Free Republic
Browse · Search
Topics · Post Article

Skip to comments.

What Do You Mean, "A Good War"? (REALLY good)
The American Enterprise ^ | March 2003 | Karl Zinsmeister

Posted on 02/05/2003 6:12:09 AM PST by Valin

It is sometimes said, including by me, that Americans don’t know as much history as they ought to. But there is one era that many Americans have studied carefully—and that is our own Civil War epoch.

Indeed, national interest in the Civil War borders on obsession: over 60,000 have been produced—more than one a day since Lee called it quits at Appomattox Court House. An amazing 7,000 volumes have been written about Lincoln alone, making him the most heavily investigated figure in American history.

And our fascination with the Civil War is rising, not falling. Your editors added up registered visits to a dozen of the top battlefields and found a double-digit increase over the last decade. Civil War re-enactments—of which we visited several this summer—have become huge attractions, drawing thousands of participants, tens of thousands of spectators, even scores of corporate sponsors. And three weeks after this issue of TAE is released, the grandest and truest film ever made about the War Between the States—a $56 million extravaganza—will open in theaters all across America.

Why do these events 140 years past engross us so? One of the purest reasons, I believe, is the noble nature of many of the men involved. Robert E. Lee was the only man ever to pass through West Point without earning a single demerit in four years (an almost unfathomable feat—most cadets pile up hundreds). “The most sublime word is duty,” stated Lee, and he meant it. He never gave a newspaper interview in his life, and steadfastly refused to write his memoirs, saying “I would be trading on the blood of my men.” There was no vanity in this leader; he was revered by almost all who shouldered a burden with him. “I’ve heard of God,” remarked one of his soldiers, “but I’ve seen General Lee.”

Not that he lacked humanity: Lee loved to dance, he was an energetic (though chaste) flirt, and he was as fine a family man as ever lived. He kissed and caressed his children lavishly, and bribed them to tickle his feet. His letters home are breathtakingly tender. “Of how many great generals can it be said that they wrote their children more often than their children wrote them?” asks Roy Blount in a forthcoming biography. After his son Rooney cut off two fingertips playing with a straw cutter and then had them sewn back on by a surgeon, Lee sat up several nights in a row to make sure the bandages stayed put while his son slept.

Lee’s virtues are well known; what’s much less appreciated is that Ulysses S. Grant was a man with an equally big heart and sterling character. Grant was raised poor on a single-family farm in Ohio, after his attentive father left Kentucky because he couldn’t stand being around the kind of people who made slaves do their hard work for them. His autobiography may be the most impressive ever written by a U.S. political figure, and reveals a rock of self-effacing manliness. During all his combat experiences Grant never panicked, and he was not known to have used a profane expletive at any time in his life. In his private dealings before the war Grant exhibited great fairness toward all people he came in contact with, and several times quietly intervened to stop abuse of slaves by those around him.

Grant was extremely tough, and a strict disciplinarian. And he applied this toughness to himself, for instance to conquer his drinking habit. Yet he, too, was gentle and loving, doting on his family, and missing them sorely when separated. Even amidst combat, Grant brought his pre-teen son with him to various fronts. He refused to entertain the idea that his wife Julia should have surgery to fix her crossed eyes, insisting he loved her exactly the way she was.

Lincoln was another Civil War figure who combined extraordinary decency with high purpose. He as well was a devoted father and attentive husband, who never wavered in his loyalty to a difficult wife. A man of great sympathy, he took time to write heartfelt letters comforting total strangers. And Lincoln didn’t flinch under the horrible strain of his position, bravely executing some of the most difficult decisions ever made by an American, while leaving behind a store of political philosophy and literary rhetoric that will continue to inspire humans to the end of time. (See the reflections by Jay Winik and Dinesh D’Souza starting on page 26.)

Such men bloomed on many trees during our great national cataclysm. Stephen Lang, the actor who portrays “Stonewall” Jackson in Gods and Generals, the new Civil War feature film, comments that “If you take a deep look into the life of Jackson and other men of that era, you realize how deeply and purely those men lived. Among other things, the complete lack of cynicism of most nineteenth-century Americans is amazing.”

