Sunday, June 21, 2009

Just what about this war fascinates me so much?

What about the Civil War interests me?

What is the most fascinating part of the Civil War? That is one of the “big” questions to me (along with others such as “what caused the war” and “why did the North win/South lose?”) but, like those others, I’m not sure it has just one definite answer either. It’s a topic I want to explore and think about, and is perhaps the main reason for my foray into the blogging world. Perhaps putting down thoughts and comments in writing, in (hopefully) some organized fashion can help me see just what it is that fascinates me so much or to find other aspects that deserve more of my attention.

One topic is the politics of the era, including the years before hand, which probably ties in with the “what caused the war” issue as well. The entire 1850s was a turbulent decade, with controversies springing up every couple of years (at most) and political alliances being formed, broken up and re-formed as time went by. Even before the 1850s, the trouble started. Did John Tyler pave the road to Civil War with his opening of the movement to annex Texas? Or did it go back to the nullification crisis? Or were the Founding Fathers responsible for not addressing slavery more specifically? Currently, I lean to the idea that the main issues that led to the war started in the 1840s with the controversy over Texas, but this is a question open for much debate.

My main interest in ante-bellum politics (and that era overall) lies in the development of Abraham Lincoln and his growth and development into a national political figure. How he started as a young, inexperienced newcomer in New Salem then moved on to become a state legislator (who helped have Illinois’ state capital moved to Springfield), a Whig party leader in the state, a Congressman, a challenger to famed Senator Stephen A. Douglas, a local and national Republican leader, the Republican nominee for President and then, finally, President, is a fascinating story.

Politics, however, did not stop when the war came. The choosing, retaining and firing of generals were affected by political considerations, and the whole question of the Union’s aim of the war was a tough political question. Was it a war to save the Union as it was, to create a new Union or was it a crusade to end slavery? How Union leaders (political and military) answered that query directly influenced their belief in how to fight the war and how aggressive or bold to be. As President Lincoln came around to see ending slavery as a primary means to end the war and save the Union, his impatience for more conservative generals grew and people lost their jobs because of it. Lincoln never caught up the most radical members of his party, but his stance from the “great secession winter” of 1860-1 certainly moved in that direction as the war progressed.

Politics and politicians affected battles as well. First Bull Run came about due to political pressure for action, and the Federal administration’s (particularly Lincoln’s) insistence on making sure Washington was safe affected other battles. From the Confederate side, the western armies suffered from political in-fighting, particularly when under the command of Braxton Bragg in late 1863. Joe Johnston replaced him, but also felt political pressure due to his constant retreating during the Atlanta campaign in the summer and fall of 1864.

It was simply impossible to escape the reality of politics, which makes sense as this was a political war created by political differences and disputes. One theory of war claims that the political goal is the end and war is the means to achieve the political end; the people conducting the war therefore must remember that fact and understand that it is it impossible to separate the war from the politics.

Politics, though, is not the only area that intrigues me. The lives of everyday people, inside the army and out, and how the war affected them can be extremely fascinating. Two books especially stand out in driving this point home to me. The first is Forgotten Valor: The Memoirs, Journals, & Civil War Letters of Orlando B. Willcox edited by Robert Garth Scott. It shows his emotions on leaving his family at home, as well as how he encouraged his family to go to Washington and work on getting him a promotion. This latter point showed his human side as an ambitious young man who did want to rise up in the ranks and earn more honors. Many collections of letters and memoirs describe soldiers missing home and loved ones, but few show such open pining for promotion, a feeling with which even readers of today can sympathize.

Go If You Think It Your Duty: A Minnesota Couple's Civil War Letters is a more traditional view of a soldier’s life. James (aka Madison) and Elizabeth Bowler married early in the war, conceived a child, yet spent most of the way years apart, writing back and forth expressing their feelings for each other and for the events of the day. Elizabeth wanted her new husband at home with her and her child, but he felt a duty to fight for his country and the cause; these two conflicting feelings are very evident in their letters, as they struggled to adapt to life as newlyweds hundreds of miles apart.

Both of the above books turned these people into figures who felt like neighbors or friends. Other books evoke similar reactions, but these two stood out as outstanding examples of that type of closeness and sympathy. The feeling of familiarity with Orlando, Madison and Lizzie was absolutely amazing.

The challenges the soldiers faced in everyday life is another fascinating area as well, particularly the “common” soldiers. The idea of marching dozens of miles in a day, with no creature comforts is mind-boggling, especially considering the elements they faced. The uncertainty of where they were going, what would happen next or when the next battle would be would be a difficult challenge, and the unfamiliarity with the new places they were seeing would be so as well. That does not even account for being away from home and family (for the very first time ever for many of these young men) and then the challenges of the actual battles themselves. The difficulties of finding food and of sleeping/marching in the rain, heat or cold created great physical, mental and emotional challenges and stress. The men who served in the ranks and sacrificed so much while fighting for their cause (for whatever motivation they had, another very interesting subject) simply performed remarkable tasks.

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