Thoughts on the Civil War

Mission accomplished! I have now completed reading a comprehensive history of the Civil War, specifically Shelby Foote’s massive three-volume, 2,968 page, 1.2 million word tome, The Civil War: A Narrative. This war is now about a hundred and fifty years in our past. It remains a source of considerable interest, at least to a small subset of Americans into history, primarily because it happened right around us instead of in some distant land. As a percent of our population killed or injured in a war, the Civil War is unlikely to ever be exceeded unless there is a nuclear war. It touched pretty much everyone in our nation.

This post is not so much a review of these books, which are well written and meticulously researched by Foote, as it is to provide some of my thoughts and observations about the Civil War, particularly things that surprised me or are simply not well known to those with only a casual knowledge of the conflict.

One of the primary lessons I took away from these books is that effective leadership and passion can surmount seemingly impossible odds. At the beginning of the war, most Confederates who graduated from West Point realized that the South could not win the war. At best Confederates held out hope that the Union would simply tire of the conflict and sue for peace. This was not an unrealistic expectation, but Abraham Lincoln was not an ordinary president. He ineffectively but doggedly continued to pursue the war. The North had all the odds in their favor, principally the resources, money and population. However, the South had leadership and passion, and this combination of forces prolonged the war and gave hope to a weary South. The South succeeded for so long, particularly in the first half of the war, primarily because of the brilliant General Robert E. Lee of Virginia and the many talented commanders who worked under him such as General Stonewall Jackson. However, they were also blessed by a series of ineffectual Union generals, most of whom did not deserve their rank. The Confederate Army proved amazingly agile and determined. Time and again this gave them the upper hand, often with half the army that the Union had at its disposal. They were the Spartans of this war. They depended on wile and guts and mostly it worked.

I knew the Civil War was bloody but I did not appreciate just how bloody it was until I read these books. Its bloody battle at Gettysburg gets a disproportionate amount of the press, but there are other battles that were arguably equally as bloody and in many ways far more horrifying. Two of General Grant’s early battles here in Virginia stand out in my mind, battles I had not even known about but whose descriptions by Foote had me wondering if any battle preceding it had ever been so nasty and bloody. I speak of The Battle of the Wilderness followed by The Battle of Cold Harbor. In some way these battles were reckless. Grant chose to throw massive amounts of Union troops into these battles, at a huge cost and for no appreciable gain.

In any war there are battles that turned out to be game changers. In the western theater, it turned out to be the Battle of Shiloh that brought Grant into prominence and was the first step in eventually bringing the Mississippi River under Union control and thus Balkanizing the South. In the east, arguably it occurred in Georgia at The Battle of Chickamauga. It was in some ways the straw the broke the Confederacy’s back. The Battle of Gettysburg is notable not just for being the bloodiest battle of the Civil War, but also for being the first major victory by the Union Army, although it was arguably a pyrrhic victory.

One of the great strengths of Foote’s books is not so much the meticulous documentation of the battles themselves, but it allows the reader to get an intimate understanding of the men who were central to the whole conflict, and the various tensions that existed between them. There were plenty of third rate generals, mostly on the Union side. Arguably the Confederacy had some as well including Beauregard and Johnston. In some ways Johnston and the Union general McClellan were two peas from the same pod: hesitant to engage, quick to withdraw and ready to blame others for delays and when problems emerged. Both were very popular with their men, perhaps because of these deficiencies. There were also notable generals who arguably deserve more attention than they got, Union general Thomas, for instance, arguably the most effective general of the war in that he never really lost a battle, although he was often slow in starting them (such as the Battle of Nashville, the last major battle of the war.)

One thing that struck me was just how undeveloped the United States was at this period of history. Roads were bad and largely impassible during the wet season. They weren’t paved but some of them were planked, so armies often hoofed it over muddy fields, trailing wagons by the thousands and cannons across frequently difficult terrain. Bridges were constantly being blown up and rebuilt. Railroads were the primary means of quickly moving soldiers and supplies, which made them very strategic. An occupying army’s first job was often to tear up railroad track. When you don’t have much in the way of roads, cavalry becomes vital. Toward the end of the war Union general Sheridan showed that the Union could have an effective cavalry, but mostly this was an area wherein the South excelled, principally J.E.B. Stuart in Virginia and Bedford Forrest in the south.

As with any good history, you will learn little nuggets that are just fascinating but not widely known. There was a battle in New Mexico, and some Confederates briefly occupied a town in Vermont. The Confederate Army briefly occupied part of Washington D.C. One assault on a Confederate ship took place off the coast of Brazil, and was arguably illegal under international law. Another took place off the coast of England in international waters with most Britons cheering for the Confederates. Months after the Confederates has surrendered, a rouge Confederate naval ship was attacking whalers in the Bearing Sea.

Foote’s history overall is quite engaging, although some shopworn terms (“butternut soldiers”) get endlessly repeated. It would be hard not to do this with so many battles to document, and even with three thousand pages some of them get just a casual mention. Overall the Civil War was intense, bloody, and often reckless and much of it seems unbelievable. It seems crazy that so many people would fight in such a bloody, intense and disruptive war.

It is also a war that is still underway, just being battled now in generally nonviolent ways, such as in voter suppression or gerrymandering. The reluctance of many Americans to embrace any gun control at all does not have its roots so much in the Second Amendment, but in the Civil War, and the ability of a gun to foment insurrection against the established government. I hope I am wrong, but a new Civil War may be in our future.

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