Thursday, June 9, 2011


In The Dogs of War, Emory Thomas shows how nobody knows anything

The following review was posted recently on the Books page of the History News Network site.

Emory Thomas is the éminence grise of Confederate history, A veteran military biographer, he is best known for his 1979 book The Confederate Nation, which remains the standard history of the subject (and has just been republished). In The Dogs of War: 1861, Thomas zeroes in on a specific moment of the Civil War -- the three month period between Fort Sumter and the First Battle of Bull Run, April to July of that year -- to emphasize the confusion and ignorance that shaped the mutual perceptions of North and South, which stumbled into a conflict of a scale and an outcome virtually no one imagined.

But that's not really the principal value, or even intent, of this little book. Instead, Thomas takes a moment whose outlines will be familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of the war and instead uses it as a case study for what might be termed empirical epistemology. To paraphrase William Goldman's famous maxim of the film business, nobody knew anything, even those who were presumed to know, then and since. That included politicians, the professional military, and rank and file volunteers -- who were volunteers to a great extent precisely because they didn't know what they were getting into.

This maxim extends to the respective presidents of the two belligerents. Though this is a point that's been made before, Thomas usefully emphasizes that Abraham Lincoln greatly overestimated Southern Unionism, perhaps because as a man who was born in the South and married and a Southerner, he overestimated his familiarity with the region and his belief that ordinary non-members of the elite would think like he did. Lincoln carried this conviction, which shaped his approach to Reconstruction, to the grave. As Thomas notes, it would ultimately be vindicated, but proved inadequate to the demands of the moment in 1861.

Interestingly, Thomas depicts the oft-maligned Jefferson Davis as having a far more realistic view of the challenges he faced, and a perhaps more rational view of the strategy to take in light of the long odds.  That the Confederates lost was less a matter of fuzzy thinking, Thomas suggests, than an unrealized hope that the rebels could experience George Washingtonian luck in outlasting their opponents. In his regard, he's similar to the long revered Robert E. Lee.

Thomas makes some skillful juxtapositions between the miscalculations of Americans at the outset of the Civil War, and those of the Iraq War in 2003. He makes a chilling comparison between a memo from Brigadier Janis Karpinski, who presided over Abu Gharib prison, and one from Henry Wirz and Andersonville. The message is clear: almost by definition, going to war means getting blindsided. It should be avoided -- whatever your aims -- at almost all costs.

Because it's so tightly framed and reads something like a well-written lecture, The Dogs of War would fit nicely as a night or two of reading as a prelude to class discussion. It also leads one to wonder whether its utility and future really lies in the electronic realm, where one suspects it could be most efficiently delivered, read, and afforded. Oxford University Press has been issuing a lot of these short Civil War books lately, such as Louis Masur's fine recent 100-page synopsis, The Civil War. In publishing terms, among others, the past may really be prologue to a future that's practically in view.