The Magazine

Memories of War

And the battle for posterity.

Nov 23, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 10 • By EDWIN M. YODER JR.
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Wars Within a War

Controversy and Conflict

over the American Civil War

by Joan Waugh and Gary W. Gallagher

North Carolina, 328 pp., $30

The Civil War centennial observance, a half-century ago, gave us two monumental works of narrative history: Shelby Foote's great trilogy and Bruce Catton's memorable, multivolume chronicle Mr. Lincoln's Army. And of course, many other worthy books. With the sesquicentennial observance two years away, one wonders whether any successors of the Foote/Catton dimension will emerge. The twelve essays gathered here may provide a slight preview. If so, what we are likely to see in the coming years are not the large narratives of the past but specimens of microhistory, often tinctured by fashionable preoccupations with race and feminism.

Preliminarily, however, it should be noted that what is represented as "controversy and conflict," to say nothing of "wars within wars," suffers from a certain titular exaggeration. There are certainly trace elements, and more, of conflict; but, after all, history itself is revision, a "re-seeing" of the past, and we differ on what we see. The dynamism of the past is almost always a reflection of the shifting fashions and perspectives of observers.

How much, to begin with, do we actually argue about the Civil War? On Main Street, little enough. As usual, most of the argumentation is generated in the quiet of the academy. In his informative essay, William Blair examines the Second Confiscation Act of July 1862, when Congress struggled to devise a framework for the seizure of secessionist property. This was before the preliminary Emancipation Pro-
clamation made a special case of slave property, later designated "contraband" to emphasize its legal continuity with war materials. As the argument played out, the crux became the Constitution's treason section. Moderates who wished to impede confiscation made conviction of treason a precondition. Lincoln signed the resulting act reluctantly, and the results were paltry.

James McPherson writes on the familiar subject of "McClellan and Lincoln," familiar to even casual students of Civil War history. The title ("My Enemies Are Crushed") is apt, since McClellan usually had political opponents rather than Confederate forces in mind when he complained of "enemies." As for his notoriously insolent treatment of Lincoln, there was the famous evening when the general, returning from a party, was told that the president was waiting to see him--but went upstairs to bed anyway. McPherson's scrutiny of McClellan's military torpor tends to confirm that his "slows," as Lincoln came to call them, reflected his antipathy to aggressive prosecution of the war. And that this caution was rooted in racial views.

"Help me dodge the nigger," McClellan pleaded privately to an influential political friend. He was, he said, "fighting to preserve the integrity of the Union" and "we cannot afford to raise up the Negro." This is one manifestation of a dividing line in Unionist opinion that was to persist through the war and after. No wonder, then, that in contemplation of McClellan's static strategy, Major General Henry Halleck remarked that "it requires the lever of Archimedes to move this inert mass."

It is well known that the Union side finally found respite from incompetent generalship with the rise, after Vicksburg, of Ulysses S. Grant. Accordingly, an implicit companion piece is Joan Waugh's essay on the vicissitudes of Grant's tomb in New York City. That soaring mausoleum, echoing ancient architectural models and dominating the skyline of its time, was one for which the nation's "greatest city" lobbied aggressively, only to experience near crippling difficulties raising its million-dollar cost. (Grant's former aide, Horace Porter, almost singlehandedly salvaged the project.) When completed twelve years after Grant's death in 1885, the tomb rose in the still-pastoral Riverside Park and, up to 1916, was the city's premier tourist attraction, drawing up to 600,000 visitors a year and overshadowing even the Statue of Liberty.

But then decline and decay set in, and by the 1960s it had become a near-ruin, a graffiti-scarred hangout for doping and petty crime. So much so, in fact, that the Grant family threatened to remove the general's remains. Waugh offers no striking speculations about this turn of fortunes; but surely the nation's gathering involvement in a world war, and the precipitate plunge of Grant's presidential reputation, help explain it.

Of special interest, given the horrendous human cost of the war, is Drew Gilpin Faust's discussion of the grim subject of reburial, "Battle over the Bodies." At the war's end, scores of thousands of the dead, Union and Confederate alike, awaited decent interment. The dead were often unidentified and layed at random, anonymously, in shallow temporary graves. The infamous Wilderness battlefield, where wild brushfires had tortured the wounded and dying on the day of battle, was littered with bones. Farmers, here and there, complained that their foraging hogs were unfit for use.

Under the National Cemeteries Act (1867) Congress made funds available for identification and reburial, at an average cost of $9.75, including coffin, according to one piquant statistic. Within four years, more than 300,000 of the Union fallen had been identified and reburied, often in new national cemeteries. But like so much of the aftermath of war, this heroic effort was asymmetrical, inasmuch as no comparable official provision was made for the Confederate dead. To the extent that they were cared for, it was by voluntary charities, usually by dedicated associations of Southern women.

Most of these essays, which otherwise explore such subjects as Civil War caricature, the early reputation of Robert E. Lee, and the postwar reputation, in Georgia, of William T. Sherman, and Walt Whitman's cryptic assertion that the "real war" would never be disclosed, are remarkably subdued, even anodyne.

In fact, the most passionate legacy of Civil War revisionism may well be behind us. It had less to do with the war than with what followed it, as the nation sought terms of reunion. By 1866 it was clear that the victorious Unionists (especially their congressional spokesmen that historians usually call "radicals") would not countenance Andrew Johnson's earnest but inept attempt to implement what he understood to be Lincoln's clement Reconstruction policy, "let 'em up easy." The spectacle of former Confederate officials and officers filing back into Washington, and political influence, on mild terms of executive pardon, proved indigestible. The ensuing reaction, sharpened by Johnson's obstreperous campaigning in the autumn elections of that year, generated a sharp swing toward severe Reconstruction policy. And that policy, in turn, in its ever-evolving phases, was to fuel violent controversy for an age--controversy so sharp that one essayist spoke famously of the "dark and bloody ground" of Reconstruction historiography.

It is, perhaps, another chapter of an old story. Grass, said Winston Churchill, grows easily over the battlefield, but over the scaffold, never. The shadow of the scaffold never fell over the American Civil War. But in the South it became an article of mythic faith that harsh Reconstruction was its moral equivalent. Just as, before secession, the argument over the extension of slavery was largely theoretical, often involving climes and terrains where slavery could never have flourished, so the most bitter argument over the legacy of the Civil War was less about what soldiers did to one another with guns than what politicians did to other regions with legislation and occupation. Reconstruction came to be thought of, certainly in the South and even elsewhere, as deliberately destructive and vindictive.

The classic articulation of that view was Claude Bowers's The Tragic Era, a tract of the 1930s by an eminent Democrat which served to obscure the unpleasant truth that the Democratic party had become, to a degree, the implicit guarantor of Jim Crow. It wasn't until what C. Vann Woodward called "the second reconstruction," the civil rights movement and the reanimation of the 14th Amendment, that an overdue revision, a "re-seeing" of Reconstruction, found constructive elements in it. The wonder is that this more balanced myth took almost a century to arrive. Perhaps the historians of the approaching sesquicentennial will elaborate.

Edwin M. Yoder Jr., a former editor and columnist in Washington, is the author of several books, including The Historical Present: Uses and Abuses of the Past.