The Civil War in American Memory
Each generation views the eternal yet changing history of the conflict between the states through its own prism
THE CIVIL WAR: AN ILLUSTRATED HISTORY. Edited by Geoffrey C. Ward, with Ric Burns and Ken Burns, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 426 pp., $50 THE CIVIL WAR BATTLEFIELD GUIDE. Edited by Frances H. Kennedy, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 318 pp., $16.95 (paper); 29.95 (cloth)
THE Civil War - the greatest of epic tragedies, turning points, and bloodiest of wars for the United States - is again capturing the nation's imagination.
A surge of books both popular and scholarly; enrollment in college courses; circulation by specialized magazines; crowds at battlefield reenactments; support for battlefield preservation against real estate development; critical approval for the movie ``Glory,'' which portrays black troops in battle; and acclaim for ``The Civil War,'' a five-part public television documentary that opens nationwide on Sep. 23: Here is ample evidence, not merely of interest, but of a new kind of interest.
For those who wish to fix in their memories the imagery of this great national struggle, The Civil War: An Illustrated History, the companion volume to the television documentary, is the book. It offers 475 pictures, a few sweeping military maps, and four brief interpretive essays by leading scholars.
Robert Penn Warren's insights, quoted from the book, are more relevant than ever:
``A civil war is, we may say, the prototype of all war, for in the person of fellow citizens who happen to be the enemy we meet again with the old ambivalence of love and hate and with all the old guilts, the blood brothers of our childhood. In a civil war ... all the self-divisions of conflicts within individuals becomes a series of mirrors in which the plight of the country is reflected, ...'' What do those mirrors reveal? And what issues does the new interest address?
First, consider the war itself. It was the most destructive, traumatic, and consequential event of the nation's past. It cost 620,000 fallen soldiers (out of a combined population of 32 million), unknown numbers of civilian dead, and an assassinated president.
It destroyed, but it also created. It destroyed secessionism, the Old South, and slavery - though with de facto limitations: Racism and repression continued. It discredited zealotry, no matter how righteous a cause like abolitionism; a cautious majority thereafter embraced pragmatism, compromise, political inclusion, as against aggressive ideologies. And it destroyed the 40-year-long stalemate of South vs. North, slavery vs. abolitionism, aristocracy vs. egalitarianism; the bayonet resolved what politicians could not.
The war created the conditions for a centralized, Washington-oriented political system. It signified the victory of entrepreneur and factory over planter and plantation, and of republic and democracy over oligarchy and its monarchical friends in Europe. It created an American style of war, based on massing overwhelming numbers, firepower, and materiel to crush the enemy in incessant battles: ``I purpose to fight it out on this line, if it takes all summer,'' said Grant in mid-1864. And it provided the stuff of epic and saga for future generations, as later wars in Europe or Asia could not.
Now the drums are beating anew, as they have every 20 or 25 years since the 1880s. ``The last Civil War revival came with the centennial celebration in 1961; we were about due for another one,'' says John Stanchak, editor of the bi-monthly, Civil War Times Illustrated, whose circulation has swelled to 160,000 during the 1980s.
``Any publisher could bet money on this boom,'' he says. His readers come less often from the East or West Coasts than from Southern and Midwestern small towns, where memories and mementos reinforce local pride and family prestige.
Blacks, once regarded as irrelevant, are now being studied seriously. And battlefields, once treated merely as parks, are now seen as hallowed ground, to be preserved at all cost. The war is over, but a struggle of words and images regarding its perception is underway, with blacks and historic preservationists as new forces in the field.
An earlier surge of interest was linked to the 1936 publication of ``Gone With the Wind,'' which presented Confederate staunchness as a moral example to a nation facing the Depression and the spread of fascism abroad. The book, in effect, countered Northern charges that slavery was evil and slave-holders too often were lazy, arrogant, and unfeeling by portraying a society of grace and courtesy, of gallant gentlemen and courageous women, and of loyal, loving slaves. And it showed Scarlett and Rhett Butler beating Yankee carpetbaggers at their money-grubbing game, while ultimately realizing that land and family represented the true, the Southern values.
```Gone With the Wind' simply was Southern historical scholarship writ large,'' says James McPherson of Princeton University, whose 900-page, Pulitzer Prize-winning history, ``Battle Cry of Freedom'' has been the key book - with 450,000 copies in print - in the present surge of interest.
``Southern scholarship didn't really begin looking at things as they were until about 30 years ago,'' he says. ``And I think that probably 80 percent of the `reenactors,' who act out the battles, are pro-Confederate - there's even a Southern Skirmish Association in Britain - who'd like to ignore slavery. You can do that if you just focus on the war itself, ignoring what came before and after.''
Dr. McPherson explains the cycles of interest in the Civil War in terms of American attitudes toward war as a whole. ``When we're at war, or just getting over a war, nobody pays attention to the Civil War. Then I see enrollment dropping in my course. But we get interested again as our irritation about recent wars fades away. Military history courses are also booming now, I think for the same reason. And maybe the public patriotism of the '80s has some effect.''
McPherson agrees that this involvement either in real wars or in the Civil War as a kind of surrogate contradicts the customary notion that Americans are essentially peace-loving, raising the sword only when forced to. ``It is well that war is so terrible,'' said Robert E. Lee in 1862, ``we should grow too fond of it.''
The Confederate orientation of much Civil War commemoration may be shifting as battlefield preservationism and also black history enter the fray. No longer are blacks presented as mere objects, shunted about by powerful whites: Scholarly investigations of the black role are affecting our perception. Some 180,000 blacks fought for the Union; 30,000 of them died. Their story has appeared in the film ``Glory,'' whose very title extends to black fighting men the dignity once reserved solely for whites. Whether this new vision eventually will help us understand the withdrawal of political freedom from Southern blacks after Reconstruction is another matter.
The preservationists are another new force. A logical outgrowth of urban preservationism, they began coalescing during the struggle over saving the Manassas Battlefield in Northern Virginia from a projected shopping center. The 3,000-member Civil War Society is a vigorous player through its bimonthly journal, Civil War, whose 60,000 circulation has been rising steadily.
William Miller, its managing editor, speaks of a race against time, between preservation and suburbanization, with money as ammunition, and public opinion as the grand prize. ``Manassas was a very expensive victory - it cost $100 million to save the land,'' he says, ``and we don't want to have to do it again.''
Another campaigner is The Conservation Fund, which has sponsored The Civil War Battlefield Guide, a comprehensive survey, with 65 brief essays and battle maps by leading authorities; 40,000 copies have been sold since May. The editor, Frances H. Kennedy, describes battlefield preservationism as a way ``to connect history with action, ... they're great outdoor classrooms - young people can learn about history, about valor, commitment, dedication.'' Her book exemplifies bipartisan coalition-building: It contains remarks by senators Sam Nunn, a Democrat, John Heinz, a Republican, and by William H. Webster, the CIA director; Webster's great-grandfather was killed while leading an Ohio regiment in the war.
Every generation finds its own prism through which to observe great events. For Americans and the Civil War, that prism now is patriotic yet realistic, freer from sectional apologies than ever, more concerned - at last - with justice than with justification.