or abolished altogether at the will and pleasure of the same authority. Secondly, that the States of the American Union were originally colonies of Great Britain, entirely separate from and independent of each other; that for the purposes of mutual support and assistance, they entered voluntarily into an union with each other, and that they subsequently saw fit to alter and modify the articles of union, and to ordain and establish a new constitution, which each separate State adopted for itself, and which the adoption by twelve would have made in no way binding on the thirteenth. Here we pause, for this is a mere statement of facts, upon which all are agreed who know anything of the matter, and this is abundantly sufficient to prove that there is not the faintest analogy between the relation of counties to States and that of States to the Union. We might well go further, and remind the author that the doctrine of which he disposes so easily was held, not only by the selfish leaders and deluded masses of the South, but by eminent Northern politicians, notably those of New England in the days of a certain memorable convention at Hartford, as well as by able, thoughtful and disinterested foreigners.
We will make but a single quotation from one of the most distinguished of these latter. Will we hear De Tocqueville on the point? "The Union," says that eminent writer, despite his manifest leaning towards the North, and more especially towards New England, "was formed by the voluntary agreement of the States; and in uniting together, they have not forfeited their nationality, nor have they been reduced to the condition of one and the same people. If one of the States choose to withdraw from the compact, it would be difficult to disprove its right of doing so, and the Federal Government would have no means of maintaining its claims directly, either by force or right."
It would be a waste of time to dwell any longer upon so plain a point, or even to cite, as might easily be done, other eminent authorities, both Northern and European. We prefer to leave the Count of Paris in the hands of his distinguished countryman, with this advice however, which we commend to his serious consideration, that before he again undertakes to write upon American constitutional questions, he will devote half an hour to the perusal of the constitution itself, and an equal space of time to the history of the events immediately preceding its adoption. This will not indeed make him an able constitutional lawyer, but it may avail to save him from such gross and palpable blunders as those we have just been exposing.
A moderate degree of research into the events of the period of which he professes to write the history, would also have been advisable. For example, a glance at the report of the committee appointed by a Republican House of Representatives, with a Republican at its head, to investigate the subject, would have saved him from the discredit of repeating, as he does more than once with all the unrestrained exultation of a violent partisan, the stale and groundless story of Secretary Floyd's having used his official position to arm the South and disarm the North. The report of this committee, which will hardly be suspected of undue partiality for General Floyd, exonerated him fully from the charge, and to this we refer the Count at his leisure. It is hardly wise to be "plus rogaliste que le roi."
Again, what idea would any reader unacquainted with the real course of events derive from this writer's account of the efforts at compromise made at the last session of Congress previous to the commencement of the war?
"With the exception of the secession leaders," says he, "all parties were working sincerely to devise means for maintaining the Union" (page 120). And again: "Congress was the arena where the antagonistic passions which developed themselves on every side struggled for the mastery, and attempts at conciliation were only brought forward to be defeated through the absolute pretension of the Southern leaders" (page 128). All this in the teeth of the fact that every proposition looking to a compromise came from the South; that the Crittenden resolutions were distinctly accepted by "the Southern leaders," received the vote of every Southern Senator except those from South Carolina, who, had already vacated their seats, and were rejected by a united Republican vote, by which also Mr. Clark's substitute, peremptorily closing the door to anything in the nature of a compromise, was adopted." The vote of the Republican members of the Senate," says a Massachusetts historian of the conflict, "was a blank denial of the necessity of compromise, and showed of course that they had deliberately made up their minds to refuse any negotiation."
In like manner the project of the Peace Conference, which had been inaugurated by Virginia, was summarily and even contemptuously rejected by the same party.
