Military history


The End of the War

LEE, whose retreat towards Lynchburg continued, managed to remain ahead of the Union pursuit during April 8 but by then it was clear to both Union and Confederate headquarters that the arrangement of a formal cessation of hostilities could not be long delayed. The Northern army dominated the field of operations. The Southern army was urgently in need of sustenance which only the enemy could supply. Lee sent another letter, asking Grant to meet him but disdaining any intention to surrender, and asking for a statement of terms. Grant, for once, did not, as he had during the Henry and Donelson campaign and at Vicksburg, insist that the terms be unconditional. An uncharacteristic tenderness informed the letters he began to exchange with Lee. Lee asked Grant to meet him between the two armies’ picket lines, but Grant, emphasising that he had no authority to negotiate peace, refused. Lee kept the rendezvous, but finding Grant absent returned to Appomattox. Meade, meanwhile, was forming the Army of the Potomac into line of battle, for a final and conclusive attack. Grant was with the other column. The impending clash was averted when Meade was informed by one of Sheridan’s officers that the two supreme commanders were closeted at Appomattox. Grant, who was suffering from an acute headache, spent the night of April 8 in a farmhouse at Curdsville. When he rose, still in pain, he joined his staff to ride to the nearby village of Appomattox Court House, where Lee and his headquarters was known to be. Riding into the village street, they were told that Lee was in a house fronting the street; he had arrived a little earlier, and one of Lee’s officers had told a resident whom he met in the street that he wanted the use of a house in which to meet General Grant. Wilmer McLean had moved to Appomattox Court House from Manassas after the battle there, in the hope of avoiding further disturbance by the war. He now showed Lee into the front room of one of the village houses, but Lee deemed the premises too cramped and undignified for the business that had to be done. McLean therefore took him into his own front room. The McLean house was a roomy, double-fronted dwelling with a pillared verandah, built in Federal style. It had a driveway round it and a yard at the rear in which, when Grant and his staff arrived, Lee’s famous horse, Traveller, was tethered. The other officers held back while Grant entered the front room to introduce himself to Lee. They then entered to find seats or to arrange themselves standing. Grant’s opening words to Lee were, “I met you once before, General Lee, while we were serving in Mexico, when you came over from General Scott’s headquarters to visit Garland’s brigade, to which I then belonged. I have always remembered your appearance, and I think I should have recognised you anywhere.” “Yes,” replied Lee, “I know I met you on that occasion, and have often thought of it and tried to recollect how you looked but I have never been able to recall a single feature.”1 The exchange reflected their different appearances. Lee, six feet tall and with classical good looks, stood out in any company. The much shorter and undistinguished-looking Grant was at a physical disadvantage, which was quite cancelled out at this meeting by his status as the victor and Lee’s as the vanquished.

Lee opened the proceedings by asking, “I suppose, General Grant, that the object of our present meeting is fully understood? I asked to see you to ascertain upon what terms you would receive the surrender of my army.” Grant answered that the terms were as already stated, that those surrendering should be “paroled and disqualified from taking up arms again until properly exchanged, and that all arms, ammunition and supplies to be delivered up as captured property.” Lee nodded his agreement and Grant expressed the hope that there should be an immediate suspension of hostilities to avoid any further loss of life. Grant then called for his message book so that he could write out a draft of terms. To them he added as an afterthought that the personal weapons and baggage of officers were not to be surrendered. Lee then mentioned that in the Confederate army horses and mules were usually the private property of the soldiers. Grant declared that he was unfamiliar with that custom but accepted that many in the Confederate army, being small farmers, would need their horses and mules to put in a crop to see their families through the next winter. He declined to alter the wording of the surrender document but gave Lee his assurance that he would instruct the supervising officers to allow men to take animals they claimed to own. Lee said, “This will have the best possible effect upon the men. It will be very gratifying and will do much toward conciliating our people.”2 Grant next presented his officers, whom Lee acknowledged formally. He was taken aback to be confronted by a man of dark complexion, apparently taking him for a Negro. He was in fact Colonel Ely Parker, a Native American who was reigning chief of the Six Civilized Nations. As the group started to disperse, Lee asked for rations for his men and Grant agreed, after a discussion about numbers, to send what was available; 25,000 rations were distributed. The meeting was courteous on both sides, though Lee had said beforehand that he would have rather died a thousand deaths than meet Grant to arrange surrender. As soon as Lee left the room, the members of Grant’s staff began to bargain with Mr. McLean for mementos. George Custer paid twenty dollars for the table at which Lee had sat; Grant’s table fetched forty. By the time the party left, the room was bare of furniture.

