Skip to main content

The Great Incalculable

July 2024
3min read

Perhaps it is the intensity of the fight that makes the difference. Everything that a nation has is put into the struggle. New powers are developed, new forces are let loose, new capacities are discovered and exploited, and these have a permanent effect. Beyond either victory or defeat they go on working; it becomes impossible for the warring nation to go back to its prewar status simply because the effort of fighting the war has destroyed that status forever.

The classic example of this is, of course, that hardy perennial of the modern book lists, the American Civil War, and Allan Nevins examines the process in an excellent new book, The War for the Union . He subtitles his book “The Improvised War,” and he is chiefly concerned here with how the improvisation took place and what it finally led to.

If ever two peoples were unprepared for war, the peoples of the North and the South were unprepared in 1861. They had to make the war up as they went along, and in the end almost nothing that happened came because anybody had really planned for it. The first year of the war is a long record of mistakes. Problems of finance and equipment had to be solved catchas-catch-can; armies had to be whistled into existence according to the obsolete military tradition of the time, which meant that in matters of discipline and training they were almost entirely out from under central control; generals had to be created out of any material that came to hand, and strategic planning (where it existed at all) was a singular blend of political considerations and dimly understood military principles, carried out by officers who in many cases tried their best to be virtually independent of the national government.

The War for the Union: The Improvised War, 1861–1862 , by Allan Nevins. Charles Scribner’s Sons. 436 pp. $7.50.

The record of the first year, accordingly, is apparently indecisive. In the East, the Union government suffered the disgraceful setback of Bull Run; in the West, it had the equally humiliating setback of Wilson’s Creek. Only in West Virginia, in Kentucky, and at isolated spots along the Atlantic seacoast did the national government record any definite advances, and these seemed to be peripheral matters that might easily have been canceled out by more extensive reverses later on.

Yet it is clear that an immense job was done. More than 500,000 men were brought under arms, a new fleet was created, the industrial mechanism to support an all-out war effort was slowly brought into being, and the amorphous enthusiasm for “restoring the Union” was somehow hardened, by slow degrees, into the grim determination that would finally insist on driving ahead to all-out victory at any cost. And amid all of this, the shape that the war would finally take was determined.

For what was taking place was in fact a genuine revolutionary effort. Never before had the American people made such a tremendous effort of organization and preparation; and, as Mr. Nevins remarks, “No government, after such an effort, could ever sink back to the old level of small enterprises pettily pursued. Behind the drilling troops and scurrying ships new industries were taking form, new factories were belching smoke, banks, stores, and warehouses were being enlarged to seize new opportunities, and the wheels of transport were turning with new speed.” The very attempt that was being made to .fight the war on the required scale was making a permanent change in the country. Nothing would ever be the same again, because a whole new order was coming into existence.

Mr. Nevins sums up the situation succinctly:

Had some miracle of compromise ended the war in the summer of 1861, the country would have emerged with but minor changes in non-political fields. Bull Run had made it certain that a considerable socio-economic revolution would occur. If the mighty military effort planned for 1862 succeeded, it would be merely considerable. But if it failed, and the conflict continued, the country would face a major revolution, altering many of the organic functions of society.

The effort did fail, of course, and the major revolution did take place. And it is a melancholy and instructive fact that the responsible leaders on both sides wanted nothing of the kind to take place. The America of 1860 was a happy land, a loose-jointed and informal sort of place in which, barring the thorny slavery-States’ rights dispute, there were no great problems and no great pressures. North and South alike, men believed that they were fighting to restore that happy situation. Fighting to restore it, they ended it forever.

Modern war can make its long-range effects felt in several ways. As Mr. Falls has indicated in his book on the First World War, the sheer destructiveness of the fighting can destroy the things men believe they are trying to preserve. Yet the generals of France in 1940, instinctively drawing away from the fearful destructiveness of the earlier conflict, ruined their country by an excess of cautious conservatism. And in our own case we can see how the mere task of harnessing all of a country’s energies for war can set in motion forces that take men in directions they had no intention of traveling.

Modern war, apparently, is the great incalculable. It can be controlled only to the most limited degree. Won or lost, it means profound change; change, usually, that never entered into the calculations of the men who started it.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.