Victor Davis Hanson’s “The Confederate Mind” is an attack on the South, which is, as Prof. Paul Gottfried points out, “fully consonant with the Cold War left-liberal tradition that one finds, for example, in the work of Arthur Schlesinger. Note that in The Vital Center, and in other tracts, Schlesinger repeatedly compares Confederate leaders to Nazis, Communists and other unsavory types that the US had been at war with.” Gottfried is the historian of the American and European Right.
“This may be the most loathsome thing I’ve seen by Hanson in quite a while,” ventures historian Dr. Boyd Cathey (who contributes to the Unz Review and to Barely a Blog). “The Confederate Mind’ is just one more piece of screaming evidence that the neoconservatives and the establishment ‘Conservative Movement Inc.’ is not only no friend of traditionalists, but rather is collaborating with zeal with the far Left in the destruction and the extinguishing of what is left of Southern heritage.”
Yet, all so-called conservatives, Rush Limbaugh included, continue to quote Hanson admiringly.
A brilliant scholar himself, historian of the South Clyde Wilson regularly critiques Hanson for being a poor historian; primary sources are hardly the primary focus in Hanson’s “work.”
This is an interesting angle (and Wilson a most interesting thinker). Ignorance of the historic method is in fact a must for the likes of Hanson, explains Prof. Wilson, in “The War Lover,” with reference to Hanson’s ideological relative, Dinesh D’Sousa. For if you cleave to primary sources, as the historic method demands, it becomes difficult to reduce the warp-and-woof of history to the abstracted, desiccated principles the neoconservative seeks out in support of his theories:
… D’Sousa actually knows less about the real history, the real lived human experience, of his adopted country than I do about Paraguay. … But in ignorance is strength, because by the Straussian cult ritual, which D’Sousa here popularizes, you are not supposed to know any history. In fact, knowing history and giving it any weight is prima facie evidence of fascist tendencies. It demonstrates that you are incapable of seeing the universal principles by which proper interpretations are made. That is, the universal and eternal meaning of history is only to be obtained by Straussian exegesis of a few sentences which Straussians select, from a few documents which they select, written by a few men they select.
This methodology is perfection when one wants to sacralize Lincoln and what he wrought. All one need do is quote a few pretty phrases that evoke nationalist and egalitarian sentimentality. Though the methodology does tend to break down when challenged by the well-informed, as when Professor Harry Jaffa, in his debate with Professor Thomas DiLorenzo, was reduced to irritable denials of plain historical facts.
Hanson first came to notice by pointing out how Greek democracy was a product, not of theory, but of the importance to the state of the body of armed citizen-soldiers. There was not much really original about this – it is the old story of the Anglo-American yeoman—but it was useful to point it out.
Since then, Professor Hanson has gone on to writings about modern history that appear to glorify war, at least war as carried out by the armed forces of what he regards as democratic societies. This celebration (not too strong a word, I think), of the allegedly wholesome benefits of war has obviously provided comfort to the “democratic” global imperialists with which America is cursed today – and has thus made Hanson something of a celebrity.
In “A Class War” Hanson glorifies the great democratic achievements of General Sherman’s notorious March through Georgia and South Carolina in the winter of 1864-1865. Let us quote the blurb: “How 60,000 armed Midwestern men, in a 300-mile march taking less than 40 days, squashed aristocracy in America, and changed the entire psychological and material course of our national history.”
One might ask where, exactly, General Sherman got the moral and constitutional authority to change the psychological and material course of American history, but such questions do not occur to those who are preaching crusades. This is not a new story. It is the same old stamping-out-the-grapes-of-wrath rationalization: Northerners rising in righteous might to put down the treason of Southerners who, corrupted by slavery, harbored an evil desire not to want to belong to The Greatest Nation on Earth. It’s the same familiar story, but the old girl has had a make-over. She has a new hair-do and different cosmetics.
Here is a fair summary of Hanson’s description of Sherman’s March: a brave and democratic army of sturdy, idealistic Midwesterners performed a great military feat. In the process their democratic spirit was outraged by haughty Southern aristocracy and by the oppression of black people, whom they heartily embraced. As a result they resolved to destroy Southern society once and for all, and thereby bestowed on the universe a new birth of freedom.
There are so many things wrong about this paean to Sherman’s March that it amounts to a fantasy. Historians, before the era of PC, were expected to study primary sources, documents of the time, before they expounded on the meaning of historical events.
Anyone who has spent some time with the primary sources knows what a dubious characterization Hanson has made. That war was an immense event, occupying a huge area and involving several million people, and one can snip quotations to provide examples of anything one wants to find. I am referring here to the bulk and weight of the evidence and only the evidence left by Northern soldiers.
You do not have to pay heed to a single Southern testimony to understand what happened on Sherman’s March and why. It is all in the letters and diaries of the participants. I urge anyone who lives above the Ohio and Potomac to go to your local historical society or state library and read some of those letters and diaries for yourself. You will see how “A Class War” creates a fantasy of righteous virtue and intention that badly distorts the weight of the evidence.
Why would anyone who wanted to celebrate American military prowess pick out one of the US military’s most inglorious episodes, and one which involved brutality against other Americans? When there are a hundred more edifying examples?
To begin with, the march was not a military feat. What was left of the main Confederate army, after self-inflicted wounds at Atlanta, was in Tennessee trying to attack Sherman’s supply lines and deal with two huge federal armies that were holding down the people of Tennessee and Kentucky. Sherman’s advance from Chattanooga to Atlanta, opposed by a small but seasoned Confederate army, had not been so easy. The March through Georgia and Carolina was contested only by a few thousand cavalry and old men and boys of the home guard. When Sherman got to North Carolina he was met by the remnants of a genuine Southern army and was defeated by a small force at Bentonville. …
… READ “The War Lover.“
UPDATE I: “Should we believe Russell Kirk or Victor Davis Hanson?” Brion McClanahan responds:
… Hanson has a strange fixation on the South, one that involves a constant effort to attach progressivism to Southerners like Calhoun and every American evil to the Confederacy. His truth is marching on.
The most recent example was an intellectually vapid piece in National Review Online titled “The Confederate Mind.” To summarize, Calhoun and the South invented the sectional conflict by insisting that their society was “superior to the grubby, industrial wasteland of the north,” despised the “deplorables” of their day, led the “secesh” movement with “evangelical style” language, and through their “regional chauvinism” caused the destruction of the Union.
The sheer a-historical stupidity of these positions almost merits no response. The sectional conflict was born in the North almost immediately after the Constitution was ratified. Northern sectionalists, under the guise of “nationalism,” insisted on secession as early as 1794. Northern “religious” leaders called Southerners devils while her political sons said that Southern statesmen were the drunken vomit of civilization. Seems the nastiness flowed from North to South for most of the antebellum period. …
UPDATE II (3/28): You’d think it would be difficult to forget, alas: Sherman’s March was actually a war against civilians, reducing as many as possible to homelessness and starvation.
UPDATE III (4/10):
Leftists often parade as rightists. Hallmarks of a consummate leftist: 1. Rabbits on about evil McCarthyism, when McCarthy was an American hero. 2. Compares ‘bad’ countries to apartheid South Africa, showing a lefty sensibility and no clue about the latter.