When Grant returned to camp, his staff gathered round expecting him to discuss the surrender. Instead Grant asked General Rufus Ingalls, “Do you remember that old white mule so-and-so used to ride when we were in the city of Mexico?” The old white mule remained the subject of conversation for some time. Not until after supper would Grant discuss the surrender and then not for long. He shortly announced his intention to leave for Washington next day. In practice, he did not depart until the day after. In the interval he had ridden into the lines of the surrendered army, where he and Lee exchanged salutes and then returned to sit on the verandah of the McLean house and receive visits from old friends in the Confederate ranks, including Longstreet, who had been at his wedding, and Pickett, among others. When, at noon, Grant rode off to take the train to Washington, Lee departed for Richmond. Grant had forbidden demonstrations of rejoicing, sending a message to his soldiers stating “The war is over, the rebels are our countrymen again and the best sign of rejoicing after victory will be to abstain from all demonstrations in the field.”3

While Lee rode to Richmond, Jefferson Davis, with his cabinet, was travelling south, first by train, then, escorted by a troop of Tennessee cavalrymen, on horseback. He want first to Danville, Virginia, where he learnt of Lee’s surrender, a bitter blow. He went next to Greensboro and Charlotte, in North Carolina, then to Abbeville, South Carolina. His flight was to last thirty days and cover 400 miles, culminating at Irwinville, Georgia, where on May 10 he and his wife and what remained of his entourage were captured by men of the 1st Wisconsin and 4th Michigan Cavalry. Disrespectfully, for he maintained his dignity to the end, he was mocked and jeered by his captors as they rode him away to imprisonment at Fortress Monroe, where he would spend two years, the first weeks in chains. Lincoln, brought to Richmond by ship, sat in Davis’s office only forty hours after he had left it.

Meanwhile, other Union cavalrymen were searching the countryside for John Wilkes Booth. Booth, a successful and well-known actor but a fanatical devotee of the Confederate cause, had, with others, spent much of March and April 1865 plotting to do harm to President Lincoln. They first thought of kidnapping him and holding him to ransom for the sake of concessions, then realised that a kidnap attempt would fail and decided on assassination. There were half a dozen conspirators, mainly misfits and dropouts. Booth was by far the most impressive of the gang, a strikingly handsome twenty-seven-year-old actor who was earning $20,000 a year on the stage.

On the evening of April 14, Good Friday in 1865, Booth entered Ford’s Theatre, six blocks from the White House, where the well-known comedy Our American Cousin was playing. He found his way to Lincoln’s box, where Lincoln and his wife were sitting close together, and, drawing a pistol, shot the president in the back of the head. Then shouting, “Sic semper tyrannis” (So perish all tyrants), a familiar Latin tag which happened to be the motto of the Commonwealth of Virginia, he leapt twelve feet to the stage and hobbled off. He had broken his leg, but having a horse tethered nearby, he made his escape, bluffed his way past a sentry on the Potomac bridge, and escaped into the Virginia countryside. There during the next twelve days he passed from the house of one Confederate sympathiser to another, not all of whom knew he was the hated assassin, until on April 26, while taking refuge in a tobacco barn on the farm of a family named Garrett on the Rappahannock River, he was run to earth. Found by questing Union cavalrymen, he challenged them to a shoot-out but their officer threw in a burning twist of hay which set fire to the whole building. While Booth hobbled about inside, one of the soldiers outside fired a shot which mortally wounded him.

One of Booth’s accomplices had tried and nearly succeeded in murdering Secretary of State Seward. The vice president, Andrew Johnson, survived, because his nominated assailant lost his nerve. It was estimated that seven million people lined the track of the train carrying Lincoln’s body, which had lain in state in the White House, back to Springfield for burial in Illinois. The death of Lincoln, mourned as a national tragedy and a sort of martyrdom, left the government in severe disarray, with a host of problems unresolved. For several years there had been much debate in the North over Reconstruction, or how the South should be treated after the Union was restored. Reconstruction did not mean, as it might to modern ears, the physical rebuilding of the war-ravaged states. There was no thought at all, nor would there have been support for, a financial programme to restore the South’s economic life. Reconstruction meant the rebuilding of the Union, a subject on which Northerners held very varied ideas. Lincoln had wanted to begin by pardoning, after they had taken an oath of loyalty, all Southerners, who would thus preserve their rights of property except in slaves. Excepted were those who had held office in the Confederate government or high military rank. The state governments were to be reconstituted by election, the right to vote going to those who had sworn loyalty, so long as they numbered 10 percent of the electorate in the last pre-war election of 1860. These provisions were incorporated into a peace convention which the officers of the federal government correctly condemned as a little better than a peace treaty. Jefferson Davis, in refuge at Goldsboro, North Carolina, was not unnaturally only too willing to accept these terms, but Washington repudiated them all. The war had not been fought to end in what was virtually a recognition of Southern sovereignty.

