Reviewed by Tyler R. Tichelaar for Reader Views (7/07)
David C. Downing's new book, "A South Divided: Portraits of Dissent in the Confederacy," is a fascinating and long-overdue book. While he references a few books that have preceded his about divisions in the Southern States, "A South Divided" brings to the forefront a forgotten piece of American history that was far more complicated than we have been led to believe.
Downing makes the point that "the South" and the "Confederacy" are not interchangeable terms. Many people in the South did not support the Confederacy but wished to preserve the Union, and many Southerners acted subversively to support the Union during the war. Downing demonstrates that there is a lot of gray area in the battle between the blue and the gray.
The book begins with examples of pre-Civil War Southerners who were abolitionists and anti-secession. Most notable of these, in my opinion, were the Grimke sisters, wealthy daughters of a prominent Charleston and plantation-owning family, who were so disgusted by the evils of slavery they moved to the North and began to advocate abolition. While the book focuses primarily upon men who opposed the rebel cause, it contains a complete chapter on women, including Elizabeth Van Lew, who went so far as to treat wounded Union Soldiers in Richmond, aided a plot for Union soldiers to escape from the Richmond prison, and planted her slaves (whom she actually paid as servants) as spies in other Richmond homes so she could send secret missives to General Grant about the movements of the Confederate troops.
Equally interesting were the discussions of Southern states and counties that opposed secession from the Union. West Virginia's story of division with Virginia and its own incorporation into the Union is the most notable and best known, though seldom told, story. However, counties in Tennessee, Mississippi, and Alabama also all sought to separate themselves from the states they were in and create their own independent states within the Union. These cases were less successful than West Virginia, but the number of them shows how much the South was divided.
Numerous other stories are told of the soldiers, especially Southerners, such as General George Thomas, who achieved high rank within the Union army despite their Southern roots and Northern prejudice against them. The stories of escaped slaves who became members of the Union army are also included. The only information I felt missing from the book was the story of President Andrew Johnson, who was only mentioned briefly, yet I cannot help feeling he was the most important Southerner, or at least the Southerner who rose to the highest rank within the Union during the war.
Perhaps Downing felt the story of Johnson and his impeachment was already well known, but I would have liked to see Johnson included. I think it would have been a good contrast, especially because Downing discusses how skeptical Lincoln and many others were about promoting General Thomas because he was a Southerner, so I would have liked to know more about why Johnson was given such a high position as vice-president.
Overall, I found "The South Divided" to be a fascinating book, filled with detailed stories, yet fast-paced and extremely readable. Ultimately, while Downing mentions the many arguments for why the South lost or why the North won the war, he makes the point that it may have been because the South was not completely behind the cause of the Confederacy that allowed the North to win. I think anyone interested in American history, and especially Civil War buffs, will absolutely love this book which opens up new theories and viewpoints into an old, but never dull moment in the American story.
Received book free of charge