The Civil War in American Memory Each Generation Views the Eternal Yet Changing History of the Conflict between the States through Its Own Prism

By Leonard Bushkoff. Leonard Bushkoff is a freelance book reviewer specializing . | The Christian Science Monitor, September 19, 1990 | Go to article overview
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The Civil War in American Memory Each Generation Views the Eternal Yet Changing History of the Conflict between the States through Its Own Prism


Leonard Bushkoff. Leonard Bushkoff is a freelance book reviewer specializing ., The Christian Science Monitor


THE CIVIL WAR: AN ILLUSTRATED HISTORY. Edited by Geoffrey C. Ward, with Ric Burns and Ken Burns, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 426 pp., $50 THE CIVIL WAR BATTLEFIELD GUIDE. Edited by Frances H. Kennedy, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 318 pp., $16.95 (paper); 29.95 (cloth)

THE Civil War - the greatest of epic tragedies, turning points, and bloodiest of wars for the United States - is again capturing the nation's imagination.

A surge of books both popular and scholarly; enrollment in college courses; circulation by specialized magazines; crowds at battlefield reenactments; support for battlefield preservation against real estate development; critical approval for the movie "Glory," which portrays black troops in battle; and acclaim for "The Civil War," a five-part public television documentary that opens nationwide on Sep. 23: Here is ample evidence, not merely of interest, but of a new kind of interest.

For those who wish to fix in their memories the imagery of this great national struggle, The Civil War: An Illustrated History, the companion volume to the television documentary, is the book. It offers 475 pictures, a few sweeping military maps, and four brief interpretive essays by leading scholars.

Robert Penn Warren's insights, quoted from the book, are more relevant than ever:

"A civil war is, we may say, the prototype of all war, for in the person of fellow citizens who happen to be the enemy we meet again with the old ambivalence of love and hate and with all the old guilts, the blood brothers of our childhood. In a civil war ... all the self-divisions of conflicts within individuals becomes a series of mirrors in which the plight of the country is reflected, ..." What do those mirrors reveal? And what issues does the new interest address?

First, consider the war itself. It was the most destructive, traumatic, and consequential event of the nation's past. It cost 620,000 fallen soldiers (out of a combined population of 32 million), unknown numbers of civilian dead, and an assassinated president.

It destroyed, but it also created. It destroyed secessionism, the Old South, and slavery - though with de facto limitations: Racism and repression continued. It discredited zealotry, no matter how righteous a cause like abolitionism; a cautious majority thereafter embraced pragmatism, compromise, political inclusion, as against aggressive ideologies. And it destroyed the 40-year-long stalemate of South vs. North, slavery vs. abolitionism, aristocracy vs. egalitarianism; the bayonet resolved what politicians could not.

The war created the conditions for a centralized, Washington-oriented political system. It signified the victory of entrepreneur and factory over planter and plantation, and of republic and democracy over oligarchy and its monarchical friends in Europe. It created an American style of war, based on massing overwhelming numbers, firepower, and materiel to crush the enemy in incessant battles: "I purpose to fight it out on this line, if it takes all summer," said Grant in mid-1864. And it provided the stuff of epic and saga for future generations, as later wars in Europe or Asia could not.

Now the drums are beating anew, as they have every 20 or 25 years since the 1880s. "The last Civil War revival came with the centennial celebration in 1961; we were about due for another one," says John Stanchak, editor of the bi-monthly, Civil War Times Illustrated, whose circulation has swelled to 160,000 during the 1980s.

"Any publisher could bet money on this boom," he says. His readers come less often from the East or West Coasts than from Southern and Midwestern small towns, where memories and mementos reinforce local pride and family prestige.

Blacks, once regarded as irrelevant, are now being studied seriously. And battlefields, once treated merely as parks, are now seen as hallowed ground, to be preserved at all cost.

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