Some experiments in restored state governments were made before the end of the war, in those states wholly occupied by the Union, such as Louisiana and Arkansas. In some states the suffrage was extended to blacks, though with great reluctance. Over the coming years it was almost everywhere withdrawn by the passage of what became known as “Black Codes.”

Blacks obtained less from Reconstruction than Lincoln had intended, particularly economically. Among the freed slaves there was a universal hunger for land, which they almost always lacked the money to purchase. On the other hand, their former owners needed their labour to bring farms and plantations back into cultivation. The solution to the impasse proved to be the sharecropping system, by which owners leased land in return for a portion of the crop. Because it entailed the commitment of the following year’s crop against credit, the system effectively reimposed that binding of the black to a particular plot under a particular master which had been almost the most hated feature of plantation slavery. Northern opinion never really concerned itself, however, with the ex-slaves’ economic lot. Far more important in the eye of Northern reformers was the establishment of their electoral rights. Northern Republicans, overwhelmingly the controlling faction in the occupied regions, wanted to be assured that blacks would be allowed to vote, though at home they showed little enthusiasm for the admission of blacks to the electoral process. In the South, assuring that the blacks would not exercise decisive electoral power, or even any power at all, became an object that united almost all white Southerners.

Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s successor as president, was a Southerner who scarcely troubled to disguise his sympathy for the defeated. His insistence on attempting to rescue members of his race from the consequences of rebellion provoked in 1866-68 a political crisis almost as great as that which had led to rebellion in 1861. The president and Congress were at loggerheads. Congress, though by no means as benevolent as its most radical members claimed it to be, fundamentally disapproved of Southern resistance to Reconstruction and of the president’s efforts to further that resistance. The most important evidence of Congress’s reformism was its promulgation of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1866. It was effectively a bill of rights, guaranteeing the new black citizens their political and legal equality. Johnson urged the Southern states not to ratify it, a requirement if it were to become law, and they followed his bidding. This, however, was only a delaying measure. The amendment was later ratified and became law. Presidential opposition so outraged Congress, however, that in March 1867 it passed a Reconstruction Act that imposed its desired version of a post-war settlement on the South by diktat. Ten former Confederate states (Tennessee, always strongly Unionist, had been readmitted to the Union in 1866) were grouped into five military districts each ruled by a military governor with extensive powers. When law and order had been assured, states were to organise conventions to amend state constitutions so as to conform with the Constitution of the United States, including the incorporation of the Fourteenth Amendment. When these stages had been completed, the conforming state could be readmitted to the Union and to representation in the federal Congress. Faced with a process that threatened black intervention in state politics, most Southern states demonstrated their readiness to persist with their provisional governments, hastily established after the surrender and in effect continuations of the Confederate regimes. As a result, Congress had to empower the military governors to impose its will. It was grudgingly accepted and between 1868 and 1870 all ten former Confederate states still outside the Union were readmitted. In 1869, to confirm the progress thus achieved, Congress passed the Fifteenth Amendment, which in brief but unambiguous terms stated that citizens’ rights were not to be limited by “race, color or previous condition of servitude.” Within five years of the end of the war, it might therefore have appeared that the purposes for which the war had been fought, including emancipation as well as restoring the union, had all been achieved.

Such, however, was not the case. The South had been beaten but had not been fundamentally changed. Anti-black feeling was a universal emotion and state localism more powerful than loyalty to the union. Almost none of the former Confederate states were under the government of men who accepted Congress’s desire for equality and the untrammelled rule of law. Ingenious political minds, of which there were a plethora in the South, soon found ways to preserve white supremacy and deny black rights without formally transgressing the dictate of Congress. This informal secession was to persist for a century, and result in a rigidly segregated society, until the rise of the civil rights movement in the 1950s.

