- Historic Sites
On Writing About The Civil War
April 1966 | Volume 17, Issue 3
Taken by itself, however, this was not good enough. The Civil War soldier had many words to describe his participation in that war, and he used all of them at one time or another, often with some heat; but “privilege” was not one of them, and to feel privileged is to be an outsider. So it seemed advisable to go a little farther and to set up shop as an expert on strategy, tactics, weaponry, and the art of handling men; to analyze campaigns and battles, exercising the power of the second guess to show what went wrong with McClellan on the Peninsula, with Grant at Shiloh, and with Lee at Gettysburg. This can be quite stimulating—being a general is easy if you exercise your generalship after all the facts are in, sitting in a good armchair with books piled all around—and it does no harm to anyone provided you do not begin to take yourself too seriously. To be sure, the writer may occasionally get confused as to whether he himself is the general officer commanding or the high private in the rear rank getting ready to take what that general officer has fixed up for him, but aging veterans often do get confused. I heard not long ago about one ancient Civil War soldier who used to entertain his grandchildren with fascinating tales about his part in the Battle of Gettysburg. After he died some of his descendants, in idle curiosity, examined his service record. He had been a good soldier, but he had never been within 300 miles of Gettysburg.
But even when the confusion is discounted, there is still something lacking. It can be both useful and entertaining to provide an authentic picture of the enlisted man in the Northern or Southern armies, and to go on from there to study the way he was used and the reasons why those armies succeeded or failed; to examine, that is, both the chessboard and the pieces that are moved about on it, shedding whatever light one can bring to bear. Yet this sort of thing has been done before, the study of war and warriors is after all pretty specialized, and the analogy of the chessboard is a bad one: it makes a game out of the war, and neither this war nor any other was any part of a game. A latter-day recruit justifies his existence only if he manages to get out of his experience something that justifies his temerity in getting into it. He is compelled, in short, to try to determine what the war meant.
At this point I began to reflect on who it is that rushes in where angels fear to tread. What did the war mean? Well, what does America mean? What does life itself mean—the way it is lived and the terms on which, at last, it must be surrendered? This war killed more Americans than all of our other wars put together; did those men die to some purpose, or were they all wasted? These are questions amidst which one can hardly hope to do more than grope for an answer; yet it seemed to me that anyone who volunteers for the Civil War at this late date is somehow obliged to make the attempt.
He has to do it because otherwise he has simply been amusing himself, using a tragic and agonizing national experience to provide roaming-space for his imagination and his emotions, and also to provide grist for his typewriter. To show why the war took place, how it was fought, and why it ended as it did is not quite enough. Eventually you come to the baffling riddle: What was it really all about?
It is clear enough that the Civil War was a watershed experience for America. What we have and are today grow out of it, and what makes the fundamental question so unanswerable is that what we have and are now are not yet finished. To understand that part of our past we need to understand the present, because today we are grappling with the commitment that was made for us a century ago. The ultimate meaning of that war depends on what we do now. We are still involved in it. When we move to make a living reality out of the great ideal of the equality of all Americans; when we take our stand anywhere in the world for freedom, and for just dealing between all races and conditions of man; when we work for an enduring unity among human beings, whether at home or abroad—when we do any of these things we are simply trying to meet the obligation that was laid upon us a century ago at a price higher than any other price we ever paid.
So the fundamental question has to wait a while for a complete answer. The Civil War is unfinished business. It is still with us, and whether it was worth its dreadful cost depends on what we do rather than on what we say. Enlist in it now and you are apt to find that you are in for the duration.
Or so, at least, it seems to me.