Emory Thomas has long been one of our finest historians whose focus has been on the Confederacy during the Civil War. He isn’t writing as much these days as he used to, unfortunately. He’s retired from the UGA history faculty, though he remains Professor of History Emeritus and a much in-demand speaker and teacher. (He’ll visit the Center for the Book in Decatur on May 10th.)
He’s probably best known for his 1995 biography of Robert E. Lee, a perceptive, balanced account of Lee’s life before, during and after the war. His new book, however, looks at a very small time period in which Lee really didn’t figure much. The focus in this much-anticipated new book — “The Dogs of War: 1861” — is the first months of 1861 leading up to the firing on Fort Sumter that catapaulted the war of words into a bloody, violent clash.
It was during that period when he now finds himself asking this question: What were they thinking? The “they” refers to the leaders of the North and South, all of whom acted without a clue as to what they were doing as they moved the nation closer to a shooting war. Abraham Lincoln should have known better given his background, Thomas writes, but he refused to believe until it was too late that Southerners could and would risk their lives for the Confederacy. Jefferson Davis did what he felt honor required him to do even though he knew it would produce war, but Thomas writes that Davis also managed to convince himself there was no way the South could lose on the battlefield.
There were, in other words, a lot people clinging to a lot of myths in those dangerous days of January, February and March 1861. We know what ultimately happened. But what do we learn from that? Well, you’ll want to read the book, and we hope you’ll want to come hear Thomas and talk about his thoughtful conclusions.
But here’s a hint: “Three of the most dangerous words in the English language,” he writes, “are ‘History teaches us’… There usually follows some overly simple pretension that has little or no relation to truth. I believe that the Civil War offers insight and enlightenment about the human condition to inform the present. The dogs of war, once loosened, seldom go where we want them to go. Once slipped, they run wild.”
Please join us on May 10th. It promises to be a most interesting evening.