The Civil War at its start was a unique conflict, in which the combatants tried to do their worst to each other by drill-book learning. The wonder is that they could function at all. They scarcely could; the early engagements of the war justified the contemptuous dismissals of European observers, who viewed them as conflicts between armed mobs. What lent purpose was the determination of the men in the ranks to turn themselves into soldiers, by sheer effort of will. The process was slow and laborious. As late as Gettysburg, there were few regiments on either side that knew how to fight effectively. The performance of the 20th Maine at Little Round Top, though it changed position under fire, was due to the dynamic leadership and force of character of its commander, Joshua Chamberlain, but Chamberlains were few. Their numbers were diminished, moreover, by the startlingly high casualties, particularly among officers, always inflicted in battle. Civil War armies were destroyed almost as fast as they were formed. The 7th New York Heavy Artillery, one of several heavy artillery regiments converted to infantry after the Army of the Potomac’s disabling losses in the Overland Campaign, lost 291 men killed and 500 wounded in its last stages. So high was the fatality rate, and that of wounding, that it is a rational enquiry to ask how the Civil War soldier sustained his courage, suppressed his fear, and returned to combat. James McPherson, the Civil War’s leading contemporary historian, has devoted one of his studies of the war to that subject. InFor Cause and Comrades (1997), McPherson separates the questions into three: What impelled a soldier to enlist? What motivated him to fight? What sustained his steadfastness? The first question is the easiest to answer. The Northern volunteers of 1861-62 joined up because they were outraged by the South’s assault on the integrity of the republic, a motive which most retained throughout their service, even though it was undermined by combat fatigue and homesickness as the war protracted. An impressively large proportion of the early volunteers served throughout the war if they escaped wounds or capture. Such emotions were offset by what Professor McPherson identifies as the sentiments of “duty, honor, country,” very much like those that underlay enlistment in the first place. Such motives were reinforced by the recognition that, having journeyed through the war thus far, their sacrifice would be nullified if they gave up before the decision had been achieved. Persistence was always attacked, however, by the brute facts of battle when the stress of battle supervened. Then the men in the ranks overcame their fear by sensing the greater fear of being thought a coward. In letters home almost all soldiers tried to explain how they bore the terror of facing the enemy and why they refused to seek a way out, emphasising their horror of being thought a coward, particularly by comrades known to their families. It is exactly true that of the Civil War soldier, as of most soldiers in most wars, his greatest fear was of fear itself. Primary fear was entirely rational, since the risk of death or wounding in battle was very high. One in ten Union soldiers was wounded, one in sixty-five killed, while one in thirteen died of disease. Confederate figures were similar but less than those of the Union, because of the South’s lack of white numbers. As long as the war persisted and casualties were inflicted at that rate, Northern victory was foreordained. Certainty, however, was prejudiced by the effect of military losses and occasional setbacks.

The war had inflicted more than a million total casualties, of whom 200,000 had been killed in battle. The total exceeds that of the American fatalities of the Second World War and bears comparison only with the European losses of the Great War and Russia’s in the Second World War. In many respects the Civil War was and remains America’s Great War, in the way it is commemorated nationally in so many towns and battlefield cemeteries and subjectively and collectively in the American consciousness. Just as even at the beginning of the twenty-first century most Europeans, certainly most people in Britain, know and remember the identities of family members who were killed on the Somme or at Passchendaele, so living Americans remember ancestors who died at Gettysburg or Cold Harbor. The links remain startlingly close. An American neighbour, married to an Englishman, never ceases to surprise me by remembering that both her grandfathers fought in the Confederate army, one at Gettysburg. There is this difference between the Civil War and the Great War, however. The Great War is always spoken of with regret in Europe. It is the Continent’s tragedy, the cause of many of its persisting troubles, the war without justification or point. No such regrets attach to the Civil War, which is remembered as the struggle which completed the Revolution and made possible the realisation of the ideals on which the Founding Fathers launched the republic in the 1770s. The memory of the war, of the terrible casualties of its costliest battles, strikes a chill, naturally. It also, however, brings a glow of pride, at the sacrifice a previous generation was ready to make in the cause of ideals held central to its life by modern America; equality, human freedom, the rights of the individual before the law. Such reaction comes more readily to Northerners than to Southerners. Southerners, however, have found ways, consistent with American values, in honouring their Civil War generation, the bravery and patriotism, which somehow overlies the Confederacy’s commitment to the preservation of slavery.

Indeed, the causes of the war are now its least remembered ingredients. What persists are the values and qualities which animated those who fought; and, as with so many other wars which are central to the national life of the countries that fought them, the thrill and romance of the events of the war, seen as a historic drama. There is much to fuel the imagination in the Civil War so remembered. Wars usually and by obvious mechanisms lose their horrors in imaginative retrospect. The sufferings of those who experienced wounds are easily forgotten, submerged under the supposed sensation of charge and counter-charge. This seems particularly the case with the Civil War, perhaps because it was being romanticised even in the lifetime of the survivors. Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg was re-enacted by a gray-headed contingent of participants on the battlefield at a convention of veterans, both North and South, held in 1913. The meeting went entirely without recrimination. Lack of recrimination was equally characteristic of the literature of the war that began to appear in its immediate aftermath and has never ceased to do so.

