Every generation has its own Civil War. Now, I think, we have ours.
I haven't yet read "Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War" by Harry S. Stout. But I've been following the reviews and assessments of it since its publication this year. I'll read it after I get through my current pile (which includes John Lewis Gaddis' history of the Cold War and the cranky, brilliant book on the theory of typography by the poet Robert Bringhurst).
There never was a single, stable "Civil War" in the discipline of history, at least as academic historians write it. You get closer to the memories of the soldiers in Bruce Catton, but he's not a historian. You get closer to the battlefield realities in "Red Badge of Courage," but Crane wasn't a historian, either.
Historians bring their agendas to their typewriters. They agree on the dates of the battles, but not much else. The disagreement is not so much among contemporaries as it is between generations.
A century ago, at a time of high immigration and social unrest in America, the emphasis in Civil War works was on the consistency of white American and constitutional values on both sides.
Ella Lonn's "Desertion During the Civil War," written in 1927, long has been a standard reference work on its topic. Yet Lonn seems to be writing with an eye on her own time, in the wake of World War I, which brought up a great many of the ugly things in American democracy that we think only emerged during the Cold War. She alludes to it often, and seems intent on pointing out that the horrors of war -- any war -- are more worthy of note than the characters of men who desert from armies.
The key passage of her introduction is this one:
The writer ventures the hope that by turning a search-light on a question which could scarcely have found a tolerant reading a few decades ago, a few persons will, perchance, be led to a more tolerant view in discussing and pondering the problems of our recent World War on which passions are still inflamed.
In the '50s and '60s, the war was invoked to prove Marxism. In the 1980s, historians rewrote it yet again to emphasize the role of slavery and blacks, in part in response to contemporary social justice issues as perceived by the historians.
No lesser person than the reigning dean of American Civil War historians, Prof. James McPherson, has eschewed objective reality. He has said the process of "doing history," not the reconstruction of an elusive truth, is the goal:
I think it's probably true that in a literal sense it's impossible to establish objective, historical truth. My feeling about this is let a thousand flowers bloom' -- is that the Chinese saying? That's the nature of the writing of history, that it's constantly in flux and in contestation. That's what makes it interesting. The ideal of an objective truth about history is a will of the wisp, I don't think there is any such thing. History is basically what we think about what happened in the past, what we think it means. And everybody is going to have a somewhat different perspective on that, or different schools of interpretation are going to have different perspectives on that.
The the American Civil War would have a new birth of scholarship after 9/11 was inevitable. An astute observer even could see the shape it would take, as newspaper started invoking the Civil War in strange and unexpected ways.
"Unexpected" because in the previous generation of scholarship, the war had been presented as a tale of unremitting aggression and venality by the Southern planter class. The North was, at most, a passive partner in the union, pricked into indignation by the "slaveocrats" and their insatiable lust for control. The South provoked the war, and the North, though somewhat unwillingly, gradually awoke to its true calling and embraced the idea of liberating the slaves as the central theme of its cause. McPherson, as much as anyone, is responsible for delineating this version.
But after 9/11, in the columns and essays written by opponents of an aggressive U.S. war against the Taliban and al-Qaida, the grim, grizzled face of William T. Sherman began to appear. His furious slash-and-burn march through Georgia in 1864 was invoked as an instance of "American terrorism."
To the invokers, Sherman's March was a convenient image. They felt frustration over the U.S. government's tendency to brand the "terrorism" label on everything it doesn't like while it turns a blind eye to brutality by its allies. So these people wrote reminders of America's own record of "terrorism." In addition to the genocide of the native peoples and the Vietnam War and Hiroshima, the march through Georgia joined the short list.
To those of us who followed the Civil War for some time, hearing the liberal/left wing of the American political spectrum implicitly sympathize with the South (by reclassifying Sherman's march from "act of liberation" to "act of terrorism") was astonishing. The same side that always execrated everything Confederate, right down to the flag, now found it convenient to wave the bloody shirt over Sherman's march.
Now that the contemporary topic of obsession is the U.S. war in Iraq, and the overall "War on Terrorism," as waged by the Bush Administration. Can you guess the uses that a professor of American religious history at Yale would make of this?
From Publishers Weekly:
In the Civil War, Union and Confederate soldiers alike marched to battle believing God was on their side. Stout, professor of American religious history at Yale (The New England Soul), artfully and eloquently examines the evolving rhetoric of warfare, both Northern and Confederate, within the rubric of "the just war" theory of conflict. Stout ... makes clear that most high-minded utterances obscured, rather than clarified, the economic issues that lay at the heart of the conflict. Stout argues that even today the moral justifications for the carnage ring louder than do the sordid dollar-and-cents realities that underlay sectional differences. ... Stout's contention that even the North engaged in immoral acts in prosecuting the war will rattle many, but the questions he raises are important in an era when humanitarian justifications for war are increasingly common.
Stout's ambitious yet compelling thesis is that Americans' sacred devotion to their nation and its symbols is the product of massive blood sacrifice; as the war transformed from a just defensive war fought for politics and necessity into a moral crusade in which both sides fought under the banner of freedom, bloodshed infused Americans with new conceptions of nationhood and new depths of horror.
From the book jacket:
When the nation tore itself apart during the Civil War, the North and the South marched under the banner of God. Yet the true moral aspects of this war have received little notice from historians of the period. In this gripping volume, Yale religious historian Harry S. Stout demonstrates how both groups' claims that they had God on their side fueled the ferocity of the conflict and its enduring legacy today. ... Stout reveals how men and women were ensnared in the time's patriotic propaganda and ideological grip and how these wartime policies continue to echo in the debates today.
Emphasis added throughout. Land sakes, you hardly have to read between the lines to see where this is going. The only really amusing thing for me is to watch the fluttering eyelids and trembling shock as students of history as it has been written awake to the fact that "even the North engaged in immoral acts in prosecuting the war." Can you believe it!? Those of us who have found much to sympathize with in the South's storyline and who have been slapped down as "slavery apologists" or "racists" for it, will get a chuckle or two out of this, no doubt.
Just because the North was atrocious doesn't make the South justified, of course, but so many people have been so insistent over the years on a good guys-bad guys version of the thing. Wake up and smell the nuance!
As for the Civil War's relevance to contemporary issues, I agree with the conclusion of this less-than-positive review of Stout's book by the fascinating Ross Douthat.
A decade after Appomattox, faced with a situation similar to ours in Iraq -- a society half-reshaped and restive, a low-level insurgency, a mounting financial cost -- the North elected to abandon Reconstruction, return power to the defeated slaveholders, and forsake the people it had fought a war to free. For a long time they were praised for it by pro-Southern historiographers who saw Reconstruction the way the Left sees the Iraqi occupation, as an overzealous attempt to impose a way of life by force on an unwilling culture. Later it was pointed out that Reconstruction was hardly worse than the apartheid that came after and that perhaps the North should have stayed longer and done more to root out the pathologies of the conquered South.
The choice is no easier in hindsight than it was in 1876. Nor are other wartime dilemmas: People are still arguing over Hiroshima 50 years later; they will still be arguing over Iraq a century hence. Just-war theory is a noble attempt to ease the tensions between Christian ethics and the nature of warfare, but neither Christians nor armchair statesmen should pretend that these tensions don't exist. The choice between justice and necessity, or a greater justice and a smaller one, is perhaps the most difficult that any nation faces, and where we differ on which end to choose we would do well to heed Lincoln's admonition and judge not lest we be judged.