Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Why the Civil War?

Some interesting and thought-provoking posts have appeared in the blogosphere over the past week.  Harry Smeltzer at Bull Runnings asks "What is a 'Civil War Blog?,'" while Robert Moore at Cenantua's Blog poses the question, "Who are Civil War Bloggers?"  Craig Swain, who maintains To the Sound of the Guns, even looked at the on-line world of Civil War history before blogs.  These three excellent posts also beg another question, and one that I have been pondering for quite a while now:  Why the Civil War?

During a trip to Winchester, Virginia in May, I visited a few French and Indian War sites.  Then, at the start of July, I toured Lexington Green, Old North Bridge, and other places associated with the start of the American Revolution.  Yet on returning from both of these trips, I realized the dearth of blogs about the colonial and Revolutionary War period.  In contrast to the Civil War, which has stimulated more than 100 blogs, the French and Indian War and Revolution seem to have ignited very few on-line passions.  Moreover, around 60,000 books have been written about the Civil War, but the numbers are nowhere near comparable to most other periods of American military history.  Minute Man National Historical Park had only a handful of titles on the Revolution for sale.  Compare that to your average Civil War battlefield bookstore.  And who's really pumped about the 250th anniversary of the French and Indian War or the 200th of the War of 1812 compared to the way that people are flocking to the Sesqui in all its permutations?  The entire Civil War has truly become a cottage industry, with everything from battle reenactments to collector plates

A scene from last year's reenactment commemorating the 150th anniversary of First Manassas.  The event drew over 18,000 spectators and nearly 7,000 reenactors despite temperatures hovering at over 100 degrees. 

Part of our fascination with the Civil War may stem from what was at stake.  The Revolution gave birth to our independence, but the very existence of the Republic was on the line in when war erupted at Ft. Sumter.  The United States would emerge a stronger country, or our Founding Fathers' great experiment in representative democracy and federalism would amount to nothing but an abject failure.  The war also became a struggle to destroy slavery and secure freedom for millions of African-Americans.  In a sense, the Civil War was fought to complete the unfinished work of the American Revolution.   The critical importance of the Civil War appeals to people in a way that other periods of American military history may not.  Perhaps only the fight against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan comes close.

The Civil War was also America's bloodiest conflict.  Recent research has indicated that the death toll may have reached a staggering 750,000.  Americans cannot turn their heads away from the killing and destruction that was the Civil War.  We are morbidly drawn to our nation's own fratricidal conflict.  We visit the battlefields where thousands of young men perished and ponder the cost of preserving the Union and ending slavery.  "How could Americans do this to one another?," we ask.  The tragedy virtually begs us to study and remember.

The Civil War also continues to touch people in very personal ways.  Many Americans have ancestors who fought on both sides of the war.  They research and even write about their family members' participation in the conflict.  They join the successor organizations to Union and Confederate veterans groups.  They tour the places where their relatives fought and died.  Of course, many people have family members who served in America's other armed conflicts, so perhaps this near obsession with our Civil War ancestors is a result, rather than the cause, of our intense interest in the war.

The war's vast impact left very few parts of mid-19th century America untouched.  The Civil War occupies a prominent part of the geographical space in many places across the United States.  The Revolution and other wars fought on American soil were more limited in their reach, and this country's foreign wars happened far from home.  Many Americans are literally surrounded by sites associated with the Civil War.  Memorials to the war's dead rise above courthouse squares.  Historical markers point out the importance of homes, roads, fields, and other landmarks.  Cemeteries contain the headstones of those who gave the last full measure of devotion.  For history-minded people, it's not easy to turn away from all of these local and regional connections to the war, particularly if you live down South. 

The Civil War may have occurred a long time ago, but that doesn't mean that the war is no longer part of our national discourse.  Politicians and pundits invoke concepts such as states' rights and secession.  Contemporary discussions of race relations sometimes focus on the legacy of slavery and emancipation.  And for better or for worse, Americans still like to debate the causes of the war.  The on-going controversies, picked up by the mainstream media, ensure that general attention to the war remains high.

