The Future of Civil War History: Meg Groeling



The society and culture that produced the Civil War is nowhere near as simple as military history would have one believe. To cling to these cherished simplicities–battle, campaign, and commander analysis alone–is to do little more than brush the surface of the mid-nineteenth century in America. The whole is so much more complex and deeply interesting than the individual parts.

One way to do this is to talk about what we still “use” from that period. The Civil War, clearly the defining eventĀ of modern American history, has left us much from which to choose. I am sorry that some feel topics like the effect of war on the environment, the huge influence religion had on both soldiers and the home front, the psychology of returning combat fighters, the sectional differences of our country and the continued effect racism has on the 21st century are not as gut-grabbing as battlefield analysis, but they are, I feel, ultimately far more important if we are truly seeking an understanding of the past than, for instance, mortar placement.Mortar

An example concerning Christianity might be General “Stonewall” Jackson. The movie Gods & Generals was criticized for its portrayal of Jackson as a religious man. We are such a secular culture nowadays that to see displays of unwavering Christian faith made audiences uncomfortable, apparently. Yet any good study of Thomas Jackson, the man, tells again and again how important his faith was to him. It guided his life and made death something to be accepted, not feared.


He prayed loudly and often, publicly asking others to join him. Many did, not because Jackson was their commander, but because they too were people of deep, abiding faith. This was not just battlefield faith, either. The home front, North and South, prayed for both its cause and its soldiers.

Civil War churchjPrayer was a daily occurrence for most of the people who populated America at that time, and to ignore the effect of religion before, during and after the war is absurd. And yet we do ignore it, all the time, because it makes us “uncomfortable” to think that our heroes might be seen today as religious nut cases.

So, is it our job as historians to make these people fit our ideals, or to work to understand theirs? And once we take on that responsibility, we are immediately faced with having to make these people, these religious, patriotic, song-singing, newspaper-reading, laughing, voting, game-playing, caring individuals from years gone by once again relevant to today. Even with all their time-defined cultural differences, there are still so many human similarities. These soldiers and their families were not born in 1861, uniform on and gun in hand.

image_28-3One of my favorite artistic images, drawn by Winslow Homer, is the one of a young woman driving an open-top carriage. Sitting next to her is a young man in a kepi, but his sleeve is pinned up, as he has lost an arm in the war. This image casts, for me, a huge array of imminently important and researchable ideas: gender role changes, self-images of veterans, the effect of the war on a family, and on the continuity of that family. How do we see our current crop of returning veterans? What might we learn from a good, on-going discussion of these issues? Yet, within our community, the suggestion of this as a discussion group topic is immediately thrust aside as simple not of importance overall. Really? Apparently the Pulitzer Prize committee thinks the topic of returning Civil War veterans is important. If you don’t believe me, check the list of nominees for this year’s prize.573284f8a8b31.image

As a community, many continue to emphasize mud & blood. After all, it is MILITARY history, I am told. OK–I get that, but just as the Lost Cause is losing ground, just as Robert E. Lee is being reexamined, along with Jefferson Davis, and just as the Confederate battle flag is now seen as an emblem of racism, things change. If the overall study of the Civil War does not change with the times, cannot be seen as relevant to a new era of students / buffs, then it may experience the same fate as some of the things listed above.

The future of Civil War History–the future of any history–is to see it as still relevant to peace-signtoday. One might be tired of hearing the term “relevant,” but it is important to remember that the opposite of relevant is irrelevant, and no one wants to see that! We are faced with at least two generations who were purposefully not taught war history in public school K-12, due to curriculum decisions made post-Vietnam. If we continue to talk only about “battles & leaders,” we will continue to see Civil War buffs get older and older, and finally die off–much like the SCV and GAR vets themselves.

"The Veteran" by Thomas Eakins
“The Veteran” by Thomas Eakins

We need to consider this situation as we move, hopefully, forward. We need to cherish the complexities and challenges of the time, not just the simplicities of a battle plan.

14 Responses to The Future of Civil War History: Meg Groeling

  1. Meg and I travel throughout California attending Civil War Roundtables. Sarah and her talk about families and woman, their interaction with soldiers and letters is important. Music was important.
    Religion was very important. Without it millions of American would not have wanted to give up their lives to go into oblivion. A small fraction of the war was fighting. The rest was living.

