by Brian Matthew Jordan
In an oft-cited 1998 essay, Edward L. Ayers appealed eloquently to his fellow Civil War historians. It was time, he maintained, to “worry” about the Civil War—to revive the paradoxes, uncertainties, and skepticism that celebratory chronicles of the conflict had long obscured. The years since have seen an incredible flood of scholarship probing what historian Michael C.C. Adams has termed the war’s “dark side.” New scholarship on checkered regiments, merciless killing, and anguished veterans—even innovative work on the environments in which Billy Yank and Johnny Reb battled—have openly defied the hushed tones of triumphalism.
More importantly, this work has fundamentally challenged the arc of the traditional Civil War metanarrative. A renewed interest in the immediate postwar years has led not a few historians to wonder just how much was settled in Wilmer McLean’s parlor on Palm Sunday 1865. Caveats have replaced simple answers. Debates over whether the Civil War was a “total” war have lost their pungency, only to be replaced by new questions about the war’s essential character.
Just what kind of war was this, and how did nineteenth century Americans internalize it?
While counting sleepless nights, festering wounds, and chronic diseases among the legacies of the Civil War should not diminish the social and political transformations that the war wrought, it does require us to think anew about the complex meanings of the war for the generation that lived it—as well as our own relationship to the war as Americans peering back across the decades. Needless to say, none of this “dark” scholarship has advanced without controversy, allegations of presentism, or stinging indictments from historians wedded to their received narratives.
As the ongoing debates roiling the field make clear, the Civil War metanarrative is in a state of crisis; recent scholarship has so shattered esteemed dichotomies and illusions of consensus that we need a new synthesis of the Civil War era: one that embraces the war’s agonies and accomplishments as part of a single story whose constituent parts cannot be disentangled. It has been nearly thirty years since Oxford published James McPherson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning synthesis, The Battle Cry of Freedom—and while several solid survey histories have appeared in the intervening years, no single author has, of yet, taken stock of the new lay of the land.
This new synthesis must find a way articulate the war’s pain and suffering as hopelessly bound up in the war’s meaning. Critics of the “dark turn” argue that work foregrounding anguish and suffering somehow “distorts” our picture of the war. But as my colleague Lesley J. Gordon has recently pointed out, these claims discount the reality that Civil War Americans themselves wrestled with the war’s purpose, debated its meaning, and were preoccupied by its violence. In no way do we detract from the Civil War’s historical significance—or imply that it was needless—by charting its human longitude. Quite to the contrary, I think.
Many Union veterans, for example, eloquently recorded the human cost of the war while, in the same breath, exalting it as the nation’s providential triumph. During his convalescence in an Indiana hospital after a serious wound, John W. English slipped into a dreamy state. In his surreal “vision,” the enlisted man stood “on the pinnacle of a great mountain” and beheld:
the thousands of wounded and dying soldiers and their heart broken fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters, wives and children, all over the once peaceful and happy country. At last the cloud of smoke lifted and I saw many thousands of brave lads who had laid down their lives for their county on the bloody battlefield. Far away to the rear, on either side, were hundreds of great structures filled with tens of thousands more who has escaped with their lives but had been wounded in battle or were ill from the effects of war. I grew sick at the sight of all this misery and anguish and turned to view another scene. Strains of martial music filled the air as I saw a vast military camp of many thousands engaged in drilling and learning the arts and rules of warfare, preparing to engage in a fearful struggle to see who could kill the most and do the largest amount of destruction. Far and near on every side was seen the smoke of great factories engaged in producing guns and munitions of war, while thousands vied with each other in construction of them…Then, casting my eyes away to the southward, over the most delightful and heaven favored portion of this once happy and prosperous land, I saw the worst scene of all. Here were great cities in flames, vast farms, dwellings, crops, and property of every description being destroyed by fire; thousands of miles of once rich and beautiful plains, hills and valleys laid waste and desolate; school houses turned into soldier barracks, churches into hospitals from which arose, not the sound of prayer, praise, and Thanksgiving, but the agonizing groans of the suffering victims of the fearful battle. I turned away and once more the hideous monster, God of War, stood before me. He cried, ‘Behold, the United States under my rule.’ My vision fled and in its place I saw the Ohio River still rolling on its course and the city of Evansville still unharmed.
To put it another way, this new synthesis must approach the Civil War as John English did: not as an event, but as a human experience—one whose complexity could not be captured with catchphrases.
Thanks to the blizzard of paper that the armies left behind in the form of compiled service records, regimental order books, and pension files (to say nothing of their regimental histories, pocket diaries, and personal manuscripts), we probably know more about the men who fought in the Civil War than any other single cohort of nineteenth century Americans. Relying on these sources, as well as databases and digital tools that have democratized access to them, scholars have already begun to access the human and emotional elements of the conflict in ways previously unthinkable. Insights from social history are renewing cultural history.
Scholars of the war’s memory, for example, are not working exclusively on monument dedications or commemorative activities; rather, they are exploring how individuals or groups of individuals actively made memory, deliberated about the war’s meaning, and processed a veritable storm of emotions. They are interested in memory, narrative, and war as complex and intertwined human processes. Lesley Gordon’s A Broken Regiment (2014) and Martha Hodes’s Mourning Lincoln (2015) are both recent, brilliant examples of this trend. Taking a micro-historical approach (Gordon) and reading sources across the grain for evidence of emotion in the wake of Booth’s vile crime (Hodes), these books will easily become models for future work. Think about how we might re-interpret the war’s major events (or perhaps rescue seemingly “trivial” ones) by tracking how members of the Civil War generation dealt with them physically, psychologically, and emotionally.
Approaching the war as they did—analyzing how they felt it, how they experienced it, and how they processed it—might compel us to rethink unspoken rubrics of historical “significance.” A few years ago, historian Barton Myers made similar points in a similar essay; it is high time that more scholars took us up.
In short, this is an eminently exciting time for scholars of our nation’s fratricidal conflict. We are on the cusp of a new narrative—an intimate, human history—that will once again defy those who dare to ask, “what new can be said about the American Civil War?”
Brian Matthew Jordan is assistant professor of history at Sam Houston State University and author of Marching Home: Union Veterans and Their Unending Civil War (2015), which was a finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for History.