Ironies of the Civil War

By Clausen, Christopher | The New Leader (Online), May-August 2009 | Go to article overview

Ironies of the Civil War


Clausen, Christopher, The New Leader (Online)


AS ABRAHAM LINCOLN's Bicentennial fades into the back file of anniversaries, the Civil War Sesquicentennial looms ominously. The illfated 1961-65 Civil War Centennial, it will be recalled, was a classic example of a meticulously planned commemoration gone awry because of its almost diabolical overlap with the height ofthe civil-rights movement, which seemed to be fighting some ofthe same battles and inspired a drastic change in the relatively neutral way most academic historians interpreted the War until that time.

Perhaps a century was too short a period for the requisite historical distance. The last Civil War veteran died in 1959. Even today, especially in the South, there are more 80-year-olds than you might think who have childhood memories of grandparents telling them their childhood memories of the burning of Atlanta or Richmond or Columbia. The living memory of such events endures, in this extended sense, for much longer than a single lifetime.

Of course, intimacy with what is understood as a glorious defeat can be a mixed blessing. Undoubtedly it had something to do with the South's stubborn defense of segregation for a century after Appomattox and the subsequent failure of Reconstruction. Part of the War's price, too, was the North's tacit agreement to let the vanquished run their impoverished states according to their own prejudices within broad limits (no more actual slavery, no further attempt at secession), and build as many monuments as they liked to the Confederate soldier so long as they consented once again to be more or less willing citizens of the United States.

A deal of this sort is inevitable if you force the inhabitants of 11 states to remain a component of your country after defeating them in a conflict that took a total of 600,000 lives, but shrink from ruling indefinitely by martial law. The bargain - admirably recounted by C. Vann Woodward in Reunion and Reaction (195 1) - is what many historians began to reject passionately by the 1960s, along with the longstanding assumption that the South was fighting for an honorable albeit misguided cause. The sticking point, to nobody's surprise except perhaps the Civil War Centennial Commission's, was the complex of issues and obsessions the press and many historians habitually pare down to the single word "race."

Two new books neatly illustrate most of these points. An eerie sense ofthe Civil War being both impossibly remote yet almost close enough to touch, with streamers of unfinished business trailing behind, may be one reason so many accounts come out every year of battles that have been written about many times. One is to narrate them in the light of political issues they seem to embody. By treating the politics of the 1 860s as if its concerns were much the same as ours, popularizing historians can simultaneously say something new and make the War seem closer.

The most obvious issue to dwell on is the wrongs suffered by black Americans, slave or free. In No Quarter: The Battle of the Crater, 1864 (Random House, 41 1 pp., $28.00), Richard Slotkin takes us back to the last summer of the War, when the South was gradually losing but there was a real question whether the North would win before public support collapsed. At the time it seemed quite possible that Lincoln could lose the Presidency to General George B. McClellan, the peace candidate nominated by the Democrats.

"The Battle of the Crater is worth a closer look," Slotkin announces, "because the flash of its explosion illuminates the centrality oí race in the tangle of social and political conflicts that shaped American life as the Civil War approached its climax. . . . The animosities exposed on this battlefield were the same passions that would wreck postwar attempts to reconstruct the nation as a multiracial democracy."

Ulysses S. Grant, by now commander of the U.S. Army, struggled like his predecessors to defeat Robert E. Lee's forces in Virginia, while William T. …

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