Early in Gods and Generals is a scene quite lengthy (at least in the preliminary cut I saw) of Jackson reading from 2nd Corinthians (“We know that if our earthly house…were dissolved, we have a building of God…not made with human hands, eternal in the heavens”) and praying enthusiastically with his wife. “It was difficult to transport modern viewers to the ethical universe of the men and women of the Civil War era,” states director Ron Maxwell. “Re-creating the morality of this period was by far the most challenging part of the film.”

It’s one thing to find great men among the leaders of an upheaval. What’s more significant is to find large numbers of principled and determined individuals among the rank and file. And in our Civil War, the serried ranks and swollen files contained untold numbers of inspiring citizen soldiers. The remarkable thing about our Civil War is that in battle after battle, men on both sides plunged repeatedly into hellish danger, spontaneously offering up astonishing acts of courage and selflessness. At a time when the nation was only one eighth as big as it is today, the Civil War killed a dozen times more men than did the Vietnam conflict.

“The armies of Europe are machines,” wrote Grant in his memoir, “the majority of the soldiers…have very little interest in the contest in which they are called to take part.” But America’s armies were “composed of men who were able to read, men who knew what they were fighting for.”

Take General Sherman’s invasion force. Gathered along America’s western frontier, its divisions were the least urbane of all those in the Union. Yet (contrary to some claims) this was no rabble. When they overran Milledgeville, Georgia, where the State House was located, Sherman’s soldiers spontaneously organized a legislature, replete with exciting debates on the situation in the South and the nation. After some spirited oratory, they went so far as to repeal, with mock votes, Georgia’s ordinance of secession.

Another little hint of the intelligence, political-mindedness, and idealism of these citizen soldiers is the particular, offended dislike they took to the bloodhounds they found on most plantations. These animals were used to hunt down runaway slaves; as a result, they were killed on the spot wherever the troops encountered them. If you think the Union soldiers were just doing a job, and lacked feeling for the political causes that sent them South—abolition of slavery, opposition to aristocratic royalism, and offense at a rebellion which threatened to dismember their nation—I invite you to have your mind changed by reading the articles that begin on page 32.

Lincoln warned in his Second Inaugural that “every drop of blood drawn with the [slavedriver’s] lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword,” and many of the privates fighting for him lived that as their personal creed, at great cost. For every five slaves freed in the Civil War, one white soldier gave his life; many more suffered maimings, trauma, and financial ruin. Black freedom in this country was emphatically not free; it was bought and paid for by brave warriors.

The thing to keep in mind is that whether they were Northerners fighting the wickedness of slavery or defending the unity of their nation, or Southerners protecting their homes and their concept of a istinctive battle were idealists. “Ours is a nation that fought the bloodiest war imaginable with itself over matters of principle,” remarks my friend Frederick Turner. That, clearly, is the root of much of our continuing fascination with this terrible wonder of a war.

The moral passions that underlay the Civil War still compel modern observers. Dennis Frye, a Civil War re-enactor and amateur historian who organized thousands of fellow re-enactors to fill the battlefield scenes in Gods and Generals, knew how to motivate his compatriots. Today’s re-enactors, he notes, are not much drawn by money, or celebrity, or flash. When recruiting them to volunteer as participants in the film, often at considerable personal expense and investment of time, he appealed to what he knew they cherished best: “the most elevated value of the mid-nineteenth century—honor.”

Ron Maxwell is a rare filmmaker who set out to make a picture as true and principled as the men it would chronicle. He and Frye agreed that recent movies like Pearl Harbor were “abominations” as history.“Their stories reflect modern mythology, in which history is used and abused.” As he began filming, Maxwell stated that “the last thing the world needs is a mindless, glossy entertainment on the Civil War.”

