(On the occasion of the upcoming 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg and a number of news stories of the Civil War reenactment events going on all this week – an essay on the Civil War from my own archives.)
“From ancient grudge break to new mutiny, Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.”
When I was deep in the midst of researching and writing the Adelsverein Trilogy, of course I wound up reading a great towering pile of books about the Civil War. I had to do that – even though my trilogy isn’t really about the Civil War, per se. It’s about the German settlements in mid-19th century Texas. But for the final volume, I had to put myself into the mind of a character who has come home from it all; weary, maimed and heartsick – to find upon arriving (on foot and with no fanfare) that everything has changed. His mother and stepfather are dead, his brothers and many friends have all fallen on various battlefields and his sister-in-law is a bitter last-stand Confederate. He isn’t fit enough to get work as a laborer, and being attainted as an ex-rebel soldier can’t do the work he was schooled for before the war began. This was all in the service of advancing my story of how great cattle baronies came to be established in Texas and in the West, after the war and before the spread of barbed wire, rail transport to practically every little town and several years of atrociously bad winters. So are legends born, but to me a close look at the real basis for the legends is totally fascinating and much more nuanced – the Civil War and the cattle ranching empires, both.
Nuance; now that’s a forty-dollar word, usually used to imply a reaction that is a great deal more complex than one might think at first glance. At first glance the Civil War has only two sides, North and South, blue and grey, slavery and freedom, sectional agrarian interests against sectional industrial interests, rebels and… well, not. A closer look at it reveals as many sides as those dodecahedrons that they roll to determine Dungeons and Dragons outcomes. It was a long time brewing, and as far as historical pivot-points go, it’s about the most single significant one of the American 19th century. For it was a war which had a thousand faces, battlefronts and aspects.
There was the War that split Border States like Kentucky and Virginia – which actually did split, so marked were the differences between the lowlands gentry and the hardscrabble mountaineers. There was the war between free-Soil settlers and pro-slavery factions in Missouri and in Kansas; Kansas which bled for years and contributed no small part to the split. There was even the war between factions of the Cherokee Indian nation, between classmates of various classes at West Point, between neighbors and yes, between members of families.
How that must have broken the hearts of men like Sam Houston, who refused to take a loyalty oath to the Confederacy, and Winfield Scott, the old soldier who commanded the Federal Army at the start of the war. Scott’s officers’ commission had been signed by Thomas Jefferson: he and Houston had both fought bravely for a fledgling United States. Indeed, at the time of the Civil War, there were those living still who could remember the Revolution, even a bare handful of centenarians who had supposedly fought in it. For every Southern fireater like Edmund Ruffin and Preston Brooks (famous for beating a anti-slave politician to unconsciousness in the US Senate) and every Northern critic of so-called ‘Slave power” like William Lloyd Garrison and John Brown… and for every young spark on either side who could hardly wait to put on a uniform of whatever color, there must have been as many sober citizens who looked on the prospect of it all with dread and foreboding.
There are memories, as was said of a certain English king, which “laid like lees in the bottom of men’s hearts and if the vessels were once stirred, it would rise.” So is it with the memory of the American Civil War. The last living veterans are long gone, the monuments grown with moss and half forgotten themselves; even some of the battlefields themselves are built-over, or overgrown. But still, the memories, the interest as well as the resentments linger, waiting for the slightest motion to stir them up. The Civil War is still very much with us. Consider books like Cold Mountain, The Killer Angels, and Gone With the Wind, and documentaries like Ken Burns The Civil War. Every weekend, somewhere across the United States there are re-enactor groups, putting on the blue or the grey and shooting black-powder blanks at each other.
An argument about the causes of it all tends to be just as noisy and inconclusive, and boils down to the academic version of the above. The participants agree on some combination of slavery (or its extension beyond the boundaries of certain limits), states’ rights and the competing economic interests which would favor a rural and agricultural region or an urban and industrial one. What are the proper proportion and combination of these causes? And was chattel slavery a root cause or merely a symptom?
Whatever the answer, sentiment about slavery, or “the peculiar institution” hardened like crystals forming on a thread suspended in a sugar solution for some twenty or thirty years before the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860. In a large part, that hardening of attitudes was driven, as such things usually are, by the extremists on either end of the great lump of relative indifference in the middle. At the time of the Revolution, one has the impression that chattel slavery in the American colonies was something of an embarrassment to the founding fathers. No less than the eminent Doctor Johnson had acidly pointed out the hypocrisy of those who owned slaves insisting on rights and freedom for themselves. For quite some decades it seemed that slavery was on the way out.
Of course it cannot just slip out of mind, this war so savagely fought that lead minie-balls fell like hailstones and the dead went down in ranks, like so much wheat cut down by a scythe blade on battlefield after battlefield. Units had been recruited by localities; men and boys enlisted together with their friends and brothers, and went off in high spirits, commanded by officers chosen from among them. At any time over the following four years and in the space of an hour of hot fighting before some contested strong point, there went all or most of the men from some little town in Massachusetts and Ohio, Tennessee or Georgia. Call to mind the wrenching passage in Gone With the Wind, describing the arrival of casualty lists from Gettysburg, posted on the front windows of the newspaper office for the crowd of onlookers to read, and the heroine realizing that all of the young men whom she flirted and danced with, all the brothers of her friends and sons of her mothers’ friends . . . they are all gone. As an unreconstructed Yankee, GWTW usually moves me to throw it across the room. But Margaret Mitchell grew up listening to vivid stories from the older generation and that scene has the feel of something that really happened, and if not in Atlanta, then in hundreds of other places across the North and South.
No wonder the memory of the Civil War is still so fresh, so terribly vivid in our minds. A cataclysm that all-encompassing, and passions for secession, for abolishing slavery, for free soil and a hundred other catch-phrases of the early 19th century . . . of course it will still reach out and touch us, with icy fingers, a not-quite clearly seen shadow, draped in ghostly shades of grey and blue.