Books With Lesson on Civil War

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As we approach this November’s presidential election, “blood bath” is quickly becoming one of Donald Trump’s favorite new terms. If he does not take the White House, there will be a “blood bath” in the auto industry. President Biden’s immigration policies are causing a “blood bath” at the U.S. border with Mexico. In some corners, this imagery is understood as a threat: What will Trump supporters do if their favored candidate does not win? He has repeatedly suggested that violent unrest could follow his defeat. Would it be a reprise of the American Civil War?

If any contemporary historian can give us a clue, it might be Alan Taylor. In AMERICAN CIVIL WARS: A Continental History, 1850-1873 (Norton, 534 pp., $39.99), Taylor, a University of Virginia historian who has won the Pulitzer Prize twice, takes a broad look at the lead-up to and aftermath of the older conflict, including the way it transformed life in Mexico, Canada and the Caribbean.

Does this wide scope work? Yes and no. I don’t think this book makes us look at the Civil War in a new way, but Taylor is persuasive in his assertion that the American conflict shaped the entire continent. “The United States emerged from the war with a stronger federal government and greater military potential,” he concludes. “Intimidated by that enhanced power, Russians sold Alaska, the Spanish bolted from Santo Domingo and the French withdrew their forces from Mexico.”

“American Civil Wars” also dwells on how the signs of a coming Union victory encouraged the creation of the nation of Canada from a diverse collection of British-held provinces on the northern border of the United States. (Now that the United States is a global power, any civil conflict in America would ripple around the world. Think of the 1973 Arab oil embargo, when lingering divisions over the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal made the U.S. government look weak and distracted; now imagine that on steroids.)

Taylor is a formidable historian and masterly writer. He briskly disposes of some persistent myths about the Civil War. If the fighting really was about states’ rights, he asks, why did the Confederate constitution ban its states from ever abolishing slavery? On the subject of Confederate fears of race mixing, he states flatly that “after centuries of sexually exploiting enslaved women, Southern whites projected their behavior onto Blacks.”

As for anyone who believes that the current turbulence on the U.S.-Mexican border is an anomaly, they will be edified by Taylor’s account of how Texans attacked Mexico for offering freedom to runaway slaves. During the early 1850s, he notes, about 4,000 enslaved people made it across the Texas border to freedom. In response, some 111 Texas Rangers rode across the Rio Grande to “attack, loot and burn the fugitive haven at Piedras Negras.”

After the Civil War, the U.S. Army general Philip Sheridan helped Mexican revolutionaries access 30,000 modern rifles, stockpiling them within easy reach along the Rio Grande in Texas. American weapons manufacturers were eager to sell off their excess inventory, which, Taylor writes, had been “refined in the recent blood bath.”

The historian and retired U.S. Army officer Thomas Ty Smith picks up the story of trouble on the border in THE GARZA WAR IN SOUTH TEXAS: A Military History, 1890-1893 (University of Oklahoma Press, 172 pp., $29.95). Despite all the talk today of an “invasion” coming up from Mexico, his short study is a useful reminder that havoc often has flowed southward across the border. In the early 1890s, the Mexican government was again deeply frustrated with the failure of the American government to stop cross-border incursions by Mexican revolutionaries who enjoyed sanctuary in some parts of Texas.

“The Garza War in South Texas” makes clear that, if there were another violent fracture on this continent today, we’d be lucky to have only two sides to the conflict. Civilian leaders near the border were often at odds with U.S. Army personnel, who in turn, notes Smith, thought many U.S. marshals were overly sympathetic to the revolutionaries. Officials in two Texas border counties brought charges against an Army officer, accusing him of conducting warrantless searches and arresting innocent people in the hunt for rebels. Meanwhile, one of the local scouts employed by the Army was arrested as an insurrectionist.

All civil conflict is complex, but few civil wars were so agonizingly byzantine as the Russian civil war that erupted as World War I ended and the Bolsheviks rose to power. In A NASTY LITTLE WAR: The Western Intervention Into the Russian Civil War (Basic Books, 366 pp., $32), Anna Reid, a former Ukraine correspondent for The Economist and The Daily Telegraph, focuses on the efforts led by France, the United States and, most of all, the British to support anti-Bolshevik forces in that fight.

Despite the book’s title, it was not a small campaign. Some 180,000 soldiers from 16 Allied nations were sent to try to prevent a Red victory. The Americans were fresh-faced newcomers; the British troops, by contrast, were those unfit for duty on the Western Front, “mostly wounded, gassed or otherwise unhealthy,” writes Reid.

No one was happy to be there. Not only did the largely czarist White Army suffer multiple troop rebellions, one of the White units that was led by British officers rose up and killed their Western European commanders. French sailors aboard two ships off the Crimean Peninsula mutinied, pulled down the tricolor, ran up the Red flag and then went ashore to join a pro-Bolshevik demonstration. There was even a renegade German army operating in Estonia, which declined to cooperate with the Allied commanders to whom they had just surrendered in the previous war.

All this insubordination went on despite the extreme acts of violence some used to try to keep order. One of the White generals in Crimea was Yakov Slashchyov, “a psychopathic cocaine addict who rode about with a caged crow attached to his saddle.” On a single morning, he seems to have left the bodies of 200 soldiers “shot in the back of the head” on a train platform. By evening, more corpses had been strung up from the station’s lampposts.

What, if anything, does all this tell us about Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine? “Outsiders,” Reid notes, “often get Russia spectacularly wrong.” But there is another, less apparent lesson to be learned: “Putin will fail for the same reason that the Whites did: because he underestimates the desire for freedom of the non-Russian nations.” A good lesson, too, for anyone today who thinks they can impose their vision of America on others through violence and intimidation.

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