Why do you?
A good friend asked me why I study the Civil War. I’m going to expand on her question a little, because I don’t just study the Civil War, I study almost every major 19th Century War. I’ve read about the American War of Independence (which is really REALLY an 18th Century War) the Napoleonic Wars, the Mexican American War, the Civil War, of course, the Franco Prussian War, all the wonderful Wars of _________ Unification, Crimea, Spanish American, and even WWI, which is the true End of the Long 19th Century. A lot of my focus is on the Civil War, the Napoleonic Wars, and WWI.
Part of the reason I study the Civil War so much is that I always have had a fascination for it. Ever since first learning about it I studied it. Of course, growing up in Florida you learn to worship at the Church of Bobby Lee, something I’ve managed to break from rather conclusively. I’ve been to Gettysburg twice, and believe me I can help you plan a trip! I’ve visited Stone’s River and have plans to visit the Peninsula next year to retrace the 7 days. I consider myself very well studied in the militaries of the American Civil War. This doesn’t make me a master of the Civil War, there is a lot that goes into it. I’m familiar with a lot of the industrial changes that enabled the war, the system of private contractors and government foundries that armed the armies, the railroads and the sordid deals that kept tracks being laid during the war, the changes to the agricultural system that fed the North (and provided food to export to Europe during crop failures there) and the centralized decision making of Jefferson Davis that hurt the Southern economy so much.
I study it because I love learning more and there’s so much more to learn. Let me give you an example. Name 5 US Army generals from the Civil War. Most of my readers (those that are left anyway) can probably manage that. How about 5 more? Get as many as you can. Now start naming rebel leaders. I bet most of you can name more rebel leaders than US Generals. And the US Generals won!
I study it because it lies at a completely fascinating intersection of technology and strategy. Railroads and Telegraphs changed strategic planning, troop movements, and supply. Industrialization made arming and equipping troops possible on a grand scale. Improvements in metallurgy and innovations in weapons design changed battlefield tactics, but command and control in the field hadn’t caught up, leading to some of the worst trench warfare the world would see for another 50 years.
It’s a war that was written about. A lot. Some of these guys wrote letters like they didn’t have jobs. Henry Jackson Hunt, chief of artillery for the Army of the Potomac filled a Banker’s Box with letters just in 1863 (and UGH why didn’t they invent the damn typewriter a few years earlier…) His file at the Library of Congress is 4,500 items, in 14 boxes filling 5.6 Linear Feet. Just imagine that! And he’s only one player, and probably not one you’ve heard a lot about unless you follow me on twitter.
I study it because, for all that, it’s poorly understood. The Lost Cause movement has sadly done immeasurable damage to our understanding of the war, it’s causes, and turned it into a rallying point against the very people freed by the sacrifice of so many in the war.
I’m going to go off topic a bit and state some simple truths about the war. The southern states seceded over the issue of slavery. Their articles of secession, their constitution, their speeches, their letters, and their behavior on campaign all clearly state this. They tried to change the history books after the war and were very successful, but the only rebels fighting for States Rights were under the command of States Rights Gist. One of the armies in the war was the United States Army, and army that still exists, and in which I served SOMEWHAT more recently. The other killed the men serving in the United States Army.
While not every US soldier enlisted and fought to free the slaves, in fact the majority did not, from 1863 on Emancipation was a stated War Goal for the United States. Even before then the United States Army engaged in local liberation of slaves under the Contraband policy. The rebel leaders screamed bloody murder over this attack on their property.
I study the Civil War to learn more to more convincingly amplify these truths, and to better arm mysefl to fight back against people defending the indefensible.
At the same time, I study to learn more about the United States, and how the leaders worked, though, and fought during the war. Even as we find today, the military is a conservative (though far less politically connected) instrument, and its leaders didn’t want change, or wanted to minimize it. Look at the difference between McLellan’s stance on slavery, and even the contraband policy vs. that of the Shaws or even actual Conservative politicians-cum-generals like Ben Butler or Dan Sickles. Interestingly Butler was most definitely NOT an Abolitionist until he recognized that the slaves were incredibly useful to the rebels in a military sense, at which point he very quickly changed his stance on the basis of expediency. Something many more professional officers missed. Butler was WILD.
I study to learn about people like MG Gordon Granger of Juneteenth fame who… wasn’t actually that great on the issue of slavery, and wasn’t great on the issue of emancipation as it turned out, and it’s important to learn about this and talk about this because even though emancipation became the law of the land, it was hastily done, poorly handled, and did a LOT of damage to the black communities even as they were supposed to be lifted to the status of equals, as in “All men are created equal”.
And finally, I learn about these wars as a whole because they are fun to read about. Because the big red and blue lines and arrows on the map make sense in a way, I doubt the movements on the ground ever made sense (or even aligned that well with the actual movements of the troops but that’s a story for another day).