Thoughts, Ideas, Observations

Misremembering the Civil War

John Bedell


I was reading a review of E.L. Doctorow's new novel about Sherman's march, and I came across this:

The North did not have the sort of charismatic heroes who led the Confederate armies, but instead relied on the marching power of its soldiers and the industrial might of its factories to win its victories.

Which is just the kind of thing that burns me up.  Why do so many Americans insist on believing this particular bit of nonsense?  The Union had a long roster of charismatic heroes, from George Custer to James MacPherson to Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, and the northern press played their glamor to the hilt.  The Union navy had an equally impressive list of stars; what commander ever spoke a more glamorous line in battle than David Farragut's "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead"?  Likewise the Confederacy had its share of plodding commanders -- Braxton Bragg, Joseph E. Johnston -- and others like Longstreet whose success depended more on calm efficiency than on dash and daring. 

What we have here is not a difference between the two armies that fought the war, but how the two sides chose to remember the war.  It is one of the many willful misrememberings of the war that make up the American understanding of this crucial event in our history.  Americans love the Civil War.  Civil War battlefields are among the most visited National Parks, a major re-enactment can draw 100,00 spectators, and there is a whole industry of presses that publish nothing but Civil War books.  Yet, by and large, we know next to nothing about why the war was fought, how it was won, and what it has really meant to our nation.

A relatively minor misremembering shows up in other reviews of Doctorow's book, including this one from Publisher's Weekly:  "Sherman's march through Georgia and the Carolinas produced hundreds of thousands of deaths and untold collateral damage."  I assume Doctorow, who knows his history very well, avoids this hundred-fold exaggeration of the deaths along the march, so its source must be the sort of general wash of distortions that is the public memory of the war.  I have an acquaintance who works in historic preservation in Georgia, and she told me that whenever she tries to talk about antebellum houses around Atlanta somebody says, "but Sherman burned them all!"  No, he didn't, not even close.  In fact, other than the industrial district of Atlanta, Sherman's men burned very little in Georgia.  They were much worse in South Carolina, but even there the destruction was modest by the standards of 20th-century warfare.  For all his talk of "making the Confederacy howl," Sherman's march was actually not about destruction.  Mainly Sherman avoided cities, as he avoided any bodies of troops the dying Confederacy managed to bring out to fight him.  The march was an exercise in psychological warfare designed to demonstrate to southerners that their government could not protect them.  Sherman's intent was to show that he could go wherever he wanted and do whatever he pleased, anywhere in the south, and his success in making this point was probably one reason the whole South surrendered so quickly after Lee's capitulation at Appomattox.

Another widespread belief about the war that I think is completely false is that the South was at various times only one victory away from winning its independence.  D.S. Freeman made much of the plan Lee and Jackson arranged to trap the Union army in the summer of 1862, which, we are told, came within an inch of "succeeding."  I recently had a long argument with a man who insisted that if Jubal Early had followed Lee's orders at Gettysburg, the Union army would have been "swept from the field," Lee would have taken Washington, and the war would have ended.  I think these and similar statements miss something very important about warfare in the industrial age.  In fact the Confederates "swept from the field" several Union armies -- the description probably applies to First and Second Bull Run, Chancellorsville, and Chickamauga, at least -- and we all know what effect those victories had on the eventual outcome of the war.  As Jefferson Davis and Lincoln both understood, the only way the South could win the war was by making the price of victory so high that the northern people would refuse to pay it.  No single victory on the battlefield could do it, because the Union had millions more men it could call on to replace those who fell, as well as the industrial power to replace every musket and cannon a hundred times over.  In the industrial age, wars were not fought by armies, but by nations, and a nation cannot be defeated in a battle.  Nor, until Appomattox, was any major army in the war ever completely destroyed.  Lee always found that his victories disordered his own men as much as his enemies, so effective pursuit was never possible even when the Yankees broke and fled.  And what if they didn't flee?  Lee won one of his greatest tactical victories in the Wilderness, turning both Union flanks and inflicting 17,000 casualties, but Grant simply ignored his defeat and kept marching toward Richmond.  By 1863 the men of both sides were so experienced and hardened that no conceivable battlefield result could dismay them for long.

