When asked which side they would’ve taken in the Civil War, only 10% of Americans responding to a new poll picked the Confederacy. That’s less than the number of respondents who said they would’ve tried to be neutral. Republicans were more likely to say they would have supported the South, but would-be Confederates still made up a mere 20% of GOP respondents. I don’t know about you folks, but I would’ve expected the percentages to be higher, especially among those on the Right.
Category Archives: Civil War
I didn’t really start taking the Gettysburg Address seriously until one day when I was in grad school, trying to figure out how to finish a paper while eating a roast beef sandwich. I was enrolled in a seminar on the early national period, and my professor had told us to write an essay answering the following question: Who was more prescient, Alexander Hamilton or Thomas Jefferson? Of these two men who had very different visions of what America should be, which one saw the country’s future direction more clearly?
My instinct was to go with Hamilton. In terms of policy, he was probably the most forward-looking of all the Founders, envisioning a United States with a vigorous, centralized government and a modern, diversified economy. The overall course of American history has been in this direction, especially since the late nineteenth century.
At the same time, in terms of ideology and values—what Americans have believed about themselves and their country, and what they have wanted to believe about their role in the world—Jefferson casts a long shadow. If the overall trend of the operation of government and economics has been Hamiltonian, Jefferson’s ideals have been the ones espoused most frequently. In fact, it’s in terms of equality that Hamilton and the other Federalists look most antiquated, committed as they were to older ideas about elitism and deference. ”America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed,” according to G.K. Chesterton. ”That creed is set forth with dogmatic and even theological lucidity in The Declaration of Independence….It enunciates that all men are equal in their claim to justice, that governments exist to give them that justice, and that their authority is for that reason just.”
I knew that I’d probably end up hedging a little, noting that while Hamilton was more prescient in terms of the way America has operated, Jefferson was more influential in terms of Americans’ self-definition. But that answer seemed a little wishy-washy. I wanted to come up with some sort of definitive answer.
So I was sitting at an Arby’s restaurant, trying to knock out an outline for the paper while getting a bite to eat, when I figured out how to give both Hamilton and Jefferson their due. Neither man was totally correct. It was Abraham Lincoln who understood America most clearly, because at Gettysburg he reconciled these two different visions of the nation so that each one supported the other. Lincoln oversaw a Hamiltonian war—a war of national consolidation, and a war that would result in a more commercial nation with a more vigorous central government—but he did it to achieve Jeffersonian ends. Indeed, he did it while invoking Jefferson, chapter and verse.
In his Gettysburg Address, Lincoln tied the birth of America to the promise of liberty and Jefferson’s 1776 “proposition” that all men are created equal. ”The principles of Jefferson are the definitions and axioms of free society,” he had claimed shortly before his presidency. Lincoln praised Jefferson because his Declaration of Independence did not merely justify the Revolution. Jefferson had used that document to set down “an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that to-day, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.”
In 1863, the American experiment to work out this “abstract truth”—an experiment only “four score and seven years” old—would either survive and vindicate government of the people, or it would collapse and call the whole enterprise of popular government into question. If a minority could dissolve the Union due to the outcome of an election, democracy by majority rule was unworkable. To Lincoln, secession was therefore an existential threat to democratic government itself. The stakes in the Civil War were breathtakingly high. The survival of popular government was what the men buried at Gettysburg had given “the last full measure of devotion” to defend.
Lincoln thus believed that the Hamiltonian tools of a consolidated Union and an active national government were necessary to secure the Jeffersonian principles of liberty and equality. These tools would also be the means to extend these Jeffersonian ideals to the enslaved. The war would not only secure what the Founders had gained, but finish what they had left undone by resolving the great American contradiction of slavery in a nation dedicated to freedom.
Rather than merely dedicating a cemetery, Lincoln explained the meaning of America, defined the purpose of the war, paid tribute to the dead, exhorted his audience to continue their struggle on behalf of freedom, and reconciled the two seemingly contradictory American impulses of Union and liberty. And he did it in less than three hundred words.
