150 Years of the Civil War

“By the summer of 1861, Wilmer McLean had had enough. Two great armies were converging on his farm. What would be the first major battle of the Civil War, Bull Run – or Manassas as the confederates called it – would soon rage across the aging Virginian’s farm, a Union shell going so far as to explode in the summer kitchen. Now McLean moved his family away from Manassas, far south and west of Richmond, out of harm’s way, he prayed, to a dusty little crossroads called Appomattox Court House. And it was there in his living room three and a half years later that Lee surrendered to Grant. And Wilmer McLean could rightfully say that ‘the war began in my front yard and ended in my front parlor.'”

Ken Burns’ The Civil War, Episode 1

Yesterday marked the 150th anniversary of the First Battle of Manassas. I am not a Confederate but somehow I find the name more poetic and so I use it, also it’s easier to find on a map. While the start of the war could be traced to the April 12 shelling of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, or even earlier to the state secessions, John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry or the Bleeding Kansas border war, it was this Virginia battle 30 miles from Washington, D.C. that brought the war home for both Americas.

Following the Union’s routed retreat to Washington from the bloodiest day yet on American soil, the situation turned from a hotheaded rebellion into an honest-to-God war – a joined effort that anyone watching would have to conclude wasn’t going to end anytime soon, despite the wishes and best efforts of either side. (That is a lesson which would be soberly and tragically re-taught fifty years later, in the farmlands of France in the opening phases of World War I.)

To the North, it was clear they had a lot of work to do. To the South, it was a revelation that they were not in for a quick series of spirited engagements; rather, many, many Southern sons would die in pursuit of their own country.

Bull Run is also famous for granting the nickname to Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, one of the most colorful characters in a war with no shortage of them.

As the only war on American territory since the Revolution, the war affected everybody in an unimaginably immediate way. Three percent of the population became casualties. Death rates among uniformed men were in the vicinity of 20%. Both sides were taxed and issued fiat dollars to finance the enterprise. Both sides’ sons were conscripted into arms and marched probably thousands of miles, and both sides’ resources looted and foraged for at will. That is to say nothing of those civilians caught in the crossfire of the war’s historic skirmishes, and of course of the slaves, whose fates were a motivating cause for the war to begin with.

The war came home most bitterly to those in the Deep South as victims of William Tecumseh Sherman’s slash-and-burn March to the Sea. Eschewing the military objectives of incapacitating armies and taking key cities, Sherman sought to destroy the South’s material ability and psychological will to wage war entirely, burning the city of Atlanta and ransacking the Georgia plantation countryside for his own army’s resources. In a final ignominy, Sherman turned north and struck at South Carolina, the vanguard of secession. To this day his name profanes public speech in the South.

Burns opened his film with searing testimony from a war veteran and future Supreme Court Justice, the Yankee from Olympus, Oliver Wendell Holmes:

“We have shared the incommunicable experience of war. We felt – we still feel – the passion of life to its top. In our youths our hearts were touched with fire.”

The war affected everybody, and given the prominence of the United States since 1865, it has affected us all today, American and non alike.


Filed under history

37 responses to “150 Years of the Civil War

  1. if you get a chance, you should read “Chickamauga”, by thomas wolfe. GREAT short story.

  2. One thing you will NEVER hear a Southerner say:

    “Have you met my son Sherman?”

  3. Rusty Shackleford

    I think you might be forgetting the War of 1812…

  4. John

    Regarding “war” on American soil, let us not forget the War of 1812.

    There were five secessionist movements prior to the outbreak of the “War of Northern Aggression”, all five being considered by northern interests and several quite seriously. Worries about a reinvigorated European intervention against a quite young nation is what kept them from becoming an actuality.

    Up until the outbreak of the conflict that began in 1861, it should be noted that secession was considered a universal right as well as legal in every manner. Lincoln, at least temporarily ended that. The future will rewrite such philosophical nonsense. I would suggest to every reader that they pick up and read copies of the works by historian Thomas DiLorenzo and his superb dissections of both Abraham Lincoln and the true causes of that war, for as the great Mark Twain so wrote, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

  5. detinennui32


    Despite my reading and studying the history of war and our nation, I still cannot fathom what my forefathers and foremothers endured and suffered. All so I can sit in an office, shuffilng papers, reading emails and blogs on something they never conceived of called an “internet”. And all so I can go home to an air-conditioned house with refrigerated food, sit on a plush sofa, watch TV, play with my kids, and then tryst with my wife.

    I can do all these things today, and I’ll do them tomorrow, under a blanket of freedom and plenty secured with the blood and sweat of rough men ready to give their lives at a moment’s notice. And the tears of their mothers, who cry for husbands and sons in harm’s way, praying they’ll come home — and remembering those who didn’t.

