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Two Ways to Approach One War: August/September 2009

By Gary W. Gallagher 
Originally published on HistoryNet.com. Published Online: August 01, 2009 
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Two Civil Wars await anyone seeking to understand our transformative national trial. In the one dominated by nonacademic historians, armies maneuver against one another seeking strategic advantage. Once engaged in combat, soldiers in these armies ensure the lasting fame of mundane places on the American landscape. They fight for control of ghastly entrenchments at Spotsylvania's "Bloody Angle," shed blood in D.R. Miller's cornfield at Antietam and introduce society to a new scale of slaughter near a backwoods Methodist church called Shiloh.

This Civil War also features celebrated American mili­tary commanders. Ulysses S. Grant carries out a brilliant campaign of indirect aggression against Vicksburg, reducing that Rebel stronghold overlooking the Mississippi River on July 4, 1863. Far to the east two months earlier, Robert E. Lee and "Stonewall" Jackson lead the Army of Northern Virginia to victory against long odds in the clutching woods around Chancellorsville. Sixteen months after Chancellorsville, William Tecumseh Sher­man delivers a powerful blow to the Confederacy when he captures Atlanta. Told and retold by every generation since Appomattox, this Civil War—marked by honor and hubris, triumph and failure, and gallantry and perfidy on an epic scale—comes closer to serving as an American Iliad than any other element of our national past.

The second of our two Civil Wars emanates, for the most part, from scholars in an academic setting. Here the focus is on the home fronts, and compelling political issues stand out sharply. For example, how and when will emancipation be accomplished? Who should get credit for removing the stain of slavery that mocked the founding generation's noble language? Will Republicans enact their legislative program? And does their agenda an­tici­pate the emergence of a capitalist behemoth en route to world power status in the 20th century?

In this Civil War, small farmers in the Confederacy grow disenchanted with a government that seems to favor the wealthy, as do coal miners in Pennsylvania's northeastern regions. Women on both sides struggle to find their roles amid changing conceptions of what it means to be a patriotic mother, and sometimes, battling economic hardship, those in the Confederacy take to the streets to demand more food.

This war offers a jumble of advocates and victims, all of whom act out parts in a drama largely devoid of battles and generals. For readers drawn to a gripping narrative played out against the boom of cannons and the rattle of musketry, this Civil War neither fires the imagination nor evokes compari­sons with Homer. Other readers, however, will find a family's struggle amid the turbulence of war or a slave's successful escape to freedom as powerfully moving as anything on battlefields.

Both these Civil Wars form part of a complicated story that cannot be comprehended by mastering only one. Yet the historical literature has evolved in a way that often conspires against any­one who would engage both wars—who would, more especially, strive to know how the two intersected and influenced one another. The root of the problem lies in the fact that far too many nonacademic historians care for little beyond commanders and battles and soldiers in the ranks, while almost all academic historians nourish a reso­lutely dismissive attitude toward military history in general and Civil War campaign history in particular. Because most Americans receive their first intro­duction to the conflict through battles and generals, I believe military history affords the best way to bring the two wars together in a fashion like­ly to attract the broadest audience.

A certain kind of military history, framed to explain how battles influenced the home fronts and how, in turn, politics and public opinion shaped Union and Confederate war ef­forts, will be required to accomplish the task. Success will depend on woo­ing readers who begin with popular treatments of battles and campaigns, piquing their interest in the other war, and providing a bridge to carry them across the chasm between academic and nonacademic history.

Some of our best Civil War histo­rians have made excellent progress toward making such connections. Among books from academic scholars, James M. McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom devotes a number of chapters to battles and campaigns—always with an eye toward explaining their larger impact. "Most of the things that we consider important in this era of Ameri­can history," McPherson asserts, such as "the fate of slavery…the direction of the American economy, the destiny of competing nationalisms in North and South, the definition of freedom, the very survival of the United States—rested on the shoulders of those weary men in blue and gray who fought it out during four years of ferocity…." Among nonacademic historians, Bruce Catton provides a model for those who seek beautiful writing and gripping military description that also places battles and campaigns within a broader framework.

Tactics and strategy certainly de­serve ample attention, but the final meaning of a military operation usually lies beyond the battlefield. Anyone drawn to the Seven Days' Campaign should know not only that George McClellan gave way before Lee's hammer blows at Gaines' Mill and elsewhere, but also that Confederate morale surged with news of Lee's success. Similarly, no comprehension of Lincoln's reelection in 1864 is possible without linking civilian morale, voter expectations and the military campaigns of Sherman in Georgia and Philip Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley.

None of this is meant to imply that all Civil War studies should deal with both the home front and battlefield. There always will be a place for close tactical examinations of battles (or, in the case of huge engagements such as Gettysburg, phases of battles). Similarly, a study of legislative infighting relating to the Homestead Act need not devote attention to key military actions at the time. But a diet of books on only the military or only the nonmilitary aspects of the conflict will leave any reader with a poor appreciation of the conflict's daunting complexity.

 



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