150 years later, US Civil War is still tragic and vivid

By J Brooks Spector 25 July 2011

To outsiders it often seems as if the US really needs to remember and physically replay its Civil War as a kind of national cleansing ritual – a catharsis both noble and somewhat comical in its battlefield re-enactments. The stolid seriousness of accountants and garage mechanics dressed, drilling – and “dying” – watched by thousands of spectators in jeans and T-shirts is quite bizarre. This odd, enlightening and necessary ritual began this weekend, and J BROOKS SPECTOR examines what it’s all about.

In the middle of an extraordinary, baking heat wave across the heart of America, this weekend, more than 10,000 Americans gathered in a suburban Virginia parkland, an hour’s drive from the White House, to watch thousands of other people stage a live re-enactment of the first major battle of the American Civil War. Called Bull Run or Manassas, depending on whether one comes from the North or the South, this battle was the real opening salvo of four years of grinding warfare between the northern and southern halves of the US that brought so much pain and destruction from 1861 to 1865.

As an actual military action in 1861, the battle had some bizarre sides to it. Besides the combatants, often barely trained mobs dressed as soldiers, thousands of spectators also rode out from Washington to watch the real battle 150 years ago as if they were coming to some kind of sports match, bringing their picnic lunches. The Washington Post, looking back at that scene 150 ago, wrote:

“Despite the stifling summer weather — never mind the prospect of bloody combat — scores of onlookers, with parasols and opera glasses, in carriages and on horseback, flocked from Washington to the fields near Manassas for the first big battle of the Civil War. They expected it to be the only big battle.

“Instead, it became one of the most bizarre affairs of the long conflict — warfare as spectator sport, followed by a wild dash for safety — and it happened on July 21, 1861, 150 years ago Thursday….

“The site, amid fragrant grasslands baking in the heat 30 miles from Washington, was just southwest of a murky creek called Bull Run. It was quiet, gorgeous country with the hump of the Bull Run Mountains in the distance, tiny pink wildflowers in the fields and majestic turkey buzzards soaring on the thermals overhead.

“The Union’s main general, Irvin McDowell, commanded a force of 35,000, probably the largest army ever assembled to that point in North America. The Southern force was slightly smaller, about 32,000.

“Such a pageant, with some men in parade ground uniforms so gaudy one scholar says they resembled Robin Hood, could not be missed.

“In the end, the battle of Bull Run — or Manassas as it’s often called in the South — became a bloody defeat for the Union….

“As for the pageantry, the event turned into a confused stampede of terrified politicians, picnickers, horses, wagons and defeated Union soldiers back to Washington….

“Chaos had ruled the battlefield, as some Southern soldiers showed up in blue uniforms, some Northerners in gray, and the red-white-and-blue flags of both sides were almost impossible to tell apart.”

Thousands of Americans these days dedicate their free time to participating in military re-enactment units, most of them focusing on the Civil War. By contrast, it is a rare person who goes around to participate in recreations of World Wars I or II battles – or even those of the American Revolution, save for the professional military’s display regiment, “The Old Guard”. The Civil War, by contrast, seems to have a special and enduring hold on the American imagination.

Photo: William Tecumseh Sherman (Library of Congress)

The late historian Shelby Foote repeated an oft-told tale for the popular documentary series The Civil War (first broadcast on PBS in 1990): “Before the war, it was said ‘the United States are.’ Grammatically, it was spoken that way and thought of as a collection of independent states. And after the war, it was always ‘the United States is,’ as we say today without being self-conscious at all. And that sums up what the war accomplished. It made us an ‘is.’ “

That is, would the nation be understood to be merely a voluntary alliance of smaller, independent, often-squabbling states, or was it one large, unified, continental nation whose national compact (at least in theory) would hold sway, whether you were from Alabama, Arizona or Massachusetts. Ultimately, it was the Civil War that settled the argument: “Is” it would be.

