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The American Civil War and the Continuum of History, Humanity, and War

Friends Of Padre Steve’s World,

Barbara Tuchman wrote:

“No one is so sure of his premises as the man who knows too little.”

Finite human beings find themselves bound by time and space, we live in the present, but not the present alone, but rather three worlds: one that is, one that was, and one that will be. The German historian Ernst Breisach wrote, “In theory we know these three worlds as separate concepts but we experience as inextricably linked and influencing each other in many ways. Every new and important discovery about the past changes how we think about the present and what we expect of the future; on the other hand every change in the conditions of the present and in the expectations of the future revises our perception of the past. In this complex context history is born ostensibly as reflection of the past; a reflection which is never isolated from the present and the future. History deals with human life as it “flows” through time.”

Richard Evans wrote something in the preface to his book The Third Reich in History and Memory that those who study military history often forget. He noted: “Military history, as this volume shows, can be illuminating in itself, but also needs to be situated in a larger economic and cultural context. Wherever we look, at decision-making at the top, or at the inventiveness and enterprise of second rank figures, wider contextual factors remained vital.” Thus while this work is an examination of the American Civil War it is important to understand the various issues that were formative for the men who directed and fought the battle, as well as the vast continuum of often distant and seemingly unrelated events that come together at one time in the lives of the participants in any historic event.

This is important and it goes to a broader view of history and education rather that many people are comfortable with. We live in an age where much of education, even higher educations has been transformed into training for a particular skill to gain, or with which to enter the workforce, rather than teaching us to think critically. The social sciences, the liberal arts, philosophy, history are often considered by politicians and business leaders as skills which do not help people get jobs and have been the subjects of cuts in many public university systems.

Andy Chan, Vice President for Personal and Career Development at Wake Forest University wrote: “The prevailing argument is that students should study or major in something “employable,” something that is directly correlated to a job in a high paying career field. This view is espoused by many parents and national leaders, including politicians on both sides of the aisle. Many have called for additional STEM majors as well as eliminating funding for “softer” disciplines.” Like it or not such efforts impact the serious study of history and minimize the exsposure of students in the STEM disciplines to the broader aspects of intellectual study that happen provide them with a moral, ethical, and historic foundation for their disciplines. Giles Lauren in his introduction to B. H. Liddell-Hart’s classic Why Don’t We Learn from History?, wrote:

“Education, no longer liberal, has largely become a question of training in a skill for gain rather than teaching us how to think so as to find our own way. ‘It is strange how people assume that no training is needed in the pursuit of truth.’ We must learn to test and judge the information that comes before us. After all: ‘Whoever habitually suppresses the truth … will produce a deformity from the womb of his thought.’”

Liddell-Hart expressed the importance of a wide view of history as well as the importance of being able to dig deep into particular aspects of it, bit of which are important if we want to come as close to the truth as we can. He wrote:
“The benefit of history depends, however, on a broad view. And that depends on a wide study of it. To dig deep into one patch is a valuable and necessary training. It is the only way to learn the method of historical research. But when digging deep, it is equally important to get one’s bearings by a wide survey. That is essential to appreciate the significance of what one finds, otherwise one is likely “to miss the forest for the trees.””

This can be a particular problem for those who write about specific aspects of the American Civil War, especially about particular battles, technical developments, or individuals. Many writers dig deep into a particular subject, but despite their good work, miss important aspects because they have not done the groundwork of trying to put those subjects into the broader historical, as well as sociological context.

One cannot understand the determination the determination of Robert E. Lee to maintain the offensive without understanding his devotion to Napoleon, or his view of the war and the battles his men fought without understanding and taking into account his view of Divine Providence which was a part of his religious experience. One cannot understand the dogged persistence of Joshua Chamberlain or Strong Vincent to hold Little Round Top, without understanding their patriotic idealism and the nearly spiritual significance of the Union to them. One cannot understand William Tecumseh Sherman without understanding the often cold realism that shaped his world view. The same is true for any of the men, and women, soldier or civilian, slave, or free, who had some part, great or small in the war.

