Thursday, July 21, 2011

The war has begun

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the first major battle of the Civil War at Manassas, Virginia (or as more commonly known, Bull Run).  It was this battle that served as the first sign that this would not be a short and limited war, but one of overwhelming destruction and one that would become a second American Revolution.  My goal was to finish John Keegan's book, The American Civil War: A Military History by today.  I accomplished that goal last night.

I learned so much from Keegan's book that it would be too much to recount here.  The military history of this four-year national saga is one of logistics, of using and overcoming geography and as a human story, of engaging ordinary citizens in shear horrific battle.  Here are just a few examples that prove how massive and traumatic this four-year-struggle was for the ordinary American citizens who lived through it or perished by it:
  • Approximately 10,000 battles were fought, 237 were named (Keegan, 362, 77).
  • Death toll: Approximately 620,000 - 360,000 Union and 260,000 Confederate; Total casualties (dead, wounded or missing) rank much higher than that (Stats: Keegan, 77).
  • There was no large professional army in the United States in 1861 which meant that ordinary citizens had to learn as they fought which only increased the casualty numbers.
  • Given the horrors of battle, lethal technology and the spreading of disease, one would expect high amounts of desertion and surrender.  However, whether through loyalty to comrades, to cause or out of a desire to preserve one's dignity, most of these ordinary citizens continued to fight courageously.
Of course, when studying the Civil War, we are left with the question of why.  Why did this war begin and linger so long? Why did Americans fight and continue to fight?

Studying the evidence, it is irrefutable that the debate over slavery and its extension west was the root cause of the secession crisis.  Certainly, most Confederate soldiers did not own slaves and many had very few encounters with African-Americans.  It can be said that for the ordinary citizens of the Confederacy, they fought to preserve the rights of their state.  For many northerners, the cause for which they fought was the preservation of the national union and though some were fervent abolitionists, most in the North were not.  However, the question of race and slavery remained at the core of the national discussion on both sides and it simply cannot be ignored.  Yet, making these statements today is still controversial, especially in the South.

Why is this?  For the southern perspective, many of the memoirs and histories written in the fifty years after Appomattox were intended to redeem the image of the South, a people recovering from the defeat of a traumatic and passionate conflict.  The arguments of these "Lost Cause" historians as well as the depictions in the famous novel turned film, Gone with the Wind, made their way into what historians refer to as "American Memory," the collective knowledge of history by ordinary people.

This is just one aspect of the controversy.  It is my hope that over the next four years of this 150th commemoration, we can reopen the national discussion of the Civil War and truly understand the war, its causes and consequences for what they truly were.  I hope that the distance of 150 years can provide some objectivity to the discussion and that we have an opportunity as Americans to truly learn from and appreciate our shared national heritage.

As always, I will conclude with links for further reading and review:

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