It was no doubt his scrupulous commitment to authenticity that led Maxwell to refuse the little method-acting request that Robert Duvall describes to TAE later in this issue (see John Meroney’s interview on page 24).More fundamentally,Maxwell’s insistence on historical veracity led him to include racial depictions and dialects, political speeches, and religious scenes that will surely raise howls from today’s sensitivity police when this movie opens. Maxwell knows there are people who will not want to go where this chronicle takes them. But he hopes there are some millions of others who will give it a full hearing. “In order to be a commercial success, this film will have to rely on those Americans who truly care about their history, who think hard about where we’ve been as a nation, and where we’re going.”

Gods and Generals depended on those very same people to get produced in the first place. Hundreds of amateur re-enactors gave of their time to make the warfighting scenes realistic. That’s why the sneak preview of the film was offered not in Hollywood or New York but in Hagerstown, Maryland—to re-enactors gathered to mark the 140th anniversary of the battle of Antietam.

The re-enacting community is one of those fascinating, devoted affinity groups that our nation produces in abundance. There are now hundreds of thousands of Americans who spend their weekends trying to place themselves deeply in the shoes (or bare feet) of those who wrestled with the great issues of the day six generations ago. These tend to be serious, familial, highly intelligent people (see our profiles starting on page 38). They buy and study books on blackpowder weapons, vintage fabrics, and nineteenth-century medicines. They pay custom gunsmiths and wagonmakers large fees for genuine artifacts. One of their number has just published a Civil War Reenactors’ Encyclopedia.

The multi-page “Rules and Procedures for Re-enactors” I was handed at the 140th Antietam Re-enactment is impressively thorough. Item 34 states that “Uniforms must be of period design or style. Please pay particular attention to footwear.” Item 35 goes on to specify: “Modern eyeglasses will not be tolerated on the battlefield. Those needing period eyewear should make the needed arrangements prior to this event.” Item 49 stipulates that “No flashlights, tape recorders, or Coleman lanterns are allowed in any civilian or military camp.”

There is extensive guidance on horsemanship for cavalry troopers, including a requirement that horses “be trained to gunfire and battle before the event.” (How exactly one would accomplish this is a little hard for me to imagine.) Cannons, of which I saw dozens, are all privately owned and maintained, and are fired repeatedly during artillery duels. Women are allowed on the battlefield only if they “keep their hair up at all times” and disguise their gender. One temperate touch: “Any overly aggressive hand-to-hand saber fighting is forbidden.” (Can’t have some shark lawyer suing after the saber battle.)

You feel you have stepped back two centuries at a re-enactors’ gathering. Modern roads are hidden under layers of dirt or mulch. Other chronological anomalies that cannot be removed are obscured with screens. Large temporary bridges are built over streams. One conclave I attended even had five vintage rail cars brought in and set up on a temporary rail bed (extending only as far as the cars), because a rail spur had been part of the original battle. Farmers are paid by organizers to harvest, or not harvest, crops in order to approximate field conditions that prevailed during the actual conflicts. Furniture makers burn the zinc galvanizing off of any modern hardware in order to maintain a fully accurate look for their pieces. Suttlers sell only period-correct snack foods: cream soda, popcorn, salt pork.

There is much fun had, but this is not play. Participants tend to be quite earnest. Manners, language, relations between the sexes, and dress mimic the reserve of earlier times. And when it comes time for fighting, the participants are deadly sober, sometimes even a little grim. They want reasonably true re-creations of battle stress, confusion, opportunities for valor, and so forth. There are always church services connected with the events, and most big weekends end with a Blue and Gray formal ball where the bustles rustle and the buttons shine.

The people drawn to re-enacting are not only well informed about the physical details of history, they are deeply respectful of the ideas that motivated Americans a century and a half ago. A chiropractor and local re-enactor (122nd Regiment, New York State Volunteers) who lives near me is a perfect example of the species.

Christopher Piering noticed that the headstones of Civil War veterans in a local cemetery were deteriorating into weedy illegibility. So he and his 11-year-old son, plus a few friends, began replacing them. By Veterans’ Day of that year, they had 231 new, sparkling white markers arrayed in solemn rows across a rolling hillside of Syracuse’s Oakwood Cemetery. “There were 12,265 people who fought in the war from Onondaga County, and those guys gave the best years of their lives looking forward to a future some would never know,” says Piering. “We are that future, and it would be criminal to let their final resting places become unmarked.”