The Civil War is sometimes called the "first modern war."  Railroads, telegraphs, ironclad gunboats, and other technologies saw wide-spread use during the war.  We are captivated by this transition to a newer and more recognizable form of warfare.  The Civil War was also one of the first conflicts to be extensively documented through photographs.  Americans feel a very real and visual connection to the Civil War in a way that we cannot with this country's earlier conflicts.

The myths and legends of the Civil War also make buffs and enthusiasts of many of us.  Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson loom larger-than-life in the Lost Cause version of events that survives on the screen and in literature.  I'll admit that I got hooked on the war when reading about the exploits of Confederate generals.  But the story does not end there.  In the same way that people may have gotten lured in by watching Gone with the Wind, there are those who trace their fascination to Glory and the 54th Massachusetts or Killer Angels and Joshua Chamberlain.

Maybe we can never really be certain why so many people are addicted to the Civil War.  I like to imagine it's something that is just programmed into the DNA of Civil War historians and enthusiasts alike.  Or perhaps the interest stems from the influences of some mystical, supernatural power.  After all, my mother was pregnant with me when she and my father visited Gettysburg in 1970!  (Spooky, I know.)  But all kidding aside, the Civil War speaks to many of us like no other conflict in U.S. history.  If the past is any guide, America's obsession with the Civil War will continue to dominate our culture in the years to come.


Richard said...

Good topic.

I think part of it is just the nature of Civil War - brother against brother, neighbor vs. neighbor, etc.

The Revolution may have been somewhat similar, but when the Redcoats lost, they went home, thousands of miles away. When the Confederates lost, they went across the river, or down the road, or maybe longer away, but still on the same continent, under the same government. There was no separation of victors from losers physically, and reconstruction and the whole lost cause narrative proved that old feelings do not always die easily.

I think that's where it started and was passed down through generations, where stuff like battlefields, monuments (especially erected by veterans and their families) and other physical representations of the war continue to attract attention.

I think the existence of so many photographs from the war -the first real images of American soldiers, living and dead - plays a part too.

To keep from rambling too much and wrap it up, I think the fact it was a Civil War, on the land where we still live today, with many physical monuments, tombstones, markers, field, etc, left to grab our attention is a large, perhaps the largest, factor. It may be the very nature of a Civil War to leave a lasting impression on the people in the land where it happened. Maybe a Confederate victory and a split of the nation would have changed that, but the country not only is together geographically, but came back (not always easily or quickly) together under the same government, with the same language, background and similar cultures.

I wonder if Civil Wars in other countries fascinate people there today like ours does.

Ron Baumgarten said...

Thanks for your insightful comment. I think you are really on to something that I didn’t exactly articulate in the post. Perhaps, as you say, it is the very nature of the war -- a civil war -- that drives our intense interest in the conflict. The high death toll was a result of Americans killing Americans. We are surrounded by the Civil War on all sides because it happened right here, on our own soil. The modern instruments of war were used by one part of our country against the other. We are left to ponder how this happened, what it was all about, and how we came together again. It is a fascinating story that has filled millions of pages and created an equal number of "buffs" and historians over the years.

A civil war is a traumatic, internal struggle that naturally inhabits a space that is different from a war against another country. I am not sure how other countries view their own, but in some places, like Latin America, the process of reconciliation and healing is still ongoing.

Richard said...

One phrase that popped into my mind today is "it factor" which is sometimes used in pop culture. Does the Civil War just have the "it factor" at least for many of us?

Of course, that leaves us trying to figure out what "it" is, and that may just be rephrasing your question, but right now it works for me - the Civil War and all involved with it just has an "it factor" for me - a catchall term for all the many reasons why it fascinates me.

Ron Baumgarten said...

Richard--I like that! Sometimes a topic has universal appeal for a multitude of reasons, some of which defy description. The Civil War fits into that category.