Sunday, September 12, 2010

Donald Stoker Gets the Small Stuff Wrong

If you're going to write a “big” book, you'd better get the small stuff right, or you're going to lose me pretty fast.

In the opening pages of The Grand Design: Strategy and the U.S. Civil War, Donald Stoker has already raised my eyebrows several times. Neither misstep may be central to his study, but still the nagging thought enters my mind: if I can't trust him on the small stuff that I, a mere history buff, happen to know something about, why should I trust him on anything else?

Example no. 1 is Stoker's characterization of Jefferson Davis as a “rabid secessionist[].” The context suggests that this was Davis's position throughout the 1850s: “The compromise's [the Compromise of 1850] tenets cut the feet out from under rabid secessionists such as Davis, at least for a while.”

But William Freehling and others have explained that Davis was anything but. Ironically, the opening pages of the first volume of The Road to Disunion refer to the fundamental differences between an essentially conservative politician such as Davis and radical disunionists such as William Lowndes Yancey and Robert Barnwell Rhett:
How Rhett must have winced as citizens [of Montgomery, Alabama] screamed approval [in February 1861 upon hearing that Davis had been selected to be provisional president of the confederacy]. For Jefferson Davis had long cooperated with Disunionists' foe, the Southern National Democratic Party. Whether manipulating presidential cabinets or maneuvering the United States Senate, Davis had usually advocated the National Democrats' main line – that disunion was folly because the South could rule the Union through the party. In 1858, when Davis came close to breathing northern territorial heresies, Mississippi's legislature had demanded explanations. In November 1860, he had warned Rhett against disunion. Would he now lead a retreat back into the Union?

Example no. 2 is Stoker's portrayal of Abraham Lincoln as all-wise statesman with fixed ideas from shortly after his election as to how to respond to threats of secession (emphasis added):
As 1860 swept to its end, a New York journalist asked the president-elect how he would deal with secession. Lincoln said [on December 29, 1860], “I think we should hold the forts, or retake them, as the case may be, and collect the revenue.” Clearly, Lincoln's mind was made up on the North's initial strategic response . . ..
But anyone who has read Russell McClintock's Lincoln and the Decision for War will know that the assertion that Lincoln had made up his mind about anything in December 1860 is ludicrous.

It is certainly fair to say that Lincoln's instinct was to hold or retake the forts, and it is equally fair to say that he ultimately acted in accordance with his instinct when he directed the resupply of Fort Sumter four months later. But the real-life Lincoln was assailed by doubts and indecision before he gave the fateful order. Here, for example, is McClintock on the state of Lincoln's thoughts as of about March 21, 1861, when he sent several people to South Carolina to collect information on public opinion there:
Plainly Lincoln was torn. On the one hand, even if the fort [Sumter] could be provisioned without starting a war, which did not seem possible, it could not be held indefinitely. It had no real military value, and could not even be used for collecting the revenue offshore. Evacuation would remove the primary irritant to Southerners and, by signaling the administration's pacific intent, strengthen Southern unionism by cutting the ground from under those who charged coercion. It would also remove the danger that a successful attack would invigorate disunionism. On the other hand, evacuation might embolden secessionists and could have a demoralizing effect on the already strained Republican Party. The results of evacuating Sumter were simply impossible to predict. Would it encourage border-state loyalty and lead to the peaceful restoration of the Union, as Seward and his Southern friends believed? Or would it encourage disunionism and cement the existing division, as Blair and the stalwart Republicans insisted? Lincoln wanted as much information as possible before making his final determination.
Update: Post edited to change "March 21, 1860" to "March 21, 1861", and "was" to "wanted".

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