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For An Emotional Understanding

July 2024
4min read

Very few facts of any real consequence still remain to be dug up about the American Civil War. History’s secrets have been largely disclosed. We know about that war just about as much as our grandchildren will know, and the area of our knowledge today is not very much broader than it was a generation ago. Most of the returns are in, and they have long since been tabulated and analyzed.

Yet books about the war continue to be written, and since both authors and publishers work, very largely, in response to economic motivations, this can only mean that the American people still want to read such books. They want them, indeed, in a greater volume than at any time within living memory, and there is every indication that this desire will remain strong for a number of years to come. Which leads to the interesting question why .

It is easy enough to come up with stock answers—that this war was a prodigious experience, that almost everyone in America had a part in it, that our racial memory remains fascinated by the infinite drama and pathos of “the war between brothers,” and that in this present era of uncertainty and doubt people look back to the supreme moment of national crisis to see how we managed to get through it and what lessons it may offer for people who have to live in the modern world.

Yet all of those answers taken together are not quite enough. They are perfectly correct, but when they are added together something essential is lacking. The Civil War story has been there all along, its salient facts all taped and docketed, and the diligent students who have plowed the field so thoroughly have left very little room for important new discoveries. The current spate of interest in the war certainly does not depend on the writers’ ability to come up with hithero undiscovered data; most emphatically, it does not mean that the American public has abruptly developed a fondness for reading an unending rehash of an old familiar story.

What is going on now, clearly, is a deep and frequently moving examination of the emotional significance of this most profound of all our national experiences. It is probable that we are not yet wholly rational beings. We approach true understanding through our emotions rather than through our intellects, deplorable as that may be, and although we know about all we need to know about the facts of the war we are still feeling our way toward a comprehension of what those facts mean.

For above and beyond everything else, the Civil War was a matter of the emotions. It came about because men’s emotions ran away with them; it was borne, North and South, for four mortal years because those emotions remained strong; and its final significance, nowadays, is often more a matter for the heart than the head. Except for the dedicated student, nobody in particular cares to know more than is already known about the inner whys and wherefores of (to take a case at random) the great Battle of Gettysburg; yet the man who can make us feel and see that stupendous fight will get our attention because he helps us to comprehend the enormous intangibles which were involved there. Those intangibles, at Gettysburg and elsewhere throughout the Civil War story, reveal themselves most readily to the person whose feelings and imagination have been touched. Perhaps we ought to be able to reason our way to them, but most of us cannot. They come in moments of insight born of emotional understanding. There are many things about the Civil War which no historian can actually prove; he can only show them.

Which may help to explain why so much of the Civil War story nowadays is being told by the amateurs. With certain notable exceptions, the retelling which is going on is not the work of the established historians; it is being done very largely by the academically unsanctified. Whether this points to a shortcoming on the part of the established historians or to the chance that something may be wrong with the reading public is a separate question. The point is that what we are getting now is a useful, though at times a highly inexpert, re-examination of the Civil War which somehow reaches people who were not reached previously. It rarely gives us any facts that were not previously known; what it frequently does is help us to see things which were not formerly clear.

An excellent example is Mr. Earl Schenck Miers’ new biography, Robert E. Lee . There already exist a great many studies of Lee. When Douglas Southall Freeman finished the monumental seven volumes devoted to Lee and Lee’s lieutenants he left very little ground for later biographers to work, and for the reader who does not want Freeman’s exhaustive detail there are plenty of excellent one-volume biographies of Lee. Yet Mr. Miers’ brief book—it can hardly run to more than 60,000 words—is well worth having. It is not simply a reworking of familiar material. It is a fresh look at Lee; an attempt to understand what the man was about, what moved him, and what his significance is in the story of the American people.

Robert E. Lee , by Earl Schenck Miers. Alfred A. Knopf. 203 pp. $2.50.

There are no surprises here; none are to be expected. Lee is, in this book as in all others, the genuinely great soldier, the man who in his own lifetime became a legend and always lived up to it, making the legend true. He was at his noblest, as Mr. Miers sees him, in the years after Appomattox, when he uncomplainingly threw himself into the task of helping the South back into its place in the Union. Few Americans have shown greater strength of character than Lee showed then.

Yet there was a limitation in the man—a singular inability to see and feel the main currents of his time. Disbelieving in secession and in slavery, he went to war to support both; he could never quite understand how Lincoln could turn slavery (in Mr. Miers’ phrase) into “a weapon of moral fission” and maneuver the South into the position of opposing one of humanity’s most basic aspirations. His Gettysburg campaign was doomed, not because the military cards were stacked against him, but because he understood in 1863 no better than he had understood in 1861 why the people of the North were really supporting Lincoln and the Union cause. In 1864 he and his army were brought to stalemate not so much by the superior resources of the North as by the fact that Lincoln had a vision which Lee never had—“a superb wholeness,” as Mr. Miers puts it, “a broad, sweeping vision that had grasped the military, political, psychological and philosophical necessities of the great American conflict.”

Here was the real tragedy of Lee. One of the great upward thrusts of the American spirit took place, and he never sensed it. The virtue of this little gem of a book is that it fully presents Lee’s greatness but also brings this tragic shortcoming into high relief.

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