Our Distant Civil War
By Glenn W. LaFantasie
We too often forget that the generation that fought the Civil War lived in a world very different from our own. In our attempt to personalize the past, which all too often leads us into a romanticization of that past, we see the elements of human experience that unite us with the Civil War generation—how they, as individuals, loved and lost, laughed and cried, lived and died—but we tend, in the process, to overlook how these same people spent their lifetimes in a world that, upon closer inspection, seems like an alien planet. We like to think that the Civil War generation was pretty much like we are today, except that it lived in a time that lacked electricity, electronic technology, space exploration, and automobiles. We want to identify with those Americans and the past they occupy, and we seek to see in ourselves a mirror image, pale though it might be, of those who went through the nation’s worst cataclysm.
In the late 1950s, Bruce Catton, the foremost Civil War historian of his time, wrote that the Civil War soldier “was at bottom a blood brother to the G. I. Joe of modern times.” Catton noted how Civil War soldiers, just like the soldiers who fought in World War II, were civilians in arms and displayed only “careless tolerance” for military discipline and the chain of command. Emphasizing the similarities between Yanks and Rebs and their modern counterparts forges a substantial link between the Civil War and us. But it can be misleading. We should remember that people who lived during the Civil War thought and acted very differently than we do today. Catton, in fact, wisely pointed out that for all the similarities between soldiers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Civil War soldier (and civilians, too) “came from a less sophisticated society” and possessed a “youthful innocence” that the war would effectively—and brutally—eradicate.
Some of the differences between us and them are enormous. Faith and piety, for example, structured their lives and explained far more to them about the workings of the universe—and about the meaning of their own lives—than science or technology at the time ever could. The Almighty hewed the world in which they lived and defined their comprehension of that world. Ultimately their world view—an ideological and spiritual understanding of their place in the cosmos—rested almost entirely on a belief in God’s will and omnipotence. Even the less-pious, including Abraham Lincoln, turned to God and prayer in times of despair. Nearly everyone believed that God worked in visible ways, not with a hidden, unseen hand (although God’s purposes, as in our own time, might remain divinely obscure). For Americans on both sides of the conflict, a “true and living” God was immanent in their world and would determine the outcome of the titanic struggle between the Union and the Confederacy. Even as the war began to take its awful toll, Northerners and Southerners found solace in their faith and in their God.
“Every day seems a new revelation of the exquisite beauty of creation, an actual presence of God, a triumphal procession of the forces of nature,” wrote Catharine Maria Sedgwick, a prolific novelist and Unitarian from Massachusetts, to her sister in June 1861. “Life abounds, and grows stronger and richer from hour to hour, and there is no withered grass, no fading leaf, no faint song of the birds to foreshadow decay and death. It seems not a prophecy of heaven, but heaven itself. And we may listen to the great anthem without turning in upon discontents, and sorrow, and vain longings for what has been and can be no more, or looking out upon the raging of as disorderly and fiery passions as ever disturbed the peace of nature.” The ease with which Sedgwick equated God and nature was something most Americans, and not just Transcendentalists, took for granted. God worked in mysterious ways, to be sure, but those ways were always known to be of the Almighty’s own doing and making. Free will was something that God bestowed upon mankind, but the course of human history was not something that men and women could decide for themselves. God’s will determined every action, every outcome.
Religion, however, was not the only distinguishing feature of the Civil War era. The Civil War generation also inhabited a very different landscape than the one we know. In the mid-nineteenth century, cities and towns across the nation were ringed by farms, forests, and open waters. Broad meadows and pastures throughout the South hosted the armies and were transformed into bloody battlefields, harvests of blood replacing harvests of grain. Today, those same cities and towns are ringed by suburban communities that are gobbling up the rural landscape so rapidly that farms and forests have become relatively small islands separated by a sea of urban and suburban sprawl. This is especially so in the East Coast megalopolis that stretches from Boston to Richmond where the built environment encircles preserved pastures and timberland (and Civil War battlefields) rather than the other way around. In looking around us, we have little in common with how the Civil War generation perceived and understood its more natural surroundings.
The people of the Civil War era also looked very different from modern Americans—not just in clothes and hairstyles, but in the actual shape of their heads and the expressions on their faces. Even comparing black-and-white photographs taken with a wet-plate camera of the 1860s with a more recent image shot by a modern photographer using old equipment and processing techniques, the modern face of a Civil War re-enactor is instantaneously recognizable from the strikingly distinctive face of a bona fide Civil War soldier. The difference rests in the contours of the face, and the tilt of the head, and the attitude of the mouth. But the deepest difference can readily be seen in the eyes. Something exists behind those eyes, in the evocative depth of their soulfulness, that tells us that the Civil War generation saw the world—and itself—from a perspective that we must struggle to appreciate, that is foreign to us and to our own way of looking out on the world, that is at once inscrutable and subtly revealing. In the end, it requires a vivid historical imagination, as much as it takes thorough research and incisive analysis, to fathom how Americans who experienced the Civil War felt about themselves and their place in the universe. What was it that they saw—or thought they saw—with those captivating and haunting eyes? Even with all our efforts, though, something behind those eyes escapes us, and we are left wondering still about our distant ancestors, their quintessence, and their times.
Hence the world of the Civil War generation, although familiar to us in so many respects, is a distant one, a world beyond our easy and immediate grasp despite all its apparent similarities. In recognizing how different the members of that generation were from ourselves, we may begin to understand who they were, how they fashioned their daily lives according to their world view, and how they understood events—including the great calamity of war—that changed their lives forever and challenged their most fundamental convictions. As we do so, we may also see how they have molded our own world, the America we have inherited from them, and shaped our modern comprehension of the past. The Civil War generation is not unknowable. But acknowledging that Northerners and Southerners who went through the war were not like us in every particular, and that much mystery remains hidden behind their enigmatic eyes, is the first step toward understanding who they were and why knowing them is important.
Glenn W. LaFantasie, the Frockt Family Professor of Civil War History at Western Kentucky University, is the author of Gettysburg Requiem: The Life and Lost Causes of Confederate Colonel William C. Oates. Be sure to read his other essay for our blog, Hearing History’s Requiem.