Asked by the local newspaper what motivated him, Piering quotes words delivered at Gettysburg by Joshua Chamberlain:

“In great deeds something abides…. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear; but spirits linger, to consecrate ground….And reverent men and women from afar, and generations that know us not…heart-drawn to see where and by whom great things were suffered and done for them, shall come to this deathless field, to ponder and dream; and lo! the shadow of a mighty presence shall wrap them in its bosom, and the power of the vision pass into their souls.”

One of the strangest things about our Civil War was its high mix of civility and harshness. As in any war, there were many episodes capable of inspiring bitterness. When Rebel civilian William Mumford tore down the U.S. flag from the mint in New Orleans, occupying Union General Ben Butler had him hanged. About the same time, Confederate Captain Henry Wirz was presiding over the Andersonville prison where Union POWs were so badly cared for that more than 13,000 of the 45,000 locked up there died. At one point during Sherman’s march, it was discovered that the Southerners had buried booby-traps to maim his men. The Northern commander ordered his Confederate prisoners to the front.

Everyday struggles in the field were brutal. Yet there was often a strange empathy in this conflict. friendly relations frequently existed between the outlying pickets of the two armies. Opposing soldiers mingled peacefully at the spots along streams where they drew water for their camps. During the siege of Vicksburg, a soldier named Elisha Stockwell wrote: It was two rods from the outside of our fort to the outside of the Rebs’ fort. Moonlight nights they used to agree to have a talk, and both sides would get up on the breastworks and blackguard each other and laugh and sing songs for an hour at a time, then get down and commence shooting again.

Another soldier, Thatcher Riis, describes regular meetings where Yanks and Rebs would play cards together or converse. His journal records, “From remarks of some of the Rebels, I judged that their supply of provisions was getting low, and that they had no source from which to draw more. We gave them from our own rations some fat meat, crackers, coffee, and so forth.” Officers from opposite camps who had been friends before the war would occasionally dine together, right amidst hostilities.

It startles me to think that Mrs. Jefferson Davis ended her life as a best friend of Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant. When General Grant’s body was re-interred in the newly built Grant’s Tomb in New York City, guess who was clinging to Mrs. Grant’s arm during the ceremony? Mrs. Davis.

This odd blend of ferocity with fraternity has become a distinctive American characteristic. Currently, our Marine Corps is nearly as famous for its “Toys for Tots” program as for its high competence with the rifle. NFL gladiators moonlight visiting cancer patients in hospitals. Contemporary Americans don’t nurse grudges after battles end, just as there were remarkably few attempts to gain “revenge” after fighting ceased in the 1860s. The Civil War demonstrated how easily Americans forgive. Northerners and Southerners alike proved mostly gracious, charitable, and humane.

At the same time, the Civil War demonstrated—perhaps paradoxically—how hard we are willing to fight. Fully three quarters of all Southern white males of vaguely military age served in their army at some point. Approximately 620,000 soldiers on both sides were killed over four years—the equivalent of losing 5 million of our current population.

The famed charge of the light brigade, immortalized in poetry by Alfred Tennyson as a heroic sacrifice, saw 37 percent of its participants cut down. Yet at Gettysburg (to take just one of many bloody battles) there were an astonishing 23 regiments among the Federals alone which suffered casualties of at least 50 percent. The regiment raised in my home county of Madison in New York lost 307 of its 431 men at Gettysburg—a 71 percent casualty rate. I saw a battle flag at the Museum of the Confederacy in New Orleans that was pierced by bullets 83 different times during the charge up Snodgrass Hill at the battle of Chickamauga. Thirteen different flag bearers from the 2nd Batallion of Hillard’s Alabama Legion were killed or wounded carrying this flag up the hill, each leaping forward voluntarily to keep it That’s just one flag, for one batallion, at one battle.