Thus it is important when digging deep, to also attempt to understand the broader perspective of history, and how factors outside their direct military training and experience, such as culture, politics, economics, religion, sociology, ideology, life experience, and all of those factors shaped these men and their actions. By such means we get closer to the truth and by doing so avoid the myths which even after a century and a half, still clutter the works of many people who write about the Civil War.

Likewise, in order to understand the context of the battles of the Civil War, or for that matter the battles in any war, one has to understand the events, ever distant events which play a role in the battle. All too often those that delve into military history, or a particular battle see that as separate event, often disconnected from other historical events. But as historian Edward Steers Jr. correctly notes, history “does not exist in a series of isolated events like so many sound bites in a newscast. It is a continuum of seemingly unrelated and distant events that so often come together in one momentous collision of time.”

To explain this in a different way, let us look at the Battle of Gettysburg as a case in point, but needless to say that no-matter what battle we study there are other factors, that influence it. In the case of the Battle of Gettysburg events like Lincoln’s publication of the Emancipation Proclamation, are important, as it resets the political and diplomatic narrative of the war in a way that influences both domestic politics, and diplomacy.

Diplomacy is another aspect that must be considered, and the incompetence of Confederate diplomats was a major factor. These men were unsuccessful in bringing France or Great Britain into the war, nor could they persuade any European power to recognize the Confederacy. Both of these failures were brought about by their provincialism and by their lack of understanding of the domestic politics of France and England. Both nations had abolished slavery, banned the slave trade, and had populations that were overwhelmingly against slavery.

On the military front, the failures of the Confederate armies in the West to maintain their hold on the Mississippi River, played a crucial role in Robert E. Lee’s ill-advised decision to launch an invasion of Pennsylvania, as did the failing Confederate economy. None of these events can be disconnected from it without doing violence to the historical narrative and thereby misunderstanding why the battle was important.

Another element that must be connected in order to understand the American Civil War is the part that policy, strategy, war aims, as well as operational doctrine, tactics, and technology played in every campaign of the war. When we examine those dimensions of the war and of specific campaigns we go back to the human factor: the people whose ideas, character, and personalities, influenced the conduct of the war and how it was waged.

Finally, events such as the battles of Antietam, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and Atlanta, or the Overland Campaign or Sherman’s March to the Sea cannot be looked at as a stand-alone events for their military value only. The clash at Gettysburg as the armies of the Confederacy battled the Army of the Potomac, and surged and then ebbed back from their “high water mark,” is important. What happened there influences the rest of the war. However, it does not take place in isolation from other battles and events. While the war would go on for nearly two more years, the Union victory at Gettysburg coupled with the victory of Grant at Vicksburg ensured that the Confederacy, no matter how hard it tried would not be able to gain its independence through military means. It was no longer the master of its fate, it needed the Northern “Peace” Democrats to successfully win the election of 1864, and it needed intervention from Europe, neither which was forthcoming.

Maybe even more importantly the story of the Civil War is its continued influence today. The American Civil War was America’s greatest crisis. It was a crisis that “has cast such a shadow over the relations between the North and the South that the nation’s identity and its subsequent history have been considerably influenced by it.” One cannot underestimate its importance, it was the completion of the American Revolution and the birth of a modern nation. The successes and failures, the victories and defeats, and the scars that remain resonate in American cultural, political, and social divide, be it in the minds and hearts of the descendants of freed slaves, Southerners weaned on the myth of the Lost Cause, or the progeny of the Irish and German immigrants who fought for a country where they were despised and discriminated against by the adherents of the anti-immigrant Know Nothing movement. The remains of three-quarters of a million Union and Confederate soldiers interred in cemeteries across the North and South, the monuments devoted to them in town squares, the preserved battlefields with their now silent cannon are a constant reminder of this war that made a nation.

