Book Review: Writing War and Reunion

Writing War and Reunion:  Selected Civil War and Reconstruction Newspaper Editorials
by William Gilmore Simms
Edited by Jeffery J. Rogers
University of South Carolina Press, 2020, $59.99 hardcover

Reviewed by Stephen Davis

Thank goodness for the academy. Across the country, Confederate statues are dropping faster than swatted flies. But in academic circles, the study of Confederate nationalism and culture is thriving.

In the last couple of decades, we’ve seen Jason Phillips, Diehard Rebels and Aaron Sheehan-Dean, Why Confederates Fought (both 2007); Michael Bernath, Confederate Minds (2010); Coleman Hutchison, Apples & Ashes: Literature, Nationalism and the Confederate States of America (2012); and George Rable, Damn Yankees! Demonization & Defiance in the Confederate South (2015).

Definitely part of this phenomenon is the current revival of scholarly interest in William Gilmore Simms, arguably the leading writer of the antebellum South. The University of South Carolina has made Simms’ works accessible, both in print and digitally. And catch this barometer: forty-one dissertations and theses have been written on Simms during 1990-2010. Professors have even formed a William Gilmore Simms Society! Riding this wave—nay, helping to churn it–is Jeffery J. Rogers, ed., Writing War and Reunion: Selected Civil War and Reconstruction Newspaper Editorials by William Gilmore Simms.

Professor Rogers, who teaches at a college in middle Georgia, is author of A Southern Writer and the Civil War: The Confederate Imagination of William Gilmore Simms (2015). Simms wrote more than eighty volumes—romantic novels, poems, biographies, essays. Not to be overlooked, especially as a testament to Simms’ ardent Southern patriotism, are the countless editorials he wrote for Charleston and Columbia newspapers during the war and early Reconstruction.

In his Introduction, Rogers points out that in nineteenth-century America, it was not uncommon for novelists and poets—“men of letters”—to edit newspapers. This Simms did throughout his career. He edited the Charleston City Gazette, 1830-32; contributed frequently to the Charleston Mercury in the two decades before the war; and wrote letters and essays for the Mercury during the conflict. As it closed, Simms was editing the Columbia Phoenix. In the first two years of Reconstruction he also edited two Charleston papers, the South Carolinian and the Courier. These platforms have given Dr. Rogers plenty of material.

One of the first reckonings one must make in approaching this book is how a man of intellect and aesthetic sensibility could have been a fearless apologist for slavery, an ardent advocate of secession, a diehard Confederate and excoriator of Yankees. In one of the ninety pieces Rogers has selected for reprinting here, Simms declares, “the whole notion of Yankeedom is delivered up to vanity. They are the greatest braggadocios and humbugs that the world has ever seen” (Mercury, May 11, 1861).

In his newspaper writings Simms assumed various voices. He urged his fellow Carolinians to prepare for coastal invasion; he admired Charlestonians’ coolness after the Federals began shelling the city in August 1863. After the enemy had captured Charleston, Simms urged the citizenry to “renounce all connection with the Yankees,” not fraternize with them. As late as April 15, 1865, by now writing for the Columbia Phoenix, the perfervid patriot was calling for authorities to cannon-melt the cathedral bells from St. Michael’s, then lying on Capitol Hill.

I wish the editor had chosen more of Simms’ wartime editorials for publication here—three-quarters of the book is devoted to the Carolinian’s writings after Appomattox. Notably lacking, too, are Simms’ articles, “The Capture, Sack and Destruction of the City of Columbia,” (Phoenix, March-April 1865), which analyzed the extent of damage from the fires of February 17-18. Later in ’65 Simms worked them into a 76-page pamphlet. Dr. Rogers notes that in doing so Simms “significantly revised the text”; it would have been interesting to see how (the pamphlet was reprinted in 1937 and ’71).

In his Foreword to Writing War and Reunion, David Moltke-Hansen observes that “a growing number of scholars [have] concluded that southern intellectual history was not an oxymoron.” In such study William Gilmore Simms has always been at the center. Jeffery Rogers’ collection of Simms’ newspaper writings demonstrates why.

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