I am a born and bred Northerner— as in born in Newark, N.J., and reared in that most Northern of cities’ suburbs. On the rare occasions that I thought about the Civil War during my formative years in the ’50s and ’60s, I was firm in my belief that the war was a fight over slavery, that the North won, and that nearly a hundred years after the fact, the Civil War wasn’t that big of a deal for us Yankees—a word, by the way, that I never would have used. To me, the Yankees were the hated rivals of my beloved Brooklyn Dodgers.
In 1963 I headed south for college to George Washington University, in the nation’s capital. My horizons broadened. For the first time, I studied in classrooms with black fellow students. For the first time, I had friends who were born and bred Southerners. For the first time, I saw kids from the South jump up from their seats and stand at attention when “Dixie” was played—make that from their barstools, since the sounds of “Dixie” emanated from the jukebox in our campus drinking establishment.
I majored in history and learned more about the war. Nothing I learned at the time, though, swayed my Northern sympathies. I didn’t buy the states’ rights argument, or the claim that the Southern Cause was just. While I could understand the appeal in the image of the chivalrous Southern gentleman standing up to fight for his beliefs, it made no impression on my feelings about the war.
Flash forward to this year. I had just finished writing Desperate Engagement, my first book on the Civil War. It’s the story of the little-known but crucial July 9, 1864, Battle of Monocacy and Confederate General Jubal Early’s subsequent march on Washington, D.C.
I take pride in the fact that my books are written objectively. That was especially true of my previous book, Flag: An American Biography, a history of the Stars and Stripes. The American flag can be an extremely emotional topic. My goal was to write pure history; I wanted the book to appeal to everyone from flag-wavers to flag-burners. And I worked assiduously to keep my political feelings out of the narrative and to present clear, objective history.
That was my goal for Desperate Engagement, as well. I wanted to tell the story of this battle and its important aftermath, giving equal weight to the main players from both sides. And when I’d finished, I thought I had done so. That included my examinations of the cantankerous Early, the gentlemanly Robert E. Lee and the adamant Jefferson Davis on the Southern side, and the bombastic Lew Wallace, the bumbling Henry “Old Brains” Halleck, the steadfast U.S. Grant and the stoic Abraham Lincoln on the other team.
While researching the book, I received generous assistance from the folks at Monocacy National Battlefield. They granted me a private tour of the battlefield, and I was permitted to photocopy anything I wanted from their extensive research files, much of it primary source material. I also benefited greatly when one of the top experts on the battle kindly offered to read the manuscript before I turned it in.
E, as I’ll call the person here, really liked the book. E found some small errors (OK, some weren’t that small) that I immediately corrected. E also offered general words of advice, all of which I followed. There was one thing E said, though, that startled me: “You need to look at the manuscript carefully for signs of Confederate bias.”
Confederate bias? From me, the New Jersey-born Brooklyn Dodgers fan? How could that be? One specific item E mentioned was my inclusion of an incident tangential to the battle. It involved Colonel John Singleton Mosby, the legendary Confederate raider who, as it happens, roamed the area of the Northern Virginia Piedmont where I live. I looked back on what I wrote. Maybe I did make Mosby’s role in the tale too big; maybe I was a tad enamored with the flashier details of the flamboyant ranger and his men.
But maybe it was more than that, I thought, as I reread the entire manuscript with “Confederate bias” ringing in my ears. I realized that I had taken a bit too much delight in describing the ineptitude of the Union high command. Not that there wasn’t plenty of ineptitude to go around, starting with Halleck, who dithered while Rome burned—that is, while Washington lay startlingly underdefended with Early on the march just 40 miles away.
Perhaps I made too much of the other sorry Union leaders who were not a part of the main story—especially General Franz “the Flying Dutchman” Sigel, who rarely met a battle from which he didn’t flee, and General David “Black Dave” Hunter, who unnecessarily riled Southern pride by slashing and burning his way up the Shenandoah Valley and then retreating ingloriously when Early challenged him at Lynchburg, leaving the valley open to Early’s Northern invasion.
Maybe I got slightly carried away when I described the Southern leaders’ positive traits: Lee’s moral uprightness; John Brown Gordon’s courage under fire at Antietam, Monocacy and elsewhere; boy general Dodson Ramseur’s battlefield fearlessness and acumen; and the cavalry exploits of “Tiger” John McCausland, a guy with one really cool moustache. Maybe having lived in Virginia since 1972 (although I remain a newcomer in the eyes of native Virginians) had had an unexpected effect.
On the other hand, I still feel the same way about the Big Questions of the war, that it was, at heart, about slavery, and that the cause was not just.
I may still be a Yankee, but I no longer root for the Dodgers. All my favorite teams (the Washington Nationals, Wizards and Redskins and the University of Virginia Cavaliers) are from below the Mason-Dixon Line. I know I have changed my feelings about the South, having lived here for the last 35 years, having many Southern-born friends and in-laws (my wife is a Virginia native) and having spent a good deal of time in Richmond and Charlottesville doing historical research. In the last three decades I have taken in—and like the feeling of—many aspects of Southern culture and mores. Still, it’s been a surprising lesson that such experiences could result in a noticeable “Confederate bias.”
Originally published in the December 2007 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.