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A National Yardstick


Originally aired on October 21, 1994 - In part 8 of our Civil War series, Virginia Tech history professor James Robertson discusses the contributions of southwestern Virginia to the Southern cause.

#8 – A National Yardstick

In a multiplicity of ways the Civil War courses through the American bloodstream.  Historian Bernard DeVoto did not exaggerate when he once observed: “The Civil War is the crux of our history. You cannot understand any part of our past, from the convening of the Constitutional Convention (in 1787), down to (the events of) this morning, without eventually arriving at that war.”

A few examples will illustrate the point.

A new president takes office. How will he measure, we ask, against the man adjudged in every poll as the greatest chief executive of them all, Abraham Lincoln? Likewise, every American general since Appomattox has been weighed on scales with Robert E. Lee, who comes so close to the consummate commander.

War, or some other national crisis, sparks a new poem. Will it – can it – be as moving as Walt Whitman’s Civil War additions to “Leaves of Grass” or his “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”? Thousands of Northerners during the war also gained soul-deep inspiration from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s clarion call:

“Thou, too, sail on, O Ship of State! 

Sail on, O Union, strong and great!

Humanity with all its fears,

With all the hopes of future years,

Is hanging breathless on thy fate!”

One of our statesmen gives a moving speech. Inevitably, it will be compared to the 268 words of the Gettysburg Address and found wanting. In like vein, every inaugural address since Lincoln’s 1865 plea for peace has paled badly in comparison.

Speak of patriotic literature, and one has to start with a Northern clergyman, Edward Everett Hale. To bolster the cause of the Union during the sectional conflict, Hale penned that classics story, The Man without a Country.

The death of General Stonewall Jackson in 1863 was the greatest personal loss that the Southern Confederacy suffered. Two years later, Abraham Lincoln became the first president to lie in state in the U. S. Capitol. In both instances, so saddened were the people, and so anxious were they to express their sorrow at these deaths, that they overturned the somber traditions of their time and sent great quantities of flowers to cover the two coffins. This firmly established the American custom of sending flowers to funerals.

An outstanding new historical novel hits the market. Its lasting value will be determined by placing it alongside – you guessed it – Gone with the Wind, which, with twenty-five million copies sold, is the most popular novel of all times, anywhere. Margaret Mitchell’s book, published in 1936, still sells an astonishing thirty thousand copies a year. The Clark Gable – Vivian Lee movie has made more money than any film ever produced. Gone with the Wind is still a perennial favorite, despite the fact that the movie is now fifty-four years old!

It was the Civil War that gave lasting popularity to the sewing machine. That single mechanical instrument turned out wool uniforms ten times faster than women’s hands could do, thereby saving ten times more Union soldiers from freezing to death in the field.

Until the coming of civil war, shoes were laboriously carved by hand. The high demands of civil war led to the perfection of the McKay boot-stitching machine, which could turn out fifty pairs of shoes in the time it took to hand-sew a single pair.  Complaints from soldiers that the shapeless shoes of the day were painfully uncomfortable in the hard demands of army life resulted in yet another wartime development. Hereafter, every time you look down at your feet, you will see a reminder of the Civil War. That event led to the creation of a pair of shoes: one designed specifically for the left foot and its companion intended for the right foot.

The struggle of the 1860s was also the seedbed for an almost indeterminable number of military innovations because it marked a major turning point in the history of warfare. Much attention will be given to this point in subsequent programs. Suffice it to say here, one could start with the oath of allegiance that every member of the armed forces takes. In the original 1790 oath, the soldier gave his word “to protect the United States against all their enemies and their opposers”. In 1862 a new oath came into being. It is the one still in use. That oath requires American servicemen to “support and defend the Constitution…against all enemies foreign and domestic”. Why the change in wording is obvious.

From that Great War came an imperishable and completely unforgettable body of facts as well as legend. To attempt to ignore the Civil War is to turn one’s back on much of what is American life today.

Dr. James I. "Bud" Robertson, Jr., is a noted scholar on the American Civil War and Alumni Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Virginia Tech.