La Nouvelle Revue d'Histoire (special issue n ° 3): the Civil War

La Nouvelle Revue d'Histoire (special issue n ° 3): the Civil War

The New History Review (NRH) recently released its special issue n ° 3, devoted to the Civil War. Always interested in what could be written on the subject, we acquired it, just to read if we could learn something interesting. But from the start, Dominique Venner's editorial appeals to the somewhat discerning reader. According to him, seeing the Civil War as a civil war is above all a matter of " the interpretation of the winners »...


Curious introduction

From the "war between states" (War between the States, one of the names used in the United States to designate the conflict), we move briskly to a war of conquest between two nations, one subduing the other. The idea would not be uninteresting if it were a means of highlighting the deep cultural differences between North and South, but it is not. In reality, it is about legitimizing the cause of the South, presented as a heroic victim of Yankee imperialism. There have been more objective introductions to the subject - especially when we pretend to place ourselves from the point of view of the historian.

The same Dominique Venner, however, puts forward some relevant ideas in the following pages, when he explores the root causes of the conflict. He rightly underlines the cultural differences between North and South. And he recalls their origin: the two regions have a very different population, the North being mainly colonized by Protestant populations (the Puritans of Mayflower) cherishing hard work and enrichment, as the settlers of the South reproduce the pattern of the English land aristocracy - thus deeply despising anything that can resemble a form of capitalism.

But the discourse on the relations between one and the other quickly shows inconsistencies. D. Venner does not hesitate, thus, to present the South as a colony of an unscrupulous North, which exploits it at all levels: it is the Northerners who supply the slaves, transport the cotton to Europe and would receive most of the profits, leaving the planters only crumbs and forcing them to turn to northern bankers to borrow. There is certainly some truth to all of this, but the interpretation given to it is caricatured. Cotton brings enormous benefits to planters; if they are sometimes in debt, it is because they live beyond their means, imitating the English aristocracy very well.

Never mind, it is a real plot that the NRH uncovers. We learn that if the South has not industrialized, it is because northern entrepreneurs have cut short its promising momentum in this area, in particular through tariffs. This is a very singular allusion to the "nullification crisis" of 1832-33, which had arisen because some politicians wanted to raise customs duties (thus indirectly penalizing southern cotton exports) to finance industrialization. from the country.

The scenario seems coherent and would thus justify secession as a liberation from the economic subjection of the South to the North. Only here it is: consistency is not relevance. This is to forget that the South did not have on its territory the raw materials (coal and minerals) necessary for its industrialization, which did not interest its class of landowners anyway. It is also to forget that the most ardent proponent of tariff increases, Henry Clay, was a Virginian living in Kentucky - in other words, a Southerner. And it is still to forget that President Andrew Jackson of Tennessee (and therefore of the South too), became a fervent supporter of these tariffs after having been a fierce detractor. However, Jackson was the inspiration for the Democratic Party and its most "southern" fringes: populist, agrarian, anti-industrial and decidedly anti-capitalist. The very one which, in 1860-61, would make the population of the South accept secession as a necessity - when at that time, customs duties were significantly lower (and therefore more favorable to the South) than 'in 1832. The apparent coherence of this vision, where the South is maintained by the North in a state of latent colonization, clearly does not stand up to further analysis of the facts.

The presentation of the issue of slavery is also caricatural. The title that leads to it is, moreover, a false dilemma of the finest kind: " Love for blacks or hatred for the South? - the correct answer is actually "neither". From the first lines the case is heard: abolitionist fanatics have pitted the North against the South with their hateful sermons. The more complex reality will not be discussed. We will not read a word about the fact that abolitionists and slavers were largely in the minority on both sides; on the progressive radicalization of their rhetoric, leading to the support of the masses by resorting to the rhetoric of fear; on the ever-expanding concessions demanded for the protection of slavery; nor on the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, and more, which outraged the North far beyond the simple question of loving blacks or hating the South. Instead, we will have the right to an edifying passage explaining to us that the slaves of the South were better treated than the workers of the North. It might be relevant to mention it, because that's what defenders of slavery thought. But it is not, because D. Venner seems to endorse this point of view without hindsight - the complete opposite of the objectivity one expects of a historian.

