I am a member of probably the last generation that will have any direct contact with the Civil War. My great-grandfather, Sterling Thrower, was a cavalryman from Alabama who fought at Gettysburg and in the Virginia Campaigns. He came home at the close of the war with a ball in his leg, became a judge and died in 1925--but not before my father, born in 1906, had had time to know him, and to relate his stories to me. I have his rusty saber on my office wall.
It is unfortunate that for much of our younger generation, the war is only ancient history. Disturbing reports come from the hinterlands: Most high school students can’t place the dates, events, causes or principal players in the conflict. Many can’t even identify the century in which it was fought. Perhaps that will change.
This year has seen an almost unprecedented reawakening of interest in what has been described as “the last of the great romantic wars and the first of the great modern wars.” Much of it centers around the public television series last month, “The Civil War,” a five-year-in-the-making documentary that received perhaps the highest viewer response in public-broadcasting history. As well, the movie “Glory” gained Academy Award nominations. Bookstores are selling out of the more popular works about the war, and publishers are rushing to reprint them.
Included in this historical feeding frenzy are two handsome volumes just released by the Library of America: the memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman. Totaling nearly 2,400 pages, these books encompass, from the point of view of how and why the Union won the war, perhaps the most tantalizing personal accounts of that savage era.
The craving to write about the war, and the greed to know, began almost immediately after the conflict ended and continued for the next 20 years: assessments, memoirs, official histories, explanations, accusations, defenses and reaccounts by those involved. But as the nation moved toward the dawn of this century, interest waned; the original players were dying out; the battles had been fought time and again on paper. Other wars, other heroes and other villains were on the horizon.
The next great revival of American Civil War hoopla occurred about a quarter-century ago, when the event gained its centennial. I’m not sure what went on in the rest of the country, but in towns all over the South, men grew beards to commemorate the occasion and Confederate flags flew from many buildings. Ceremonies were held, monuments dedicated, speeches given and, most important, books were published.
The theses of many revisionist historians appeared to bring the South closer and closer to having won the war--so much so, it was once remarked, that if the trend hadn’t died out, the historians would have actually had the South winning it by the end of the decade!
In fact, the Saturday Evening Post even published a series of hypothetical articles entitled “If the South Had Won the Civil War,” which, years later, came up in a late-night conversation among several of us, including the writers, Willie Morris and William Styron. Styron proclaimed that had we all been living back then and the South had actually won, Morris and I would most likely have already died on the battlefield before the thing was over, “while I,” Styron declared, “would have been sipping sherry in London as the Virginian ambassador to the Court of St. James’s!”
Why, then, are we so interested today in an event that took place 130 years in our foggy past? A standard answer is that the Civil War defined us as a nation, rid us of the blight of slavery, preserved the status of the Union, and settled forever the question of precedence of the federal government over the various states. But at another level, many Americans want to experience as best they can the vicissitudes of our nation in a death grip upon itself, and how it behaved then, vis - a - vis the turmoil of the late 20th Century. At first, young men of the Union fought for the Union, then against slavery and, finally, it became fighting for fighting’s sake, as most wars eventually become: men spewed into a furnace of hatred.
Was it or was it not over slavery? At the root, of course, it was. Yet there is vast documentation that the wisest of Southerners knew that slavery was like holding a tiger by its tail, and that sooner or later they must let it go. In many cases it was not even profitable. The Abolitionists in Congress and elsewhere, however, having steadily gained power in the pre-war years, kept up an ever-increasing bombard of denunciation, threats and what were perceived to be personal insults--so that by the eve of Lincoln’s election, the issue, in even the most rational minds of the South, had been blurred to make people believe that it was “States Rights” they were protecting, and not slavery itself. What else could explain the ferocity with which the men of the Confederacy fought for nearly five years--against overwhelming odds--when the vast majority of them were not slaveholders at all?
Grant and Sherman were two unlikely figures to wind up running the grand armies of the Union. Before the war, both were failures in civilian life, Grant as a failed farmer and Sherman as a failed banker. But naturally, a war of this magnitude presented infinite opportunities.
Sherman found himself at the humiliating battle of Bull Run that opened the conflict, but afterward, neither he nor Grant was involved in the great battles in the east such as Antietam, Fredricksburg and Gettysburg. Instead, they were committed to the Western Department, where Grant bore relentlessly down on Vicksburg following the horrendous slaughter at Shiloh. Gateway to the Mississippi, Vicksburg fell at the same time the Confederate forces were defeated at Gettysburg, and Grant secured for himself command of all Union armies.
It had been Grant’s opinion that the war was being fought the wrong way. Under preceding generals, the strategy had been to march large armies onto Southern soil, principally in Virginia, and engage the Confederates with the hope of annihilating them. As each of these efforts failed for three years in a row, Union commanders inevitably would retreat across the Potomac to lick their wounds and regroup for another try when weather permitted.
Grant’s theory instead was to bring to bear a Union army large enough to press the Confederates relentlessly, no matter what the cost. And the cost was very high. In a little over one month, in a series of five running battles, Grant lost 40,000 men and even he came to rue the frontal-assault tactics that so far had been the bedrock of military minds. But he did not retreat.
Meanwhile, Sherman had been assigned command of the Western armies and was pressing Atlanta, transportation hub of the South. Like Grant, Sherman had resigned his commission after the Mexican War, and for a while found himself teaching school as commandant of a military academy in Louisiana which later became Louisiana State University. Sherman professed great love for the South, but at the successful conclusion of the Atlanta campaign, brilliantly depicted in scenes from “Gone With the Wind,” he determined that the best way to win the war was to cut a violent and savage swath through the civilian Southern heartland, destroying everything of value in his path. He made his plans clear from the outset:
“You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it, and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out,” he wrote in a letter to the mayor of Atlanta before driving out the residents and burning the city. Sherman’s philosophy was to make the South and its people “rue the day” that they ever started the war, and this he did with a ferocity so unprecedented that even now his name in the South is associated with wanton destruction.
Until that point, with a few exceptions, wars between Western countries had come to be defined as a proposition where armies took the field until one was beaten and gave up or slunk away to fight another day. Grant and Sherman redefined and modernized it, Grant by insisting on continuous operations and sieges, Sherman by his theory that “War is hell,” and private property be damned. This definition persists today.
Each of these memories is a work of literature. There is no ghostwriting here. Grant, dying of cancer after leaving his scandal-ridden presidency, penned his for a company owned by Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) in order to support his family. Sherman’s, published a decade earlier, are remarkably vivid, personal and quite facile for a man who spent his life as anything but a professional writer.
Each in his way describes the horror of a war so vast that it consumed more American lives than all of our other wars combined, before or after, a carnage that Western civilization would not see again for the next 50 years. It is a good thing that there is a rewakening of curiosity about this bloody struggle. Its lessons deserve to be painted broadly across the sweep of the great American adventure.