150 years of blood in ink.
As we come to the close of the first year of the sesquicentennial commemoration (2011-2015) of the Civil War, we are struck by the astounding torrent of scholarship and writing generated in re-telling, refining and elaborating the story of the nation’s bloodiest and most consequential of its wars, a playing out of fundamental issues unresolved in the American Revolution itself.
You could say that for 150 years it has been blood expressed in ink.
James M. McPherson, the dean of American Civil War historians, writing in the bibliographical note to his Pulitzer Prize winning history, Battle Cry Of Freedom: The Civil War Era (1988), observed that he was merely sampling “the huge corpus of literature on the Civil War era, which totals more than 50,000 books and pamphlets on the war years alone — not to mention a boundless number of articles, doctoral dissertations, and manuscript collections.”
“Indeed, there are said to be more works in English on Abraham Lincoln than on any other persons except Jesus of Nazareth and William Shakespeare,” wrote McPherson whose effortless, flowing prose yielded one of the few masterpieces of The Oxford History of the United States, a series originally edited by C. Vann Woodward, himself a revered figure in the field.
Very telling, the Washington Post recently ran a pair of color photographs on the front page of its Metro section (“A symbol of Lincoln’s towering legacy,” December 15, 2011) of a three-story, 34-foot-tall installation featuring thousands of books about Lincoln. They are fire-proof aluminum fakes. This display is part of the renovated Ford Theatre’s new Center for Education and Leadership, across the street from the place where Lincoln was assassinated in 1865.
I would venture to say that the literature has increased by half since McPherson published his magnum opus.
Then there are the countless novels, movies and documentaries, among them Michael Shaara’s 1974 historical novel, Killer Angels, dramatizing the battle of Gettysburg, which won the Pulitzer Prize, and the magisterial (yes, I use that over-used word) Ken Burns production, The Civil War. It captured 40 million viewers over five consecutive nights, making it the most popular PBS documentary ever.
And mention must be made of that hardy band of Civil War reenactors who, at great expense of time and their own money, pursue the quest for historical accuracy and authenticity across the American countryside whenever the weather permits. I recall watching a spirited engagement at Galena, Illinois, one of Grant’s numerous towns of residence, and found the experience gripping, at least if you have any kind of imagination at all.
Americans seem to have an inexhaustible appetite for everything ever written on the bloodiest episode of our history in which more than 600,000 Americans died on both sides of the conflict over Union, states rights, and slavery. The latter part of the previous sentence has, itself, generated its own body of literature on the true meaning of the conflict. Many experts argued that the meaning or mission of the conflict changed over time as the blood flowed and the stakes rose astronomically. Others maintain that states rights were either a cover for the real issue, slave-holders’ rights, or so intertwined with it that they were essentially the same thing.
In 2006 Harry S. Stout, a Yale professor of American religious history, wrote a “moral history” of the Civil War, Upon the Altar of the Nation in which he utilized traditional principles of the just war doctrine to critique the conflagration less for the justice of its cause (jus ad bellum) than for its conduct (jus in bello). Stout viewed the war through the screens of proportionality and discrimination between combatants and non-combatants, finding it more akin to total, i.e., immoral, war, again, in its conduct rather than its cause.
McPherson wrote a very critical, i.e., negative, review (“Was It a Just War?” New York Review of Books, March 23, 2006) of Stout’s book and found several dozen factual errors in the military narrative. Still, he conceded that the book was “flawed but thought-provoking” and, while not necessarily offering “the right answers,” “asks many of the right questions.”
The issues, moral and constitutional, implicated in 19th century America’s handling of slavery, war, and rebellion are nothing if not fundamental, accounting for the irresistible draw of these interrelated subjects decade after decade.
Keeping up with the cascade of books is exhausting. I find myself going through bouts of Civil War reading, hardly keeping up with the new scholarship which seems to bring with it an endless supply of new information, data, insights, and analysis, not to mention newer, broader subjects ranging from diplomacy, economics, and even disease. Just the literature on calculating the actual number of troops in the field for any given battle, net after factoring in sickness and desertion, is impressive. Eventually, I have to go cold turkey, giving up reading anything remotely related to the war due to both emotional and intellectual exhaustion.
We have come a long way from the elegant, if strictly military, narratives of Shelby Foote and Bruce Catton, the former slightly pro-South, the latter slightly pro-North. According to McPherson, both of them drew on the seminal work of James Ford Rhodes, who wrote seven volumes from 1892 to 1906, and Allan Nevins and his eight volumes, penned between 1947 and 1971.
I have longed wondered if the Civil War and its nexus with slavery, Lincoln, and the westward expansion of the nation actually fills the role that the classics and ancient history played, say, for 19th century Englishmen, providing lessons and models of human suffering, heroism, cowardice, and pathos. There are so many, many historical persons and episodes from which Americans draw at least some wisdom as it relates to humanity’s capacity for folly, tragedy, sacrifice, and perseverance.
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