After having examined the distant causes (although having neglected an essential factor in our opinion, namely the question of the distribution of powers between the federal state and the federated states) and closer to the Civil War, D. Venner attacks his immediate trigger: the election of Lincoln. And hardly explain it. Stuck on his reading grid, he describes a coterie of politicians as ambitious as they are radical - the Republican Party, created in 1854 - convincing the undecided electorate of the Middle West through press campaigns, the latter financed by this industrial plutocracy. which keeps the South under its control. It again omits an essential and yet far more relevant point: the Midwest, which had voted against radical Republican Frémont in 1856, voted for Lincoln because he was a moderate. His program was to limit the geographic spread of slavery, certainly not to abolish it. However, Dominique Venner will be careful not to say so, and for good reason: it would ruin his presentation of the outbreak of the war, which he said was provoked by Lincoln. An interpretation that runs counter to the facts: Lincoln has always listened to attempts at conciliation made during the winter of 1860-61, and he was even prepared to pass a constitutional amendment prohibiting the federal state from interfere with slavery where it was already practiced. We are a long way from the abolitionist and belligerent agenda that the NRH attributes to Lincoln.

But his point, which has become clear at this stage, is very different: it is about presenting the South as a victim, heir to a situation which he did not want (slavery) and forced to secede by a North. intolerant and aggressive. The alleged fanaticism of the Northerners is moreover presented as atavistic, because it is put in parallel with the religious intransigence of their Puritan ancestors. Incidentally, we will omit to specify the part taken in the northern war effort by immigrants of German or Irish descent, whose cultural heritage is however very different. This vision will be repeated in the background throughout the issue, to the point of becoming ridiculous: thus in the affair of Fort Sumter (April 12-13, 1861), it is the North which is the aggressor, and it does not matter that the first shot fired was from the Southerner ... One never wonders what the “aggressor” Lincoln could have room for maneuver: could he afford to let the garrison at Fort Sumter surrender for lack of food, without try to refuel it? A month after swearing on the Bible to stand up for the Union, certainly not. But the NRH's reading grid is so obtuse that it has to resort to conspiracy rhetoric to resolve this inconsistency. We will therefore read that the fort's supply expedition was only a trap intended to provoke the outbreak of the conflict ...

An unbalanced narrative

The following articles will not depart from this singular editorial line. If again the relevance of the words took this into the background ... but it is not. We thus find some well-worn clichés, such as the idea that the South had the best officers (in reality both camps have their share of incompetent, the Southerners Bragg, Polk, Floyd or Pillow not being the least), and that its peasants were better adapted to military life than the townspeople of the North (what about the rural people of Maine, Vermont, Pennsylvania, New York State or the Midwest?). To this are added annoying inaccuracies: if the photo of a 3-inch iron cannon mistakenly captioned as a 12-pound "Napoleon" bronze cannon will only appeal to the amateur who is a little too passionate about war material, the approximate card inserted on page 6 is already more troublesome. And there are enough of these tiny mistakes to refrain from citing them all. Some nevertheless challenge to the point of wondering if they are not deliberate: thus of this illustration on page 27, captioned by " A northern steamer sets a southern sailboat on fire "... except that the" northern steamer "In question carries the flag high" Stars and bars Of Confederation!

