The other evening, I was having a conversation with my closest and dearest friend about my recent trip to Gettysburg. I told her about the wall of photographs of men who had been casualties, and how important I felt the use of soldiers’ diaries and letters were to the experience at the museum and to understanding how the war impacted the lives of those who lived through it. I said to her that, after all, they were not that different from us. My friend is a woman of great intelligence, compassion, and insight and, when I was done, she questioned the motivations of those who might seek to romanticize the war. Her comments stayed with me in the days since that conversation and made me question whether some of my essays on this blog have ever leaned towards romanticizing the war. If so, I want to tell all of my readers that that has not and never will be my intent.
To be certain, the Civil War has been romanticized in the past and that nostalgic veil still clouds the vision of many who profess an interest in its history. Part of the reason for this romantic view was the way many of its participants approached the war at its beginning, as well as how they and the nation remembered the experience years later. In 1861, most of the men who enlisted had well-defined views on the causes of the war and their reasons for fighting. But, their genuine patriotic and political motivations were also just as often heavily tinged with romantic views of war as a noble, chivalrous, and gallantly "manly" undertaking. For all of them, the actual experience of war would soon dash any romance from their souls. They would experience the boredom and harshness of life in an army camp, the rigors of life on campaign, and then, more importantly, the horrific sights and sounds of battle. As others before and after them, they would learn that there is no nobility in seeing other men die agonizing deaths, especially when, as was so often the case in the volunteer units on both sides, they are men and boys with whom you grew up, who you have known all your life, and who, in some cases, may be a dearly loved brother or father.
But, what is most remarkable about the men who fought this war is that, when you read their diaries and letters, you see that, while the romantic notions about the war quickly disintegrated, the dedication to cause and comrade never did. And, as the war continued to grind on, as the slaughter continued and became even more frightful, their dedication turned into an almost steely resolve to see the war through to a final resolution. However, once the war was over and the years began to pass, these same men needed that romance once more, this time to help heal the deep emotional wounds they had suffered. That need can be seen in the numerous Civil War memoirs authored in the late 19th century. Many, written in the flowery Victorian prose of the time, are filled with descriptions of noble sacrifice, of quick, sudden death in the midst of a gallant charge. Few describe men lingering in agony for hours and even days between the lines, crying out for water, only to die alone, their bodies bloating in the summer heat until a burial detail threw their remains in a common, shallow trench once the armies had moved on.
A very select few memoirs, such as Frank Wilkeson’s Turned Inside Out: Recollections of a Private Soldier in the Army of the Potomac, tell a more honest version of the fears and horrors of this war. Even his book’s title reflects the war’s harsh realities as it refers to the common experience of coming upon a dead soldier whose pockets have been turned inside out by other soldiers looking for money, valuables, or even food—not a very romantic vision at all. Memoirs like Wilkeson’s, along with the letters and diaries written during the war, are all documents penned without the filter of time, without a soft veil of nostalgia, and they give us a more realistic view of the suffering this war caused.
At the same time, I know some might charge that my descriptions of bravery, of courage, and of incredible valor somehow serve to romanticize the war, and I see how that might be. But, in my own defense, let me explain my reasons for telling those stories. Perhaps the most incredible thing about this war is that, amidst the inhumanity, the cruelty, the stupidity, and the reckless slaughter of thousands of young men, all that is worst in human nature, there was bravery and courage, and a belief in the necessity to sacrifice for a cause and for the man standing next to you. These are some of the best qualities in humanity, and they are the ones that should be remembered, that should endure for all of us. These qualities, along with the tragic loss of much life, form a powerful combination for me, what I described in another essay as great pride balanced by equally profound sorrow, and a sense of incredible tragedy that is combined with humble gratitude.
What makes all this more important and more profound is the knowledge of what this courage, this endurance, and this loss won for us as Americans: a new nation, a new birth of freedom, and a challenge to become the nation we were meant to be. And, if you have read this blog for very long, you also know that I believe we are not there yet, that the challenge the Civil War generation laid down for us still remains unfulfilled. If that sounds romantic to you, then I am guilty as charged, and gladly so. However, I see this as more idealistic than romantic, and I choose to embrace this legacy that has been left in our charge.
I will conclude with some words from the legendary Civil War historian, Bruce Catton. Catton once wrote that the most important memory left by the war was the simplest, that of “personal valor—the enduring realization that when the great challenge comes, the most ordinary people can show that they value something more than they value their own lives.” Catton went on to say, “When the last of the veterans were gone, and the sorrow and bitterness which the war created had at last worn away, this memory remained. The men who fought the Civil War, speaking for all Americans, had said something the country could never forget.”
Let’s make sure we don’t forget. Remember, but do so with an open eye and an open mind, one that rips away that romantic, nostalgic veil, that seeks to understand the reality of the war with all its suffering, cruelty, and tragedy, as well as the courage, endurance, and determination of those who saw it through. Don’t look for nobility and chivalry, as there is little to be found. Rather, try to understand and come to know the reality, the horrible catastrophe that this war truly was, and leave the romance behind, while still cherishing the memory Catton describes and the legacy given to us all.