The American War
Walker Percy May 11, 2014 - 5:25pm
WHAT ARE THE reasons for the current revival of interest in the Civil War? That there is such a revival is undeniable. Books on the War pour off the presses every week—some of them, incidentally, of a very high order, such as Bruce Catton's This Hallowed Ground and Shelby Foote's Shiloh! What is at once noticeable about the current literature is its frankly non-political character and the absence of the old rancor. The race issue may be still very much an issue, but Northern and Southern historians have achieved a common view of the War itself. When Catton from Michigan and Foote from Mississippi write about the battle of Shiloh, it sounds like the same battle. Catton is never more eloquent than when he is appraising Lee's generalship; Foote is just as impressed by the fighting qualities of the Northern soldier. Indeed, from this distance the underdog psychology probably kindles the reader's enthusiasm more readily than do the social issues—and perhaps this is just as well.
The general impression outside the South seems to be that it is the rest of the country which has rediscovered the Civil War, that the South has never stopped looking back. This is mistaken, I believe, and is due to an understandable optical illusion. The truth is, at least in my experience, that the Southerner never thinks about the Civil War—until he finds himself among Northerners. Then, for some reason-perhaps because the Northerner insists on casting him in his historical role and the Southerner is perfectly willing to oblige, or because, lost in the great cities of the North, he feels for the first time the need of his heritage—he breaks out the Stars and Bars. I remember traveling from Alabama to summer camp in Wisconsin in the twenties. The train would stop in Chicago to pick up more boys. We from Alabama had heard as little about the Civil War as the Boer War and cared less, but every time the Illinois boys got on in Chicago the War started, a real brawl yet not really bad-tempered. The same sort of thing must have happened during the World War I when an Alabama division suddenly found itself in a donnybrook with the Fighting 69th at Plattsburg.
The truth of it is, I think, that the whole country, South included, is just beginning to see the Civil War whole and entire for the first time. The thing was too big and too bloody, too full of suffering and hatred, too closely knit into the fabric of our meaning as a people, to be held off and looked at-until now. It is like a man walking away from a mountain. The bigger it is, the farther he's got to go before he can see it. Then one day he looks back and there it is, this colossal thing lying across his past.
A history of the shifting attitudes toward the War would be enlightening. There would probably emerge a pattern common to such great events, a dialectic of loss-recovery: the long period of recollection, of in tense partisan interest which is followed by a gradual fading of the Event into a dusty tapestry. (Lee and Grant at Appomattox taking their place beside Washington Crossing the Delaware.) Then under certain circumstances, there is the recovery. Perhaps Washington will never be recovered, having been ossified too long in grammar school tableaus. But Lincoln and Grant and McClellan and even the legendary Lee, who after all are closer in time to Washington than to us, have come very much alive. Why, then, their recovery, and what exactly has been recovered?
WHAT HAS been recovered, it seems clear, is not the politics or the sociology of the War, nor even the slavery issue, but the fight itself. The tableau I remember from school was the Reconciliation, Grant and Lee in the McLean house, Lee healing the wounds at Washington College. Little was said about the War, except that it was tragic; brother fighting against brother, etc. Undoubtedly this was the necessary if somewhat boring emphasis for the textbooks. Now, after ninety years of Reconciliation, we can take a look at the fight itself.
What a fight it was! The South is a very big place, yet there is hardly a district that didn't have its skirmish, its Federal gunboat sunk in a bayou—where some old-timer won't tell you, "Yes, they came through here." It is startling to realize that there were more casualties in the Civil War than in all the American forces of World War II, and more than in all other American wars put together. Of 3,000,000 men under arms, 2,300,000 for the Union, 750,000 for the Con federacy, 618,222 died, with total casualties probably going well past a million. For sheer concentrated fury, there are few events even in modern warfare to equal that terrible September 17 at Antietam Creek when over 20,000 men fell—or the May-June of '64 when, beginning with the battle of the Wilderness, Grant lost on the average of 2,000 men a day for 30 days, culminating in the slaughter at Cold Harbor when over 8,000 men fell in about ten minutes! There were murderous battles in the West which one never heard of, like Stone's River with over 25,000 casualties.
Yet terrible as it was, it is impossible to read of the Army of Northern Virginia or of the Army of the Potomac without being caught up in the tremendous drama. The armies were big enough so that the action took place on an epic scale, yet the War was, as much as were the Punic Wars, a personal encounter of the opposing leaders. Lee was very much aware of this grim beauty when the fog rose over Fredericksburg showing Burnside's entire army facing his, battle flags flying. "It is well that war is so terrible,” he said; "else we should grow too fond of it." But what gave the Civil War the tragic proportions of the Iliad was the fact, apparent after Shiloh, that the American soldier, Union and Confederate, was not going to be beaten until he could literally fight no longer or was killed. When his leader was great, he was almost invincible; when his leader was mediocre, he was still superb. Pickett's charge is justly famous, but just as heartbreaking was the Union assault on Longstreet's position in the sunken road at Fredericksburg. The difference was that where Pickett’s men had every confidence in Lee, Couch's men knew very well that Burnside was wrong. Yet they attacked all day long, and only stopped when the field was piled so high with dead that they could no longer run over them.