Some approximations can be found in the article by Hubert Villeret devoted to the Battle of Chancellorsville in 1863. With, as a bonus, splendid caricatures: the northern generals are aped as incompetent boastful and alcoholics; the XIth northern army corps sees itself as by magic renumbered "2th », And his men are obviously only soldiers; finally, last but not least, the days of May 3 and 4, 1863 simply did not exist: the southern attack launched on the evening of May 2 therefore resumed at the dawn of ... May 5. By the way, H. Villeret could undoubtedly have spared us his approximate description of the “cry of the rebels” (“ Yaaaah! "- sic.), Which is known from recordings made in the 1920s and 1930s by the later Southern veterans that it looked more like a bark, with wide variations from unit to unit. For his part, the famous Southern general "Stonewall" Jackson is of course presented as an infallible military genius whose death was a " irremediable loss For the Confederation. An assertion to be qualified: his performances were very poor on several occasions, his inaction during the fights of the "Seven Days" (June 25 - 1er July 1862), delivered to Richmond, costing the South a potentially decisive victory.

The short text about opposition to Lincoln is no more engaging: the account of the conscription riots in New York in July 1863 emphasizes above all the brutal repression that followed; we are talking about more than 500 rioters killed. Yet, we know from the work of Adrian Cook that there were no more than 105 victims, with at best a score of questionable deaths that could be added - which is moreover more than enough. Why inflate the numbers, if not with an ulterior motive? As for the political prisoners victims of the suspension of civil liberties decreed by Lincoln at the start of the war, the NRH is careful not to specify that most of them had been released in the spring of 1862. Releases decided by Lincoln and applied by Edwin Stanton, yet one of the most radical Republicans. Would historical reality be less Manichean than the NRH wants to write it?

Page 41 brings us back to the image of a northern industrial plutocracy that profited heavily from the war, relying on higher tariffs. That these were considerably raised during the war already proves that they were therefore rather low before the war (in fact, they were never so low in the XIXth century than at that time), reducing to nothing the assertion of the NRH according to which these same customs duties (raised deliberately by the Northerners, according to D. Venner, to ruin the Southerners) had led to numerous bankruptcies in the South during the 1850s. There were, but mainly because of the stock market panic of 1857 - and the North suffered even more. In fact, the increase in tariffs during the war was mainly intended to finance the military effort of the federal government, of which tariffs were then the main resource. Nothing is said, however, about the very little capitalist income tax, introduced at the same time for the same purpose. It is indisputable that there were war profiteers, but it was the case on both sides. Confederate blockade enforcers were also making fortunes, especially when they carried luxury goods in lieu of much more needed ones, such as medicine or food.

We still find approximations in the seven pages devoted by Charles Vaugeois to the battle of Gettysburg (1er - July 3, 1863), undoubtedly the most decisive of the conflict. But above all, one thing is obvious: relying heavily on a book by ... Dominique Venner, the author fully embraces the rhetoric of the "Lost Cause". This historiographical trend was born the day after the Civil War, in the years 1870-1880. Its main instigators were former generals and southern leaders, through their memoirs and works which have the interest of being first-hand, but the great disadvantage of being the work of authors who are both judges and parts. Their credo: the Confederation could have won the war without the mistakes of a few. For them as for the NRH, the main culprit in the defeat at Gettysburg has a name: James Longstreet, one of General Lee's corps commanders. In keeping with the historiography of the Lost Cause, Longstreet is described to us as a touchy and stubborn subordinate, preferring to sabotage Lee's battle plan, which he disapproved of, rather than see it succeed. He would thus have fought weakly in the final assault of July 3 (the famous "Pickett charge") which ended in disaster. This is the classic Lost Cause scenario, and the NRH fully supports it. Without Longstreet, the Battle of Gettysburg would have ended in triumph for the South.

This examination of the facts is one-sided. What about Northerners? Well, as usual for almost 50 pages now, they don't seem to do much other than undergo. How could it be otherwise, since only Longstreet's ill will explains why they were not defeated sooner? The proof is that, we are told, Northern General Meade is afraid of his enemy and still wants to retreat on the evening of July 2. An interpretation belied by the facts: It was Meade who correctly predicted that Lee would attack in the center the next day, and placed his artillery and reserves accordingly. Even well supported, the Confederate frontal attack had little chance of success, whether Longstreet was unwilling or not. General Pickett himself agreed. Obviously not relishing the discourse of historians of the Lost Cause, when asked why his famous charge had failed, he simply replied " I always thought the Yankees had something to do with it ". A good reminder that if the Southerners lost the battle, it is also because the Northerners won it. General Lee, far from blaming Longstreet, had fully assumed responsibility for the defeat. But Lee died in 1871 without leaving his memoirs, giving free rein to the historians of the Lost Cause - many of whom would become his hagiographers.

