A War That Never Goes Away

The war did in fact pit brother against brother, cousin against cousin, even father against son.

Indeed, the uncensored contemporary descriptions of that war by participants help explain its appeal to modern readers. There is nothing else in history to equal it. Civil War armies were the most literate that ever fought a war up to that time, and twentieth-century armies censored soldiers’ mail and discouraged diary keeping. Thus we have an unparalleled view of the Civil War by the people who experienced it. This has kept the image of the war alive in the families of millions of Americans whose ancestors fought in it. When speaking to audiences as diverse as Civil War buffs, Princeton students and alumni, and local literary clubs, I have sometimes asked how many of them are aware of forebears who fought in the Civil War. I have been surprised by the large response, which demonstrates not only a great number of such people but also their consciousness of events that happened so long ago yet seem part of their family lore today.

This consciousness of the war, of the (past as part of the present, continues to be more intense in the South than elsewhere. William Faulkner said of his native section that the past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past. As any reader of Faulkner’s novels knows, the Civil War is central to that past that is present; it is the great watershed of Southern history; it is, as Mark Twain put it a century ago after a tour through the South, “what A.D. is elsewhere; they date from it.” The symbols of that past-in-present surround Southerners as they grow up, from the Robert E. Lee Elementary School or Jefferson Davis High School they attend and the Confederate battle flag that flies over their statehouse to the Confederate soldier enshrined in bronze or granite on the town square and the family folklore about victimization by Sherman’s bummers. Some of those symbols remain highly controversial and provoke as much passion today as in 1863: the song “Dixie,” for example, and the Confederate flag, which for many Southern whites continue to represent courage, honor, or defiance while to blacks they represent racism and oppression.


This suggests the most important reason for the enduring fascination with the Civil War among professional historians as well as the general public: Great issues were at stake, issues about which Americans were willing to fight and die, issues whose resolution profoundly transformed and redefined the United States. The Civil War was a total war in three senses: It mobilized the total human and material resources of both sides; it ended not in a negotiated peace but in total victory by one side and unconditional surrender by the other; it destroyed the economy and social system of the loser and established those of the winner as the norm for the future.

The Civil War was fought mainly by volunteer soldiers who joined the colors before conscription went into effect. In fact, the Union and Confederate armies mobilized as volunteers a larger percentage of their societies’ manpower than any other war in American history—probably in world history, with the possible exception of the French Revolution. And Civil War armies, like those of the French Revolution, were highly ideological in motivation. Most of the volunteers knew what they were fighting for, and why. What were they fighting for? If asked to define it in a single word, many soldiers on both sides would have answered: liberty. They fought for the heritage of freedom bequeathed to them by the Founding Fathers. North and South alike wrapped themselves in the mantle of 1776. But the two sides interpreted that heritage in opposite ways, and at first neither side included the slaves in the vision of liberty for which it fought. The slaves did, however, and by the time of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in 1863, the North also fought for “a new birth of freedom. …” These multiple meanings of freedom, and how they dissolved and reformed in kaleidoscopic patterns during the war, provide the central meaning of the war for the American experience.

When the “Black Republican” Abraham Lincoln won the Presidency in 1860 on a platform of excluding slavery from the territories, Southerners compared him to George III and declared their independence from “oppressive Yankee rule.” “The same spirit of freedom and independence that impelled our Fathers to the separation from the British Government,” proclaimed secessionists, would impel the “liberty loving people of the South” to separation from the United States government. A Georgia secessionist declared that Southerners would be “either slaves in the Union or freemen out of it. ” Young men from Texas to Virginia rushed to enlist in this “Holy Cause of Liberty and Independence” and to raise “the standard of Liberty and Equality for white men” against “our Abolition enemies who are pledged to prostrate the white freemen of the South down to equality with negroes.” From “the high and solemn motive of defending and protecting the rights which our fathers bequeathed to us,” declared Jefferson Davis at the outset of war, let us “renew such sacrifices as our fathers made to the holy cause of constitutional liberty.”