For the New Millennium, New Perspectives on the Civil War

Article excerpt

Pursuing research for my tenth novel, Sharpshooter, I gathered around me, over many years, more than 1,500 books, and from those books I gathered thousands of facts about every facet of the Civil War. The first draft was over 2,000 pages long; the published book is less than 160 pages short. During the fifteen years between the first long draft and the final short draft, the mere accumulation of facts proved less and less meaningful; but the selection of facts and the placement of facts in contexts that ignite the reader's emotions, imagination, and intellect produced a novel that looks at the war in many unusual ways.

Only thirteen when he took up his rifle, the hero of Sharpshooter, at the age of ninety, is still trying to focus the war in his sights. "Why," he wonders repeatedly, "since I was in every battle, East and West, with General Longstreet, do I feel that I missed the war?" The veteran sharpshooter and I had the same mission in to target the facts. But the more facts we got on target the more we felt - he as a participant looking back and I as a space-age American citizen bemused and beguiled and bewitched by the facts - that we missed the war.

Sharpshooter's theme is that all the participants, soldiers and civilians, missed the war as it happened and in memory. The vision out of which I created and developed the United States Civil War Center derives from the same conviction. Today, individually and collectively, no matter how many books we read or write, we miss the war to the extent that we fail to place the facts we know in the richest possible contexts and to illuminate them by personal emotional involvement, imaginative conceptualization, and complex intellectual implication. Possession of the facts and the artifacts alone is not enough. And it is not only the dull recital of facts that makes history dry and remote for many American children and adults; it is also dull imagination.


The Civil War Center's mission is to facilitate the study of the war from the perspective of every conceivable academic discipline, profession, and occupation. I myself am not an academic historian; I am a novelist and a teacher of literature and creative writing in all genres. The Center strives to help all American citizens, young and old, North and South, avoid missing the war by urging them to imagine fresh perspectives that will enable them to make the war that most profoundly shaped the American character an integral part of our own individual identities today.

The Civil War Center has taken leadership in this new approach. In the spring of 1996, the U.S. Congress passed and the President signed a resolution designating the United States Civil War Center and its partner, the Gettysburg College Civil War Institute, as the institutions charged with planning and facilitating the Sesquicentennial. The long-range implementation of our interdisciplinary mission will materialize in publications, conferences, and exhibits each year up to and through the Sesquicentennial in the years 2011-2015. It will be the last opportunity for most adult Americans living today to reflect upon the war and its legacy together.

The events of each decade in American history provide a fresh perspective on the Civil War. Professional historians, amateur historians, and ordinary citizens revisit, rediscover, and redefine this central event of the American experience. Thus, we reflect on the past, experience the present, and enlighten the future by the fitful light of shifting interpretations. The decade of the Civil Rights Movement was a perfect time for a Centennial reassessment of the Civil War. In the 1980s, several books, the movie Glory, and Ken Burns' PBS documentary The Civil War gave us a sharp sense of the role of African Americans and of women in the war.

By understanding the war, we can understand ourselves in the world today, both our dark problems and our bright prospects. …