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.