Now, these are the unquestionable facts of the case, and it is against perversions of these that we enter our protest. We are not now dealing with matters of opinion at all. The Count of Paris may think this rejection of all overtures for compromise an eminently wise and commendable proceeding on the part of the Republican party—an opinion, indeed, which, with that reckless disregard of self-contradiction that is so striking a feature of his book, he soon afterwards expresses. He has an indisputable right to form, and to maintain after his fashion, any opinions that may please him on the questions at issue between the two sections; nor do we conceive the Southern cause in the slightest danger from the power of his logic. What we do object to is the persistent misrepresentation of facts, which cannot of course impose upon any one tolerably acquainted with the history of the times, but which may be productive of considerable harm by misleading and prejudicing that astonishingly large class of Europeans which is profoundly ignorant of our history and our institutions.
Another instance, of a character similar to that which we have just been examining, is the light in which the relations between the Southern Commissioners and the Government at Washington are presented.
"Mr. Lincoln," we are told (in reference to the question of evacuating Fort Sumter), "did not hesitate; but being always disposed to deal fairly even towards a perfidious enemy, he deemed it proper to inform the authorities of South Carolina of his intentions."
Now, it so happens that upon this very interesting episode of the late contest, the public is in possession of particularly clear and ample information, entirely at variance with the representation given in this volume. If its author was in the habit of rendering a reason for his belief, or adducing evidence in support of his assertions, it might be worth while to inquire for what reason and upon what evidence he here applies the apparent candor, which are requisite to make them effective, any inquiry of the kind would be thrown away. The idea of perfidy may indeed have been uppermost in his mind while engaged in the consideration of this matter, and have been thus strangely misapplied by a lapse of memory or of pen. This, however, is merely a suggestion. Should he still be really in darkness on the point, we would refer him, for his own enlightenment, to the various publications bearing upon it that have issued from Northern sources, and also to the singularly clear, cool and dispassionate statement of Judge Campbell. How will he reconcile the position he assumes for Mr. Lincoln with the course pursued, as is proven on unimpeachable testimony by Mr. Lincoln's official representative, Secretary Seward? We cheerfully leave to him the task of settling the question between his two heroes."perfidious" to the opponents of Mr. Lincoln's government. But in the case of a writer who evidently considers this quite unnecessary, and distributes praise and abuse not only without scruple, but without the art and
After what they have already seen of the scrupulous accuracy and thorough acquaintance with his subject displayed by this historian, our readers will scarcely be surprised to meet with such original and interesting items of information as that "the three fractions of the Democratic party" were personified by Douglas, Breckinridge and Bell," and that "the electoral colleges of Tennessee and North Carolina refused to call a convention at the bidding of the seceders."
But enough of this. We grow weary of pointing out errors which a stupid school-boy would be ashamed to commit, and a clever school-boy would scarcely have patience to correct.
It may perhaps be suggested that, from his education and previous habits, the Count of Paris is better fitted to figure as a writer of military than of civil history. If so, we would strenuously advise him to confine himself in future strictly to technical details. Let us see however whether this view of the case is sustained by the facts. Turning, then, to the military portion of the history, we find, not to mention the errors pointed out by the editor (elsewhere by no means so mindful of the duties of his office), in regard to the West Point system, and the army retired list, the following extraordinary statement on page 24: "In 1855 Congress passed a law authorizing the formation of two new regiments of cavalry, and Mr. Jefferson Davis, then Secretary of War, took advantage of the fact that they had not been designated by the title of dragoons to treat them as a different arm, and to fill them with his creatures to the exclusion of regular officers whom he disliked."
The reader may perhaps be curious to know who some of these "creatures" appointed by Mr. Davis "to the exclusion of regular officers whom he disliked were." Why, upon the side of the Confederates, among others Generals R. E. Lee, A. S. Johnston, J. E. Johnston, Kirby Smith, Hood, Hardee, Stuart and Fitz Lee, and on that of the Federals, Generals McClellan, Sedgwick, Stoneman, Sumner, Wood, Thomas, Sturgis, Emory, Casey, Smith, Palmer, and others. We give this simply as a specimen of the value of this historian's assertions. As for the distinguished objects of his denunciation upon our own side, we conceive them in no manner of danger from the blows of this champion; and as regards the epithet which he applies to his old commander and comrades, why it is a family quarrel, in which we are not at all interested. We are merely calling attention to the absurd and reckless misstatements of this rival of De Tocqueville, and the utter worthlessness as a record of facts of the book which we are informed by the editor displays "careful search, cool judgment, and a manifest purpose to be just to all."
