A Short History of the American Civil War

A Short History of the American Civil War

A Short History of the American Civil War

A Short History of the American Civil War


The most difficult question about the American Civil War, or perhaps any war, is why it had to happen. Thus we begin with a most complex problem that no one has yet answered to complete satisfaction, but which we must try to understand, beginning with the simplest and branching out into the more complex aspects.

The ultimate cause of the Civil War was simply human disagreement, which could not be, or rather was not, resolved by non- violent means. Its roots went at least as deep as the American Revolution, and could be traced even deeper into human history if the effort promised to give any better understanding for the present purpose, which it does not.

Man's fundamental disagreement has always been about who shall have what and who shall rule whom, and how and why. The baldest statement of the amoral point of view was phrased by the poet Wordsworth in "Rob Roy's Grave":

That they should take, who have the power
And they should keep who can.

But so crass a statement has never been entirely acceptable, and hence a more complex, more imaginative, and more "moral" formula has always been sought to justify the ways of man to man. It became the job of Thomas Jefferson to phrase the formula upon which the American Colonies would justify their rebellion against Great Britain . . .


Writing a short history of the American Civil War is like trying to put an oak back into an acorn, impossible, of course, but in the attempt perhaps instructive; for all the lineaments of the mature tree do lie in the acorn's embryo. It has been my purpose to try, at least, to preserve the essential features of the great convulsion the United States experienced and survived, and to keep their due proportion within the scope this small volume affords. It is my hope that no part thus reduced is untrue to its epic proportions in the full record.

As historians have examined the record, there has never been complete agreement among them in interpreting either the events or the motivations of the men who acted the events, or were acted upon by the events, of the Civil War. Whether one takes the view of determinism and maintains that the war was inevitable, or of free will and maintains that it was chosen or blundered into, usually accounts for the particular historian's emphasis on what is a primary and what is a secondary cause, as well as his personal selection and description of events. Deterministic views may be classified as either ethical-religious or materialistic. The view of the ethical-religious determinist predominated at the time of the Civil War and gave color to the actions and words of many of the participants, high and low, who saw the struggle as between good and evil, usually identified in both the North and the South as . . .

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