AS IN ALL tragedies, a great deal seemed to de pend upon fate. Small mischances become as important as Thetis’s oversight when she dipped Achilles—all but his heel—into the Styx. A Confederate courier loses some battle orders; they are found wrapped around three cigars and brought to McClellan; the direct result is the battle of Antietam. One can't read of that war without playing the fascinating game of what-if.... What if Jackson had lived through Chancellorsville? What if McClellan had listened to Phil Kearny (instead of the Pinkerton detectives) during the Seven Days? What if Jeb Stuart had tended to business at Gettysburg? Lee was always just missing his Cannae and Lincoln's generals were always just short of ordinary competence—until he got Grant.
Besides the great failures, there were the great successes, the heroes' deeds which are always irresistible to the human spirit and so pass over immediately into the legend of the race. There was Chancellorsville when Lee, facing Hooker's 85,000, divided his battered army of 43,000, sent Jackson to the left, leaving him in front of Hooker with 17,000 men—and attacked and very nearly destroyed the Army of the Potomac. There was the Union's "Pap" Thomas's assault on Missionary Ridge at Chattanooga and the subsequent demoralization of Bragg. And there was the fateful decision at Spotsylvania when, after taking a fearful mauling, Grant, instead of falling back toward Washington as the army had been doing for the past three years, retreated south, sliding around Lee's right.
Therein lies the tragedy. If Lee had been a little more or a little less—if he had gotten his Cannae or if he had only been just competent and been whipped by McClellan in '62—the results would still have been notable, but they would not have approached the terror and piteousness of what actually did happen. The summer of 1864 has a Gotterdammerung quality. With the issue hardly in doubt after Gettysburg, the fighting nevertheless increased in fury with both sides attacking steadily, without the usual remissions between battles.
YET WITH all the horror, or perhaps because of it, there was always the feeling then, and even now as we read about it, that the things a man lived through were somehow twice as real, twice as memorable as the peace that followed. Peace is better than war, yet it is a sad fact that some of the heroes of the War, like Grant and Longstreet and many a lesser man, found the peace a long descent into mediocrity. In the ordeal the man himself seemed to become more truly himself, revealing his character or the lack of it, than at any time before or after. If a man was secretly cowardly or secretly brave, stupid or shrewd, that was what he was shown to be. The War infallibly discovered his hidden weakness and his hidden strength. Hooker the braggart was reduced to impotence simply by having Lee's small army in front of him (and understandably, for the veterans of the Army of the Potomac used to say to replacements fresh from victories in the West: "Wait till you meet Bobby Lee"). Grant the ne'er-do-well matured in defeat and became a noble and sensitive human being by having Lee at his mercy. It is no wonder that there was the temptation, especially in the ruined South, to enshrine those four years as the four years of truth and to discount all other times, even the future.
Then there were the thousand and one lesser encounters, any one of which, if it had happened at another time, would have its own literature and its own historians: the Confederate raiders, Farragut's capture of New Orleans, the battle of the ironclads, Forrest's miniature Cannae at Bryce Crossroads, James Andrews' stealing the Confederate train, and so on. It was the last of the wars of individuals, when a single man's ingenuity and pluck not only counted for some thing in itself but could conceivably a:ffect the entire issue. Forrest himself is quite unbelievable. It is as if Launcelot had been reborn in Memphis. He carried into battle a cavalry saber sharpened to a razor edge and actually killed men with it. He actually did fool a Yankee commander into surrendering by parading a single cannon back and forth in the distance as they parleyed. He actually did have twenty-nine horses shot from under him.
THERE IS an ambiguity about this new interest in the Civil War. On the one hand it is the past recaptured, the authentic recovery of the long agony during which this nation came to be what it is. Yet there is also the temptation to yield to an historical illusion by which the past seems to gain in stature and authenticity as it recedes and the present to be discounted because it is the here and now. We sense the illusion in the words of the old-timer, "Yes, they came through here," in which it is somehow implied that this place has existed in a long trivial aftermath after its one day of glory. Perhaps the North is in for a mild case of the same romanticism which the South recovered from over fifty years ago.
The increased emphasis upon the fighting at the expense of ideology is probably good. One does well, anyway, not to apply ideology too closely to that war. James Truslow Adams can talk about the March of Democracy and Bruce Catton can call the Union army a truly revolutionary army and perhaps they are right. Perhaps the War was really and truly fought over slavery. But the other case can be made too. It is difficult to see the yeoman farmers who largely made up the Army of the Tennessee and the Army of Northern Virginia as Southern Bourbons. The South had some reason to regard the fight as a continuation of the American Revolution. After all it was her soil which was being invaded and her independence which was being denied. The South might even have the better of the constitutional argument; yet what won out seems to transcend all the arguments. For it is that extraordinary thing, the American Union.
About the Author
Dr. Percy, who practices medicine in Louisiana, contributes to America, the Partisan Review and other journals, as well as to this magazine.