How the South Won the Civil War ~ by Heather Cox Richardson

I got this at a pretty good sale, but I was interested in what Richardson, a moderately well-known academic professor of US history who also writes for a general audience, has to say about this idea that the South won the Civil War.  It’s a catchy title and it’s not quite accurate, but that said, what does Richardson, a very liberal oriented historian at Boston College, have to say on the subject?  The Washington Post calls the book “provocative” and “searing,” so it’s likely not a dry and dusty textbook. Even the words in the subtitle, “Oligarchy” “Democracy” and the “Soul of America” use some pretty emotionally charged and definitionally challenged words.  

How the South Won the Civil War:
Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight
for the Soul of America
by Heather Cox Richardson / 2020
Read by author /  9h 9m
Rating – 8.5 / US history 

Richardson seems to consider the official Civil War (1860-1864) to be an event in the broader conflict for the large idea of Democracy. To do this she immerses her argument in the party politics of Democrats vs Republicans, through Reconstruction, the progressive conflicts of the late 19th century and through the World Wars the Great Depression, on to the Civil Rights movement, Reagan, the Evangelicals, and finally, Trump (who was president when she was getting it published).  She covers US history as long as it’s useful to her argument.    

Although there were a few surprises and lots of unfamiliar details, I was pretty cognizant of the history and topics up to 1988 when more of it seemed new. Still, it was always the same message,  how horrible the conservatives (oligarch class) were toward the generally innocent and well-meaning progressives (working folks). In her mind the plantation culture of the antebellum South formed an oligarchy and that’s quiet likely true but the North had its own similar situations.

Anyway, according to records, the South did NOT win the Civil War so I’d say she doesn’t mean that in any literal way.  If you understand that for the North, the War Between the States was only about keeping the states united and ending slavery, then it’s obvious – the United States has not been carved up and there  is no legal slavery in the US.  Meanwhile for the South the war was for freedom and property rights which the North was trying to take away.

However we do have pretty serious case of polarization around the ideas of democracy (equality) vs freedom and in their own way those were the basic ideas involved in the Civil War. But imo, those ideas will always be at odds.

What Richardson does with the idea is show how from the Civil War on as we spread out over North America that conflict came up over and over again especially in our politics from Andrew Johnson to Donald Trump.

Richardson is quite liberal and mainly talking about oligarchy and democracy as we understand them today.  If you define the liberals/progressives as being for the working man and the conservatives as being for the oligarchs and the main thrust of the Civil War being Democracy then yup – Richardson is right, that was is sill going on in a myriad of ways.

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