The first task was to tell the story of the war, an enormous undertaking in itself. Soon, however, narrative was overtaken by the urge to interpret. What had the war been about? Southerners, from the start and until modern times, had no difficulty in demonstrating that it had been about states’ rights, Northerners that it had been about preserving the union and suppressing rebellion; it could not be forgotten, however, that Lincoln’s opinion was that the war had “in some way been about slavery,” a point of view which grew in strength the more often expressed. Eventually, except in the South, the belief that the war had been fought to abolish slavery came to dominate interpretation. In parallel with discussion of cause, there arose another strand of interpretation: what had the war been like, as a human experience? As the war receded in memory and those who had fought reached the end of their lives, the nature of the war became the matter of overriding interest and the urge to re-create its realities came to possess the writers of the great popular histories of the war which appeared as the centenary approached.

American writers naturally chose to argue that the war was unlike any of the other great wars of history. They had reason to do so. The Civil War was and remains the only large-scale war fought between citizens of the same democratic state. It was as a result the most important ideological war in history. That quality lent particular fascination to the story of its battles. Both sides at Gettysburg were animated by belief in the justice of their cause and fought with the greater determination because of that. A strong cause, in the sense of the reason for fighting, was necessary because of the extreme danger on Civil War battlefields, where close-order ranks, meeting at short range, were subjected to firepower of an intensity not previously encountered in war. To an extraordinary degree, the Civil War was a war of battles—frequent, bloody, but yet not decisive. Both sides at the start expected and sought a great battle that would determine the outcome and end the fighting. No such battle was fought, even as the end approached. The cycle of battles kept on unfolding even within sight of Appomattox, where the war was terminated by surrender.

Yet though the threat and reality of battle determined the character of the war, it was not ultimately the opposition of the enemy ranked for combat which prolonged the struggle. There was another element of resistance that had to be overcome and which never relented. That was the military geography of the war. It supplied the South with its most formidable ally and the North with its most unyielding opponent. Time and again, in almost every account of the conduct of campaigns, the obstacles which most hampered the North’s armies in their pursuit of victory were terrain and landscape, the enormous distances to be traversed, the multiplicity of waterways to be crossed, the ubiquity and impenetrability of forests, the gradient and contour of mountain ranges. In a real sense, the North was fighting the country itself in its struggle to overcome the South. Certainly, whatever else the student of the Civil War will learn from following its unfolding story, the facts of American geography will imprint themselves on his consciousness. It is that which lends the war its continuing fascination. Those who fought the war are now all dead. The causes for which it was fought have been settled, but the determining facts of its scenes of action remain, as dominating and impressive as they ever were. As long as the Mississippi flows and the great American forest spreads, the Civil War remains with us and so will never be forgotten.


The Civil War left a patchwork legacy, both at home and abroad. In Europe, and particularly among European soldiers, the military significance of the war, though it was the largest and costliest of the nineteenth century, was largely ignored. Europe had its own nineteenth-century dispute about the value of volunteer armies. The professionals, both for military and political reasons, deprecated the raising of and depending upon volunteer armies, because of the danger they saw to established order of arming the masses. This attitude was particularly strong in Prussia, Europe’s leading military nation, because Prussian officers, who affected an aristocratic manner not always founded on social reality, feared that a people’s army could also be a democratic army, at a time when democracy was held to threaten the supremacy of king and property. Curiously, the same officers did not oppose the raising of conscript armies from the mass of the population, as long as recruitment was tilted towards the countryside and command and leadership was firmly attached to the landowner-officer class. The German and French armies in consequence declined to see any value in the study of Civil War campaigns, or Civil War generalship, or Civil War mobilisation of national resources. The British, who did not follow the view of Europe into the practice of conscription, but retained a small volunteer army with a class-based officer corps, took more interest and a British regular officer, Colonel G. R. S. Henderson, wrote the first objective biography of Stonewall Jackson. In a later generation, the British military radical Basil Liddell Hart would write equally influentially about Grant and Sherman.

At home, the legacy of the Civil War was naturally far stronger and more immediate. Several Civil War leaders continued their army careers in the Indian wars on the high plains in the 1860s and 1870s, notably Sherman and Custer. Much that the Department of the Army had learnt in 1861-65 was incorporated into its policies and procedures. The remarkable United States mobilisation for the Great War in 1917-18, which produced an army of five million in less than a year, owed a lot to what had been learnt in 1861-65, while its involvement in arms procurement led eventually to the creation of the Industrial College of the Armed Forces after the First World War. In other less predictable ways, the legacy of the Civil War was surprisingly limited. While the Great War of 1914-18 inspired or at least motivated an extraordinary literary movement in England which in some ways persists to this day, it had no counterpart in America. The Civil War left no equivalent of Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, or Wilfred Owen. Many veterans wrote their war memoirs, but typically they were more like war diaries or recollections of battle than literary achievements. As the American celebrator of English Great War literature Paul Fussell has pointed out, that brilliant literary flowering was the product of the impact of terrible loss of life and suffering on a highly educated officer class, drawn from the public schools and ancient universities, where the young men had been exposed to Greek and Latin literature and the lyrical and romantic verse of the great English poets. Nineteenth-century America had no such literary tradition of its own and no such literary class. Civil War-era America was a literate country, the most literate in the world, but not a literary one. Americans were therefore not drawn to write of their experience of the war in poetic or psychologically explorative terms, and there was no school of literary realism to guide American Civil War writers into the right emotional and psychological path if they were to produce an explicitly imaginative narrative of the war. Edmund Wilson, the great American literary critic, alludes to that state of affairs in his essay on John De Forest in Patriotic Gore, his survey of the literature of the Civil War. De Forest was a man of independent means who had travelled in Europe and the Middle East before 1861. He returned to the United States precisely because of the war and raised an infantry company in his hometown, New Haven, Connecticut. De Forest spent forty-six days under fire and so, when he came to write his memoirs about the war, knew what he was describing. In 1867 he published Miss Ravenel’s Conversion from Secession to Loyalty, which contained striking passages of description of battle. Edmund Wilson recognised in De Forest’s approach what he called “the birth of realism” in American writing.

The unusually horrible clamor and the many-sided nature of the danger had an evident effect on the soldiers, hardened as they were to scenes of ordinary battle. Grim faces turned in every direction, with hasty stares of alarm, looking aloft on every side as well as to the front for destruction. Pallid stragglers who had dropped out of the leading brigade, drifted by the Tenth, dodging from trunk to trunk in an instinctive search for cover, though it was visible that the forest was no protection but an additional peril. Every regiment has its two or three cowards, or perhaps its half dozen, weakly hearted creatures whom nothing can make fight and who never do fight. One abject hound, a corporal with his disgraced stripes on his arm, came by with a ghastly backward glance of horror, his face colourless, his eyes protruding and his chin shaking. Colburne cursed him for a poltroon, struck him with the flat of his sabre, and dragged him into the ranks of his own regiment; but the miserable creature was too thoroughly unmanned by the great horror of death to be moved to any show of resentment or even of courage by the indignity; he only gave an idiotic stare with outstretched cheek to the front, then turned with a nervous jerk like that of a scared beast and rushed rearward.4

Later De Forest would write that he “did not dare state the extreme horror of battle and the anguish with which the bravest soldiers struggle through it.”

Despite his diffidence, De Forest undoubtedly did succeed in conveying the extreme horror of battle, particularly Civil War battle, because he was one of the sources used by Stephen Crane in writing The Red Badge of Courage. Since his great book appeared in the 1890s, Crane has always been regarded as the supreme fiction writer of the Civil War. What is even more remarkable is that, as is widely known, Crane, who was in his twenties when The Red Badge appeared, had not only not fought in the Civil War but had never been a soldier and knew nothing of war but what he read. He himself admitted that he based his accounts of the emotions of battle on football games at Yale. However, one of his schoolmasters had served in the same regiment as De Forest and may have told war memories to Crane. Whatever Crane’s sources and given that Whitman’s were wounded soldiers, it remains the case, remarkably, that the two greatest writers of the war had not been in it and had entirely secondhand and detached exposure to its reality.