Shortly before the very first hostilities broke out, William Tecumseh Sherman, the Northern general who would become closely identified with scorched-earth warfare in the closing stages of the war, was serving as the superintendent of a military academy in the southern state of Louisiana. When he learned South Carolina was about to declare its secession from the US, he turned to a southern friend and, according to witnesses, gave a prediction of what would soon come to pass.

With his customary acerbity, Sherman said:

“You people of the South don’t know what you are doing. This country will be drenched in blood, and God only knows how it will end. It is all folly, madness, a crime against civilization! You people speak so lightly of war; you don’t know what you’re talking about. War is a terrible thing!

“You mistake, too, the people of the North. They are a peaceable people, but an earnest people, and they will fight, too. They are not going to let this country be destroyed without a mighty effort to save it…

“Besides, where are your men and appliances of war to contend against them? The North can make a steam engine, locomotive, or railway car; hardly a yard of cloth or pair of shoes can you make. You are rushing into war with one of the most powerful, ingeniously mechanical, and determined people on Earth—right at your doors. You are bound to fail.

“Only in your spirit and determination are you prepared for war. In all else you are totally unprepared, with a bad cause to start with. At first you will make headway, but as your limited resources begin to fail, shut out from the markets of Europe as you will be, your cause will begin to wane. If your people will but stop and think, they must see in the end that you will surely fail.”

In large part, as a Union general, this same man became significantly responsible for turning his apocalyptic vision into reality in his 1864 and ‘65 campaigns through the South. Beyond being an excellent fortune teller, in the process of conquering the southern Confederacy, Sherman, together with the Union’s commanding general, Ulysses S Grant, helped bring together the main features of modern industrial war. As British military historian B H Liddell Hart has said, Sherman was “the first modern general”.

Photo: A poster celebrating General Grant’s battles. (Library of Congress)

Grant and Sherman, in tandem with the North’s civilian leaders, brought together large citizen volunteer and conscript armies, proliferating railroad networks, widely available telegraphic communication, ironclad steam-powered warships and the tremendous output of a modern industrial base into a winning combination of command-and-control and force multipliers that wore down, outflanked, and, eventually, overwhelmed the South’s legendary generalship and the élan and spirit of an increasingly outnumbered army.

The Civil War continues to loom large in the American psyche and national memory – larger than any other conflict, perhaps – in part because so much of it came to be amply and vigorously documented by talented, quick-working frontline artists, battlefield photographers and reporters. Photographer Mathew Brady was the most famous of them and looking back from our contemporary perspective, it seems almost impossible to imagine how he and the others covered the conflict so astonishingly, forced to travel with cumbersome wagons filled with unstable photographic chemicals and their delicate glass plates for negatives. To look at Civil War photographs now is to be more than a bit unnerved. The officers and men stare back at the viewer with a fierce intensity: taking these photographs was serious, adult business – like the war itself.

Meanwhile, sketch artists like Winslow Homer, Thomas Nast and Alfred Waud delivered their work quickly so it could be used to illustrate the stories from battlefield reporters in new mass-market newspapers, weeklies and monthly magazines springing up across the country. At the same time, the telegraph allowed journalists to cover battles and send back their dispatches for publication – often within just a day or two of the actual events they were depicting – rather than the weeks it might have taken only a few decades earlier. And a century before Desert Storm, General Sherman was probably the first general to complain about his difficulties with embedded journalists – those troublemakers who constantly tried to ferret out military secrets so they could report on them for their eager publics – even as Sherman recognised the unhappy fact that the barring of reporters from the war zone would itself become the news.

Photo: General Robert E Lee. (Library of Congress)

And even the war’s music became a mass mobiliser – on both sides of the conflict. Every middle-class home aspired to own a piano and sheet music was becoming increasingly widespread and popular as well. Melodies like “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”, “Dixie”, “We Are Coming Father Abraham, 300,000 More”, “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”, “John Brown’s Body”, “The Bonny Blue Flag”, “The Yellow Rose of Texas” and “Marching Through Georgia” became enduring favourites that remain familiar to contemporary ears as well. And in a curious quirky footnote, “Ashokan Farewell”, the plangent waltz that became the haunting theme music for Ken Burns’ legendary film series, “The Civil War”, has become almost as famous and identifiable as a Civil War tune as the show in which it was used. It’s a beautiful tune and so its popularity is not surprising – except for the fact that it was composed in 1982.

