Thursday, September 27, 2012

Just Finished Reading

I love going to the library, especially my local library, because you never know what you are going to run across. I never expected to see this book, which was just published this year, but there it was - a great surprise.

Routes of War: The World of Movement in the Confederate South is one of those books that covers a topic that has always been "hidden in plain sight." It is amazing that someone hasn't explored it earlier, as one cannot read about almost any Civil War campaign without realizing that the ability to move men and supplies is of utmost importance. But, during the Civil War, not only soldiers traveled.  The conflict also caused civilian displacement - free, fugitive, and enslaved.

In this book author Yael A. Sternhell, a professor at Tel Aviv University, tells a story of Southerners on the move. Whether it is the 1500 mile journey of Texans to the Virginia front early in the war; escaping African Americans flowing to Union lines in the middle of the war; or soldier deserters late in the conflict escaping the terror and devastation of combat to head home - they all had something in common - they all hit the road to accomplish their goals.

Sternhell's explanation for looking at war through movement is thought provoking. "What is gained by leaving behind battlefields, plantations, and other traditional sites of Civil War history, by turning our gaze to the routes that ran between them, is a new understanding of how war is lived, how it is experienced by the human body, and how the most mundane action of going from one place to the other translates into complex processes of political change, social revolution, and the evolution of wartime culture."

One intriguing point that Sternhell made is that war has the tendency to turn some aspects of society upside down. As examples she provided long accepted dynamics in Southern society. Whereas slaves had largely been required to carry passes to move from place to place in the antebellum years, during the war, whites too were often required to carry passes provided by provost marshals in order to travel. Something they disdained and saw a humiliating encroachment on their personal liberties. Similarly, in the antebellum years, whites usually had little reason to hide out unless they had committed some crime, but this practice was common among slaves to escape punishments, avoid work, or make a final run for freedom. But, during the war, white soldier deserters often found themselves doing the same as slaves to avoid being captured, returned to the front or punished in some way.

One pet peeve I had with the book was found in the epilogue. Here the author used William Faulkner's The Unvanquished, a book published in 1938 "to show, marching, straggling, fleeing, and traversing formed the heart of the lived experience in the Confederate South."  I suppose I understand what the author was attempting to do, but I am not a big fan of using novels - especially those written decades after the conflict - as an example.

I enjoyed reading Routes of War. It brought out an aspect of the war that is too often overlooked for its ubiquity, but shouldn't be for its importance. On a scale of 1 to 5, I give it a 4.5.  

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