Eyewitness accounts help put the
towering events of the Civil War into a
recognizably human context.
When New Jersey poet Walt Whitman predicted during the Civil War that “the real war will never get into the books,” he was referring to the impossibility of anyone describing accurately the myriad horrors he had witnessed as a volunteer nurse at Union hospitals in Washington, D.C. He might just as well have been speaking for the hundreds of thousands of common soldiers,Northern and Southern, whose own humble role sin the war would go unreported in the official histories and notable memoirs of the age.Fortunately for us, the men and women of the Civil War generation were unusually literate–at least by today’s benighted standards–and they left behind their own homespun accounts of the greatest event of their otherwise unremarkable lives. In letters, diaries, journals and jottings, they vividly described the war from the point of view of a single person, or a single family,caught up in the coils of a giant cataclysm the likes of which no one in American history had seen before. Sometimes misspelled, sometimes ungrammatical, their writings nevertheless are always alive with the unmistakable authenticity of a first-person account, an eyewitness report from the scene of a great national tragedy.
This issue of America’s Civil War ushers in a regular new department, “Eyewitness to War,” that will enable these usually unheard voices to speak again. ACW readers have consistently requested more firsthand accounts, and it is truly an honor and a privilege to be able to fulfill their requests.
As the late great historian Bell Irvin Wiley discovered years ago, it was often the common soldiers (and their wives, daughters,sweethearts, fathers and sons) who were best able to capture the life-altering sweep of the Civil War, by placing it in the context of one small life at a time. Wiley, in his groundbreaking study The Life of Johnny Reb, noted early on that “in the great crisis of the 1860s, the ‘lowly’ people gave a better account of themselves than did the more privileged members of Southern society. They quarreled less than those who were rated their superiors; they were more cooperative with each other and with their leaders than were the ruling caste. They bore their hardship, which exceeded that of any other group, North or South,with less complaint than the bigwigs, partly because they were more habituated to deprivation, suffering, and sorrow. The overwhelming majority were generous in their impulses, wholesome in their reactions, and stalwart in their adversity.” They and their Northern adversaries, he concluded, were “the very heart of the America over whose fields and plains they fought the most tragic of American wars.”
That America was a very different country from today’s sprawling, MTV-saturated megalopolis, and those Americans were very different from us. Historians are leery about making too-sweeping statements regarding the past, but statistics–the ultimate refuge of liars, Mark Twain once observed–reveal that the men and women of the Civil War generation, on average,were more religious, more idealistic, more romantic and more patriotic than we are today. This is not intended to insult those readers who consider themselves any or all of the aforementioned things, but merely to suggest that the average 21-year-old(or 41-year-old) in 1861 was more likely to be willing to die for a set of philosophical beliefs than his more jaded modern-day counterpart. As the Gulf War and the ongoing military presence in Bosnia reveal, there are thousands of young men and women in the military today who are equally willing to pay the price for safeguarding our liberty, but whether they are an outright majority–as were the young Southerners and Northerners who answered the call in the Civil War–is decidedly doubtful.
Americans today are far more questioning of their government and their leaders, and that is all to the good. Certainly, no one can study the Civil War for very long without being filled with an inexpressible sorrow and anger for the thousands of young lives that were snuffed out in that war, a conflict that, for all of its high ideals and noble rhetoric, was the end result of a decades-long failure of elected politicians to resolve, politically, a set of regional differences that were far less compelling than the nation’s intrinsic commonality. It took four brutal years of war to learn that lesson, and many thoughtful Americans fear that we may soon have to learn that same lesson–the cost of putting special interests above the common good–again.
For now, we can read the firsthand accounts of the common but also decidedly uncommon people who fought that great war,and appreciate anew their valor, steadfastness and devotion to duty–qualities that we can hope, perhaps, to emulate, but can never expect to surpass. Through their own words, at least, we can all be eyewitnesses to war.
Roy Morris, Jr., Editor, America’s Civil War