Damn Yankees! Demonization and Defiance in the Confederate South by George C. Rable. Louisiana State University Press, 2016. Cloth, ISBN: 978-0807160589. $38.00.
Distinguished historian George C. Rable has published several books that cover an array of topics related to Confederate history—women, nationalism, the Battle of Fredericksburg, religion, politics, and violence. His primary source research for his wide-ranging interests have led him to read the private writings of ordinary soldiers, elite women, politicians, and pastors, and the products of the public sphere, such as newspaper editorials, speeches, and sermons. Throughout these sources, Rable found a pervasive and standard denunciation of the Yankee enemy. In the Walter Lynwood Fleming Lectures in Southern History, given at Louisiana State University in 2014 and published as a short book in 2015, Rable explores this rhetoric of demonization.
Dehumanizing an enemy during wartime helps participants to kill, provides a justification for why the war is worth fighting, and helps create a national identity. Southerners began these processes well before the Civil War began, creating a pre-war portrait of a “universal Yankee nation” that depicted northerners as mercenary, corrupt, and fanatic. Consistency did not matter; in the same paragraph, a southerner would accuse northerners of being puritanical religious bigots and modern-day infidels. On the cusp of war, southerners anticipated the worst because they were convinced that savagery was part of the Yankee character. They began accusing Yankees of atrocities months before they had actually committed any.
As the war evolved, Confederates spoke and wrote of barbarians, savages, and inhuman brutes who sought nothing less than the subjugation and extermination of the South. The consequences of a Yankee victory would be military despotism, confiscation, emancipation, and miscegenation. Southerners mined historical examples to assert that Yankees were like, but even worse than, Vandals, Goths, and the tyrannical Russian czars. Because southerners saw only two choices— despotism or freedom, extermination or independence—Rable argues that such overheated rhetoric and hyperbole lengthened the war.
Destruction became the surest sign that Yankees deliberately violated the rules of civilized war. Southerners saw burned homes and displaced families not as policy or as part of the inherent cruelty of war but as evidence of the innate villainy and brutality of Yankees. The populace and the press focused on specific Union generals to prove their point, such as Benjamin Butler’s hanging of a civilian in New Orleans and John Pope’s orders to his Army of Virginia that threatened confiscations and executions. Newspapers regularly reported atrocities—real, exaggerated, and imagined. These stories generally centered on the abuse of prisoners, the rape of women, and the murder of soldiers and civilians.
Rable believes that the “combined effects of actual atrocities, official propaganda, and relentless rumors exacted a severe psychological toll” on the southern people (74). Reports of Yankees ravishing women incited fear and panic. During the Atlanta campaign, near East Point, Georgia, screaming, crying, and terrified women and children ran from their homes and begged for mercy because they thought the Union soldiers wanted to kill all of them.
Damn Yankees! is a vivid portrayal of the language that created “emotional distance” between Confederates and their enemies (2). This work is not an exception to the rule that every book George Rable writes is a good one worth reading. Because the focus of the book is narrow, as Rable admits in his introduction, it raises two interesting questions that are worth exploring in future work, and makes one assertion that cannot be proved.
Rable avoided a comparative study of Union and Confederate demonization, a project he believes would be valuable, and instead offers us one tantalizing statement: “For their part, the Yankees certainly excoriated and often hated the Rebels. Attacks on the southern character and reports of atrocities become commonplace in the northern press. Yet somehow they never grew quite as intense as Confederate attempts to define and vilify their enemies” (4). Why not? In Barbarians and Brothers: Anglo-American Warfare 1500-1865, historian Wayne E. Lee argues that when a nation hopes to incorporate an enemy into the polity, combatants can still envision the enemy as a brother and demonstrate some restraints on violence towards him. This was the case for the Union, but not the Confederacy, during the Civil War, and may partially explain the difference in rhetoric between the two. But a comparison of how proponents of each side defined the enemy, especially in the context of the recent proliferation of work on the laws of war, would deepen our understanding of how each side conducted the war.
Rable focused his work on the rhetoric of demonization, leaving open the question of what cultural context shaped and influenced its particular manifestations. Rable characterized the language as hyperbolic, and the examples he gave struck this reviewer as steeped in the culture of braggadocio found both in the world of elite honor rituals and the rough-and-tumble fighting of the southern backcountry. Southern accusations of savagery and obsession with Yankee treatment of women reflected a culture in which the protection of women served both as a marker of a nation’s claim to civilization and of a man’s mastery over all his dependents. Some exploration of what southerners meant by honor and civilization would deepen understanding of how they viewed an enemy that supposedly possessed neither.
It is clear that many Confederates hated their “inhuman” enemy and believed the existence of the world as they knew it was at stake in the war, but it is unclear how this perception “undoubtedly” lengthened the war (6). That it made them want to fight longer is obvious. That it made them able to fight longer is not. Rable never makes an explicit case for the connection between rhetoric and the timing of Confederate collapse. Would the war have ended in the summer of 1864 if Confederates had viewed northerners as civilized, but misguided foes? The answer to that question seems beyond the ability of any historian, even one of the best of us, to prove.
Lorien Foote is Professor of History at Texas A & M University. Her latest, The Yankee Plague: Escaped Union Prisoners and the Collapse of the Confederacy, is forthcoming in November from The University of North Carolina Press.