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 event 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.
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.
Prayer 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.
One 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.
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 today. 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.
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.