Many people pore over the accounts of the battles of the war, while the legions of devoted Civil War historians, re-enactors, military history buffs, and members of organizations such as the Sons of Confederate Veterans testify to the war’s continued hold on Americans and their fascination with it. The military struggle was important, but we always have to keep it in the context of why the war was fought and why so many of the issues that it was fought over remain issues today, as Ted Widmer noted; “What Lincoln called a “new birth of freedom” felt like a straitjacket to those who opposed it, and their legacy is still felt, in the many forms of opposition to the federal writ that we witness on a daily basis.”
It is important to understand how the war was fought, but it even more important to understand the relationship of how it was fought with why it was fought and in some ways is still being fought, as was evidenced by the vast numbers of Confederate battle flags proudly displayed outside of the historic Confederacy during much of the 2016 Presidential campaign.
Historian David Blight wrote:

“The boundaries of military history are fluid; they connect with a broader social, cultural, and political history in a myriad of ways. In the long run, the meanings embedded in those epic fights are what should command our greatest attention. The “war of ideas” as Douglass aptly called it, has never completely faded from our nation’s social condition or historical memory. Suppress it as we may, it still sits in our midst, an eternal postlude playing for all who deal seriously with America’s past and our enduring predicaments with race, pluralism and equality.”

The battles of the American Civil War are enshrined in American history and myth, and are woven deeply into the story of the nation. In this story the Battle of Gettysburg is often viewed different ways depending on one’s perspective. For many in the North the battle is viewed as a victory that helps brings an end to the institution of slavery, and with it freedom for enslaved African-Americans, and the preservation of the Union. In the South it is often part of the myth of the Noble Confederacy and the Lost Cause where the South was defeated by the Northern superiority in men and war making ability. At Gettysburg there is a certain irony that in the shadow of the cemetery where over 3,500 Union soldiers lay in hallowed repose and where Abraham Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address that Confederate memorabilia vastly outsells that of the side that won the battle. People wearing t-shirts emblazoned with the image of the Confederate battle flag, and sayings like “I Will Not be Reconstructed” are bought at local gift shops, and their wearers parade past the graves of the Union soldiers who lie just a few hundred yards up the slope of West Cemetery Hill.

Yet in both cases, the truth is not so simple; in fact it is much more complex, and the truth is we are still in the process of learning from and interpreting the historical records of the events that led to the American Civil War, the war itself, and the aftermath. They are all connected and for that matter still influence Americans today more than any other era of our history. In fact James McPherson who is one of the nation’s preeminent scholars on the Civil War and Reconstruction wrote:

“I became convinced that I could not fully understand the issues of my own time unless I learned about their roots in the era of the Civil War: slavery and its abolition; the conflict between North and South; the struggle between state sovereignty and the federal government; the role of the government in social change and resistance to both government and social change. These issues are as salient and controversial today as they were in the 1960s, not to mention the 1860s.”

The prolific American military historian Russell Weigley wrote of how the war, and in particular how the Battle of Gettysburg changed the American Republic.
“The Great Civil War gave birth to a new and different American Republic, whose nature is to be discovered less in the Declaration of Independence than in the Address Delivered at the Dedication of the National Cemetery at Gettysburg. The powerful new Republic shaped by the bayonets of the Union Army of the Civil War wears a badge less benign aspect than the older, original American Republic. But it also carries a larger potential to do good for “the proposition that all men are created equal” both at home and around the world.”

Thus it is important for Americans to learn about the American Civil War, but not solely for its military significance, nor for clear-cut answers or solutions. The lessons go far deeper than that and span the spectrum of the world that we live in today. The fact is that “situations in history may resemble contemporary ones, but they are never exactly alike, and it is a foolish person who tries blindly to approach a purely historical solution to a contemporary problem. Wars resemble each other more than they resemble other human activities, but similarities can be exaggerated.”

British military historian Michael Howard warned, “the differences brought about between one war and another by social or technological changes are immense, and an unintelligent study of military history which does not take into account these changes may quite easily be more dangerous than no study at all. Like the statesman, the soldier has to steer between the dangers of repeating the errors of the past because his is ignorant that they have been made, and of remaining bound by theories deduced from past history although changes in conditions have rendered these theories obsolete.” The ideal that we reach for is to understand the battles of the American Civil War in context, which includes understanding what led to the war as well as the period of Reconstruction, and the post-Reconstruction era and the continued reverberations today.

