The Civil War and the Limits of Destruction

Mark Neely has written an extended historical essay to ask what were the limits of destruction in the Civil War (military-on-civil) and how were limits set. To get this on a solid history footing, one pictures years of trolling through county property records 1861-1865, through newspapers of the period, and through court records, never mind memoirs, letters, and other kinds of testimony.

Instead of rigorous history, one gets here, as mentioned, an historical essay: impressionistic, anecdotal, with some broad-brush overviews of the Sand Creek massacre, the Mexican civil war, and the U.S. - Mexican War. Almost an op-ed piece, this.

The construction of the book is eccentric, so the reader should start with the conclusion, which is clear and strong, then work backward through Neely's arguments. (He seems to have worked backward from his conclusions anyway.)

Neely notices limits on Civil War violence set by the commanders' and soldiers' internal (cultural) beliefs, violated only in cases of racial hatred or guerilla warfare. (To the extent an essay can support such an ambitious agenda, the race hatred element is the least developed, btw.)

The limits of violence could have undergone an historian's treatment, as I said at the outset; however, transformed by Neely into a statement about the inner life of soldiers and their cultural mores, it becomes a difficult sociological or anthropological matter, subject to the exacting methodology of a more respectable social science than history - something far beyond what an extended history-flavored op-ed can accomplish.

Note that this book's social science problem - the inner values of soldiers - fell out of a non-historic core project. The core project Neely gave himself was actually literary: to take down the Centennial meme of the Civil War as an "unusually destructive" war - as being "modern" in its destructiveness.

The core project then is literary and therefore manageable with a literary toolbox. (Tom Rowland set a marvelous example of how to do this when he unwrapped the inane literary conventions surrounding the historians' depictions of McClellan.) But Neely mishandles the task. You are not going to remedy literary excess with historical arguments and proofs.

"Modern-in-its-destructiveness" certainly deserves an acid bath, being yet another novelistic Centennial history gimmick deployed to tart up the "interesting" and "unique" aspects of the Civil War while spinning a lovely coverall for those of the storyteller's "characters" who might be seen by readers as murderous or wanton. One way to manage this kind of problem would be to examine the passages in works where the meme is stated most plainly and test them as the potential novelistic devices they appear to be. The issue is not what kind of history they represent if they are not history at all.

"Factual" examples and reasoning to "disprove" historically what is at root writerly tradecraft - this way lies madness.

So Neely is here fighting bad literature with bad history thinking all the while he is applying a cure to the other guy's nonfiction. Moreover, in racing the rattletrap equipment of bad history down the litcrit highway, he has run off the road into the high weeds of cultural anthropology (where the cottonmouths of the blogosphere await!).

Given a mission to debunk the meme "modern-in-its-destructiveness," powerful literary tools await: "close reading," deconstruction, comparative analysis, whatever. They await the hand of the essayist as long as the work remains.

I'll read Neely's next book and the one after. They're always interesting. He's usually on the right track.

He's been developing a meta-criticism of the entire Civil War field. Now he should find a publisher with top-flight editors to guide him in this purpose.