Confessions of a Civil War addict

A couple of weeks ago I spent a few hours hiking around the Civil War site of the Battle of Glorieta Pass, which ended an ill-conceived Confederate invasion of New Mexico in 1862. Last year I attended a Civil War re-enactment of the Battle of Valverde.

I was always interested in the American Civil War, even as a kid. I spent summers with my grandparents in Corinth, Mississippi, where my father told of digging up Minie balls in the old fortifications when he was a boy, and visited the nearby Shiloh battlefield.

The Civil War is fascinating on a number of levels. The conflict defined and transformed the United States as a nation, and historians will make careers of studying the war for generations to come.

There is much to study. Because the American Civil War was the first conflict in which most soldiers were literate, a rich paper trail of letters, journals and memoirs is still being explored in scholarly works and TV documentaries. I renewed my interest in the Civil War a few years ago when I got a Kindle e-book reader and stumbled across an online treasure trove of Civil War histories and memoirs.

In addition to the massive human drama of the war, I’ve been fascinated by some of its military and political aspects.

Much of the Civil War was fought by amateurs because there were not enough professional soldiers to go around. Politicians and businessmen became instant colonels and generals and sometimes outperformed the West Point elite. Military leadership was a mix of tactical brilliance and tragic incompetence.

It was a war of technology. Accurate muskets made Napoleonic infantry charges a slaughter. Military campaigns incorporated railroads, the telegraph and the occasional observation balloon. The Navy improvised riverine warfare with a motley flotilla of ponderous gunboats that often ran aground and were inclined to blow up when a cannon shot hit the unprotected steam boiler. We had better technology when the Navy re-invented riverine warfare a century later in Vietnam.

The war was a political football with micromanagement from Congress, ambitious politician-generals and rumormongering newspapers. Grant was unable to dismiss an incompetent general whose support was needed for Lincoln’s re-election campaign. Inept generals who were Jefferson Davis’ favorites hastened the defeat of the Confederacy.

European military observers disparaged both armies’ informality and lack of discipline: the same American characteristics of irreverence and individual initiative that helped win World Wars I and II.

Historical analysis of the Civil War has evolved. Today’s consensus is that yes, the war was about slavery: It tied up a loose end in the Constitution and began a quest for equality that continues to be a work in progress. A war that divided the country ultimately strengthened the identity of a nation as men left home for the first time and served with soldiers from other states.

The Civil War is important because it was a transformative chapter in our history and raised issues that remain relevant today. It makes sense to remove the Confederate flag from government property. We probably can do without some of the Confederate monuments that attempted to falsely romanticize the “lost cause” in the decades following the war.

But wholesale elimination of every vestige of the Confederacy smacks of the Taliban’s destruction of historic Buddhist statues. If we truly intend to resolve the lingering vestiges of slavery, destroying the evidence avoids the issue rather than confronting it. Better to put history into context with explanatory plaques and monuments to civil rights heroes as well as military ones, as a few communities are doing.

Educating ourselves more fully about this chapter of history may reduce the risk of repeating it – and remind the folks in California flirting with secession that it did not end well the last time it was tried.

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