The American Civil War determined much of the history that followed, not only in the United State, but around the world both in its military advances which transformed war into a mechanized conflict that continues to grow more deadly, and in terms of politics, and social development.

The lessons of this period go far beyond military and leadership lessons gained in studying the battles themselves. They go to our understanding of who we are as a people. They are social, religious, political, economic, diplomatic, and informational. From a strategist’s perspective they certainly help inform the modern policy maker of the DIME, the diplomatic, informational, military, and economic elements of national power, but they are even more than that; the period provides lessons that inform citizens as to the importance of liberty, responsibility, and the importance of both fighting for and defending the rights of the weak and the oppressed.

They also deal with the lives of people, and throughout this volume you will find biographical portraits of some of the key people woven into the story for without them, there really is no story. The one constant in human history are real human beings, some driven by passion, ideology, religion, wealth, or power. There are others who in their quest for knowledge discover things that change the world, invent machinery that alters history, and create weapons which make killing easier. There are men and women who fight for truth, and seek justice for the oppressed. There are the honest and the hucksters, those with character and those that are charlatans. Then to are those who live in fantasy words, cloud-cuckoo lands of unreality that cause them to believe in and pursue causes that can only end in tragedy for them and in many cases others, and finally there are the realists who recognize situations for what they are and are willing to do the hard thing, to speak truth and to act upon it.

All of these types of people can be found in this great war in what was undoubtedly a revolutionary age of change, an age which has influenced the life of this nation, our people, and the world for over a century and a half. Its ghosts haunt our laws and institutions, the sacrifices of soldiers, and the actions of men like Abraham Lincoln have inspired people in this country and around the world.
In writing this volume I attempt to draw lessons from the Civil War era and the people who helped create the world in which we live. Even so I try to do so without making the mistake of assuming that what we learn and know about them is immutable and thus not subject to change; for the past influences the present, even as the present and future will influence how we view and interpret the past.

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under civil rights, civil war, Gettysburg, History, Military

War What is it Good For? Sometimes Something: The Context of War

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today something different. Yesterday I did a post about the Gettysburg Address and the importance of the proposition that of democracy that all men are created equal. It is a radical proposition that since the writing of the Declaration of Independence, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Gettysburg Address, the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, Fifteenth and Nineteenth Amendments, the Voting Rights Act of 1964 and Civil Rights Act of 1965, as well as Supreme Court decisions in Brown v. Board of Education and Obergfell v. Hodges, has grown in or country to encompass civil rights for African Americans and other racial minorities, Women, and Gays. But those liberties had to be fought for, and would most likely never happened had not Abraham Lincoln and others in the North understood that neither liberty or Union could survive if the South succeeded. In fact, all of us owe our continued freedom to that understanding and the necessity of total war to achieve it.

However, yesterday I had a Twitter troll snipe at me, this time a left-wing troll who claimed to be a “liberal progressive.” However, his remarks were so ignorant of history and reality that I am sure the the had no clue how his words betrayed his alleged beliefs. So in a few words I told him that he was basically ignorant and blocked him. Most of the time when this happens to me it comes from supposed “conservatives,” or “white nationalists” of various flavors, to include the KKK and Neo-Nazi types. But the fact that this came from a self-proclaimed “liberal and progressive” proves that ignorance is not confined to any ideology. That is a sad commentary on our time.

So what I am posting today is an updated and slightly edited portion of the first chapter of my Civil War and Gettysburg text. The entire chapter is close to 150 pages and is probably going to become a book in its own right, but I think it is important for my readers to understand, that sometimes liberty only comes with great sacrifice and the complete defeat of those who want to deny it. That does not matter if it was the Confederacy, Nazi Germany, or even the so-called Islamic State.

As a man who came back changed by war I can only say that I hate it. That being said, though I am a progressive and liberal, I am a realist and understand that as evil as war is, that surrendering liberty to those who believe in “liberty for the few, and slavery for all others.” 

The section of the book may seem a bit wonkish, but it is important. I understand that some of my readers will disagree, but one cannot escape reality.