A manifest bias

When the story of the end of the war comes, the NRH insists on the brutality of the Northerners. General Sherman's famous “March to the Sea” across Georgia in 1864 was thus transformed into an “infernal column” devastating everything in its path. Its strategic interest (taking the port of Savannah and depriving the Southern armies of supplies from the rear) is understated, while the abuses committed are obviously exaggerated - in accordance with Southern historiography. We must therefore remember that Sherman had designed this plan so as not to have to protect a disproportionately stretched supply line, living on the country being also a good way to reduce to nothing the strategic potential of the region concerned. Sherman's avowed objective is to break the will of resistance of the southerners, which corresponds well to the throes of a civil war, despite the initial assertions of Dominique Venner that this vision was part of "history. of the winners ”. Sherman's harshness - who ends his life sickened by the horrors of war - in applying his own strategy is a boon to anyone who likes to portray the Civil War through the distorting mirror of Manichaeism.

A distortion that can be found in the portrait of General Grant, to which Guy Chambarlac makes a point of sticking the least flattering of his nicknames: "the Butcher". He is thus described to us according to, again, the hackneyed view usually given by historians of the Lost Cause: alcoholic, brutal and stubborn, with no regard for the lives of his men and attacking with no regard for loss. The bloody offensives of the spring of 1864 are put forward as proof, but without specifying their context: Grant is under political pressure from Lincoln, who demands decisive victories from him before the presidential elections in November. To do so, he will attempt to provoke and win that Clausewitzian battle of annihilation that the generals of the Civil War almost constantly sought and never obtained. Like the others, Grant will fail, and like the others, it will cost him dearly in human lives. Grant's so-called sadism has nothing to do with this: he seeks above all to win the war, like any general. That he does it wrong is one thing - and in war an error often has horrendous consequences - but wanting to make him a bloodthirsty character just for that is part of a one-sided vision that brings nothing to the historical knowledge.

However, the NRH will not shrink from any distortion to establish the bad reputation of "Butcher" Grant. We are thus given an anecdote from the Battle of Cold Harbor in June 1864, before which the Northerners pinned a piece of paper bearing their name and address on their uniforms, in order to allow the identification of their bodies if they were you are. G. Chambarlac shamelessly writes that this action was the result of a revolting cynical order from Grant, who would send his men to their deaths in a frontal attack with no chance of success. In reality, Grant did not give any such order: it was an initiative of the soldiers themselves, lucid about their chances of escaping from it at a time when combatants did not wear identification plates. . From a strictly tactical standpoint, Grant is already responsible for the bloody and unnecessary failure of Cold Harbor. Was there a need to add more? Where does the story end, and where does the lie begin?

The lie is not very far either when it comes to the surrender of General Lee at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865. The NRH gives us a poignant story: the noble and chivalrous Lee succeeding in imposing, even in defeat, his conditions to Grant. In reality, the generous conditions which presided over the surrender of the Southern army, release on parole of the soldiers who will be able to keep their horses and will be distributed seeds to resume work in the fields as soon as possible, had been proposed by the general Grant. If he could be on occasion (but not always, far from it) a soldier without imagination, and if he was certainly a mediocre president (from 1869 to 1877) at the head of an administration ravaged by the corruption, Ulysses Grant possessed a certain political sense, which is reflected in his magnanimous attitude to Appomattox. But this is too much of a reality against the portrait that the NRH intends to paint to its readership. So, she doesn't hesitate to cross-dress her ...

