Approaching Civil War and Southern History Cover

Approaching Civil War and Southern History

William J. Cooper

Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 2019, 200 pages

Book Review published on: February 14, 2020

Approaching the Civil War and Southern History is a well-written compilation of ten essays based off one author’s historical perspective about the Civil War and how Southern history, both before and after the war, influenced key figures and events in the historical socioeconomic landscape during that time. Author William J. Cooper, serving as the Boyd Professor of History Emeritus at Louisiana State University, is well-renowned for his expertise with Southern political history in the nineteenth century. He has compiled the majority of his scholarly essays spanning over forty years (1970-2012) into this book. These essays are arranged chronologically as they were produced in printed form and span a wide spectrum of subjects focused on leadership and secession as well as diplomatic, economic, and strategic military issues.

Cooper takes a new look at his essays and challenges some of the prevailing thoughts of earlier historical writings concerning the issues of the South in the nineteenth century. He prefaces each essay with a short introduction highlighting the key points of his writing, when and why it was originally written, along with why it was included in this ten-part collection. This allows the reader a better understanding of how it fits in the overarching historical context of the nineteenth-century political history of the South.

Two of his essays focus on Jefferson Davis, both as a leader of the Confederacy and on his life after the Civil War. From Cooper’s discoveries, he challenges the prevailing historical narrative referencing the abilities of Davis to perform his duties as a political as well as a military leader. His second essay on Davis focuses on his life after the war dealing with his imprisonment and ability to face the future knowing the lifestyle he had before and during the war could never be achieved. Two other essays focus on economic issues. One looks to counter the reasons given for the cotton crisis starting as early as 1850, while the other focuses on the analysis of gubernatorial election results due to either economics or race.

Another section of key importance revolves around the theme of secession. Cooper analyzes a number of stated reasons held by historians regarding why Southern secession came to fruition, reasons such as economics and politics—both at the local and national levels. But through careful examination he comes up with a more telling reason or combination of reasons that have rarely been studied. He also wrote an essay focused on congressional action, or inaction, and the influence that had on secession. The Deep South already had plans to break away, but due to national-level decisions or indecisions, other Southern States interpreted those decisions in ways that led those states to act uncharacteristically.

Approaching the Civil War and Southern History is well written, easy to follow, and gives a new insight of the historical narrative, primarily from the antebellum South’s perspective. One notable point is that the author compiled these essays in a chronological timeline based off when he wrote them. It would be more appropriate to have compiled them based off of the subject and the timeline in which they played out in the nineteenth century. This is highly recommended for all those who are historically minded. Also as one who works at the strategic or operational level, a historically chronological approach would be better, as these essays focus predominantly on ends, ways, means, and risk when dealing with strategy from the instruments of national power. This collection of essays also demonstrates how being politically astute may allow the ones in power to achieve political, economic, and military agendas.

Book Review written by: Lt. Col. Stephen Harvey, U.S. Army, Retired, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas