TALKING WITH RUSSELL F. WEIGLEY
Russell F. Weigley dates his interest in the military from a visit he made to Gettysburg when he was eight years old. Something occurred–spiritual, emotional–that wasn’t reducible to rationality. “I’ve had friends say that I’m too intellectual to be guided by the non-intellectual,” he says. “But, to this day, to visit Gettysburg is to be in the presence of heroic spirits. It was that first visit that got me interested in the Civil War and in the military in general.”
Weigley’s father served in World War I, and the boy’s interest in the military was further stimulated by the spectacle of World War II, which the teenager followed closely through newspaper accounts. Today, as the author of many books on the subject, Weigley remains an unabashed admirer of the American military. “It’s open, it’s strong, it’s apolitical, it follows the Constitution. There has never been a force like it on earth.”
In A Great Civil War, Weigley set out “to show different forms of generalship–the good general understood the operational art, how to move separate armies in simultaneous, coordinated efforts within a theater and thus achieve maximum results. Moving into a still larger sphere, this type of general also understood the need to define and cling to a grand strategy of war. Grant and Lee were both of this type, but Lee was hampered by many factors, not least of these, ironic to state, overmobilization–too large an army with too few civilians to act as its support. Moreover,” Weigley says, “the South’s resources were too meager to sustain the long haul of a war. The study of the generalship in the Civil War could serve as guidance for future military leaders.”
Weigley also wanted his book to illuminate the brilliant combination of the moral and the tactical displayed by a former militia captain from the Blackhawk Wars. “Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, ‘this nation . . . shall have a new birth of freedom,’ redefined America; it supplanted the Declaration of Independence as a document defining our national purpose,” he says. “It effected a transmutation: a war waged to preserve the Union ascended to a crusade undertaken to end slavery; the Union soldier, after an initial uncertainty, ultimately wore with pride this mantle of emancipator. In short,” Weigley adds, “and without putting too fine a point on it, the Union was, after 1863–that is to say, after the Address and the Emancipation Proclamation–clearly on the side of the angels. Victory belonged to that side.”
WILLIAM E. MCSWEENEY practices law in New York City. His work has appeared in various magazines, newspapers, and law publications.