    Thanks for this Badger.

  6. I am of a mixed opinion about 1812. While it certainly brought war to America, it was a war of expeditionary battles, naval patrol, frontier skirmishes, territorial flexing and mostly unsuccessful attempts to invade at key shore cities (the burning of Washington DC notwithstanding) rather than a straight-up occupation of the country. It just had a very different character than the Revolution or the Civil War.

  7. whiteboykrispy

    I prefer to call it Bull Run, but that’s because I’ll never call it Manasass.

    Took a pretty rigorous military history class last semester, and learning all the details of just how bad off the Union was in the first half-2/3 of the war was interesting, to say the least.

    At so many different times during the war the Union came so f-ing close to losing, it’s kind of a mindfuck to think of what could have happened.

  8. whiteboykrispy

    And then to contemplate how differently history would have unfolded had the South won… Munch on that

  9. The thing about the North was that it had so much more power in men and resources than the South that it could never really lose – it could only get bored and go home (or be pressured diplomatically into giving up the fight). So it was just a question of keeping the Union population politically interested in the fight long enough to bleed out the South.

    “And then to contemplate how differently history would have unfolded had the South won… Munch on that”

    Imagine the Union allied with a recently-unified Germany to form an industrial alliance, and the South serving as the agricultural powerhouse for a French-British entente. That would have changed World War I but good.

  10. Dan in Philly

    After much reading and consideration, I am now of the mind that the war was as much as if not more than a result of the rising concept of nationalism as anything else. I am aware this is not a new argument, but I am finding it compelling.

    I do not believe that the unionists would have fought and died to free slaves, for the basic reason that I cannot find any instance of such occuring at any time in the history of the world. But to fight and die for nationalism? Absolutely!

    The South had the idea that the “nation” meant we now consider “states” lead by Virginia as first among equals. The north’s position was that this was one nation indivisible, a notion which was probably not in the minds of the founders but was very popular in the 19th century. Lincoln’s rhetoric very much borrows from this idea, especially his Gettesburgh Address:

    “…our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
    Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure…”

    Note the emphasis of “A” nation. “That” nation. And later “…that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom..” THIS nation.

    Through his words, Lincoln was able to frame the idea of nationalism and conjoin it with the idea of freeing the slaves, which united the two main supporting currents of the war effort. In so doing, he for all intents and purposes changed the very concept of what this country was, from the idea of many nations unified to one nation, unified.

    When we consider what would have happened if the south had won the way (which would likely have been the case had Sherman not taken Atlanta), we would have to conclude that in the end, the sweeping tide of nationalism would have proven irrestible, and the south itself would have united into a new nation, or risk being absorbed by the north. This would have lead southerners to ask why bother with the war in the first place, if the result was still tyrrany but under one with a southern accent.

    I contend that in the end, any southern victory would have proven temporary, as the things united the north and south were just too powerful and the divisors too weak. In the end the plantion aristocracy would have weakened to the point that slavery would likely have been voted out of existence, and finally the two nations would have joined into one.

  11. 1lettuce


    “That would have changed World War I but good.”

    Wow, when you think of that, you’d have the entire country in a second national war. And then combined with the characteristics of WWI (trench warfare, nerve gas, the diseases afterwards), it would have devastated what was left of the US.

  12. Random Angeleno

    It’s interesting about the way the victors write the history: it’s always about the slaves. When in reality, the secession debate was real. Lincoln put a stop to that talk. That key event precipitated the accrual of power to the federal government. Such accrual continuing with the suppression of the Native Americans, the 16th and 17th Amendments, the Federal Reserve Act, the New Deal, the military-industrial complex, the Great Society, etc.. And we are where we are today. It continues to be important for the current federal government to make sure that talk never comes back again for whatever reason. So hence that aspect of the Civil War is simply not talked about in school and has not been for many years.

  13. These United States are…

    This United States is…

    Third person plural versus third person singular, think on that.

  14. New Hampshirite

    The quote by Oliver Wendell Holmes is something of an invention on Burnes’ part. It amalgamates quotations from from his 1884 Memorial Day speech in Keene, NH – the same town where Tom Ball recently burned himself to death – and from his 1895 speech at Harvard.

    Memorial day:
    “But, nevertheless, the generation that carried on the war has been set apart by its experience. Through our great good fortune, in our youth our hearts were touched with fire. It was given to us to learn at the outset that life is a profound and passionate thing. While we are permitted to scorn nothing but indifference, and do not pretend to undervalue the worldly rewards of ambition, we have seen with our own eyes, beyond and above the gold fields, the snowy heights of honor, and it is for us to bear the report to those who come after us. But, above all, we have learned that whether a man accepts from Fortune her spade, and will look downward and dig, or from Aspiration her axe and cord, and will scale the ice, the one and only success which it is his to command is to bring to his work a mighty heart.”

