Review 97: The Civil War


The Civil War by Bruce Catton

When I was a kid, my grandparents thought they would do something that every grandparent should do – share what they love with the next generation. They bought me a subscription to the Time-Life series on The Civil War. Now for those of you too young to remember, Time-Life used to publish these monthly book series on various topics. The idea was that you would receive the books once a month, each book on a different topic in the series. My father had the Science Series, which I absolutely adored, and my grandparents thought that I would fall similarly in love with the Civil War series.

After all, they both were interested in this most unfortunate periods in U.S. history. It spanned five years, cost hundreds of thousands of lives, and permanently altered the face of our nation. What’s not to love?

Predictably, I found them kind of boring.

The pictures were all in black and white, static in composition and full of dead guys with beards. There were lots of dates that I couldn’t comprehend, talking about places I’d never been and full of names I’d never heard of. I got them, flipped through them and was just not interested.

Looking back, I know that I was a bad grandson and I feel bad that I can’t tell my grandparents that.

Now that I’m older, and I know some things about my country and its history, I can really appreciate the enormous change that the Civil War brought upon the United States. As horrible as it was – and it was horrible – without that war our nation would be a pale shadow of what it is today. If it were a nation at all….

We all know the facts: in 1860, following the election of Abraham Lincoln and years of arguing about slavery and its place in a modern nation, eleven states seceded from the United States and formed their own Confederate States of America. In response, Lincoln raised an army from the remaining states in the Union and launched it at the Rebels. After five years of relentless fighting, the war was won in favor of the Union. The rebel states were accepted back into the Union, and the nation has been putting itself back together ever since then.

That’s the big picture, and that’s basically what this book does. In less than 300 pages, Catton gives an interesting and dynamic overview of the War, from its origins in such decisions as Dred Scott and the Missouri Compromise up through the assassination of Lincoln and the failures of the Reconstruction. It follows the major battles of the war, listing the strikes and feints of each army and introducing all the major players. Between these, he talks about the political and social effects of the war – how the economies of the two states fared, how the international community viewed the conflict, and what the ultimate fate of the slaves was.

The pace of the book is very good, even if the blow-by-blow descriptions of the battles get a little soft in the middle. Catton acts as a narrator for the war, telling it as one might tell a story. He works up to climactic moments, then leaves us there to consider for a while before moving on to the next event. What’s more, he’s fair. It’s very easy for people to be unfair to the South – they were rebels, after all. Traitors, some might say. But Catton wants us to understand that the South was doing what it thought was in its best interests, as with the North. What’s more, he wants us to know that the South fought harder than any army has since, sacrificing countless men and an entire culture to a war that they really could not win. He does not demonize the South, nor does he praise the North. He is simply a storyteller, who knows from the beginning the tragic tale that he has in store for us.

So yes, I think this book is an excellent read, especially if you’re just getting into the Civil War. My one real complaint about it is that the book lacks adequate maps which would otherwise help a reader visualize what kind of maneuvers the armies of the North and the South are making. There are maps at the back of the book, but I wouldn’t call them “adequate.” They’re black and white where they really should be color – having both the Union and the Confederate advances marked with black arrows isn’t really helpful. Given the intricate interactions between armies, some kind of clear visual aid might have been useful.

If you have access to the internet, of course, you can get a slightly clearer view of what happened, where and when. Mind you, even the better maps that you can find on line still take some interpretation. Still, it would have been nice to have the book more accessible to those of us who don’t carry the maps in our heads.

The reason why this is important is that even though this book is kind of an index tour of the Civil War, it still gets into a lot of detail – which general moved which army across which river is vital to understanding how the war progressed. The reason the book can go into such detail is that this is one of the most extensively studied conflicts in our history. Every battle, the movement of every army has been studied and documented over the last century and a half, and there’s no sign of it slowing down. The Civil War is fundamental to how our nation became what it is, and as such it is an obsession for the United States.

That’s what this book really tries to understand – why, of all the wars that we have fought, are we so obsessed with this one? You don’t see people doing a lot of World War 2 re-enactments or dressing up to fight mock battles of our cute little war with Spain. I’m pretty sure there won’t be any kind of Afghan War Re-enactment Society a hundred and fifty years from now.

It was a horrible war. It took more lives in a single battle than we’ve seen in our current Middle East conflict so far. It was fought by untrained, inexperienced men who had no idea what they were in for when they signed up. It was a war fought not only for territory but for ideals – for the South’s ability to maintain its agrarian slave culture and for the North’s ability to keep the Union whole. It was a war that could have gone a thousand different ways, each more horrible than the last, and the fact that it ended as well as it did is completely due to the strength of character possessed by all the men involved in sealing that bloody peace. It was a war that was, perhaps, inevitable.

That was something I took away from this book. The Civil War had to happen. In order for our country to progress, it had to do away with the things that was holding it back, slavery being one of those things. It was a test to see if the union could balance its ideals of liberty and order, and to see if it was worthy of forging ahead. It was a war that settled who we are as a nation, at least for a little while, and put paid to the question of whether we were a bunch of congenial states or a true nation, ready to take its place in the world.

The Civil War is one of those topics that people spend their lives studying, and rightly so. Its effects can be felt even today, and the echoes from the shots fired at Fort Sumpter and Gettysburg and Shiloh won’t fade as long as this nation survives. For Americans, to know the Civil War is to know how grateful we should be that we have the country we do. It is often said that soldiers die to keep us free, but I would say than no army of the United States since then has done so more literally than the army of this conflict.

For those of you who aren’t American, this might give you a little insight into our character. Most nations wouldn’t survive such a conflict, with such immense losses of life and the utter destruction of an economy. But we did, somehow. The wounds from that war aren’t entirely healed – there are still scars. But we have stayed together since then, and I reckon that nothing is going to tear us apart again.

So Grandmom, Grandpop, I’m sorry. I really should have appreciated what you tried to teach me. But now I do, and I can pass it on to others….

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“A singular fact about modern war is that it takes charge. Once begun it has to be carried to its conclusion, and carrying it there sets in motion events that may be beyond men’s control. Doing what has to be done to win, men perform acts that alter the very soil in which society’s roots are nourished. They bring about infinite change, not because anyone especially wants it, but because all-out warfare destroys so much that things can never again be as they used to be.”
Bruce Catton, The Civil War
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Bruce Catton on Wikipedia
The Civil War on Amazon.com
The American Civil War on Wikipedia

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1 Comment

Filed under american history, Bruce Catton, Civil War, history, war

One response to “Review 97: The Civil War

  1. Couldn't agree more, on almost all counts. Although I have the Time Life series, and I can say that they're really pretty interesting. Not that I thought so when I was a teenager!

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