I just got through listening to a set of college lectures on the American Civil War. I find that as I grow older, I become more and more fascinated with history.
I think this is because when I was younger, everybody over 30 was ancient and “history” to me was stuff that happened in the 1950s. Now I realize that it’s really the folks over 80 who are really old and history is just life, as remembered and written down.
Instead of thinking how different people were in the 1800s, it’s much more useful to view mankind as basically the same species that came from the savannah eons ago. The technology and clothes may change, but people are basically the same. We can feel their pain, read their words, and learn from their lives.
So here are the reasons why I am fascinated with the American Civil War:
- It shows Americans losing – America has never really lost a war. We quit in Vietnam, but to really lose, like the French did when getting overrun by the Germans in WWII, is something that is beyond our common understanding. When the South lost the war, American homes and cities and towns being burned, subjugated to military rule, reduced to abject poverty — all of the things that are part of losing. This is a lesson we need to remember, especially when we see the same thing happening to others on the evening news.
- Lee Showed How To Run An Effective Organization – Against overwhelming odds, Lee took an army of mostly random civilians and shaped it into a cohesive unit. His observations — how subordinates worked with their subordinates to make decisions, were the basis of his promotion strategy. You either fit the culture or you were eased out. Lee never lost his temper with his men. Everybody loved Lee, yet he was able to take a huge organization and mold it to an aligned, highly motivated team. This is sorely lacking in most organizations.
- It was a critical point in history – More than anything, the American Civil War was the dividing line between the old theater-set battles of the 1800s and the modern maneuver warfare of the 1900s. As such, we get to see large groups of people evolve to drastically new situations, like the machine gun, trench warfare, and even aerial reconnaissance. Add to that photography, and you have a unique point in history that’s not exactly back in the darkness revolutionary war days, yet not modern enough that you can watch footage of it on the History Channel. It sits right on the edge of major change along many axes.
- It shows democracies in extreme circumstances – Ever wonder where the draft began in America? It began in the south in the Civil War. Did you know that in the North people could buy their way out of joining the army? Or that tens of thousands of immigrants were allowed in only to be immediately conscripted? Did you know that Lincoln suspended habeus corpus — during the war authorities could arrest anybody they chose, and never had to show cause? Or that Lincoln arrested congressmen for speaking out against the war? If you want to see American democracy under great stress, the Civil War is the prime example. As a libertarian, when my libertarian friends start in about recent civil rights issues, I have to point them to the Civil War for a bit of context. The workings of systems are most illuminated when they are under the most stress.
- When it was over, it was over – Aside from reconstruction (an Orwellian term if there ever was one), when the Civil War ended, it ended. Both sides basically went from trying their best to kill one another to shaking hands and going on with their lives. Sure — it’s more complicated than that, but that’s basically what happened. Lee didn’t start a guerrilla campaign as some of his officers suggested. We disagreed, we fought, one side won and one side lost. The nation grew.
Nowadays one side would hang on to the bitter end, fighting it out in desultory warfare for generations. But Lee saw civilization as a greater cause beyond the immediate issues. Lincoln saw reconciliation as a greater goal than punishment. People can disagree, even violently, and still have something good come out of it.
- It happened right here – The nice thing about so many battles, a wag once said, was they happened in national parks. If you’re in the U.S., especially on the east coast, it’s all right here. You can spend a week or two vacation and see all of the major battle locations by car. If you happen to live here, as I do, you can read about battles and suddenly realize, hey, that happened where I went hiking last year. Or I know that explosion had to be huge because I saw the pit it made when I was in Petersburg last year. History about someplace far away and thousands of years ago is one thing. History where you have pictures, books, and it happened in that big field in front of that house you wanted to buy? Much more intimate.
- It shows how people start fighting for one thing and end up fighting for something else – Wars have a momentum of their own, and the victors write the history books. A war started because the political battle over slavery exacerbated the state’s rights claims of the south became for one side, a New American Revolution. For another side, a moral crusade to abolish slavery. When you look at current political events, the slant people give things today isn’t necessarily the same slant they’ll be giving them 50 years from now. People do as they want. They make up reasons later on. There’s lies, damned lies, and history books.
I’m beginning to love all of history — heck I think I could even stand becoming a bit of a classicist given enough time — but the American Civil War holds a special place in my heart. It was a time of great change and great challenges, yet the people meeting them were exactly the same as ourselves.
They just had beards and funny hats.
General Ewell, also known as “Old Bald Head” is
a good example of why hats might be a good idea
Ewell was a bit of a humorist, and a good solider,
but he didn’t fit in with Lee’s ideas about what a good general should be