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Disenthralling Ourselves

June 2024
6min read

Abraham Lincoln himself once said he did not understand the terrible war it fell him to wage. The best explanation he could offer in his second inaugural for the carnage he seemed powerless to end was that “the Almighty has His own purposes.”

Americans in general and historians in particular have been trying to discover those purposes ever since the firing ended, their findings often casting more light on the time in which they were made than upon the time when all that blood was spilled. The race to discover what really happened between 1861 and 1865 shows no signs of slowing down, and three provocative recent books challenge three ancient myths about the war.

The boldest is Alan T. Nolan’s Lee Considered: General Robert E. Lee and Civil War History (University of North Carolina Press; $22.50). No figure of the war years save Lincoln has been more universally admired than Lee. A former aide on Jubal Early’s staff wrote of Lee in 1880 that “the Divinity in his bosom shone translucent through the man, and his spirit rose up Godlike.” Woodrow Wilson believed Lee “unapproachable in the history of our country.” Douglas Southall Freeman thought him “one of the small company of great men in whom there is no inconsistency to be explained...the essential elements of whose positive character were two and only two, simplicity and spirituality.” Most recently, The Oxford Companion to American History declared him to have been so morally spotless that “whichever choice of allegiance Lee made [in 1861] would have been right.”


Nolan, the author of the fine unit history The Iron Brigade, suggests that much of this is nonsense. He is a historian by avocation but a lawyer by vocation, and his book is a prosecutor’s brief—subjective, selective, cold-eyed, deliberately confrontational. Even his title is part of his argument: he chose to call his book Lee Considered, rather than Reconsidered, because until now, he believes, Lee has simply been exempted from the tough interrogation to which all the other war leaders have routinely been subjected since Appomattox.

Nolan dismisses Lee’s celebrated dislike of slavery, for example, as mostly an abstraction. Slavery was an evil, Lee admitted, but a necessary evil. The condition of the slaves, he wrote in 1856, was “a painful discipline...necessary for their instruction as a race...[to] prepare & lead them to better things.” Only the “mild and melting influence of Christianity” could temper the harsh lessons the slaves had to learn. Meanwhile, any human attempt to end slavery would disrupt God’s plan—and destroy the Constitution. (Nor was Lee’s postwar opinion of blacks notably more enlightened: Virginia would be a better place if it could “get rid” of all its freedmen, he told his son in 1868; “it is abhorrent to a reflecting mind to be supporting and cherishing those who are plotting and working for your injury, and all of whose sympathies and associations are antagonistic to yours.”)

Was Lee, as the Encyclopedia Americana says, “one of the greatest, if not the greatest, soldier who ever spoke the English language”? Perhaps, Nolan writes, but only if his performance on individual battlefields is the sole criterion by which he is to be judged. A good case can be made that Lee’s celebrated audacity—his eagerness to invade the North and take the offensive no matter what the cost, the grim ardor with which he sought to maul the enemy whenever he got close enough —was in the long run foolhardy in the face of a prolonged war against vastly superior forces and may actually have helped to undermine the defensive policy set by the government at Richmond.

Even Lee’s dogged determination to fight on against increasingly hopeless odds comes under Nolan’s tough questioning. If, as the evidence seems to suggest, Lee had convinced himself some fifteen to twenty months before Appomattox that defeat was certain, why did his highly developed sense of “honor” not require him to share that assessment with his civilian superiors and urge them to seek some solution less sure to prolong bloodshed? Lee was undeniably a great man, the author writes, but “as a responsible actor in the events of the war [he] must be fully subject to history’s gaze and must be accountable for his acts.”

Nolan is careful to avoid the “presentism” that too often causes historians to make easy, self-righteous judgments about their ancestors. Rather, his point is that Lee was a human being true to his time and place, moved by the same prejudices that moved his Confederate contemporaries, subject to the same terrible misjudgments, and containing within himself the same fatal inconsistencies.

The defense counsel is yet to be heard from. Some of what Nolan says seems exaggerated for effect. But it is clear that after Lee Considered, no serious biographer of the Confederate commander can again turn away from asking the tough questions about him without which history is little more than myth.

