The War Between the States (aka The Civil War)
Last week, I watched the landmark documentary, “Ken Burns’ The Civil War,” which has been restored in celebration of its 25th anniversary. I have seen this series numerous times since its first appearance in 1989. However, in view of recent events in the realm of race relations and questions about the true origins of this war, I watched it this time with new eyes. I even took notes!
First, I must say that I am so glad that Ken Burns set the record straight about the central issue of this war: “Slavery is why the Civil War happened” (http://www.rawstory.com/2015/08/ken-burns-sets-confederate-flag-lovers-straight-its-about-slavery-slavery-slavery/#.Vdt4meSdQeU.facebook; https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/act-four/wp/2015/09/08/from-slavery-to-ferguson-ken-burns-sees-an-unfinished-civil-war/). That modern Southerners can be so blind to this fact is beyond me: The “state’s rights” that the 19th century South fought so hard for was the “right” to base its economy on black slave labor! And in one way or another, America is still fighting this war 154 years after the Civil War began—from Ferguson, MO to Baltimore, MD to Charleston, SC and New York City, there is still hatred and racism against black people. There is still a sizeable number of white people who do not see black people as their equals.
But if you are looking for a discussion of race, this is not the article I am writing. I have written numerous essays about race, and there will be many more.
Instead, what I want to discuss are the many other historical facets of our War Between the States that have had interesting, far-reaching, and lasting effects on our world to this day. For starters, let’s consider the “firsts” that occurred during this war (in no particular order).
The telegraph: Both Union and Confederate leaders (including Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, not to mention the military leaders of both sides) were communicating using telegraph messages.
Newspapers: Newspapers regularly reported on the progress of this war, and there were field reporters “embedded” on the battlefields.
Photography: The Civil War was the first American war to be documented in photographs! Photographs of the war dead, taken by Matthew Brady and exhibited in museums as early as 1862, were so gruesome and explicit that they were difficult to look at, then, and are still difficult to look at today, even with all the violence that we now see in movies, on the nightly news, and so on. It is disconcerting to see piles of dead bodies lying askew in muddy battlefields from Gettysburg and other sites. Yet, like the pictures of the Vietnam War, which brought home the carnage of that ill-conceived conflict, the photos of the Civil War made clear that war is Hell.
And in a very eerie way, the horrible treatment of Union prisoners of war in the Confederate prison, Andersonville, complete with starvation of soldiers, presaged the Horror that emerged from the Holocaust of World War II. One Union ex-prisoner related how he went into the prison as a 165-pound man and came out weighing only 95 pounds—and there are pictures that prove this.
Weapons of War
The Ironclads—essentially, ugly iron gunnery boats, probably the forerunners of tanks and submarines—were invented and used by both North and South to bomb the bejeebers out of each other. Hot air balloons were used for reconnaissance. The Battle of Petersburg was a rehearsal for the trench warfare of World War I. One weapon that helped turn the tide to the North’s favor was the repeating rifle, which could fire 15 (count ‘em, 15) rounds without reloading. Primitive compared to today, but a major development, then.
From field hospitals to techniques for treatment—especially amputations, to nursing (Clara Barton’s efforts stand out), this branch of medicine began with the Civil War, and it has continued to develop, to the present day, with miraculous improvements of survival.
There were only 33 states in the United States before the War began, and Abraham Lincoln had just been inaugurated to his first term as president. The precipitating factor in the secession of the Southern States was the failed slave rebellion orchestrated by John Brown in Harper’s Ferry. The threat to slavery embodied by John Brown’s rebellion—not to mention the Abolitionist movement in the North, directly led to the South’s secession. At the time, there were 14 million Northern citizens and 9 million Southern citizens, of whom nearly half (4 million) were slaves!
The Dome of the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., was only half built at the beginning of the Civil War, and it was only by Lincoln’s persistence that the Dome was completed by his second inauguration.
The “Players” and Their Roles
I was very surprised to learn about some of the “names” from the Civil War, and doubly surprised by their actual roles in the war.
John Wilkes Booth (born in Bel Air, MD), who was already enjoying an acting career, volunteered for a Virginia Militia group and assisted in the hanging of John Brown in Charleston, SC after Brown was tried for treason. He then resumed his acting career until he hatched the plan to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln.
At the start of the war, in 1861, George Armstrong Custer had just graduated from West Point (last in his class), but he was assigned to be an aide to Union General George McClellan and quickly rose in rank, first attaining the rank of Captain and later, Brigadier General.
Robert E. Lee had served with distinction in the United States Army for 32 years before the start of the Civil War, and President Lincoln wanted Lee to head the Union Army! But Lee chose the Confederate Army, because of his allegiance to his home state of Virginia. Lee’s home in Virginia was captured by the Union early in the War and was a Union stronghold throughout the conflict. At war’s end, Lee’s property was developed into the present-day Arlington National Cemetery, in part because there was no more room in the Union’s existing military cemeteries to bury all the soldiers who died in this grisly war.
We tend to think of History as a thing of the past—something amorphous and shadowy that has no bearing on the present. Nothing could be further from the truth! The issue of Slavery in the United States very nearly tore this country apart—brother fought against brother; sometimes almost entire families died on the battlefield.
Hearts and minds—even the Soul of our nation—were changed over the course of the war: Abraham Lincoln moved from wanting to free only Southern blacks to wanting to free all blacks—so they could be colonized “back” to Africa or to South America! But over time, he recognized that freedom for all black people was the only way to save the Union. He paid with his life for this decision.
As well, the Civil War had important impacts internationally. Other nations, including Canada, worried whether the United States would survive, and the South tried to barter their king crop, cotton, with England and France, in an attempt to legitimize their insurrectionist state as a new nation. It almost worked! It was only when Lincoln took that final leap to propose the Emancipation Proclamation that England and France decided to back the Union rather than the Confederacy.
Finally, black people, over whom the nation fought, acquitted themselves with valor, cunning, and intelligence, as they saw their chance to end their enslavement. As early as 1862, a black soldier successfully joined the Union Army, and toward the end of the war, even the Confederates were enlisting Southern blacks to be soldiers! Both sides employed black people as spies.
What we have gained over the last 150 years goes far beyond what anyone could have imagined back then. It is has come in fits and starts, to be sure—one step forward, and three steps back—but the Union has held.
And The Struggle continues.