The Tragic Conflict: The Civil War and Reconstruction

By William B. Hesseltine | Go to book overview

31
The Test of Civilization

Atlantic Monthly

The history of the war of the Rebellion cannot be comprised in a narrative of military operations and political and financial conditions. The historian who confines himself to these omits an important part of his work. To understand the war, to obtain a correct notion of the principles on which it was waged, to appreciate the necessity even of special military movements, and to comprehend its results, especially in its effect upon the national character and ideas, a large share of attention must be given to the social conditions of the country, to the opinions, sentiments, impulses, and desires of the American people, and to the forms in which their exertions to maintain the cause which they had at heart took shape. The novel conditions of national life, which had their sour in our democratic system, and which, up to the period of the war, had been but partially recognized and imperfectly appreciated even by ourselves, manifested themselves during its course in ways not less striking than unanticipated, and gave to it a character different from that of any war previously recorded in history.

Its most remarkable feature was not the enormous magnitude of the forces engaged, or the extent of the territory over which it was waged, or the strategy displayed in marches or battles, or the methods by which it was carried on; but it was what lay behind all these-it was the conduct and bearing of the people by whom and for whom the war was fought and victory won. It was most remarkable for being in every sense a popular war; and unless this fact be brought clearly into view, and its relations be plainly exhibited, there can be no true history of the time....

The breaking out of the Rebellion found our people, not only ignorant of war, but unprepared for it. Domestic, civil war is a catastrophe not contemplated in our system, for which it made no provision, and against which it was indeed secure, but for the abnormal sectiona division created by

Atlantic Monthly ( Boston, January, 1867).

Reviewing Charles J. Stille History of the United States Sanitary Commission, the Atlantic found deeper meaning in the work of the humanitarians. The Sanitary Commission promoted the efficiency of soldiers, relieved the sufferings of sick and wounded, and contributed largely to victory. It was, thought the Atlantic, "framed and administered in entire accordance with the Principles of our national life."

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