The following double page (p. 54-55) is arguably the most caricatured and one-sided of the whole magazine. The main generals from the South (Lee, Jackson, Beauregard, Stuart and Forrest) and Northerners (Grant, Sherman, Meade, Sheridan and Admiral Farragut) are presented in turn. There is no room for nuance. Lee is a military genius who made it all up. Not a word about the terrible losses inflicted on the Southern army by its main offensives (Seven Days, Antietam, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg). In fact, Lee, like Grant, attacked hard and regardless of losses, the difference being that the South, much less populated than the North, could not afford such a strategy. But thanks to the biased view of the NRH, Lee becomes a hero while Grant is a butcher. Look for the error ... Still on the northerly side, Farragut is insignificant, Sherman and Sheridan bullies focused on abuses (the proof, they will continue to slaughter Indians once the war is over), and only Meade finds (barely) favor with the eyes authors. Among the Southerners, on the other hand, there seem to have been only valiant white knights. The accusations as to Forrest's role in the massacre of black prisoners at Fort Pillow in 1864 are nothing but slander, according to the NRH.

In general, the atrocities appear to have been perpetrated only by Northerners, if we are to believe what is written in the magazine. The terrible conditions that prevailed in the Andersonville prison camp, where 13,000 northern captives died, are thus downplayed and attributed to the northern blockade. It would have been wiser to recall that the staggering death rates in the prison camps were a general problem, the northern camps not being spared. Yet other unflattering actions are to the credit of Confederate forces. What about General Early, for example, who razed the northern city of Chambersburg because the homes of some notable southerners had been looted? These are the horrors of a civil war, and there were many more. By retaining only those which conform to its biased reading grid, the NRH is clearly partisan, and hardly objective. At this stage, it can hardly be doubted that his intention is to distort the facts to make them justify a preconceived and biased conclusion. This, unfortunately, is not history.

From surprise to discomfort

John Hunter's article on slavery is particularly revealing, again. Taking up the remarks already quoted by Dominique Venner, he insists once again on the condition, apparently not so inhuman as that, of black slaves. He takes as proof the significant growth of the servile population during the first half of the 19th century.th century, a sign of good living conditions. He forgets to point out that this demographic situation also results from the need to compensate for the end of the slave trade, because since 1808 it has been forbidden to import slaves. However, the fertilization of slaves by their masters was a means, accepted and practiced by some, of increasing their number. J. Hunter also forgets to say that however acceptable it seemed to him, the daily life of slaves also implied that they could be flogged and sold in disregard of their family ties. Instead, we can read that the accounts of runaway slaves describing these less idyllic living conditions were nothing but abolitionist propaganda, implying in passing that they were fakes ... without proof, of course. But it costs nothing to write it, and it is enough to convince the reader who does not use his critical mind enough.

Hunter then moves on to the slave revolts, emphasizing at length the atrocities committed by Nat Turner's in 1831. However, he quickly overlooks the often blind repression that followed. Strangely enough, he has no word for abolitionist John Brown, instigator of the Harper's Ferry raid in 1859, and whose fanatic intolerance would have been a blessing for his purpose. Brown will thus only be discreetly evoked through a photo. The end of the article is a digression from the alleged economic exploitation of the South by the North. We are thus described as unscrupulous northern industrialists, selling low-quality manufactured goods to the Southerners at high prices and reserving the best for the northern market. The reality, one will suspect, was quite different. Most of the manufactured goods bought in the South were imported from Europe: this is why customs protectionism, by penalizing these imports, was so dangerous for the southern economy. It was imports that were consuming cotton money. This did not prevent J. Hunter from denying their reality, preferring to argue that the planters of the South were at the mercy of the business bourgeoisie of the North. Barely exaggerating, one would swear that the Forrest, Polks and other Hamptons were exploited paupers! Ironically aside, the only merit of this article is that it finally (albeit on the sly) mentioned that Lincoln's campaign platform did not include the abolition of slavery.

