The transcendent U.S. Civil War historian Shelby Foote came across a slogan used by southern opponents of secession and war — of which there weren’t many in a region that romanticized the rectitude of the cause.
Poking the mighty northern bear, they warned, would lead to “a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.”
It would indeed be a conflict fomented by “fire-eater” dandies extolling disunion over cocktails on South Carolina verandas, and high-born abolitionists denouncing slavery from New England pulpits — but fought, in places, by northern shoe clerks and shoeless southern farmboys. It began as a rich man’s war and — for more than 600,000 ordinary soldiers — ended as a dead man’s fight as well.
From the moment of the rebels’ surrender in 1865 to today, not just our nation, but also the rest of the world, has held tight to a lingering fascination with that savage conflict. That’s due, in part, to what seems like the sheer stupidity of the South’s quixotic — those with an eye on slavery would say evil — quest for separation from what was still a young nation.
This year and the next, and the three after that — which mark the 150th anniversary of the war’s onset through the date of surrender — the poor man’s war will be restudied, and semantically refought, as never before. Battle re-enactors are already donning their blue and butternut-gray uniforms, and even the war’s lesser-known battlegrounds are being rediscovered and re-trod.
That is where I want to take you in the next couple of posts: to the places where brave, undoubtedly terrified, men collided, screaming and hacking and firing, and by the thousands, dying.
The old axiom notwithstanding, hindsight is not always 20-20 when it comes to this war. If it were, people would have stopped debating the nuances of that “great civil war.” A century and a half after Confederate supreme commander Robert E. Lee surrendered his armies at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, we still wonder what would have happened had he seized the high ground at Gettysburg, up in Pennsylvania. Or had Union commander George McClellan had more gumption when he marched his impeccably drilled army into the belly of the South. Or had the Virginia — the captured former Federal ship Merrimack that the Confederacy clad in iron — been the only ironclad on the seas.
Yes, the Civil War still consumes us. Propose flying the Confederate “stars and bars” battle flag above a great public building if you don’t believe it.
But why does it enthrall us, 55 years after the last Civil War combatant, Union drummer boy Albert Woolson, died? Why do we watch the movie “Gone With the Wind” over and over again? Why do we travel, sometimes half a globe away, to walk the Antietam battlefield in Maryland or inspect the salvaged Confederate submarine Hunley in South Carolina? Why do we pull off the road to read rusted signs describing obscure maneuvers long ago?
Why do Civil War buffs know minute details about each officer, each tactical maneuver taken or missed, the exact designations of military units, North and South? Why do so many authors still write books about Civil War personalities or mythologies or conspiracies, and why do so many others buy them?
We don’t know a lot else about the early 1860s. How many states were in the Union then? What sports did we play? Who were the entertainment superstars, the Supreme Court chief justice, the greatest scientist? Had American Indians yet been “pacified” and forced to reservations? Was the transcontinental railroad in service?
Yet even schoolkids know about Union commander Ulysses S. Grant’s drinking and southern socialite Mary Chestnut’s diary, Lee’s grace in surrender, and John Wilkes Booth’s words as he leapt to the Ford’s Theatre stage, his pistol still smoking, after he mortally wounded President Lincoln.
Lincoln was right in his address consecrating the cemetery for Union dead at Gettysburg: We have long remembered what soldiers did there, and what brothers did to brothers at Petersburg, Virginia, and at dusty Glorieta Pass in far-off New Mexico. The Civil War is still our passion play.
“War is cruelty,” Union general William Tecumseh Sherman said before his army slashed and burned its way from King Cotton country to the sea. The war was cruelty, all right, writ large and right at home.
It is said that this was the world’s first “modern” war, the first to see telegraphy, steamships, armored vessels and torpedoes, artillery shells and machine guns — even the first aircraft carrier: a barge on the Potomac River that launched observation balloons.
Photography had become so commonplace, and the nation’s distaste for the terrible carnage so profound, that Mathew Brady’s glass plates of posing officers and battlefield dead were discarded and glazed into greenhouses after the war.
Railroads moved armies; hence the fixation on bending captured rails into useless knots. Those whom shells and bayonets and dysentery — even mumps — did not kill, surgeons with no anesthetics and few antiseptics did.
The killing in this war was the most efficient the world had ever witnessed. “A chicken could not live on that field when we open on it,” Yankee artillery general Porter Alexander boasted from his perch on the bluffs above Fredericksburg, Virginia.
Seven southern states had already seceded from the national union when Lincoln delivered his first inaugural address in 1861. Yet while Confederate president Jefferson Davis was warning that Washington would soon “smell southern powder and feel southern steel,” Lincoln, counseling patience, appealed to “the better angels of our nature.”
Davis would have his war and wrap it in dash and chivalry, but not enough powder and steel to prevail. “Dixie” fought with firebrand righteousness and better generals — and that was about it. Once it met a warrior in Grant who, when he lost, stitched up his army and kept coming, the Confederacy was probably doomed.
Not certainly? No, because hindsight is not always 20-20.
We can, however, revisit the places where the Confederate cause crested on northern soil, and the places where Grant and Sherman gave the South a dose of shock and awe and abject defeat.
With the help of Carol’s images in the next two postings, I’ll take you to Civil War battlefield sites and tell you what happened there.
In extreme shorthand version, here is a preview in the words of Robert E. Lee at Fredericksburg:
It is well that war is so terrible. Otherwise, we would grow too fond of it.
One Quick Footnote
Revisiting every jot and tittle of the Civil War is not an American affectation alone. None other than Winston Churchill — a pretty fair historian and the renowned British prime minister in a broader war three quarters of a century later — wrote a complete scenario envisioning the consequences of a Lee victory at Gettysburg.
He foresaw Lee’s army continuing eastward, unabated, out of Pennsylvania, triumphantly capturing the terrified northern capital of Washington, D.C. Though dispirited, the Union would still have amassed its superior resources to eventual victory, had not the British, seeing the rising southern tide, recognized an independent Confederacy and dispatched its fearsome navy to smash the Yankee blockade of southern ports.
But the recognition would come at a price: Lee, upon seizing Washington, would bow to the “moral conceptions of Western Europe” and agree that a new Confederate nation must abolish slavery.
At that point, the Union would concede the futility of a continued fight to deny the South sovereignty.
Churchill’s fantasy carried into a new century, when two contemporaneous presidents — Theodore Roosevelt of the diminished United States and Woodrow Wilson of the independent Confederate States of America — joined with England and its dominions to form an “E.S.A.” (English-Speaking Alliance) that, through sheer might alone, would forestall what history came to know as the First World War.
Ted's Wild Words
These are a few words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word that you'd like me to explain, just ask!
Forestall. To prevent or obstruct something from happening through quick or decisive action.
Jot and tittle. Every minute detail or iota. A jot is something very slight, such as a quick addition to a written line. Thus we sometimes briefly “jot” something down. Tittles are the little accent marks, called “diacriticals,” over certain words, particularly in languages other than English.
Quixotic. Beyond idealistic and romantic, to the point of unrealistic foolishness. The word comes from the absurdly chivalrous hero Don Quixote in Spaniard Miguel de Cervantes’ 1605 novel “Don Quixote de La Mancha.”
Rectitude. Moral virtue and correctness, especially of a cause.
Transcendent. Beyond the normal, incomparable.