So anyway, that being said I wish you a good day.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

Richard Evans wrote something in the preface to his book The Third Reich in History and Memory that those who study military history often forget. He noted: “Military history, as this volume shows, can be illuminating in itself, but also needs to be situated in a larger economic and cultural context. Wherever we look, at decision making at the top, or at the inventiveness and enterprise of second rank figures, wider contextual factors remained vital.” [1] Thus while this work is an examination of the Gettysburg campaign it is important to understand the various issues that were formative for the men who directed and fought the battle. One cannot understand the determination the determination of Robert E. Lee to maintain the offensive, the dogged persistence of Joshua Chamberlain or Strong Vincent to hold Little Round Top, what brought John Buford to McPherson’s Ridge, what motivated Daniel Sickles to move Third Corps to the Peach Orchard, and what motivated the men of Pickett’s division to advance to their death on Cemetery Ridge, without understanding the broader perspective of culture, politics, economics, religion, sociology, and ideology that shaped these men.

The American Civil War was the first modern war. It was a watershed event in an era, which introduced changes in new types of weapons, more lethal versions of older weapons, tactics, army organization, logistics, intelligence and communications. Though the war did not change the essential nature of war, which Clausewitz says is “is an act of violence to compel our opponent to fulfill our will” [2] it expanded the parameters of war and re-introduced the concept of “total war” to the world and “because its aim was all embracing, the war was to be absolute in character.” [3] In a sense it was a true revolution in military affairs.

The Civil War was truly a revolution in military affairs. The war changed the character of war, as it had been known for centuries, since the Peace of Westphalia and the end of the Thirty Years War. In the American Civil War, the character of war changed from a limited war waged between opposing armies into a war that at times bordered on Clausewitz’s understanding of absolute or total war. This conflict was waged between two people who shared much in common but were divided by an ideology which encompassed politics, economics, society, law, and even religion.

The war was revolutionary in other ways, and brought about a host of social, philosophical, economic, and political changes which continue to impact the lives of people in the United States and around the world even today. Some of these, especially those regarding the abolition of slavery and emancipation, as well as the beginnings of the Women’s Rights movement have had a ripple effect in matters of political and social equality for other previously disenfranchised groups of citizens. One writer noted in regard to the social impacts that “The Civil War uprooted institutions, transformed our politics, influenced social relationships of half a continent, and wrought changes that echo down the generations.” [4] Mark Twain wrote in 1873 that the war “uprooted institutions that were centuries old, changed the politics of a people …and wrought so profoundly upon the national character that cannot be measured short of two or three generations.” [5]

In a sense, when Abraham Lincoln proclaimed “a new birth of freedom” in his Gettysburg address it served as a watershed moment in American history because it brought to the forefront the understanding of Jefferson and the other signers of the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal. That statement, flowing from the Declaration was key to Lincoln’s understanding of human rights and dignity, and from it came the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery. Those would be followed by the Republican Congresses’ passage of the Fourteenth Amendment, which overturned the Dred Scott Decision, which denied all citizenship to blacks across the country, and by Ulysses S. Grant’s Fifteenth Amendment, which gave African American men to right to vote. That is the human and political context by which we have to understand the American Civil War.

Thus it is important to study the Gettysburg campaign in the context of the Civil War because the campaign of 1863 in the east cannot be divorced from what was happening in the west at Vicksburg, nor the Union blockade, nor the diplomatic, economic and informational aspects of the war. Likewise the Gettysburg campaign cannot be separated from its relationship to the broader understanding of the nature and character of war. To do this one must examine the connection between them and policies made by political leaders; to include the relationship of political to military leaders, diplomats, the leaders of business and industry and not to be forgotten, the press and the people. Likewise we must understand the various contexts of war, to include the social, political, ideological and even the religious components of war, how they impacted Civil War leaders and why civilian policy makers and military leaders must understand them today.

