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What we get wrong about the military history of the Civil War, and why it's relevant today

Blue and Gray Diplomacy: A History of Union and Confederate Foreign Relations - Howard Jones

Lately I've been groping toward one of those revelations that may be obvious to some but is incredibly illuminating of some of the problems in our country today, which is that we focus on the wrong things when it comes to the military history of the Civil War.

 

This is something that I've come to appreciate only gradually. When I was growing up what I knew about the Civil War was defined by the literature generated by the centenary of the conflict, during which authors such as Bruce Catton and Shelby Foote wrote highly readable (and still widely read) series about the conflict. These books generally concentrated on the war in the eastern theater, where the Armies of the Potomac and Northern Virginia butted heads for four years before the Union forces finally ground down the Confederate Army. This is where most of the memorable battles (First Bull Run, Antietam, Gettysburg) were fought, and where some of the most recognizable names served. This conception stayed with me though high school (surviving even my largely uninformed reading of James McPherson's classic book on the era) and up through college, though more through lack of reexamination than anything else.

 

It wasn't until I read Brian Holden Reid's short study of the major wars of the mid-19th century that I began to appreciate how misguided I have been. Reid pointed out something that seemed so obvious in retrospect, which is that, contrary to the narrative of a conflict that was decided only with the defeat of Robert E. Lee in Virginia, the war was really won by the Union much earlier, through the effective adoption of Winfield's Scott's proposal to economically strangle the South with a combination of blockade and control of the Mississippi River. Focusing the war on this aspect of it change the conceptualization of the war dramatically, from one in which Union generals are continually outmatched by the military genius of Robert E. Lee to one where the Union asserts a steadily growing dominance over the South over the course of the war, while the Confederacy increasingly finds itself in a struggle it cannot win.

 

Given this, I've come to appreciate just how skewed our focus of the war is in the popular imagination. This has its origins in the war itself, as the eastern theater was better covered in the press, which highlighted the clash of the two armies and their respective efforts to capture the other side's capitals. In the process, though, they understated three other aspects which were decisive to the war's outcome: the fighting in the "west" (i.e. the Ohio and Mississippi Review valleys), the U.S. Navy's blockade of the South, and the diplomatic aspects of the war. Perhaps it's understandable why these didn't get more attention at the time -- the naval blockade was grindingly dull for the most part, and the diplomatic developments were largely behind the scenes -- but it was those parts of it which determined the fate of our nation, and where we should be focusing our attention when we study it now.

 

That we have focused both then and afterward on the more narratively exciting aspects of the war is one of the reasons why our popular understanding of the war has been so mistaken. There's another factor that I think is at play, though, which makes my relatively esoteric point here relevant -- our misguided focus on the eastern theater has contributed to the romanticization of the "lost cause" of the Confederacy. By focusing so much attention upon the one theater where the Confederate forces performed the best, we have exaggerated the viability of the Confederacy and made its defeat seem more tragic as a result. That Southerners then and their descendants since have done this is perhaps understandable, but that we continue to do this more generally is inexcusable. It's hardly the only, or even primary reason why we have neo-Confederates running around today refusing to accept the outcome of what was largely a doomed effort from the start, but it certainly doesn't help.