One of the best new Civil War books that I’ve read so far this year is called “The Myth of Virtue: Histories’ Lies of the Civil War” by Robert M. Salyer.
In “The Myth of Virtue,” Salyer, an avid Civil War enthusiast and a public school teacher for 28 years, takes a close look at the causes of the war and does a good job of explaining his findings in plain language. As you would expect, much of the book has to do with slavery in the American South and the Northern abolitionist movement, but the book also looks at a number of other causes of the war.
In particular, Salyer, a resident of Virginia who appeared as a reenactor in the 2001 movie “Gods and Generals,” does an outstanding job of showing how national economics caused a split between the North and the South, especially when most of the parties involved were unwilling to compromise. Salyer points out that in the years leading up to the war, the nation had no income tax, so most of the nation’s revenues were raised through tariffs, which are nothing more than taxes placed on imports from other countries.
Many readers would probably consider a discussion of 19th century tariffs to be a very dry, dense subject, but Salyer does a great job of presenting it to readers in a way that makes it easy to understand. Salyer notes that the vast majority of these tariffs were placed on goods purchased by people in the South, who, thanks to their agriculture-based economy, didn’t have the means to get them on their own, aside from buying them from places like England. The end result was Southerners paying the vast majority of taxes and footing the bill for federal projects like railroad and canal construction in the North and growing Midwest.
When serious talk of secession reared its head upon the election of Abraham Lincoln, Northern business interests saw the writing on the wall. They knew, according to Salyer, that if the South took their ball and went home, they’d not only stop paying tariffs to fund the federal government, but they could also lower or do away with import tariffs, which would bankrupt the Northern economy. Southern ports would boom as places like Boston and New York withered on the vine.
For me, perhaps the best part of the book was the chapter in which Salyer critically examined the wartime performance of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Lee is considered one of the greatest military commanders of all time because he beat the odds time and time again in defeating a better-equipped, better-supplied, numerically superior foe only to lose in the end by attrition. With that in mind, Salyer takes a close look at Lee’s actual wartime performance and his analysis might make you reconsider how you look at the legendary Lee. If nothing else, it will provide you with a lot of food for thought.
In the end, if you enjoy reading about the Civil War, I highly recommend Salyer’s book, which was released on Feb. 13. You’ll likely learn more than you already know about well-known and not-so-well-known causes of the war and be entertained to boot. Copies of the book can be found online through major booksellers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble.