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Reasons for War


Originally aired on October 07, 1994 - In part 6 of our Civil War series, Virginia Tech history professor James Robertson discusses the reasons we study, relive and refer back to the Civil War.

#6 – The Civil War’s Appeal - #1

It is all but impossible to escape the attention being given nowadays to Civil Way history. Television, newspaper articles, school essays, a steady stream of books, and – one might add – radio continue in almost daily fashion to underscore the events and the people in that inferno of a century ago.

Most of us have a natural inclination to want to forget wars. Destruction, suffering, and death have little popular appeal. Yet we Americans seem incapable of getting enough information about the four year struggle between North and South. We study it, we relive it, we constantly refer back to it. That leads to the obvious and burning question: Why? What is the magnetism of that war?

For starters, and before 1861, we as a nation had no history in the deepest sense. The “Union” was an idea rather than a fact. Americans went into the Civil War saying: “The United States are…” After the fighting ended, Americans said: “The United States is…”

What took place in the 1860s is the turning point in our history – the pivoting of the nation into modern times. Historians examine it closely because it is such a bloody and clear line of demarcation. How we got our freedom in the American Revolution is a simple sequence of events, easy to comprehend. The Civil War, in contrast, has an inner drama that sets it both apart and higher. It was as full of hatred, horror, and heartache as it was often marked by chivalry, courtesy, and compassion.

A popular factor for the conflict’s ongoing appeal is that it is “our” war. It was not us against somebody, but us against us. The Civil War belongs exclusively to Americans. We should share it selfishly if it were not so internationally popular. The war directly touches so many of us. In all likelihood, three of every four persons listening to this broadcast have at least one ancestor who wore the blue or the gray.

Few families of North and South escaped the personal tragedy of that struggle. One of every five Civil War soldiers died. A third of them perished in battle, the rest from disease, exposure and exhaustion. Many survivors limped home missing arms, legs, and eyes, or with faces disfigured, or with health shattered by typhoid fever, malaria, or dysentery. They became daily reminders of the human cost of national unity.

Another strong factor behind the Civil War’s popularity are the many geographical reminders of that contest. A number of the major battlefields are beautifully preserved; monuments dot courthouse lawns and city parks; roadside markers, historical societies’ exhibits are everywhere.

Personalities offer a magnetic attraction to the war. We think of the Founding Fathers as a noble group, that they were, in terms of intellect and the pursuit of a national dream. Yet for color, impact, and devotion to duty, the list of outstanding Civil War figures begins with Lincoln, Davis, Grant, Lee, Sherman, Jackson, Farragut, Stuart, and Forrest and continues seemingly to infinity.

It is not merely the individuals in dazzling display that catches our eye. We see them caught in time, in poses as noble as they are mystical: Lincoln walking despondently through the darkened White House with a shawl and the cares of a nation on his sagging shoulders; Lee, having surrendered his army at Appomattox, looking into the distance with thoughts that no mortal will ever know; Stonewall Jackson meeting death with a calmness that has been the envy of all believers; young Robert Gould Shaw leading his all-black Massachusetts regiment – and himself – into glory at Fort Wagner.

Even the inept sometimes stimulated unforgettable comments; in 1863 a Richmond newspaper dismissed one Confederate general with the comment: “An army of asses led by a lion is better than an army of lions led by an ass”.

The United States as we know it came from the heat and fire of the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln was determined that the American experiment in democracy was not going to fail. As Mr. Lincoln put it: “We must settle this question now, whether in a free government the minority have the right to break up the government whenever they choose.”

That point was settled. America emerged from the Civil War with an indestructible nationhood in which thereafter the whole was far more than the sum of loosely federated parts. The Civil War led once and for all to the power of majority rule – a power that imparts breath and meaning to the nation.

Next time we will examine other factors that give the Civil War lasting enchantment.

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