America is sharply different from other Western countries in its martial spirit. This was demonstrated during our Civil War, and it remains true now. Go to our battlefields and you will be amazed at how devoted, well informed, sober, and reverential everyday Americans are toward their military heroes.We remain committed to our current fighting men, to the memory of the slain, to the patriotic symbols of our land, and to the preservation of our historically unusual freedoms. Our deep respect for duty, honor, and strength of arms, and the continuing readiness of millions of Americans to fight and die rather than take a foreign bit in their mouth makes us very much an exception among nations at our level of development.

I happened to spend September 11, 2002—the first anniversary of the al-Qaeda attacks—on the battlefields around Fredericksburg, Virginia. This is the bloodiest landscape in North America, where four major clashes killed or wounded 100,000 American boys and men. Out in the fields all day with books and maps, I was separated from the yammer of television anchors, and surrounded by the ghosts of many patriots. The battlegrounds are somber places, but not grim; there was too much idealism behind the primal sacrifices offered up there for these to become depressing places. On that emotional day, these battle-scarred acres turned out to be a perfect place to gain some perspective on the realities of sacrifice and recovery.

Robert Toombs was a U.S. senator who became the first Secretary of State of the Confederacy after Georgia seceded from the Union. He was a fiery Southern partisan. But he understood that America’s martial spirit would not be defeated by secession papers. In a Rebel cabinet meeting on April 9, 1861, he rose gravely to warn Jefferson Davis and the rest of the Southern leadership against firing on Fort Sumter. “It is suicide, it is murder…. You will wantonly strike a hornet’s nest which extends from the mountains to the ocean; and legions, now quiet, will swarm out to sting us to death…. It is unnecessary, it puts us in the wrong. It is fatal.”

Toombs’ predictions proved perfect. Yet the end result was something he probably could not have dreamed of. For it was the eventual fate of the Confederacy to be defeated into prosperity by the United States of America. (The list of opponents elevated by having fallen to the mercies of the USA eventually grew to cover many others, including Germany, Japan, Russia, and now—a work in progress—Afghanistan.)

“There was no time during the rebellion when I did not think, and often say, that the South was more to be benefited by its defeat than the North,” wrote President Grant. He explained that the South was burdened with an institution abhorrent to all civilized people” (not unlike the Germans under Nazism, Russians staggering through communism, or Afghans ruled by the Taliban). The South’s slave aristocracy “degraded labor, kept it in ignorance, and enervated the governing class.” Skilled workers and entrepreneurs were not being raised up. Whites who took up manual toil were denigrated as “poor white trash.” The soil was being exhausted by a feudal agrarian system, and restive slaves were in danger of outnumbering their masters. Grant’s conclusion: “The war was expensive to the South as well as to the North, both in blood and treasure, but it was worth all it cost.”

Interestingly, that was the eventual conclusion of almost all Southerners as well .They ended up part of the world’s richest, most powerful, most self-expressive and free nation, re-knitted into levels of success and harmony that had never before been approached.

At the centennial celebration of West Point in 1902, Edward Alexander, who graduated with the class of 1857 and rose to Brigadier General in the Confederate army, was invited to speak from the standpoint of a CSA veteran. When he accepted, a large contingent of Southern alumni decided to attend as well. Alexander spoke bluntly: “It was best for the South that the cause was lost…. The firm bonds which today hold together this great nation could never have been wrought by debates in Congress.” It took a mighty cataclysm.

“The Civil War,” concludes Naval War College historian Mackubin Thomas Owens, “was the original Good War, a necessary sacrifice, a noble mutual experience that in the long run solidified the nation.” Some wars can do that.

The War Between the States stiffened the template on how America fights. It demonstrated that, when necessary, we will wage total war. This was something new, pioneered by Grant and Sherman, adding economic tactics and psychological pressure to military operations. “We do unto others what they do unto us, only worse,” is how Jimmy Hoffa put it.

Yet at the same time, Americans disdain wanton brutality. Fred Turner put his finger on this national complexity in TAE’s April/May 2002 issue, where he wrote: “American military prowess comes not from a militaristic society. It comes from a depth of culture and a density of history, from a constant striving for goodness.”

