Some 620,000 people died in the United States’s costliest war, all of them Americans killed by other Americans. For the first time anywhere, populations preyed on each other with industrialized efficiency, attracting the attention of a world keen on witnessing the birth of modern slaughter. At stake were issues of profound importance: basic human freedom, sovereignty, the definition of self-government, and the limits of revolution, to name a few. It was—is—the defining watershed in the nation’s history. No wonder we’re preoccupied with it.
But our fascination goes beyond that. In addition to being the crucible in which America was reshaped, the Civil War was an enthralling drama. Its scale and ferocity were Homeric, its tragedies Shakespearean. And its endlessly varied characters seem to have walked off the pages of literature’s most imaginative fiction.
Dan Sickles, for instance, was one of the nineteenth century’s most notorious rogues. But he went on to become a political general whose performance in the war’s greatest battle produced controversy equal to his outrageous behavior in civilian life. ThomasJackson, by contrast, would have disappeared beneath the pages of posterity as a backwoods eccentric, middling teacher, and religious zealot. War, however, afforded his bizarre suite of abilities an opportunity to make military history, vaulting this humorless oddball into the pantheon of hallowed warlords—an unlikely fate indeed, given the material of which he was made. Such sensational lives are a dime a dozen in the War Between the States, presenting a panoply of weakness, heroism, triumph, waste, irony, idiocy, and even romance. Their stories are inherently irresistible, and not always because they performed a tremendous deed or won a crucial battle. Sometimes they wore carpet slippers into combat, blew off the president with astounding impropriety, had a nervous breakdown, or carried a hambone in their pocket. “Fascinating” wears all sorts of faces.
From the great and famous whose names have become household phrases to the numberless and forgotten whose lives require more effort to reveal, the players in this greatest of American struggles were human beings—flawed, awkward, spontaneous, strange, earnest, neurotic, and often quite smelly. No amount of eulogizing or monument-building can erase this salient fact. And that is as it should be.