- Historic Sites
On Writing About The Civil War
April 1966 | Volume 17, Issue 3
It seems like a long time ago, and as a matter of fact it really was—sixteen years, roughly, which make up a fair fraction of any man’s life—but somewhere around 1950 I got into the Civil War, and now it seems time to talk about it.
Getting into a war that ended ninety years earlier and that has no living survivors is a good deal different from getting into a real live war that is being fought by contemporaries who would like to become living survivors but have no assurance that that will happen; and the veteran of a war that was fought a generation before he was born must walk softly and speak humbly when he tells about what happened to him. But even though death and horror and tragedy have muted echoes when they were actually experienced by someone else, they nevertheless have their effect.
In the beginning, of course—and this was true of most of the actual participants, North and South alike—there was a blind and uncritical enthusiasm. In 1950 the Civil War looked much as it did in the very early part of 1861: full of color, romance, and the glint of high adventure. Jeb Stuart and his plumed hat had something to do with this, and so did General Lee and his gray coat, General McClellan and his great black horse, Phil Sheridan and his furious temper, and the young men in blue and gray who sat around campfires singing the inexpressibly mournful little songs that still send moving harmonies down the years. Part of it came from books read in youth and part of it from the remembered procession of gray-bearded veterans standing bowed in a village cemetery on Memorial Day; part of it, too, from some quirk in the national memory that inexplicably recalls the bright and shining moments and manages to forget the dark and bloody ones. At the start it was all swords and roses.
It began, really, with a great desire to get acquainted with the private soldier of the Civil War. Too many books have discussed that war strictly in terms of the generals: Sherman did this, Hancock did that, and Johnston did some other thing; this general made a heroic assault and that one made a heroic defense; and the men who fought and died at their bidding are simply counters that move from this square to that on an elaborate chessboard and finally are dropped into a box. It seemed important to get at the man who paid for those heroic assaults and defenses and to see what the war looked and smelled and felt like to him.
So my part in the Civil War began, and continued for quite a while, as an attempt to explain it all in terms of the man whom we would now call the G.I. Joe. It turned out that although he was out of reach—on the far side of the river that Stonewall Jackson saw in his dying moments—the Civil War enlisted man was easy to get acquainted with. He was most articulate, he left many letters, diaries, and reminiscences, preserved in every imaginable depository from university libraries to someone’s attic, and he spoke his mind freely. He talked about his officers and about his food, about the irritating absurdities of army life and its deadly monotony, and about the evils of making forced marches across country. (He had a hard time making up his mind whether marching in the rain and mud was worse than marching in heat and ankle-deep dust; the consensus seems to have been that whichever you were actually doing was worse.) He was usually a bit reserved when it came to describing the reality of combat. He was willing enough to tell where his regiment went and what it did, but when it came to saying what fighting was really like he generally picked his words carefully, apparently on the theory that the man who had been there did not need to be told about it, while the man who had not been there would not understand it anyway.
In any case the Civil War soldier is still around, to be listened to if not to be cross-examined, and he makes good company. Rather surprisingly, he turns out to be almost exactly like the young American of today; less sophisticated, perhaps, a good bit more countrified, but still perfectly recognizable, and a very solid sort of citizen to boot. And for quite a time it seemed that no writer could ask for anything better than the privilege of living with this man and describing him.