As for the war itself, most historians are convinced it ultimately became inevitable from an irresolvable national argument over the legitimacy of permitting slavery into new states created from America’s western expansion. As far back as 1820, an elderly Thomas Jefferson, the principal author of the “Declaration of Independence” and, of course, a slave holder himself, could write to a friend when one of the first uneasy compromises over the expansion of slavery was about to become law that: “…This momentous question, like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union. It is hushed indeed for the moment. But this is a reprieve only, not a final sentence. A geographical line, coinciding with a marked principle, moral and political, once conceived and held up to the angry passions of men, will never be obliterated; and every new irritation will mark it deeper and deeper. I can say with conscious truth that there is not a man on earth who would sacrifice more than I would, to relieve us from this heavy reproach, in any practicable way. The cession of that kind of property, for so it is misnamed, is a bagatelle which would not cost me in a second thought, if, in that way, a general emancipation and expatriation could be effected: and, gradually, and with due sacrifices, I think it might be. But, as it is, we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go.”

By the election of 1860, the fears and premonitions about the future all seemed to be conspiring to drive the nation into an ugly divorce. Slavery’s westward expansion was walled off from expanding further into new states and territories; there was widespread Northern disgust over the Fugitive Slave Law and the Dred Scott Supreme Court decision that had upheld that law; there was abolitionist John Brown’s suicidal raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry; and there was the fear by Southerners that the election of Republican Party standard-bearer Abraham Lincoln as president would inevitably result in the abolition of slavery. As a result, South Carolina, then 10 other states – Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Florida, Arkansas, Tennessee, North Carolina and then finally Virginia – declared their independence from the US by early 1861.

Photo: Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, Gettysburg, 19 November 1863. (Library of Congress)

Abraham Lincoln insisted he had not become president to preside over the dissolution of the country and reserved the right to use force if necessary to hold the Union together. While Lincoln’s own predilections towards slavery were to distain it, it would take a Union victory at Antietam in 1862 to allow him to consider a presidential executive order to emancipate all slaves in areas then in rebellion against national authority. Eventually the abolition of slavery became the preeminent purpose of the war on the part of the North. This was true even if significant numbers of Northerners (especially recent immigrants like the Irish who competed for employment with manumitted blacks) resented fighting a war to free a people whom they resolutely refused to believe were their biological, social or legal equals.

From that point on, generals like Grant and Sherman could harness the industrial power, communications technology and transportation that overwhelmed Southern armies and eventually imposed the status of a conquered nation on the states of the South.

As the North’s president through the four years of conflict, Lincoln found the language and rhetorical sinews to give the war its transcendent purpose, as when he spoke of  “government of the people, by the people, for the people” – in his speech to consecrate a cemetery on the site of the Gettysburg battle.

And as the end of the war came into sight, in his “Second Inaugural Address” on 4 March 1865, Lincoln could speak of mutual forgiveness, North and South, in saying:

“Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-men’s 250 years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn by the sword, as was said 3,000 years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether’….

“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”

Then as the war passed into history, the South’s defeat gave rise to the near-myth of Southern valour and struggle in service to “The Lost Cause” – a sensibility that is the substrata in so many of William Faulkner’s novels. As such, he would say, especially about Southern writing: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” But beyond writing, the timbre of this conflict has worked well in cinema.

DW Griffith’s early classic, “Birth of a Nation”; the perennial favourite, Victor Fleming’s “Gone with the Wind”; “The Red Badge of Courage”; the Ted Turner-financed “Gettysburg”; Edward Zwick’s “Glory” and Ken Burns’ “The Civil War” all demonstrate – admittedly in different ways – the enduring power of the Civil War saga as seen through film.

