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How the war began


Originally broadcast on September 02, 1994 - The Civil War remains the most violent event in our nation’s history.  In the very first of our Civil War series which aired on WVTF and is now a podcast, Virginia Tech history professor James Robertson examines how the North and South got into the bloody conflict in the first place.  

#1 – The Civil War: Introduction

The Civil War is the most popular period in our history, just as it is the most important step in the development of the American experiment in democracy. The Founding Fathers achieved magnificence in putting together the U. S. Constitution. Yet they did not give sufficient heed to two issues: the position of slavery in a new country founded on the principle of liberty, and the power of the states within the federated government.

Soon emotionalism ruled the day. The spirit of compromise – the only real bond that holds this nation together – slowly evaporated. Talking led to shouting, and shouting led to shooting. Beginning late in 1860, secession replaced the democratic process. Civil war exploded across America.

Both sides in the spring of 1861 seemed to be living in a dream world. Unbounded enthusiasm swept the North and South; young men flooded recruiting offices, desperate to enlist lest the war end before they could get into it. Practically all of these adventuresome patriots had only the vaguest and most romantic notions of what war was like. Their vision was of bands and banners, massed formations marching in the sunshine over open fields to glorious victories in which any wounds would be painless and death (coming to someone else, of course) would be quick and honorable.

This was one of the worst delusions that ever existed. The Civil War became the bloodiest struggle the world had ever seen. The war remains the most violent event in our nation’s heritage. It was a war of massed firepower and the end of masses charges – a war of metal machines against human gallantry.

Since both sides fought for unlimited objectives – the North for Union and, ultimately for emancipation, the South for independence and the economic benefits of slavery, a limited war was out of the question from the start. Over 8,000 engagements would be fought as army battles spanned the continent and naval engagements spanned the globe. At least 700,000 Americans would die in those four years of conflict. That is more Americans dead than has taken place in all other American wars combined. The same war in today’s population would produce 15 million fatalities.

The Commonwealth of Virginia would suffer more devastation than has occurred anywhere else in the Western Hemisphere. Fully one-fourth of the Southern male population in the 1860s died in battle.

The Civil War lives in many ways, fundamental as well as fascinating. Obviously, the struggle settled the question of slavery in America, just as it put into a subordinate position any claims of state rights. At the same time, the conflict boosted the great Industrial Revolution of the 19th Century to new heights while it destroyed not only the Southern “cotton kingdom” but the nation’s long-held dependence on agriculture.

Americans in unprecedented numbers study the Civil War because it belongs exclusively to us. The 50 million descendants today of Johnny Rebs and Billy Yanks can and should take equal pride in Confederate soldiers charging at Gettysburg as well as Union soldiers assaulting at Cold Harbor. Those men demonstrated everlastingly what the common folk of this land can do in time of crisis.

Adding to the magnetism of the Civil War are its battles and its leaders. The events and the individuals involved are so sterling and dramatic that the American appetite today cannot be satisfied. Further, that war has become a sort of national yardstick by which everything from individuals to art is now measured. Above and beyond all else, however, this war was a human experience – a violent collision involving not only 3 million soldiers but their loved ones back home as well.

Therefore, a basic intent throughout these broadcasts will be to underscore the human feelings as this war swept across the land. It is easy to think of combat as colored arrows on a battle map. Yet wars involve armies, and living beings with human emotions make up those armies. And every man who died in the Civil War was a citizen fighting for the America he envisioned in the future.

It is all but impossible to overestimate the importance of the American Civil War. From its smoke and thunder, from its horror and heroism, from its bloody battles and human suffering, emerged an entity that until then had been only a hope. The Civil War gave us a United States in fact as well as in name.

Put another way, the United States we have today exists because of the Civil War, not in spite of it.

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