One of the most widespread false beliefs about the war is, of course, that it had nothing to do with slavery.  Millions of southerners hold to this falsehood, even among those who are very well educated.  It is not entirely their fault, because southerners began trying to change history on this point as soon as the war had been lost.  Now, men fought for the Confederacy for many reasons, and there were many prominent Confederates who had moral qualms about slavery and assumed it would not long survive.  (Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee were the two most prominent.)  But the men who made secession had one thing on their minds, and that was slavery.  You don't have to take my word on this point, because in 1861 they were perfectly up front about it.  The initial Confederate states sent emissaries to other southern states to persuade them to join the Confederacy, and the letters they carried, and the speeches they made to friendly legislatures, all focus on this one key point:  the south could not survive without slavery, so Lincoln's election was a threat to their way of life.  "The conflict between slavery and non-slavery," the South Carolina legislature wrote to Virginia, "is a conflict for life and death.  The South cannot exist without African slavery."  Mississippi's message to the other southern states asserted that with Lincoln's election, "there was no choice left to us but submission to the to the mandates of abolition or dissolution of the union....  We must either submit to degradation and to the loss property worth four billions of money, or we must secede."

But to me there is a misunderstanding of the war that is even more important than southern evasions of the slave question.  To return to where I started, it is not entirely the fault of poor education or laziness that so many Americans know nothing about the North's many dashing heroes.  To the core of the pro-war Union leadership, starting with Lincoln, the war had nothing to do with gallantry.  Nor, however, did it have anything to do with industrial might or demographic superiority.  To them, the war was a sacrifice that Americans had been called by God to make.  Only through blood could the Union be saved, and only blood could wash away the sin of slavery: 

The Almighty has His own purposes. "Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh." If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."

In this view of the war, there was not much room to honor the many individual acts of heroism in the Union armies.  The war was God's doing, and the part of men was simply to endure the judgment he had passed upon them.  Lincoln, at least, was a practical man, and his theological vision meshed with the strategic insight that so long as its people were willing to bear the cost of the war, the North was bound to prevail in the end.  Others in the North reacted differently to the war, some with the blood sport enthusiasm of violent men in all times and places.  As I said, the northern press made much of every heroic act and even tried to make heroes of singularly unglamorous men like Grant and Sherman.  Likewise in the South there were many, starting with Jefferson Davis, who saw the war as a test of the willingness of the people to bear any burden to gain their freedom.  Yet I think the difference was real.  The secessionist leadership spoke the language of aristocratic privilege, racism, and the defense of a threatened society, while the abolitionists spoke almost exclusively of God.  The end of the war only intensified the difference.  In the old Confederacy, romanticization of the "Lost Cause" began almost immediately, and the superior gallantry of Southern heroes was as much a part of the "Lost Cause" ghost dance as the unimportance of slavery.  In the North, few felt any need to argue the point; after all, they had won.  Considering the magnitude of that victory, there was little gloating in the North.  Instead there was much talk of sacrifice, much giving thanks to the Almighty.  Instead of a victory celebration like July 4th, the war gave us Memorial Day, intended as a solemn occasion for remembering the dead.

We do not remember the war as it was.  Millions of Americans think that the war was a glorious struggle of gallant, freedom-loving Confederates whose superior bravery was ground down by a vast horde of mediocrities, the unmotivated assembly-line soldiers of a corrupt, centralizing, industrial state.  In romanticizing the Confederacy, we ignore the plain fact that in that war the power of the federal government was deployed to create liberty, not to extinguish it.  The southern planter elite lied to the common people, whipped them into a fury with talk of threats that did not exist, and led them to disaster.  They shouted about the need to defend their sacred honor and protect their women from miscegenation, but really they fought for their own power and their right to enslave.  The North did not fight to improve market share, to oppress southerners, or for inter-racial marriage.  They fought to save a nation that they believed was "the last, best hope of earth," and to rid that nation of a stain that sickened them, as it ought to have sickened all Americans. 

October 21, 2005

For an excellent summary of the arguments made in 1861 for secession, with copious quotation, see Charles B. Dew, Apostles of Disunion:  Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War.  University Press of Virginia, 2002.

From the 
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Of course I honor the bravery of Southern soldiers and their devotion to their cause, even though I believe that cause was one of the worst for which men ever fought.

--U.S. Grant


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