Please God, it will always be so.

The American Enterprise Online

TOPICS: Constitution/Conservatism; Culture/Society; Front Page News
KEYWORDS: abrahamlincoln; civilwar; godsandgenerals; history; historylist; robertelee; stonewalljackson; ulyssessgrant

1 posted on 02/05/2003 6:12:09 AM PST by Valin
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | View Replies]

To: *History_list; Sparta
2 posted on 02/05/2003 6:20:00 AM PST by Valin (Age and Deceit..beat youth and skill)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: beekeeper; KeyWest
3 posted on 02/05/2003 6:45:17 AM PST by KeyWest
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 2 | View Replies]

To: sphinx; Toirdhealbheach Beucail; curmudgeonII; roderick; Notforprophet; river rat; csvset; ...
If you want on or off the Western Civlization Military History ping list, let me know.
4 posted on 02/05/2003 7:42:39 AM PST by Sparta (Statism is a mental illness)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: stainlessbanner
5 posted on 02/05/2003 7:43:17 AM PST by Sparta (Statism is a mental illness)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: Sparta
Bump. Excellent read, thanks for the ping
6 posted on 02/05/2003 7:51:51 AM PST by SAMWolf (To look into the eyes of the wolf is to see your soul)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 4 | View Replies]

To: Sparta
7 posted on 02/05/2003 8:04:19 AM PST by Semaphore Heathcliffe
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 4 | View Replies]

To: Valin
8 posted on 02/05/2003 9:59:24 AM PST by larryjohnson (3 Great Grand Paps were Confederate Veterans)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: Valin
Thank you for the post!

Do you have any idea where one could find that quote by Chamberlain (at Gettysburg)?

9 posted on 02/05/2003 10:19:54 AM PST by eddiespaghetti
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: Valin
An excellent read.
10 posted on 02/05/2003 10:23:15 AM PST by curmudgeonII
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: Sparta
Please add me to your list. Great essay.
11 posted on 02/05/2003 11:50:25 AM PST by Britton J Wingfield
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 4 | View Replies]

To: Valin; Non-Sequitur
This is an excellent article and a good corrective to much of what one reads in other threads. Unfortunately, it's not the whole story. The conduct of the war was less savage than it might have been and the result of the war was certainly more fortunate than it could have been, but at the time it must have looked apocalyptic.
12 posted on 02/05/2003 12:08:49 PM PST by x
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: Valin
Big bttt - thanks for this one.
13 posted on 02/05/2003 12:10:01 PM PST by lodwick (Republicans for Sharpton)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

14 posted on 02/05/2003 12:53:24 PM PST by Non-Sequitur
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 12 | View Replies]

To: Valin


15 posted on 02/05/2003 2:54:43 PM PST by uglybiker
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: eddiespaghetti

Don't know about the quote... thought a photo would be a good addition though.   FReegards.
16 posted on 02/05/2003 3:00:47 PM PST by GirlShortstop
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 9 | View Replies]

To: Valin
Excellent post.
17 posted on 02/05/2003 3:10:53 PM PST by tet68
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: eddiespaghetti
Which quote is that?
18 posted on 02/05/2003 8:16:21 PM PST by Valin (Age and Deceit..beat youth and skill)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 9 | View Replies]

To: Valin
"In great deeds something abides." Those are the words attributed to Joshua Laurence Chamberlain when he visited Gettysburg years after the Civil War.

19 posted on 02/05/2003 9:16:32 PM PST by eddiespaghetti
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 18 | View Replies]

Disclaimer: Opinions posted on Free Republic are those of the individual posters and do not necessarily represent the opinion of Free Republic or its management. All materials posted herein are protected by copyright law and the exemption for fair use of copyrighted works.

Free Republic
Browse · Search
Topics · Post Article

FreeRepublic, LLC, PO BOX 9771, FRESNO, CA 93794 is powered by software copyright 2000-2008 John Robinson