    “As for us, our days of combat are over. Our swords are rust. Our guns will thunder no more. The vultures that once wheeled over our heads must be buried with their prey. Whatever of glory must be won in the council or the closet, never again in the field. I do not repine. We have shared the incommunicable experience of war; we have felt, we still feel, the passion of life to its top.”


  15. Excellent post Badger.

    I find the Civil War fascinating. I’ll have to check out Mr. Burns’ famous documentary on it. Have you read The Killer Angels (Michael Shara’s historical novel on Gettysburg) or the prequel by his son, Gods and Generals? Both are outstanding; the movies are good but don’t do the books justice. I also recommend Gone for Soldiers where you get to see most of the main characters in the Civil War all fighting on the same side as young officers in the Mexican War.

  16. One more note. Two characters who are particularly compelling in the Shara novels I mentioned above are Robert E. Lee and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain.

  17. Dan,

    That is a salient point about nationalism. One of the problems with federalism is that it’s fundamentally metastable – you are trying to keep people who want to be locally governed hooked to a central state for long-term interests, at the same time trying to prevent large actors (large states and those in charge of the central government) from consolidating power to the detriment of local and personal freedom.

    “I contend that in the end, any southern victory would have proven temporary, as the things united the north and south were just too powerful and the divisors too weak. In the end the plantion aristocracy would have weakened to the point that slavery would likely have been voted out of existence, and finally the two nations would have joined into one.”

    This makes sense to me, and in fact appears to be what the founding fathers thought would happen – prior to the cotton gin, the economic efficiency of slavery was in serious decline, and they seemed to hope the issue would simply grow itself out of existence within a generation.

    Cultural forces play a huge part in the success of federal systems. Belgium’s ad-hoc federal kingdom has been a running joke in European diplomacy, combining the southern Walloons with the northern Flemings.
    Once victims of Wallonia’s close ties to France, technological and cosmopolitan Flanders now towers over the country’s rural and industrial south. They don’t like each other enough to throw into a centralized state, but they don’t have the will to fight each other nor the desire for true independence (should Belgium split, the most credible prediction is the two halves will simply resorb into France and the Netherlands).

    It is bizarre to see tiny federalized Belgium right next door to huge, centralized unitary-state France.

  18. 1lettuce,

    “Wow, when you think of that, you’d have the entire country in a second national war. And then combined with the characteristics of WWI (trench warfare, nerve gas, the diseases afterwards), it would have devastated what was left of the US.”

    You know, I had never thought of the impact of WWI on American soil – I guess I just assumed the north and south would send troops into Europe to fight it. In many ways the Civil War presaged factors in World War I, among them mass casualties, mobile artillery, entrenchment and the declining importance of cavalry.

    This scenario would have placed a huge premium on the alliance of Mexico. The Zimmerman Telegram was an intercepted 1917 cable revealing German efforts to get Mexico involved in WWI against the United States. Imagine years of diplomatic courting before and during WWI – in Southern hands Mexico would guard the Gulf and harass California, in Northern hands would provide a launching pad for flanking maneuvers against the south of the CSA to match northern army action.

    Mexico would have occupied a strategic wedge position like that of Spain before World War II, a perfect location for a proxy war that would set up the field tactics and political stakes of the next conflict.

  19. Random Angeleno,

    You make a good point. The slavery issue (both as a moral issue and as a factor in the changing agricultural economy) was an important one, but it’s easy to overplay it, as I think Burns does in his film. It’s the most convenient moral lens through which to view the issues of the war, and thus is accessible to people of all ages and historical skill levels.

    The morality of slavery is not even a question today – without a doubt the correct ethical view for a so-called free country – but it’s very hard to understand the war as it was if we get so caught up in moral outrage we refuse to see Southerners of the time as anything other than subhuman.

  20. Dalrock,

    You are too kind. I did read The Killer Angels in high school (long before I caught the war-buff bug). Good general officers come from somewhere, and it’s usually a previous war, so it is interesting to see how Civil War officers cut their teeth in the Mexican War, MacArthur and Patton in WWI, or even Washington and his ilk in the French and Indian War.

  21. New Hampshirite,

    I was aware the quote was a composite. When legend beats fact sometimes it pays to print the legend.

    Live free or die.

  22. “the one and only success which it is his to command is to bring to his work a mighty heart.”

    Translation: be alpha.