Despite this, so many liberties taken with historical reality generate in the reader a certain uneasiness, which will only intensify over the last few pages of this special issue. The text devoted to the years which followed the war, the “Reconstruction”, begins with a major contradiction: it is the assassination of President Lincoln, until then presented as the aggressor responsible for the conflict, which will leave the field open to the Republicans. radicals to impose particularly harsh conditions on the vanquished South. So it is good that he was more moderate than what the NRH was kind enough to write ... The second half of the article - by Dominique Venner - is particularly edifying. It emphasizes in great detail the atrocities of the occupation army and militias recruited from among blacks, with the help of their accomplices: " collaborators », « failed politicians », « people without confession "... No word is hard enough to describe scalawags (southern republicans) and others carpetbaggers (Northern Republicans "parachuted" in the South).

In the face of this, D. Venner describes the emergence of a " resistance movement ": This is of course the Ku Klux Klan. His origin ? Apparently nothing less than a schoolboy joke: " They intended to distract themselves at the expense of white or black radicals, frightening them with nocturnal masquerades. We think we are dreaming! The author continues his presentation on the fight led by the KKK, the only bulwark against " the arbitrariness and violence of the radicals », To protect southern values ​​- all with an emphasis sometimes bordering on laughable. Does this story mean anything to you? Look no further: it is neither more nor less than the screenplay of the 1915 film Birth of a nation, signed David W. Griffith. A work that its director openly presented as a piece of propaganda, and that D. Venner fully endorses as representative of historical reality.

Obviously, nothing is said about the atrocities committed by members of this first incarnation of the Klan, for whom anonymity and political motivation were often only covered opportunities to commit crimes of common rights and settle serious crimes. old accounts - just as the guerrillas on both sides had done, who, like Jesse James, were to become organized after the war into organized crime. This first Klan, moreover, was only a sum of individual initiatives without any real centralized direction: its first "Grand Sorcerer", Nathan B. Forrest, had little real influence on what was there. was doing. Dominique Venner prend malgré tout grand soin de le démarquer des incarnations suivantes du KKK, de celle née en 1916 aux groupuscules d’extrême-droite s’en revendiquant aujourd’hui, les présentant comme « plus ou moins folkloriques ". Pourtant, la filiation est réelle. L’action du premier Klan aura contribué à façonner le Sud issu de la Reconstruction, dès la fin des années 1870. Un Sud caractérisé par la négation du droit de vote des Noirs (par des conditions de cens, d’alphabétisation ou d’antériorité qu’ils ne peuvent pas remplir), et la ségrégation, toutes choses qui perdureront encore près d’un siècle après la guerre de sécession et resteront centrales dans les différentes incarnations successives du Ku Klux Klan.

Une lecture à éviter

Devant tant de distorsions, approximations, erreurs, voire libertés prises avec les faits, comment ne pas conclure, à l’issue de ce numéro hors-série, que la Nouvelle Revue d’Histoire nous a servi là une vision partiale et totalement biaisée de la guerre de Sécession ? On ne peut même pas mettre cela sur le compte de la liberté d’interprétation, tant celle-ci va à l’encontre de la réalité historique. Il en résulte un travail caricatural ; c’est « le pays de Candy » (pour le coup, au sens littéral du terme) : il y a les méchants et les gentils et pour la NRH, ce sont respectivement le Nord et le Sud. Le formidable et complexe conflit que fut la guerre de Sécession méritait mieux que ce manichéisme simpliste, par lequel les faits sont triturés pour aboutir à une conclusion déjà toute faite. Cette façon d’employer l’histoire à des fins partisanes en est même inquiétante : et l’objectivité dans tout cela ? Si la rédaction s’était référée plus volontiers à James McPherson plutôt qu’à Dominique Venner, elle aurait évité bien des erreurs. Ce numéro spécial de la NRH constitue un exemple flagrant et édifiant de la facilité avec laquelle il est possible de faire dire à l’histoire ce qu’elle ne dit pas, et on le lira comme un condensé de tous les biais à éviter pour l’historien. En revanche, à ceux qui chercheraient une information objective et intéressante sur la guerre de Sécession, on ne saurait trop conseiller de passer leur chemin.


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