When, for instance, he speaks of the Southern army and navy officers who resigned their commissions in order to take part with their native States as traitors and deserters, we have no reply to make, for the remark deserves none. It merely serves to bring into bold relief the petty malignity and profound ignorance of its author. He would seem from this to be in the same state of hopeless darkness in regard to the law-military as in regard to the constitution of the United States, and we could hardly make use of stronger language. But when he declares that the resignations of the army officers embraced "all together two hundred and sixty-nine names, out of about six hundred, which the regular army contained," we would call attention to the fact already pointed out by General Jordan, of General Beauregard's staff, that, in the first place, this is a gross understatement of the whole number of army officers; and that, in the second, the list of two hundred and sixty-nine includes not only the names of men who did not enter the Confederate army, but even those of some who actually became generals in Federal service.
Of a similar character is the statement that among those who had resigned their commissions were included "most of the higher class of officers in the military department, and occasionally the entire corps of officers belonging to one regiment."
This also has been contradicted by the writer above referred to. In no single regiment did the number of resignations amount to half that of the officers; and of the officers of the department alluded to, instead of a majority, not one-fourth took the side of the Confederacy.
So much for preliminary remarks. Let us see whether there is any improvement when the Count gets fairly into the field, where it is claimed that he has the advantage of narrating either as an eye-witness himself, or from the immediate testimony of eye-witnesses.
As regards the first important engagement of the war, that of the 21st July, 1861, he represents the Confederate force to have actually exceeded that of the Federals. Now, we have General Beauregard's official statement, from which the estimate here given does not vary materially, that his whole force, including the army of the Shenandoah, amounted to 30,161 men of all arms. But by the testimony of Federal officers before the "Committee on the Conduct of the War," it appears that General McDowell had five divisions, numbering from ten to twelve thousand men, exclusive of cavalry and artillery. His force, therefore, cannot according to this be fairly estimated at less than 55,000 or 60,000 men. General Johnston, moreover, in his calm, considerate and remarkably nonpartisan-like narrative, estimates the Federal numbers on the field at "about two to one compared with the Confederates at four o'clock, and four to one at noon; at eleven o'clock," he says, "the disparity of numbers was much greater." So much for the respective numbers of the opposing armies and of the forces actually engaged at different stages of the conflict.
We have not space to dwell upon the various errors of detail that adorn the chapter devoted to the first battle of Manassas, as, for example, the evident confusion in the writer's mind as regards the command-in-chief of the Confederates; the ridiculous mistake about the "old road called Braddock road, because it had been constructed by General Braddock during the War of Independence;" the absurd over-statement of Evans' force at the Stone bridge—a statement, however, which, as usual, he himself proceeds in the course of the next few pages to contradict, reducing it to about one-tenth of his original estimate by a single stroke of the pen; and the whole grossly inaccurate account of Kirby Smith's arrival on the field: all very appropriately closing with the singular assertion that "the rout, or in other words, the panic" of the Federal army "was one of those accidents to which even victorious armies are sometimes liable," Our author himself can scarcely be expected ever to surpass this. Such blind devotion might be safely calculated on at any sacrifice of truth, or of common sense. He has arrived at that point at which nothing that sustains his own side seems too hard for his credulity. He shrinks from no absurdity, however monstrous. Let us see, on the other hand, in what spirit he deals with the first serious reverse of the Confederate arms. "The capture of Donelson," he says, with a glow of rapturous exultation, "was a great and glorious success for the Federals. The material results were considerable. The capitulation delivered into the hands of Grant fourteen thousand six hundred and twenty-three prisoners, sixty-five cannons, seventeen thousand muskets—that is to say, an entire army with all its materiel. * * * The moral effect was immense. The remembrance of Bull Run was blotted out by a victory much more hotly contested, and the results of which were otherwise of importance. In short, after the scenes which had just been witnessed in Floyd's tent, and on the banks of the Cumberland, the Confederates could no longer taunt their enemies with the panic of the 21st of July; the game was henceforth even between them."