Watch: Birth of a Nation by D.W. Griffith – Trailer (1915)

“Birth of a Nation” was such a powerful statement of the South’s valour and sadness – besides being an extraordinary work of cinema – that it helped give birth to the second run of the Ku Klux Klan. “Gone with the Wind”, based on the vivid, weepy novel by Margaret Mitchell, energised by Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable, a cast of thousands of extras and bit players, and the burning of Atlanta on screen helped further the myth of valiant, chivalric South conquered by a monstrous, industrialised North. Meanwhile, “The Red Badge of Courage” was directed by John Huston, starred an authentic World War II battlefield hero, Audie Murphy, and was based on Stephen Crane’s extraordinary novel. Crane was actually born six years after the war and he had never seen any battlefield activity, but his book has become one of the prime evocations of the impact of warfare on a soldier, and both as a film and novel it became an evocative, even authoritative, statement of the fear, confusion and disorder of war. Ronald Maxwell’s film, “Gettysburg”, financed by Civil War buff Ted Turner, was based on Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize novel, “The Killer Angels”. Criticised sometimes as too-obviously pro-South, it nevertheless gives a vivid sense of how generals and common soldiers sometimes actually found themselves fighting friends and even relatives in battles.

Meanwhile, Edward Zwick’s “Glory” helped turn attention to an often-overlooked element in the Northern victory, the enlistment of nearly 200,000 African-American volunteers into the Union army by war’s end. With stars Morgan Freeman, Matthew Broderick and Denzel Washington, stirring music by James Horner, the film profiled the true story of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, volunteers, an all-African-American unit.

Reviewing the film for The New York Times when it first came out in 1989, Vincent Canby said: “The attack on Fort Wagner, which is the climax of the movie, comes as close to anything I’ve ever seen on screen to capturing the chaos and brutality that were particular to the Civil War battles. Weapons maimed as often as they killed. Soldiers were so disciplined that they marched in firm lines into the sights of guns fired at point-blank range. Hand-to-hand combat was commonplace. The toll taken in each battle was, of course, enormous. Yet still the men continued to move forward. They had to believe in what they were doing. For all of the carnage and suffering, the Civil War was a time of limitless optimism for many, something that now seems immensely sad.”

Watch: Gone with the Wind Official Trailer (1939)

And then, of course, there has been the Ken Burns “The Civil War” documentary series. This production remains the most-viewed show on American public television and it is now getting a third lease on life on TV in this year, the 150th anniversary of the war.

Burns’ series helped pioneer the tactic of gliding cameras across still images to give them a sense of motion and energy that has helped transform documentary practice. Burns’ film also made wonderful use of a whole platoon of first-tier actors and public figures to read the diary entries and letters of real historical figures in the war. History professor James Lundberg comments that this series hit the sweet spot – even if it missed some of the issues raised by its topic – when he wrote: “…It was Burns’ film, with its tidy vision of national consensus, that consummated the growing romance with the Civil War. The film was perfectly calibrated to please most every constituency in the post-Vietnam culture wars. While many noted an anti-war crosscurrent in its brutal images of mangled limbs and bloated corpses, the film’s dominant notes present an unapologetic patriotism and an appealing vision of war as a source of honour, high ideals, and unity of purpose—precisely what had been lost in Vietnam and its aftermath. Burns’ Civil War was arugula and red meat happily sitting together on the same plate.”

In the coming four years, Americans, and foreigners both, will be bombarded by an infinite rollout of commemorations, films, television specials, new books (there are already some 16,000 books written about Abraham Lincoln and there will be many more by the time 2015 rolls around), and multimedia products, all guaranteed to make certain no one will be able to escape the lessons of America’s most memorable war. An important event in the history of modern world it genuinely was. DM

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Main photo: President Abraham Lincoln (Library of Congress)



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