Another long-held tradition has it that the war’s awful destructiveness grew slowly, by increments; that neither side believed in bringing the war home to civilians until late in 1862; and that it was primarily a crude and callous Yankee, William Tecumseh Sherman, who transformed the chivalric conflict Lee and his gentlemanly commanders would have preferred into the precursor of total war.

Charles Royster’s provocative new study, The Destructive War: William Tecumseh Sherman, Stonewall Jackson, and the Americans (Alfred A. Knopf), argues otherwise. His case is too complex and subtle to set forth in detail here, but no one who cares about the Civil War should miss it. Long before Bull Run, he writes, leaders on both sides were calling for the burning of enemy cities, arguing that no limits should be put on the punishment meted out to those who had only recently been their fellow citizens. “From the first, the prevalent public voices calling for victory defined no clear break in the continuum of revenge, no categorical distinction between firing on Fort Sumter and burning Chambersburg or Columbia.”

It was that sort of supercharged rhetoric, Royster believes, combined with the campaign of terror and devastation inaugurated in 1862 by Stonewall Jackson (whose celebrated piety masked a visceral pleasure in killing), that began the descent into the kind of brutal anarchy that finally accompanied the Federal March to the Sea.

It is unusual these days for a historian to be able to tell a story as well as he or she can make an argument. Charles Royster can. The meticulously detailed re-creation of the burning of Columbia, South Carolina, for example, with which Royster begins his book is a chilling evocation of the horrors the war had routinely loosed by 1865. Most memorable, perhaps, is the vignette with which he ends that chapter. A Rebel soldier, prodding a captured Federal straggler through all that is left of the city where the Confederacy began after Sherman’s men have finished with it, stops to ask a genteel young white woman what she thinks should be done with him. To her own astonishment, she finds herself answering, “Kill him.” Later, her father recalled, she would be relieved to learn the culprit had not been killed, but “in that moment all she had to suffer seemed to burn out every feeling of pity and she knew what war was.”

Even Lee’s dogged determination to fight on against increasingly hopeless odds comes in for tough criticism in this biography.

The people of the trans-Mississippi West knew what war was, too, though too many of us still remember the Civil War as an exclusively Eastern conflict. Shelby Foote has suggested that historians and tourists alike share the blame for that misapprehension—historians, because they have concentrated most of their fire upon the fighting in Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, and tourists, because most of them live in the East and are happy enough to visit the battlefields closest to home. I would offer a third possible explanation. Few cameramen went West to capture the fighting there, so we have little idea of the look of the Western war, none of the shared images that keep the Eastern war so grimly alive in our consciousness.

The Civil War in the American West (Alfred A. Knopf), by Alvin M. Josephy, Jr., should help right the record. It is an all-inclusive, fast-moving account of savage fighting spread across more than half a continent, involving not only the blue-and gray-clad armies that clashed at Glorieta Pass and elsewhere in the Southwest, western Louisiana, and Texas, but also encounters between Indians and whites in Minnesota, on the Great Plains, and elsewhere; guerrilla warfare in Arkansas, Kansas, and Missouri; and combat between Union and Confederate factions of the Five Civilized Tribes in Indian Territory. (The last Rebel general to stop fighting was a slave-owning, mixed-blood Cherokee planter, Stand Waitie.)

The war may have been the most bitter and most personal beyond the Mississippi, and Josephy is especially good at showing how scattered Western violence, which seems upon first examination to have erupted independently of the Eastern conflict, actually grew directly from it. Neighbor slaughtered neighbor over slavery in the Border States, and the West saw three of the worst atrocities of the war years: William C. Quantrill’s murder of 150 unarmed civilians at Lawrence, Kansas, on August 21, 1863; the massacre of about the same number of Black Kettle’s Cheyennes at Sand Creek in Colorado Territory by gleeful white volunteers in November of the following year; and perhaps the worst, and certainly the least known, the killing by California volunteers of some 250 Northwestern Shoshonis in the snow at Bear River in Idaho Territory on January 29, 1863—just one day before U. S. Grant, the Union’s most dogged exponent of destructive war, took immediate command of the Vicksburg campaign that would forever cut off the Confederacy from its supporters in the West.

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