That is to say, the case of a garrison beleaguered by land and water by a force four times their own, after having not only repulsed repeated assaults, with heavy loss to the, but even defeated and driven them from important positions in the field, thus well nigh forcing a passage, sword in hand, through the masses that environed them, at length surrendering to overwhelming numbers, is precisely parallel to that of an invading army, thoroughly beaten, routed and driven in utter confusion and panic from the field, as were the Federals at the first battle of Manassas!
To state this proposition is sufficient. Such wild and reckless license of assertion deserves no serious reply.
There is one suggestion, however, which the Count would do well to give heed to. It is very dangerous for historians of his order to deal much in figures. In the case before us, for instance, he has himself stated the Confederate force at fifteen thousand men. He then informs us that about three thousand made their escape with Generals Floyd and Pillow, and that the Confederates had about the same number of men disabled as their adversaries, whose loss in killed he gives as four hundred and twenty-five. Allowing the proportion of killed to have been nearly the same on both sides, by what new rule of arithmetic, may we ask, do thirty four hundred subtracted from fifteen thousand leave fourteen thousand six hundred and twenty-three, which is here given as the number surrendered at the capitulation? This writer's memory seems scarcely long enough for the vocation he has chosen.
His whole account, indeed, of these operations, especially where the relative forces engaged are involved, is utterly unreliable and inconsistent. It would be a matter of some interest to know upon what authority or authorities he relies for these remarkable and often conflicting statements. He has even gone so far as to assert that when Beauregard was assigned to the Mississippi Department, he took with him fifteen thousand men, withdrawn from the army confronting McClellan, a statement for which there is absolutely no foundation whatever. He took with him, as is perfectly well known, not a single man from the army in Virginia. Nor was there afterwards, in spite of this writer's confident assertion to that effect, any force detached from that point to reinforce him. The whole story, from beginning to end, is in every particular a pure figment of its author's imagination, and reminds us of nothing so much as of Falstaff's eleven men in Buckram reinforced by three in Kendalgreen. The enormously exaggerated force which the author places at General Johnston's disposal in the West can no longer be matter of surprise, when we are once made aware of the easy process by which those armies on paper are created.
We had intended to go farther—to follow the Count of Paris upon another element—and to show that the singular, and in one sense even admirable faculty of getting everything hopelessly wrong, and involving himself in a perfect labyrinth of absurdities, which we have seen attend him so faithfully on land, by no means deserts him at sea. We had also thought of pointing out instances of the strange prejudice which he seems to entertain against particular individuals; the awkward blows which he deals his own party; his profound ignorance of the internal condition of Southern society, and the false English and confused style which very worthily set off the matter of this work. But we forbear; our space is well nigh exhausted, and to correct all the author's errors would be in effect to rewrite his book. Those to which we have called attention have all been taken from a single volume. Much, very much, remains untouched; yet we have said enough to abundantly demonstrate the utter worthlessness of this so-called history, and the eminent incapacity of the writer for the high task he has undertaken.
What, then, must be thought of the worth of General Sherman's testimony, or of the animus which inspired it, when he describes this work as written "in a spirit of fairness and candor and with a desire to do justice to the complicated nature of our war."
As to the author himself of this libel upon an heroic and unfortunate people, blind prejudice and profound ignorance furnish the only explanation, and the best, though still but a wretched excuse for his offence.
Essex county. Va.