MY attic office is walled with books on Lincoln and Lee, slavery and secession. John Brown glares from a daguerreotype on my desk. The Civil War is my sanctum — except when my 7-year-old races in to get at the costume box. Invariably, he tosses aside the kepi and wooden sword to reach for a wizard cloak or Star Wars light saber.
I was born in a different era, the late 1950s, when the last Union drummer boy had only just died and plastic blue-and-gray soldiers were popular toys. In the 1960s, the Civil War centennial recalled great battles as protesters marched for civil rights and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. declared from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, “One hundred years later, the Negro still is not free.”
Today the Civil War echoes at a different register, usually in fights over remembrance. Though Southern leaders in the 1860s called slavery the cornerstone of their cause, some of their successors are intent on scrubbing that legacy from memory. Earlier this year in Virginia, Gov. Robert F. McDonnell proclaimed April to be Confederate History Month without mentioning slavery, while the state’s Department of Education issued a textbook peddling the fiction that thousands of blacks had fought for the South. Skirmishes erupt at regular intervals over flags and other emblems, like “Colonel Reb,” whom Ole Miss recently surrendered as its mascot. The 1860s also have a particular resonance at election time, as the country splits along political and cultural lines that still separate white Southern voters from balloters in blue Union states.
But as we approach the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s election, on Nov. 6, and the long conflict that followed, it’s worth recalling other reasons that era endures. The Civil War isn’t just an adjunct to current events. It’s a national reserve of words, images and landscapes, a storehouse we can tap in lean times like these, when many Americans feel diminished, divided and starved for discourse more nourishing than cable rants and Twitter feeds.
“The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.” Those famous lines come from President Lincoln, delivered not in the Gettysburg Address, but on a routine occasion: his second annual message to Congress. Can you recall a single line from any of the teleprompted State of the Union messages in your own lifetime?
The Civil War abounded in eloquence, from the likes of Frederick Douglass, Walt Whitman, the Southern diarist Mary Chesnut and warriors who spoke the way they fought. Consider the Southern cavalryman J. E. B. Stuart, with panache, saying of his father-in-law’s loyalty to the Union: “He will regret it but once, and that will be continually.” Or Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, brutal and terse, warning besieged Atlantans: “You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it.”
These and other words from the war convey a bracing candor and individuality, traits Americans reflexively extol while rarely exhibiting. Today’s lusterless brass would never declare, as Sherman did, “I can make this march, and make Georgia howl!” or say of a superior, as Sherman did of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, “He stood by me when I was crazy, and I stood by him when he was drunk.”
You can hear the same, bold voice in the writing of common soldiers, their letters unmuzzled by military censors and their dialect not yet homogenized by television and Interstates. “Got to see the elephant at last,” an Indianan wrote of his first, inglorious combat. “I don’t care about seeing him very often any more, for if there was any fun in such work I couldn’t see it … It is not the thing it is bragged up to be.” Another soldier called the Gettysburg campaign “nothing but fighting, starving, marching and cussing.” Cowards were known as “skedaddlers,” “tree dodgers,” “skulkers” and “croakers.”
There’s character even in muster rolls and other records, which constantly confound the stereotype of a war between brotherly white farm boys North and South. You find Rebel Choctaws and Union Kickapoos; Confederate rabbis and Arab camel-drivers; Californians in gray and Alabamans in blue; and in wondrous Louisiana, units called the Corps d’Afrique, the Creole Rebels, the Slavonian Rifles and the European Brigade. By war’s end, black troops constituted over 10 percent of the Union Army and Navy. The roster of black sailors included men born in Zanzibar and Borneo.
Then there are the individuals who defy classification, like this one from a Pennsylvania muster roll: “Sgt. Frank Mayne; deserted Aug. 24, 1862; subsequently killed in battle in another regiment, and discovered to be a woman; real name, Frances Day.”
If the words of the 1860s speak to the era’s particularity, the bleakly riveting data of the Civil War communicates its scale and horror — a portent of the industrial slaughter to come in the 20th century. Roughly 75 percent of eligible Southern men and more than 60 percent of eligible Northerners served, compared with a tiny fraction today, and more than one million were killed or wounded. Fighting in close formation, some regiments lost 80 percent of their men in a single battle. Three days at Gettysburg killed and wounded more Americans than nine years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq have. Nearly one in three Confederate soldiers died — a statistic that helps to explain the deep sense of loss that lasted in the South for over a century. In all, the death rate from combat and disease was so high that a comparable war today would claim six million American lives.
As horrific as these numbers are, they’re made graphic by the pioneering photography of the Civil War. It’s hard for us to conjure the Minutemen of 1775, but we can look into the eyes of Union and Confederate recruits, study their poses, see emotion in their faces. They look lean (and they were: on average, Civil War soldiers were 40 pounds lighter than young men today), but their faces are strikingly modern and jaunty.
Then we see them again, strewn promiscuously across fields, limbs bloated, mouths frozen in ghastly O’s. When Mathew Brady first exhibited photographs of battlefield dead in 1862, The Times likened viewing them to seeing “a few dripping bodies, fresh from the field, laid along the pavement.” Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. wrote that photographs forced civilians to confront the true face of battle — “a repulsive, brutal, sickening, hideous thing.” We’re spared this discomfort today, with the American dead from two ground wars carefully airbrushed from public view.
There’s another great difference between the Civil War and every other war in our history: the ground itself, a vast and accessible Yosemite of memory that stretches across the South and to points beyond, from Gettysburg in Pennsylvania to New Mexico’s Glorieta Pass. True, much of the Civil War’s landscape has been interred beneath big-box malls and subdivisions named for the history they’ve obliterated. But at national parks like Shiloh and Antietam you can still catch a whisper of a human-scaled America, where soldiers took cover in high corn and sunken roads, and Lincoln’s earthy imagery spoke to the lives of his countrymen.
In an electronics-saturated age, battlefield parks also force us to exercise our atrophied imaginations. There’s no Sensurround or 3D technology, just snake-rail fences, marble men and silent cannons aimed at nothing. You have to read, listen, let your mind go. If you do, you may experience what Civil War re-enactors call a “period rush” — the momentary high of leaving your own time zone for the 1860s.
You wouldn’t want to stay there; at least I wouldn’t. Nor is battle the only way into the Civil War. There are countless other portals, and scholars are opening them to reveal lesser-known aspects of Civil War society and memory. Know about the 11-year-old girl who convinced Lincoln to grow a beard? The Richmond women who armed themselves and looted stores, crying, “Bread or blood”? The “Mammy Monument” that almost went up in Washington a year after the Lincoln Memorial?
It’s a bottomless treasure, this Civil War, much of it encrusted in myth or still unexplored. Which is why, a century and a half later, it still claims our attention and remembrance.