Egerton on Richardson, 'How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America'

Heather Cox Richardson
Douglas R. Egerton

Heather Cox Richardson. How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2020. xxix + 240 pp. $27.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-090090-8

Reviewed by Douglas R. Egerton (LeMoyne College) Published on H-War (February, 2021) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version:

On January 6, 2021, a pro-Donald Trump rioter was photographed walking through the Capitol building while carrying a Confederate battle flag. Having used violence to smash his way into the building past security guards, the yet-unnamed rioter was evidently unaware that he was photographed walking by a painting of Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner, himself the target of racist violence. Perhaps no better image illustrates the question that ends Heather Cox Richardson’s thoughtful, sober account of—as the book’s subtitle puts it—“the continuing fight for the soul of America.”

In a slim but ambitious volume largely tailored toward students, lay readers, and nonspecialists in early American history, Richardson carries her readers from the moment that English settlers planted African slavery on Virginia’s shores to President Trump’s open “support of white supremacist groups” (p. 199). In her closing and now prescient paragraph, Richardson returns to William Shakespeare’s Miranda, who in The Tempest marveled at the brave new world of opportunity for those hindered by Old World class hierarchies. Nearly two centuries later, Richardson adds, George Washington echoed that sentiment, praying that his generation might forge Miranda’s vision into a “great experiment,” even as he wondered whether such a government of the people could long endure. “Our country’s peculiar history has kept the question open,” Richardson observes in her final line.

Although most of Richardson’s pages are devoted to the Civil War era and the years after Appomattox, a lengthy introduction and two wide-ranging chapters chronicle the emergence of what historian Edmund Morgan once described as the “American paradox,” in which slavery and freedom not only existed side by side in early America but occurred in a society in which many of the greatest proponents of liberty and freedom were slaveholders. (Graduate students in general will profit from Richardson’s historiographical endnotes, in which she acknowledges the scholars whose earlier work informs many of these pages.) By the 1850s, however, the nation could no longer ignore this fundamental inconsistency, and the new Republican Party, with its free labor ideology, appealed to middle-class voters as the best means to implement the ideals enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. When southern planters, who believed that their oligarchic views were the proper ideals for America, lost control of the presidency, they precipitated a conflict that forced the nation, as Richardson notes, to reconceive the powers of the federal government so as “to promote the good of all rather than to protect the wealth of the very few.” For one brief moment in time, it appeared that the country had truly achieved a new birth of freedom, in which “all men, regardless of their race or background, were equal” (p. 51).

As chapter 3 opens, the importance and uniqueness of Richardson’s argument becomes clear. Most historians argue that the white South ultimately won the peace by employing vigilantism and brutality to end black voting rights and Reconstruction-era reforms. By comparison, Richardson’s thesis is that an emerging alliance between the South and white settlers in the West quickly overturned the nation’s too brief flirtation with racial equality. Even before the war, western states and territories had used both legal and extralegal means to maintain white dominance over Chinese immigrants, Natives, and people who just a decade before had been Mexican citizens. In the twelve years between the acquisition of California and the secession of South Carolina, Richardson observes, at least 163 Mexican Americans were lynched, a rate comparable to the fate of black southerners in the early years of the twentieth century. As in the later Jim Crow South, mobs often mutilated the corpses of their victims, slicing out tongues and burning the bodies as they swung from trees. In 1850, as the California territorial assembly prepared the legal framework for statehood, they restricted voting rights to “free white persons,” borrowed southern laws banning free blacks or those with Indian “blood” from testifying against whites, and prohibited marriage between “white persons” and “negroes or mulattoes” (p. 63).

The troubling connections between southern attitudes and western practices posed problems for Abraham Lincoln during the war. In 1862, just as Union military efforts reached their lowest moments, Dakotas in the Minnesota Territory rose up to retake the 24 million acres of land they had lost the decade before. Military officers in the Midwest, hoping to execute all of the surrendering men, organized courts-martial designed to eliminate hundreds of Dakotas. Aware of the dangerous precedent of executing men found guilty of taking up arms against the federal government, Lincoln commuted the sentence of those found guilty of taking lives while on the battlefield and reserved execution for those Dakotas who had murdered civilians. Even so, the thirty-eight Dakotas hanged on December 26, 1862, constituted the largest mass execution in American history.

Southern and western politicians, who alike worried that federal power was often wielded in the name of racial equality, collectively advanced the argument that legislation designed to protect nonwhites was tantamount to attacks on the property rights of the wealthy. In an interview with a New York paper, former Confederate secretary of state Robert Toombs compared former slaves to the 1871 Paris Communards. “Only those who owned the country should govern it,” Toombs lectured, “and the men who had no property had no right to make laws for property-holders” (p. 85). For their part, western legislators were less concerned about black voters—there were only about 1,700 African American males of voting age in California in 1870—than they were about the potential 37,000 potential Chinese voters. Members of the Nevada legislature refused to ratify the 15th Amendment until Congress banned those born in China from voting, and both California and Oregon rejected the amendment outright. Openly appealing to racism, Democratic candidates gained political control of California and Oregon, while in Los Angeles, a mob of roughly 5,800 men lynched fifteen Chinese. In hopes of demonstrating their fealty to the new racial order, the throng included a good number of Mexican Americans. (California finally ratified the Fifteenth Amendment in April 1962.)

A series of events, culminating in the Republican nomination of Arizona senator Barry Goldwater in 1964, finalized the alliance between the Old South and the New West. Their platform praised states’ rights, denounced civil rights legislation, and called for a return to individualism. Although Goldwater captured only 38.5 percent of the popular vote and carried but six states, one of those was his own Arizona while the other five were in the Deep South. Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond, long estranged from the Democratic Party, announced himself a Republican and endorsed Goldwater. “Thanks to the American West,” Richardson observes, the ideology of the Confederacy had regained a foothold in national politics” (p. 165). By the 1980s, the minority view grew to achieve majority status, as former California governor Ronald Reagan achieved the sort of electoral victories denied to Goldwater just years before.

Richardson ends her story by giving voice to Georgia congressman James Jackson. College professors, eastern elites, and northern politicians, Jackson shouted, had illegally taken control of Washington and intended to destroy “the equal rights of every citizen of every State.” The storm clouds of the incoming administration were “black and ominous, and threaten[ed] to discharge its flood of fury” unless righteous citizens engaged in trial by combat (p. 201). Jackson was speaking in the fall of 1860, but those insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol on January 6, and those who incited that violence, could not have said it any better.

Citation: Douglas R. Egerton. Review of Richardson, Heather Cox, How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America. H-War, H-Net Reviews. February, 2021. URL:

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