“Patriotic Gore is Not Really Much Like Any Other Book by Anyone”
Revisiting one of the most important and confounding books ever written about the Civil War.
Although his views were rooted in some old mainstream histories still popular in the 1950s, Wilson’s apparent Southern sympathies seemed jarring to some readers. Given Wilson’s radical proclivities, one might think he would have read W. E. B. Du Bois on Reconstruction, or at least have encountered John Hope Franklin on the whole of black history or Kenneth Stampp on slavery in his voracious reading. But no such evidence emerges in the book. On the contrary, he all but cast a vote for “white Southerners” of the early 1960s, “rebelling against the federal government, which they have never forgiven for laying waste their country, for reducing them to abject defeat and for the needling and meddling of the Reconstruction.” As he pushes on in defense of the poor benighted South, his language sounds badly out of tune with historical interpretations of today and very much in tune with 21st-century white political resentment. “When the federal government sends troops to escort Negro children to white schools and to avert the mob action of whites, the Southerners remember the burning of Atlanta, the wrecking by Northern troops of Southern homes, the disfranchisement of the governing classes and the premature enfranchisement of the Negroes.” As a tax-resister against the Cold War, Wilson invented historical soul mates out of Southern secessionists who had risked all in the name of a slaveholding republic.
Why, for Wilson, was the Confederate South a sea slug worth defending? How could he find Yankee piety disgusting and yet not see all the foolish piety dripping from Lost Cause legends? One answer is that he needed the Confederacy to play the role of the devoured in his drama—the little, misguided David to the huge and imperialistic Goliath of the United States, preparing for its 20th-century career of war and expansion. Another is that Wilson really did not believe slavery was the cause at the heart of the sectional crisis; he believed slavery had never been anything but a “pseudo-moral issue” and the purpose of his book, he contended, was to “remove the whole subject from the plane of morality.” And lastly, we might understand Wilson’s apparent Southern sympathy by looking at his use of analogy. A favorite was his comparison of the plight of Hungary in the Soviet invasion of 1956 with that of the seceded Southern states invaded by Union armies. Moral equivalence is a dangerous rhetorical tool, but Wilson employed it happily and sometimes recklessly. “In what way,” he asked, “was the fate of Hungary, at the time of its recent rebellion, any worse than the fate of the South at the end of the Civil War?” Well, the outcome for the Hungarian worker crushed under a Russian tank and the white Georgian farmer killed during Sherman’s march might be identical. But Wilson needed to learn more about Reconstruction to make the link between the strangleholds the Soviet army and the Union army had on their respective foes. The Soviet army really did occupy Budapest a great deal longer and with much more lasting consequences than Yankee troops ever interfered in the lives of ex-Confederates.
Courtesy the National Archives and Records Administration.
But Wilson pushed his analogies even further. In a beguiling comparison, Wilson argued that the three great leaders of the modern “impulse to unification”— Lincoln, Bismarck, and Lenin—all became heroic but detested “dictators” for their respective causes. Each was “confident that he was acting out the purpose of a force infinitely greater than himself,” Wilson intoned. Bismarck believed in “God,” Lenin in “History,” and Lincoln in some kind of democratic combination of the two. All three, though, according to Wilson, were mere agents of the “power drive” that moved nations and history over and over into mass violence and conquest. It is remarkable how Wilson could write so freshly and so cynically at the same time. He believed that Americans just could not look closely at their own violent past and present. In 1962, only a few months before the Cuban Missile crisis made everyone look at the prospect of nuclear extermination, such a test of the imagination may have been a good thing.
Wilson scorned the superficiality of the Civil War’s official commemoration (what he called “this absurd centennial”) of the late ’50s and early ’60s with his critique of the “panicky pugnacity” of the two sea slugs in the Cold War. “A day of mourning,” Wilson wryly offered, “would be more appropriate” as a means of public remembrance of the blood of the 1860s. Before settling in to restore Harriet Beecher Stowe and Ulysses Grant and their host of odd companions to an American literary pantheon, Wilson had first tried to settle a score with his demons of war and nationalism, and perhaps some other demons as well.
Upon publication in 1962, Patriotic Gore became a literary sensation. It was the rare book that seemed to make virtually everyone in the thinking-literary class stand up and take notice. One reason so much attention was paid to Patriotic Gore, as one reviewer after another remarked, was that is was so “genuinely serious,” so startlingly unusual amid the “flapdoodle,” the “dressed up” “vulgarities and tomfooleries” of Centennial books, pamphlets, re-enactments, facile speeches, patriotic commissions, pursuits of minutia, and other Blue-Gray sentimentalism. The literary class, from critics to historians to poets and novelists, seemed grateful that someone had spent all those years going back to explore whether the Civil War had actually left any serious cultural stamp on the country.
Many impulses drove the enormously positive response to Patriotic Gore, but none more than the encounter with Wilson’s sense of discovery about the writers, diarists, and orators celebrated in the 775 pages of the body of the book. “Patriotic Gore is not really much like any other book by anyone,” gushed Elizabeth Hardwick. She admired Wilson’s ability to find the Civil War’s literary “harvest,” of which she seemed utterly unaware. Hardwick gave herself over to Wilson’s portraits of the famous Lincoln or the forgotten Kate Chopin or Albion Tourgee.
Wilson chose his subjects in his own idiosyncratic ways. There are many obvious writers included (Harriet Beecher Stowe, Lincoln, Ulysses Grant, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and Ambrose Beirce) and some obvious ones who make only brief, if sparkling, appearances (Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, and Henry James). The most gaping whole in his otherwise remarkable array of writers is African Americans. Wilson simply took no interest in black literature, and seemed completely unaware of slave narratives, especially that of Frederick Douglass, whose first autobiography (now a canonized classic) came back into print in 1960 after many decades of obscurity. Wilson’s strange, but not strange, ignorance of virtually any black writers or orators of the Civil War era tells us much about Wilson’s own moral blindness, but even more perhaps about the state of knowledge in elite white circles of African-American history and letters in the 1950s and even early 1960s. But the chapters of Stowe, Grant, and Holmes, in their excited appreciation and probing analysis, alone make the book worth reading. Holmes, the devastated wounded soldier turned realist-jurist and brutal critic of Gilded Age greed and materialism, is Wilson’s ultimate hero.
But who knew that the travel writings of Frederick Law Olmsted, who was much more famous as the designer of Central Park in New York, or the poet, John T. Trowbridge, provided such vivid depictions of slavery and the ruined South both before and after the war? Who in 1962 had read the diary of Charlotte Forten, the romantic, educated young black woman (the only one in the book) who went South during the war to work among freedmen, or the important Army Life in a Black Regiment by Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the Massachusetts abolitionist who became a soldier overnight and a student of slave musical culture? Who understood by the mid-20th century that such Confederate soldiers as Richard “Dick” Taylor, son of President Zachary Taylor, and John Singleton Mosby, notorious cavalry raider and bandit, had written such fascinating and richly literary memoirs? And did anyone but the rare specialist know that Mosby, who had captured and killed many of Grant’s men during the war, became the former general and president’s good Republican friend by the end of Reconstruction?
David W. Blight is Class of ’54 Professor of American history at Yale University and the author most recently of American Oracle: The Civil War in the Civil Rights Era, published in September by Harvard University Press. This essay is an adaptation of a chapter from that book. Copyright © 2011 by David W. Blight. Used by Permission. All rights reserved. Blight is also the author of the Bancroft Prize-winning Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory.