Birth of a Civil War Buff

July 26, 2012

Multiple Pages
Birth of a Civil War Buff

Growing up in England, one didn’t hear much about the American Civil War. England’s own Civil War loomed larger in our education and imaginations, though it had been fought two centuries earlier than the American conflict.

A key battle in our Civil War took place a dozen miles from my hometown. As school kids, we were bused out to see the battlefield, which we all thought boring—just a field, for goodness’ sake, with a crumbling stone monument. We all knew Yeames’s fine painting “And When Did You Last See Your Father?” I can’t recall any significant works of fiction about our Civil War, but Cavaliers and Roundheads were stock characters in the illustrated comics we all read, which often had excellent picture stories continued over several months. We knew from Sellar and Yeatman that the King’s men were Wrong but Wromantic, while Parliament’s were Right but Repulsive.

America’s Civil War was much more vague and distant to us. We knew it had been fought between North and South and had something to do with slavery, but that was about it. Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women was on the canon of classic children’s books, but of course no red-blooded boy would be seen dead with it. I did read Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage in the Classics Illustrated edition but retained very little of it—mainly, what peculiar caps the Union soldiers wore, with that flat, slanted-forward top.

(Our ignorance is excusable, given the distance in time and space. Emily Dickinson lived through the whole thing in Massachusetts yet seems, to judge from her verses, not to have noticed the war.)

So along came the Civil War’s 150th anniversary, and here was I, a naturalized US citizen, knowing next to nothing about that tremendous conflict which looms so large in my fellow citizens’ minds.

“Friends had warned me that the Civil War is something you get hooked on. They were right: I’m hooked.”

After a year or so of dithering—I am an Olympic-class ditherer and could dither for the American team—I purchased a set of lectures from Great Courses.

There are 48 half-hour lectures in the set, delivered by Prof. Gary Gallagher of the University of Virginia. I’ve been listening to the lectures while I walk my dog in the mornings. One might as well do something constructive with one’s time.

I have taken in the entire course and am now going through it again for points I missed the first time. When I get home from dog-walking, I check with Colin McEvedy’s neat little handbook for battlefield dispositions and points of geography.

This being my only significant acquaintance so far with Civil War scholarship, it would be foolish of me to offer an opinion on Prof. Gallagher’s point of view regarding the war’s many controversies. The most I can say is that he seems judicious, giving a fair shake to all sides.

All sides—that was one of the first things I learned, that there were more than two sides, at least in opinion. Preserve the Union or dissolve it? Preserve it with slavery or without? The radical Republicans (who wanted a Union cleansed of slavery) and the Confederate secessionists actually agreed on a main point: that a Union with slavery—the Union, let it be remembered, defined by the Constitution—was no longer possible. They merely differed on how to escape from the impossibility: by ending slavery or by ending the Union.

Northern Democrats thought that there could be a return to the Constitution’s slaveholding republic, and they pressed their case when Northern morale was low and there was a market for compromise. Given the failure of the many compromises attempted from 1820 on, this doesn’t seem very realistic, but you can understand its appeal to a war-weary public.

The main thing I’ve learned, though, is what a terrific political athlete Abraham Lincoln was—not an easy thing to believe of a man so physically ungainly. His schmoozing of the key border states during the war’s first two years was masterly. It culminated in the Emancipation Proclamation, which Prof. Gallagher tells me was not a manifesto of the Higher Morality, but a military document issued under Lincoln’s authority as Commander in Chief. It did not, I now know, free slaves in the four slave states that had stayed in the Union. There would have been no military point.

Lincoln’s actual preference was for gradual emancipation, with compensation to slave-owners, followed by “colonization”—sending the freed slaves to new colonies in Africa, the Caribbean, and Central America. Outside the ranks of extreme abolitionists, practically no white American seems to have believed that free blacks and free whites could live in harmony together.

I have learned also that there was an answer, sort of, to Harry Flashman’s question: If it was OK for the thirteen colonies to secede from the British Empire, why was it not OK for the eleven Confederate states to secede from the Union? Many Confederate propagandists argued that the South was continuing the true revolutionary tradition—that both secessions were perfectly justified.

(Prof. Gallagher has a sly little aside on the lesser secession of West Virginia from Virginia: “Some kinds of secession were just fine, even with Unionists.…”)

I now know who’s who among Doughfaces, Fire-Eaters, and Copperheads. I think I can distinguish between Confederate generals A. S. Johnston and J. E. Johnston. I know the context of Lincoln telling Congress that “The Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea.” I have new respect for the movie Gone With the Wind (never read the book), which seems to have gotten most things right. Scarlett O’Hara’s first husband’s death from measles, for instance, was highly realistic. Soldiers in camp, especially soldiers from country districts early in the war, died in droves from childhood diseases.

Friends had warned me that the Civil War is something you get hooked on. They were right: I’m hooked. When I’ve finished this second listen-through of Prof. Gallagher’s lectures I shall tackle the literature. Shelby Foote and Bruce Catton are the authors most recommended to me. I’ll welcome Taki’s Mag commenters adding other books to my reading list.

Then—the battlefields! Unfortunately there will be some traveling there, as they are all several states away. Mrs. Derb could become a Civil War-buff widow unless I can get her interested, which is not probable.

Beyond even that, there are reenactment societies to join. I’m up for it so long as I don’t have to eat a Civil War soldier’s rations, which Prof. Gallagher says were terrible.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock


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