  2. The “Sarah” mentioned above is Sarah Bierle, another ECW contributor. When I talk to Civil War Round Tables, it becomes obvious that, unless we make our “war” more accessible to more people, we will soon be speaking to empty rooms. And yes–music was very important!

  3. Meg, I thoroughly enjoyed and heartily agree with your post. I am always heartened to see a discussion around the Civil War that deals with more than battlefield tactics and placement. I am finishing up a book on the 1st Florida Union Cavalry Volunteers that is trying to get at the “unionism” of the men who served and the communities they lived in. Recently, while also working on digitizing the 176 year old church records (Missionary Baptist at that point) of the church my ancestors helped found in 1840 I discovered that a significant number of the men of the church served with the Union in Pensacola. I knew some of my ancestors had but I was a bit surprised in the number of others who did. The discovery generated new questions to ponder on the society and culture in northwest Florida prior to and during the war. There is still much to learn and I do feel those lessons are relevant to today if we are willing to listen. Thanks for a great post.

  4. Meg:

    Great article.
    To really understand the Civil War and its effects on later generations, one must understand the war’s many non-battlefield issues. As you indicate, too few books have been written on these subjects.

    1. A lot of good work in a variety of areas is being done at the academic level. I am hopeful that it is only a matter of time before it trickles down to a more public acceptance of a variety of views and topics. Thank you for being a regular ECW reader. We appreciate it!

  5. Bravo and kudos Meg!! Battles are very interesting to me, but the stories of the individuals in them make it real (relevant). Your comment about the soldier’s religious faith, and how it makes many uncomfortable today is interesting. Why do you think that is?
    Your pic of the one armed vet in the carriage is moving, indeed. I will have to take a look at the Marching Home book. What I think about, is those who did not march home! In a small community, where maybe a 100 men formed a company and marched off, then in a vicious battle, 80% were lost, what was the impact on their town? It must have been devastating! Who would fill the jobs, such as blacksmith, or printer? Who would the local girls marry, since so many people often seldom traveled beyond their community? A large percentage of the soldiers were under 20, never married, and perhaps had only their mother to grieve for them, then were forgotten. Has anyone ever read a study on this?

  6. Ron–I have a hunch about why religion makes some folks nervous, but I think it is probably not politically correct to discuss. Somehow faith and ignorance have gotten bound up together. ’tis a shame. The questions you ask in your second paragraph made me laugh out loud! These are exactly the questions asked by Dr. J. David Hacker when he compared the 1850, 1860 and 1870 censuses (maybe more) and found a lot of missing men. This led to a recounting of the Civil War dead, which has changed the way historians look at the war. Several unit histories follow these questions as well. Marching Home has great references. you know you have “crossed over” when the references in a history book are next to you, and you are on amazon, with a checklist! That would be me . . .

  7. Enjoyed your article. As a “wanna-be” historian who served a career in the military myself, I am one of your “Battles, Leaders and Campaigns” guy, but I understand the need for a multi-dimensional approach to the study of the Civil War era. I find that too many people look at the Civil War in a vacuum, and don’t include the whole picture of our country’s founding and growth before and after. By looking at the Civil War in such a way I think people really lose the whole impact of why that period of our history is so important to understand. As a retired military NCO, I study and read about the military battles and campaigns because battlefield leadership is, to me, inspiring and riveting. But as much as I like to read and learn about the thought processes and actions of Grant and Sherman, as a former enlisted soldier I also like to delve into the experiences of the common soldier in the ranks. I used to avoid period 1st hand accounts because I wanted to avoid their bias and only wanted the academics researched perspective, but I’ve learned to really appreciate the period 1st hand accounts. Even with their biases and inaccuracies. As the military history volunteer at our local Historical Society, I find myself digging not into battles and campaigns but into the lives of the soldiers as “Veterans”, and their activities post-War in the community.
    Sorry for the long rambling comment, I just intended to say Good article but got a little carried away.

    1. Not “carried away,” just excited. It was a reenactor who pointed out that no soldier was born one–he was a son, perhaps a brother, a husband, or a dad. He worked, was schooled, worshipped, ate, laughed, and maybe even played Base Ball! As a former NCO, I am sure you appreciate the need to “crank” on officers. First-person period accounts are really fun for that, and those guys seem much less far away when I realize they were so much like we are. We love them, and I feel a real need to make others share my passion. Huzzah! (and thanks!)

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