Whatever the reasons for the absence of a literary legacy of the Civil War from its veterans, there were, nevertheless, vivid and imaginative records in the memories of its survivors. Several hundred thousand young Americans had experienced the fear and exhilaration of battle between 1861 and 1865; tens of thousands of them carried into later life the marks of battle, scars, and missing limbs. When he died in 1914, Joshua Chamberlain, the hero of Little Round Top at Gettysburg, succumbed to the effect of a bullet wound received at Petersburg fifty years earlier. But beside physical marks there were internal, psychological scars that entered the American psyche. Most of the Civil War’s soldiers, North and South, served as combatants, usually in the infantry, and therefore most took part in battle. As a result, hundreds of thousands of Americans of the 1870s and 1880s, the “Gilded Age,” had seen horrors at first hand, dismembered bodies, decapitations, files of corpses ranged so close in roadways or trenches as to make stepping on them unavoidable. There were the horrors of the other senses, splashes of blood or brains from a neighbour wounded in the ranks and, so often recorded, the nauseous smell of decomposing bodies. Whole battlefields stank, if not from human remains, then from those of dead horses and mules, so often the casualties of war in the age before internal combustion. And the horror not only of smells but of the cries and groans of the untended wounded who often lay uncollected for days after the fighting was over. These terrible sensations inhabited the minds of a whole generation of Americans of postbellum North and South, to be taken back to civilian farms and streets after the guns fell silent. These awful sensations, not to be obliterated by conscious effort, lingered and festered to return unbidden as nightmares or waking horrors, for years afterwards. That was a dimension of the war never to be commemorated. Walt Whitman wrote that “the war we had never got into the books.” He might better have written “the real memory of the war.” In Britain after the Great War, the real memory was painfully resurrected by veterans who, assisted by the new movements in psychology pioneered by Freud and his followers, had persuaded their generation to face their worst and most damaging memories and so perhaps overcome them. There was no such catharsis after 1865.

British Armistice Day, which takes place every year on the Sunday nearest November 11, invites the countrymen of the dead to an act of remembrance. The South could not agree on a memorial day and so for years recognised three days separately. Though the Northern states eventually agreed to commemorate the war annually on May 30, Memorial Day, it never achieved the status of a national act of reconciliation, as Remembrance Day was to do in Britain after the Great War.

The most important literary memorial of the war would be the Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant. After his retirement as president in 1887, he was swindled out of his money. To provide for his family, he devoted his last year to writing. He was simultaneously diagnosed with cancer of the throat but, in a supreme act of determination which was his principal mark of character, concluded the book a week before he died. It sold 300,000 copies in the first year of publication and so rescued his family from penury. Its concluding words are “I feel that we are on the eve of a new era, when there will be a great harmony between the Federal and the Confederate. I cannot stay to be a living witness of the correctness of this prophecy, but I feel within me that it is to be so.” The harmony has come to pass but the memory of the great conflict remains.

By common computation, about 10,000 battles, large and small, were fought in the United States between 1861 and 1865. This enormous number of battles, seven for every day the war lasted, provides the principal key to the nature of the war. Americans fought as frequently as they did in the Civil War because they could find no other way to prosecute the conflict. Economic warfare, excepting blockade, was not an option. Nor was attack on the civilian population, since the deeply Christian character of nineteenth-century American society forbade atrocity. Indeed, from the outset, the two most prominent Northern commanders, Winfield Scott and George McClellan, expressed their principled hostility to making civilians the object of attack, even to the infliction of hardship. That was to be changed by Grant and Sherman, when they began to destroy property and the means of livelihood in their western campaigns. But their war against the people did not begin until 1863 and was not deliberately prosecuted until 1864. Economic warfare was not feasible until the North was able to penetrate the South’s outer crust and find factories and mills to destroy. The South was unable to reciprocate, except patchily during its two invasions of the North, because the Union’s economic and manufacturing centres lay too distant from its borders to be reached. Moreover, the value of taking or damaging economic targets seemed dubious, since the capture in 1862 of New Orleans, the South’s largest city and the principal point of exit to the outside world, had no appreciable effect on its war-making capacity at all. The capture of Augusta, Georgia, the South’s centre of gunpowder manufacture, would have been a disaster for the Confederacy but its remoteness preserved it from danger until the end of the war.

In the absence of economic targets, it was inevitable that the enemy’s army should form the principal object of military operations. Interestingly, Lincoln, completely untutored as he was in military science, quickly came to see that in northern Virginia, Lee’s army, rather than Richmond, the enemy capital, should be the Army of the Potomac’s main target. Lee had no real alternative, since attractive though the idea was to attack Baltimore or Philadelphia, the objective of one of his forays into the North, both lay too far from his start line to be attainable.

