American History is the story of the War Between the States. Everything before 1861 functions as causes leading up to the war. Everything since 1865 is a result of the War. The war is central to so much of American government and politics, Southern culture, American–particularly Southern–literature, racial tensions, and visions of what the meaning of America is all about. That war between Americans still raises the ire of people on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line.
For some years, I sought to specialize on Civil War history. I took three college courses related to the War and the South. I bought and read books with reckless abandon. I visited battlefields, spent an inordinate amount of time teaching the War to my students, and even joined a re-enactment unit. In time, I limped home…figuratively speaking…from Appomattox and turned my attention to other areas of history and literature. But the love and interest has never been lost.
In recent weeks, I have written a couple of stories that are posted on the Voice of the South website. On appeared on Stonewall Jackson’s birthday and told of the origin of the name “Stonewall.” The next story I wrote was in honor of the birthday of Robert E. Lee. So much has been written and said of him so many times that I wasn’t sure where to start. So, I wrote about Robert E. Lee and His Horses.
At this time, I am hearing the voices of many Southern soldiers asking for their stories to be added to the ones noted above. In short, the War Between the States is a grand and terrible story that demands to be retold again and again. Although there are many other interests, historical and otherwise, it is the War, as in THE War, the one that has defined so much of who we are, that keeps luring me back.
I learned some years back that it was virtually impossible to even keep up with the number of books on Civil War history that were being published each year. Whether motivated by scholarly pursuit or human interest, books on the battles and leaders keep pouring off the presses. Just when one thinks that everything that can be said has been said, something else is said, or something is said again.
Two Recent Books on the Civil War
I see book reviewing as a contact sport and as exercise. I also have to admit that it is fun and addicting. But I am never caught up on the book reviews. Here are two recent books I have received that are worthy of attention.
The Early Morning of War: Bull Run, 1861 by Edward G. Longacre is published by the University of Oklahoma Press. As might be expected, they publish lots of books on western history and Native American history. But they also have some incredible studies on ancient classics and on military history. This book is Volume 46 in the Campaigns and Commanders series. I probably have a dozen or more of the books in this ongoing series, and I wish I had them all.
This book is, however, somewhat different from many of the works in that series. The previous works are often scholarly, detailed studies of some often obscure aspects of wars in history. They are not written particularly for the non-specialist who simply enjoys a war story. This book is longer. Most of the studies are a couple of hundred pages, while this one is over 650 pages long. As can be seen, it is decked with an attractive cover. It is a fascinating study of the first real battle of the Civil War.
I am still in the perusing and scanning phases of this book, but I do have several observations. The author, Edward Longacre, is a well respected military historian. As hard as it is to believe that anything could be unsaid about this battle, Longacre combed through lots of previously unpublished sources, including diaries and letters of more than 400 participants in the battle. He also said that he spent over 40 years working on this book.
First Bull Run, or First Manassas as we southerners prefer to call it, was a textbook case of seeing untried generals using untried troops to attempt to win the war in one day. Going into the battle, the odds might have favored the north. That would have seemed to have been justified throughout much of the day. But the battle turned and the wheeling and flanking motions of the two armies led to a collapse of the northern lines. The northern retreat, better called a rout, is famous and almost humorous.
One portion I did survey closely was how the two sides viewed the battle in its aftermath. There arose a view among southerners, and arguments as well, that the south missed the opportunity to pursue the Yankees right up to the doorstep of Abraham Lincoln’s house. Longacre, rightly in my opinion, notes the extreme unliklihood of this being possible. Some on both the northern and southern sides thought this battle had easily settled the outcome of the entire war. The south was sure to win and northern efforts were doomed.
Stonewall Jackson, who got the name Stonewall in this battle, saw something few others realized. He believed that a southern defeat might have been more beneficial to south. The apparently easy victory gave southerners a sense of certainty of their victory. The northern command, Irwin McDowell, was heavily, and somewhat unfairly, blamed for the defeat. He was quickly sacked and replaced by George McClellan. While McClellan would prove to be an inept battlefield commander over the next 2 years, he did train and mold the Army of the Potomac into a first rate fighting machine.
One other side note, Longacre gives credence to the idea that General Bernard Bee’s comment about General Jackson (“There stands Jackson like a stone wall!”) was a criticism. My recent story, linked above, deals with that incident.
A book I just unboxed today is Sherman’s Flame and Blame Campaign through Georgia and the Carolinas…and the burning of Columbia by Patricia G. McNeely. This book is a reminder that this was an ugly war. Certainly, there was chivalry, respect for the honors of war, and many moments of nobility, courage, and godliness exercised in the midst of battle. But this was one of the most brutal wars in history.
Southerners are not free of the atrocities of war, and neither are northerners. In this case, with the campaign of William T. Sherman, the atrocities were not excesses or surprises. For better or worse, Sherman launched what has come to be called “total war.” It was also a psychological war campaign with the physical destruction of the south itself, and not just the defeat of southern armies, as its objective.
General Sherman said, “If the people raise a howl against my barbarity and cruelty, I will answer that war is war, and not popularity seeking. If they want peace, they and their relatives must stop the war.”
You can’t fault Sherman for not being honest and blunt about his military objectives. His whole method of operation is in great contrast to that of fellow Union General George B. McClellan. McClellan wrote a detailed letter to President Lincoln explaining the objectives of war for a civilized and Christianized people. Lincoln basically discarded the letter.
As the saying goes, “All is fair in love and war.” You can add this: “There is no arguing with success.” Sherman’s campaign across Georgia and then through the Carolinas was remembered for decades with bitterness in the south. Perhaps it did shorten the war. Perhaps it was “necessary” to settle the war.
But the means to success does not excuse the history teller from being honest. In this particular book, the focus is on the burning of the city of Columbia, South Carolina. The question to be answered is this: Who burned Columbia, South Carolina? The story emerged and got repeated that Columbia was burned by Confederate General Wade Hampton and the Confederate army. On the one hand, retreating armies did burn vast amounts of supplies. And fires lead to fires. On the other hand, as Mrs. McNeely contends, this was a case of Sherman and his troops burning Columbia and then placing the blame on the Confederates. This is not surprising. Sherman’s campaign focused in part on specific military objectives, but the greater focus was on breaking the resistance of the South, breaking the will to carry on the war. To do that, everything in the South was a military objective to Sherman and the northern army. Farms were pillaged, art and jewels were taken, homes were burned, and railroads were dismantled. Cities were primary targets; hence, Sherman was behind the burning and destruction of Columbia.
This should be quite an interesting read.