Of the making of books, there is no end. Thus spake the prophet, and he may have had books about the American Civil War in mind. They come too fast for the amateur to keep up, but one does try. So when I saw, a couple of months ago, that James McPherson was out with a new collection called The War That Forged a Nation, I ordered it. I was late, a few weeks beyond the actual publication date, but didn’t think that mattered. We were not, after all, dealing with breaking news here.
Except . . . we were.
McPherson’s subtitle is Why the Civil War Still Matters. I opened the book two days before the massacre of nine black worshipers, in church, by a young white man who liked to photograph himself using what is known as “the Confederate flag” as a prop. The killing took place in Charleston, South Carolina, where the Civil War began when cannons fired on Fort Sumter.
And then there was that flag, which Confederate troops followed into the bloodiest battles in this nation’s history. It might be best to think of it as two flags: the one that troops followed ardently in the 19th century and the one that was flown to rally the segregationists of the 20th.
Of course the Civil War still matters. The frequently quoted line of William Faulkner’s is precisely appropriate here: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Still, one wonders, what accounts for the unyielding fascination a century and a half after Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox?
Several years ago, I put this question to Richard Ketchum, who was a neighbor and the author of many splendid books about the American Revolution. He had begun writing about the revolution when he was a young editor at American Heritage. One of his colleagues was Bruce Catton. As Ketchum told it, he and Catton went out to lunch one day and decided to divide up American history. He would take the revolution and Catton would take the Civil War.
“His books were bestsellers,” Ketchum said, sounding amused, “and mine were well reviewed.”
They were better than that, but the point stands. Assuming their books were of equal literary merit, one would, of course, expect Catton’s to be more widely read. But why?
“Photography has something to do with it,” Ketchum said. “There was no Mathew Brady at Saratoga or Yorktown. We have these very formal, lifeless paintings of Washington, which don’t compare to those haunting photographs of Lincoln, worn down by the war. Or of the dead, lying in the sunken road at Antietam.”
Ketchum had much more to say on this matter, but the point about photography struck me and stuck with me. The Civil War was a modern war. Modern in weaponry and tactics and, even, strategy. Rifled muskets made the old stand-up style of war obsolete, though some Civil War generals never really apprehended and acted upon this truth. Field fortifications yielded something that came to be known as “trench warfare,” which later ruined Europe, whose generals hadn’t bothered to study what the Americans had learned at great cost. And generals like William Tecumseh Sherman and Philip Sheridan went about defeating armies by smashing economies in a fashion of war that is especially modern. They lacked only airplanes.
So much about the American Civil War, then, was foreshadowing, and one reads those books about it with a sense of impending doom, like following the course of the Titanic as it bears down on the iceberg.
And then there are the numbers. Contemporary research and scholarship puts the total number of dead, from both sides, at something like 750,000. As McPherson writes, “To illustrate the immensity of that figure, it equals 2.4 percent of the American population in 1860. If 2.4 percent of Americans were to be killed in a war fought today, the number of war dead would be almost 7.5 million.”
The battle of Antietam, as he notes, remains the bloodiest single day in American history—more people killed and wounded than at Pearl Harbor, or on D-Day at Normandy, or on September 11. And Antietam was just one battle, lasting one day, and it ended, by the way, as something of a draw. The Civil War established that isolated, daylong battles would not be decisive in modern, total war.
If a single datum could capture the suffering and mayhem, there is this, from Shelby Foote’s afterword to his three-volume history, The Civil War, a Narrative: “During the first year of peace the state of Mississippi allotted a solid fifth of its revenues for the purchase of artificial arms and legs for its returning veterans.”