Climbing Mount Appomattox

September 26, 2013

Multiple Pages
Climbing Mount Appomattox

Talk about biting off more than you can chew! Since taking up the Civil War (War Between the States, War of Northern Aggression, whatever) as a part-time study, I’ve been getting emails from friends and readers asking me what I’ve learned.

The main thing I’ve learned is how impossibly much there is to learn. Goodness, how those four years have been worked over by authors! My own good-but-modest suburban library has a whole wall of Civil War books in the lending section. In the reference section there are several shelves more, on one of which lies a fine old edition of the supersized (14 x 17 inches) Official Military Atlas with painstakingly engraved topographical maps of all the battlefields.

You could spend months reading just the general histories. I didn’t know, until I found it in my library, that British military historian John Keegan, of Face of Battle fame, whom I encountered around the old Daily Telegraph offices once or twice, had written one. (It was not, to judge from the reviews, one of his best.) Then there’s the supporting reference material you need for a quick check of where you are in the great saga: I got the Library of Congress Illustrated Timeline at a discount and find it invaluable.

“History is written only by the victors? Not in the case of the Civil War.”

Not an inch of Civil War ground has been left untilled. I had no idea until reading Foote that the war was fought as far west as New Mexico. It was, and there’s a (short) shelf of books about that.

There are not just military histories, but social, political, judicial, and diplomatic histories, at least one moral history, and even a culinary history. There are books about why the South lost and books about how the North won. There are books devoted to particular years, months, and days. There are books covering short stretches of time during which, in the beginner’s mental map of the war, nothing happened.

History is written only by the victors? Not in the case of the Civil War. Disappointed Southerners were taking up their pens before the guns had cooled. I’d heard the expression “Lost Cause” but didn’t know how early it was coined in a book title: 1866! Friends in the Dark Enlightenment have urged Lunt on me, and Dabney, Semmes, Seabrook, the Kennedys, and DiLorenzo. Everybody’s got an opinion.

And all that’s just the historians. Then there’s the literature: biographies, diaries, fiction, poetry. Good grief!

I have read a distressingly tiny fraction of all this, “looked into” some more, and marked yet more down as must-read. I’ve even done my first Civil War book review. I doubt I shall ever be a Civil War authority; but looking at that vast mass of scholarship engenders some skepticism about claims to authority. So you have an opinion about this general or that battle, about this weapon or that diplomatic maneuver? Have you read and evaluated all of the umpety-ump books arguing a contrary opinion? So far my Civil War explorations have been mainly an exercise in humility.

Recently, after a few months wrestling with Leviathan, I took a break and read Gone with the Wind. I never had, though of course I’d seen the movie way back. People had told me that it is a woman’s book, what publishers call a “bodice-ripper”—a genre I have no interest in. Dim recollections of the movie seemed to confirm that.

Some passing mentions by the later historians, though, were more admiring than you’d expect for a book of that kind. I had assumed, for example, that Charles Hamilton’s death from measles in the movie was just an author’s way to bring a ridiculous character to a ridiculous end; but no, country boys really did die in camp by the thousands from infantile diseases to which, unlike city slum kids, they had never been exposed.

The author, Margaret Mitchell, certainly did her historical legwork. Her biographer writes that:

She spent a vast amount of time verifying historical facts. She felt an overwhelming burden to avoid factual error….She spent hours on end checking data in the collated files of both ancient and contemporary newspapers….

(On the other hand, her fictional chronology could have used more care. A friend tells me: “When someone pointed out that the time between Ashley’s last leave and the fall of Atlanta would make Melanie pregnant for 11 months, Mitchell reportedly said, ‘Well, we do things slow here in the South.’”)

Her sociology is good, too. I learned a lot about the structure of the Old South. The word “cracker,” for example, which some deluded white people nowadays are trying to argue is as offensive as the fabulous n-word—as if white people are allowed to take offense at anything!—was socially quite specific.

[Will Benteen] was not of the planter class at all, though he was not poor white. He was just plain Cracker, a small farmer, half-educated….Scarlett wondered if he could be called a gentleman at all and decided that he couldn’t. [Ch. 30]

Speaking of the n-word, the custom that blacks may use it freely but well-bred whites shouldn’t use it at all seems to go well back before the Civil War, in the South at least.

“Ah ain’ no yard nigger. Ah’s a house nigger.”

“You’re a fool nigger, and the worst day’s work Pa ever did was to buy you,” said Scarlett slowly….There, she thought, I’ve said “nigger” and mother wouldn’t like that at all. [Ch. 24]

And although it’s outside the strict scope of Civil War studies, GWTW brings home another fact: that as awful a trial as the war was to the white people of the South, Reconstruction was almost as bad.

Now I regret having wasted so many years on tomfoolery such as analytic number theory. History’s the thing, and to understand this country you have to get acquainted with the Civil War. Back to the library.

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