While the essential nature of war remains constant, wars and the manner in which they are fought have changed in their character throughout history, and this distinction matters not only for military professionals, but also policy makers. The changing character of war was something that military leaders as well as policy makers struggled with during the American Civil War much as today’s military leaders and policy makers seek to understand the character of warfare today. British military theorist Colin Gray writes “Since the character of every war is unique in the details of its contexts (political, social-cultural, economic, technological, military strategic, geographical, and historical), the policymaker most probably will struggle of the warfare that is unleashed.” [6] That was not just an issue for Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, both of whom struggled with the nature of the war which had been unleashed, but it is one for our present political leaders, who as civilian politicians are “likely to be challenged by a deficient grasp of both the nature of war as well as its contemporary context-specific character.” [7]

In addition to being the first modern war, or maybe I should say, the first war of the Industrial Age, the Civil War prefigured the idea of total war written about by Clausewitz that occurred in the World Wars of the Twentieth Century. The war combined a massive number of technological advances, which both preceded and occurred during it, in which the philosophical nature of the Industrial Revolution came to the fore.

Likewise, the enmity of the two sides for one another had been fostered by a half century of relentless and violent propaganda that ushered from the mouths of politicians, the press and even from the pulpit brought the element of hatred to the fore of the conflict. A Confederate Captain wrote his wife to teach his children “a bitter and unrelenting hatred of the Yankee race” that had “invaded our country and devastated it…[and] murdered our best citizens…. If any luckless Yank should unfortunately come my way he need not petition for mercy. If he does I will give him lead.” A soldier from a Wisconsin regiment wrote to his fiancée after the assault on Resaca, Georgia that his unit had captured twenty-three Confederates and “or boys asked if they remembered Fort Pillow and killed them all. Where there is no officer with us, we take no prisoners…. We want revenge for our brother soldiers and will have it…. Some of the [rebels] say they will fight as long as there is one of them left. We tell them that is what we want. We want to kill them all off and cleanse the country.” [8]

As such there were many times the American Civil War came close to Clausewitz’s understanding of absolute war in its in character, and it prefigured the great ideological wars of the twentieth century. J.F.C. Fuller noted “for the first time in modern history the aim of war became not only the destruction of the enemy’s armed forces, but also of their foundations- his entire political, social and economic order.” [9] It was the first war where at least some of the commanders, especially Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman were men of the Industrial Age, in their thought and in the way that they waged war, in strategy, tactics even more importantly, psychologically. Fuller wrote:

“Spiritually and morally they belonged to the age of the Industrial Revolution. Their guiding principle was that of the machine which was fashioning them, namely, efficiency. And as efficiency is governed by a single end- that every means is justified- no moral or spiritual conceptions of traditional behavior must stand in its way.” [10]

Both men realized in early 1864 that “the South was indeed a nation in arms and that the common European practice of having standing armies engaged each other in set-piece battles to determine the outcome of a war was not enough to win this struggle.” [11] Though neither man was a student of Clausewitz, their method of waging war was in agreement with the Prussian who wrote that “the fighting forces must be destroyed; that is, they must be put in such a position that they can no longer carry on the fight” but also that “the animosity and the reciprocal effects of hostile elements, cannot be considered to have ended so long as the enemy’s will has not been broken.” [12]

William Tecumseh Sherman told the mayor of Atlanta after ordering the civilian population expelled that “we are not only fighting hostile armies, but a hostile people, and must make the old and young, the rich and poor, feel the hard hand of war.” [13] Sherman was one of the first American military leaders to understand that a civil war could not be waged according to the limited war doctrines most American officers had been taught. He not only “carried on war against the enemy’s resources more extensively and systematically than anyone else had done, but he developed also a deliberate strategy of terror directed against the enemy’s minds.” [14] While some might find this troubling, the fact remains that it was Sherman’s Southern sweep of all that lay before him that broke the back of the Confederacy.

vincent

Strong Vincent

But Sherman and Grant were not alone in understanding the problem of fighting a limited war against the Confederacy. In the fall of 1862 a twenty-five year volunteer Colonel serving with McClellan’s army in Virginia who would be instrumental in throwing back Hood’s assault on Little Round Top, and die leading the defense of that edifice, by the name of Strong Vincent, understood what had to happen if the Union were to overcome the rebellion of the Confederacy.