The bellicosity of Civil War armies led to the expectation that a clear-cut result would terminate the war sooner than actually happened. Yet Civil War battles, fought so fiercely though they were, were strangely inconclusive. That was not because the soldiers were halfhearted. On the contrary, they fought with chilling intensity. What robbed their efforts of result was the proliferation of entrenchment, thrown up on the battlefield at high speed in the face of the enemy. First appearing in 1862, by 1863 hasty entrenchment was an automatic response to enemy fire, and a very effective one. But entrenchment had a stalemating effect. By 1864 entrenchment had imposed a universal stalemate, a veritable state of siege, combined paradoxically with a huge toll of casualties, in an anticipation of the stalemate of the First World War. As in 1914-18, the combination of immobility and high losses could be overcome by reinforcement, at which by 1864 the North easily outdid the South, at least in availability of replacements. As for the management of replacements, the North never hit upon the right method; it allowed regiments to decline in numbers until they became ineffective and then raised new regiments to keep up total strength. It was not an efficient system since it did not preserve thecohesion and espirit de corps of experienced and successful units. Unit for unit, and perhaps man for man, the Confederate army exceeded that of the Union in quality, so that the Union triumphed in the end only because of larger numbers and greater wealth of resources.

Greater numbers and greater resources assured that the North would win most of the war’s battles, at least the battles that counted. The frequency and intensity of battles determined the war’s character. Battle also determined the war’s outcome. Antebellum America was a country, not a state. Political America impinged too little upon its citizens to confer a sense of common purpose or of belonging. As is often remarked, the only contact with the state experienced by most antebellum Americans was a visit to the post office. The Civil War changed that. There was no more graphic means of apprehending the power of the state than to stand in the line of battle, a voluntary act with unintended consequences. Men who performed the act and survived the consequences were transformed as citizens. Their understanding of “duty” and “sacrifice” were thereby revolutionised. Men who had stood shoulder to shoulder to brave the volleys of the enemy could not thenceforth be tepid or passive citizens. They became pillars of the republic and pillars of their communities. It is often overlooked that hundreds of thousands of Americans of the Gilded Age had been touched by fire and hardened by it. Antebellum America had been a gentle society. Postbellum America was a nation as well as a society and one hardened by the Civil War to embark on a rendezvous with greatness.

The experience of battle, so widely diffused, may have had another effect on postbellum America. The American historical profession has laboured hard and long to explain why the United States alone among major industrialised countries failed to produce a domestic socialist movement. It gave birth to powerful trade unions, such as the American Federation of Labor (AFL), and its splinter group, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), but neither adopted a socialist ideology as their European equivalents did. It was not for want of trying by the ideologues. Karl Marx, himself a passionate student at a distance of the Civil War, believed and argued that it should inaugurate a new social order. In January 1865, he wrote, “The working men of Europe feel that as the American War of Independence initiated a new era of ascendancy for the middle class so the American anti-slavery war will do for the working classes. They consider it an earnest of the epoch to come that it fell to the lot of Abraham Lincoln, the single-minded sonof the working class through the matchless struggle for the rescue of an enchained race and the reconstruction of a social peace.”5 Lincoln had already stridently rejected Marx’s vision of the future in words that encapsulated the American dream and anticipated the brunt of American historians’ attempt to explain why socialism failed to find rooting ground in his country. In 1864 he wrote, “None are so deeply interested to resist the present rebellion as the working people.” Then, in a reference to the draft riots in New York of 1863, he went on: “It should never be so. The strongest bond of human sympathy, outside the family, should be one uniting working people of all nations and tongues and kindreds. Nor should this be a war upon property—property is desirable—is a positive good in the world. That some should be rich shows that others may become rich and hence is a just encouragement to enterprise and industry. Let not him who is houseless pull down the house of another but let him labour diligently and build one for himself, thus by example assuring that his own shall be safe from violence when built.”6 In those last three sentences, Lincoln set forth the idea of individual effort on which the rise to prosperity of late Victorian and twentieth-century America was built. It was an idea perfectly acceptable to the thinking classes of the epoch in Europe but also in America, who had decided to give their allegiance to the state and to collective activity and many of whom found their inspiration in the ideology of the left in all its varieties. Karl Marx, who captured the imagination of so many on the left, argued that the working class should re-organise itself for its advance to capture the necessary resources on military principles. In the Communist Manifesto he urged the working class to “form industrial armies.” The American working class, though it unionised enthusiastically, consistently opposed the appeal to revolution. American intellectuals struggled for generations to understand the American worker’s antipathy for radical and violent change. The American worker, had he been able to articulate his feelings, might have said that his country’s first revolution, as he called the War of Independence, had fulfilled many of his aspirations by founding his republic and that the second revolution, which was the Civil War, had completed the first. He had no desire to form industrial armies, having in his hundreds of thousands already formed and served in real armies and learnt by his experience that armies brought hardship and suffering. One experience of army life was enough for a lifetime and not only for an individual lifetime but for a national lifetime as well. American socialism was stillborn on the battlefields of Shiloh and Gettysburg.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!