So there’s an effort underway by the Sons of Union Veterans to set up a monument at Olustee in order to “balance the cultural representation” on the battlefield, and some folks in the Sons of Confederate Veterans are opposed to the idea, calling it “a large black Darth Vadar-esque [sic] shaft that will disrupt the hallowed grown [sic] where Southern blood was spilled in defense of Florida, protecting Tallahassee from capture.“
My opinion has always been that older monuments have intrinsic historical and artistic value, but when it comes to setting up new ones, I’d rather see these groups spend their money on something else, like buying endangered battlefield land, conserving artifacts, and so on. I’m not opposed to new battlefield monuments on principle; I just don’t see the need to make sure every historical constituency involved with a site is represented with a slab of granite.
But having said all that, I don’t really get the SCV’s logic here. Indeed, I’m not sure there’s any logic to be had. There are Union monuments on countless battlefields across the South, just as there are Confederate monuments at Gettysburg and Antietam. If this new monument is going to disrupt the site’s historic integrity, then fine, but I haven’t seen anybody make that case. What the heck is the issue?
A lot of people think Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game is the best science fiction novel ever, or at least one of the top contenders, so I decided to read it before seeing the new movie adaptation. I enjoyed it, although it didn’t have the impact on me that it seems to have had on thousands of other readers over the years. The movie’s not bad, either.
A story about children training to fight space aliens is just about the last place you’d expect to find anything relating to popular Civil War historiography, but in his introduction Card identifies the work of Bruce Catton as one of his main influences:
I remembered so well the stories of the commanders in that war–the struggle to find a Union general capable of using McClellan’s magnificent army to defeat Lee and Jackson and Stuart, and then, finally, Grant, who brought death to far too many of his soldiers, but also made their deaths mean something, by grinding away at Lee, keeping him from dancing and maneuvering out of reach. It was because of Catton’s history that I had stopped enjoying chess, and had to revise the rules of Risk in order to play it–I had come to understand something of war, and not just because of the conclusions Catton himself had reached. I found meanings of my own in that history.
I learned that history is shaped by the use of power, and that different people, leading the same army, with, therefore, approximately the same power, applied it so differently that the army seemed to change from a pack of noble fools at Fredericksburg to panicked cowards melting away at Chancellorsville, then to the grimly determined, stubborn soldiers who held the ridges at Gettysburg, and then, finally, to the disciplined, professional army that ground Lee to dust in Grant’s long campaign. It wasn’t the soldiers who changed. It was the leader. And even though I could not then have articulated what I understood of military leadership, I knew that I did understand it. I understood, at levels deeper than speech, how a great military leader imposes his will on his enemy, and makes his own army a willing extension of himself.
Card thus takes the Civil War (at least the war in the East) primarily as the story of an army in search of its commander. Framing the war with this narrative is not at all uncommon, but is it accurate? And is it possible to draw such broad general lessons about the nature of war and the human experience from the study of one particular conflict?
…in an interview at the Lincoln Institute blog. Check it out.
- I can’t believe I forgot to mention this until now, but it’s time for John Sevier Days Living History Weekend at Marble Springs State Historic Site in Knoxville, TN. The action starts tomorrow and continues through Sunday—reenacting, demonstrations, food, and presentations on the Lost State of Franklin and King’s Mountain. It’ll be a blast, so stop by if you get the chance.
- While we’re talking about Marble Springs, let me also recommend a great way to support the site and get some nifty benefits for yourself. Join the Governor John Sevier Memorial Association and you’ll get free admission when you visit, discounts on gift shop items, access to special events, and more. Memberships start at just $25.
- Late September-early October is King’s Mountain season. If you can’t make it to Knoxville for the Marble Springs event, there’s another option for those of you in southwestern Virginia. On Sunday, Abingdon Muster Grounds is hosting Sharyn McCrumb, who will read from her new novel about the battle. They’ll also have living history demonstrations and the unveiling of a new painting of William Campbell, whose unit marched from Abingdon to Sycamore Shoals to meet the other Overmountain Men.
- Some Connecticut parents are quite understandably upset over a school function where students got a taste of slavery…including the racial slurs. What. Were. They. Thinking?
- Here’s a Rev War infographic from 1871.
- Some folks are working to preserve the area around Kettle Creek battlefield in Georgia.
- A supplementary AP history text is drawing criticism for the way it refers to the Second Amendment.
- Next time you’re driving through Shepherdsville, KY keep an eye out for the new John Hunt Morgan mural on an underpass along Old Preston Highway.