  23. Stephenie Rowling

    I really enjoy war, in a intellectual level, I consider myself a war most the last of the last of the last resources, avoid it as much as possible. But I know next to nothing about the USA civil war (more of a ancient war type of girl, Roman legions, Sun Tzu, Shaka Zulu, Greeks…), but this is a great fascinating post. Kudos! :)

  24. Stephenie,

    A good study of the Civil War is a great way to learn a large chunk of American history and popular culture that most native Americans forget after high school. There is plenty for you as a writer as well. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s serial novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” served to inflame abolitionist sentiment in the North prior to the war, and serving as a nurse during the war was one of America’s great wordsmiths, Walt Whitman.

    The Shaara books Dalrock recommended are great as introductions to the people on the front lines. You will also love the letters and speeches spoken in the Ken Burns series.

  25. Steph is a good egg. or as we say……ella es buena gente.

  26. Stephenie Rowling

    Awww Gracias :)

  27. Stephenie Rowling

    Thanks badger added to my growing list of “must read”

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  29. Jack Amok

    Oh, slavery was the issue. There were many issues, but slavery was the one that could not be negotiated or compromised away as the nation grew and new states joined the union. Free or Slave, that was the question, and it was a critical one to the Southern landed gentry. Slavery as an economic system was a bust – it was bankrupting the South and causing them to fall farther and farther behind the industrializing North. Further, it was a corrupting influence on society, devaluing work and moving the antebellum South further into a pride-and-shame culure that does no good for anyone.

    If you’re not familiar with what a “pride-and-shame” culture is – look at today’s inner city black culture (irony of ironies, the freed slaves adopted their former master’s culture as their own, since it’s what they knew), or at hardcore islamic culture. Gathering pride and avoiding shame matter more than any accomplishments, so society is severely warped.

    At any rate, the South was no longer self-sustaining and needed to control the Federal Government in order to perpetuate it’s way of life. Note that the Dredd Scott decision was the first instance of the Federal Government trampling States Rights, and it was conducted by a Southern-leaning Supreme Court trampling the rights of a northern state to declare slavery illegal.

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  31. I like this passage from Connie Willis, explaining why she wrote the novel Lincoln’s Dreams (which, despite the title is about a young woman having disturbing dreams that turn out to be those of Robert E Lee:

    “In the first part of Lincoln’s Dreams, Jeff is offered a job researching the long-term effects of the Vietnam War. He turns it down. “I’m busy studying the long-term effects of the Civil War.” And I guess that’s what I was doing, too, writing this book.

    Because the Civil War isn’t over. Its images, dreamlike, stay with us — young boys lying face-down in cornfields and orchards, and Robert E. Lee on Traveller. And Lincoln, dead in the White House, and the sound of crying.

    The Civil War disturbs us, all these long years after, troubling our sleep. Like a cry for help, like a warning, like a dream. And we pore over it, trying to break the code, its meaning just out of reach..”

    [Thanks for commenting!]

  32. Dex

    Harry Turtledove wrote a whole series of books on what WW1 would have been like had the South successfuly seceded. Interesting reading. Wouldn’t have been pretty.

  33. Dan in Philly

    @Jack “Oh, slavery was the issue.” Slavery was the issue which lead to the conflict between the states, but the different interpretations of what the “United States” meant was what allowed the conflict, and what most of the soldiers were fighting about (most of the southerners did not own slaves, remember).

    Think of an issue today which divides the nation severly: abortion. There are many who believe abortion is nothing less than murder, and there are those who believe any restriction of it is nothing less than invasion of privacy. There is no compromise here. However since both sides agree that succession is not an option, they agree to fight it out in court and in elections.

    It strains the imagination to think that slavery is considered more evil than murder, yet no one against abortion is seriously calling for a new nation to be formed where such things are illegial. An issue that people actually feel more strongly about is not leading to civil war – why?

    The elite southerners saw they had lost the national debate on slavery (as those against abortion lost their fight long ago), and rather than continue to fight in courts and elections, chose to succeed. This was the actual cause of the war, as when Lincoln decided to supply Ft. Sumpter it wasn’t to free any slaves but rather to supply a US fort on what the south considered to be foreign and soveriegn soil.

    Naturally there was a great movement to free slaves, and one of Lincoln’s great accomplishments was to fuse the anti-slavery sentiments with the pro-union sentiments. Any argument which states the war was just, or even primarily, about slavery is missing the point that as long as succession was a possibility, the south (or north!) would have sooner or later found another excuse to secceed.

  34. KellyC

    Yes, correct. While slavery was a major issue for religious zealots, every other country in the world managed to abolish slavery without killing half a million (10 million in today’s population) men and wreaking untold physical destruction while releasing a population that was not equipped nor prepared for ‘freedom’ into an environment that was largely indifferent if not hostile.
    Succession was really the issue, but slavery was the excuse used to justify the immorality of the action both then and now. It’s the mythos of the ‘just war’ that lingers today in the public consciousness.

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