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On Writing About The Civil War

July 2024
6min read

It seems like a long time ago, and as a matter of fact it really was—sixteen years, roughly, which make up a fair fraction of any man’s life—but somewhere around 1950 I got into the Civil War, and now it seems time to talk about it.

Getting into a war that ended ninety years earlier and that has no living survivors is a good deal different from getting into a real live war that is being fought by contemporaries who would like to become living survivors but have no assurance that that will happen; and the veteran of a war that was fought a generation before he was born must walk softly and speak humbly when he tells about what happened to him. But even though death and horror and tragedy have muted echoes when they were actually experienced by someone else, they nevertheless have their effect.

In the beginning, of course—and this was true of most of the actual participants, North and South alike—there was a blind and uncritical enthusiasm. In 1950 the Civil War looked much as it did in the very early part of 1861: full of color, romance, and the glint of high adventure. Jeb Stuart and his plumed hat had something to do with this, and so did General Lee and his gray coat, General McClellan and his great black horse, Phil Sheridan and his furious temper, and the young men in blue and gray who sat around campfires singing the inexpressibly mournful little songs that still send moving harmonies down the years. Part of it came from books read in youth and part of it from the remembered procession of gray-bearded veterans standing bowed in a village cemetery on Memorial Day; part of it, too, from some quirk in the national memory that inexplicably recalls the bright and shining moments and manages to forget the dark and bloody ones. At the start it was all swords and roses.

It began, really, with a great desire to get acquainted with the private soldier of the Civil War. Too many books have discussed that war strictly in terms of the generals: Sherman did this, Hancock did that, and Johnston did some other thing; this general made a heroic assault and that one made a heroic defense; and the men who fought and died at their bidding are simply counters that move from this square to that on an elaborate chessboard and finally are dropped into a box. It seemed important to get at the man who paid for those heroic assaults and defenses and to see what the war looked and smelled and felt like to him.

So my part in the Civil War began, and continued for quite a while, as an attempt to explain it all in terms of the man whom we would now call the G.I. Joe. It turned out that although he was out of reach—on the far side of the river that Stonewall Jackson saw in his dying moments—the Civil War enlisted man was easy to get acquainted with. He was most articulate, he left many letters, diaries, and reminiscences, preserved in every imaginable depository from university libraries to someone’s attic, and he spoke his mind freely. He talked about his officers and about his food, about the irritating absurdities of army life and its deadly monotony, and about the evils of making forced marches across country. (He had a hard time making up his mind whether marching in the rain and mud was worse than marching in heat and ankle-deep dust; the consensus seems to have been that whichever you were actually doing was worse.) He was usually a bit reserved when it came to describing the reality of combat. He was willing enough to tell where his regiment went and what it did, but when it came to saying what fighting was really like he generally picked his words carefully, apparently on the theory that the man who had been there did not need to be told about it, while the man who had not been there would not understand it anyway.

In any case the Civil War soldier is still around, to be listened to if not to be cross-examined, and he makes good company. Rather surprisingly, he turns out to be almost exactly like the young American of today; less sophisticated, perhaps, a good bit more countrified, but still perfectly recognizable, and a very solid sort of citizen to boot. And for quite a time it seemed that no writer could ask for anything better than the privilege of living with this man and describing him.

Taken by itself, however, this was not good enough. The Civil War soldier had many words to describe his participation in that war, and he used all of them at one time or another, often with some heat; but “privilege” was not one of them, and to feel privileged is to be an outsider. So it seemed advisable to go a little farther and to set up shop as an expert on strategy, tactics, weaponry, and the art of handling men; to analyze campaigns and battles, exercising the power of the second guess to show what went wrong with McClellan on the Peninsula, with Grant at Shiloh, and with Lee at Gettysburg. This can be quite stimulating—being a general is easy if you exercise your generalship after all the facts are in, sitting in a good armchair with books piled all around—and it does no harm to anyone provided you do not begin to take yourself too seriously. To be sure, the writer may occasionally get confused as to whether he himself is the general officer commanding or the high private in the rear rank getting ready to take what that general officer has fixed up for him, but aging veterans often do get confused. I heard not long ago about one ancient Civil War soldier who used to entertain his grandchildren with fascinating tales about his part in the Battle of Gettysburg. After he died some of his descendants, in idle curiosity, examined his service record. He had been a good soldier, but he had never been within 300 miles of Gettysburg.

But even when the confusion is discounted, there is still something lacking. It can be both useful and entertaining to provide an authentic picture of the enlisted man in the Northern or Southern armies, and to go on from there to study the way he was used and the reasons why those armies succeeded or failed; to examine, that is, both the chessboard and the pieces that are moved about on it, shedding whatever light one can bring to bear. Yet this sort of thing has been done before, the study of war and warriors is after all pretty specialized, and the analogy of the chessboard is a bad one: it makes a game out of the war, and neither this war nor any other was any part of a game. A latter-day recruit justifies his existence only if he manages to get out of his experience something that justifies his temerity in getting into it. He is compelled, in short, to try to determine what the war meant.

At this point I began to reflect on who it is that rushes in where angels fear to tread. What did the war mean? Well, what does America mean? What does life itself mean—the way it is lived and the terms on which, at last, it must be surrendered? This war killed more Americans than all of our other wars put together; did those men die to some purpose, or were they all wasted? These are questions amidst which one can hardly hope to do more than grope for an answer; yet it seemed to me that anyone who volunteers for the Civil War at this late date is somehow obliged to make the attempt.

He has to do it because otherwise he has simply been amusing himself, using a tragic and agonizing national experience to provide roaming-space for his imagination and his emotions, and also to provide grist for his typewriter. To show why the war took place, how it was fought, and why it ended as it did is not quite enough. Eventually you come to the baffling riddle: What was it really all about?

It is clear enough that the Civil War was a watershed experience for America. What we have and are today grow out of it, and what makes the fundamental question so unanswerable is that what we have and are now are not yet finished. To understand that part of our past we need to understand the present, because today we are grappling with the commitment that was made for us a century ago. The ultimate meaning of that war depends on what we do now. We are still involved in it. When we move to make a living reality out of the great ideal of the equality of all Americans; when we take our stand anywhere in the world for freedom, and for just dealing between all races and conditions of man; when we work for an enduring unity among human beings, whether at home or abroad—when we do any of these things we are simply trying to meet the obligation that was laid upon us a century ago at a price higher than any other price we ever paid.

So the fundamental question has to wait a while for a complete answer. The Civil War is unfinished business. It is still with us, and whether it was worth its dreadful cost depends on what we do rather than on what we say. Enlist in it now and you are apt to find that you are in for the duration.

Or so, at least, it seems to me.

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