“We must fight them more vindictively, or we shall be foiled at every step.  We must desolate the country as we pass through it, and not leave a trace of a doubtful friend or foe behind us; make them believe that we are in earnest, terribly in earnest; that to break this band in twain is monstrous and impossible; that the life of every man, yea, of every weak woman or child in the entire South, is of no value whatever compared with the integrity of the Union.” [15]

To most modern Americans who have no experience of war other than seeing it as a video spectator, the words of Vincent and Sherman seem monstrous and even inhuman. However, those who persist in such thinking fail to understand the nature and context of war. While some wars may be fought in a limited manner, others, especially ones driven by militant and uncompromising ideologies, often backed by fanatical religious beliefs cannot be limited, and those that fight such wars must, to paraphrase the words of Strong Vincent, “must fight them more vindictively, or be foiled at every step.” It would have been interesting to see what Vincent might have achieved had he not been cut down by Confederate bullets on Little Round Top.

Abraham Lincoln came to embrace the eternal nature of war as well as the change in the character of the war over time. Lincoln had gone to war for the preservation of the Union, and initially pursued the war in a limited way, seeking to defeat Confederate armies in the field while sparing the people of the Confederacy from total destruction.

But in his quest to preserve the Union, something that for him was almost spiritual in nature, as is evidenced by the language he used in both of his inaugural addresses and the Gettysburg Address, he found that Confederacy would only return to the Union if conquered, and he became convinced that the South’s peculiar institution, that of slavery, must be destroyed in the process. Thus, instead of a war to simply re-unite the Union and let bygones be bygones, Lincoln changed the narrative of the war when he signed the Emancipation Proclamation. When this happened the war not only became a war to restore the Union, but the a war for the liberation of enslaved African Americans, After January 1st 1863 when the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, Lincoln “told an official of the Interior Department, “the character of the war will be changed. It will be one of subjugation…The [old] South is to be destroyed and replaced by new propositions and ideas.” [16] That too was a modern understanding of war.

Of course, the revolution in military affairs that characterized the Civil War took time, but it was the political and military leaders of the North who better adapted themselves and their nation to the kind of war that was being fought. “Lincoln’s remarkable abilities gave him a wide edge over Davis as a war leader, while in Grant and Sherman the North acquired commanders with a concept of total war and the determination to make it succeed.” [17]

At the beginning of the war the leaders and populace of both sides still held a misguided and unrealistic romantic idea of war. Most people in the North and the South held on to the belief that the war would be over in a few months and that would be settled by a few decisive battles and that casualties would be comparatively light. This included most politicians as well as many military officers on both sides. There were some naysayers who believed that the war would be long and costly, like the venerable and rather corpulent General Winfield Scott, but politicians and the press mocked Scott and other doubters who even suggested that the war would be long, hard, and bloody. Of course those who predicted a short, easy, and relatively bloodless war were the ones proven wrong, though it would take the leaders and the people of both sides over a year to understand. When it was done the American Civil War became the bloodiest war ever waged by Americans, and it was against other Americans.

Notes

[1] Evans, Richard J. The Third Reich in History and Memory Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 2015 p.ix

[2] Clausewitz, Carl von. On War Indexed edition, edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ 1976 p.75

[3] Fuller, J.F.C. The Conduct of War 1789-1961 Da Capo Press, New York 1992. Originally published by Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick N.J p.99

[4] Lowry, Thomas P. The Stories the Soldiers Wouldn’t Tell: Sex in the Civil War Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg PA 1994 p.176

[5] McPherson, James The War that Forged a Nation: Why the Civil War Still Matters Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 2015 p.48

[6] Gray, Colin S. Fighting Talk: Forty Maxims on War, Peace, and Strategy Potomac Book, Dulles VA 2009 p.36

[7] Ibid. Gray Fighting Talk p.36

[8] Ibid. McPherson The War that Forged a Nation pp.49-50

[9] Fuller, J.F.C. A Military History of the Modern World, Volume Three: From the Seven Days Battle, 1862, to the Battle of Leyte Gulf, 1944 Minerva Press 1956 p.88

[10] Ibid. Fuller A Military History of the Modern World, Volume Three p.88

[11] Flood, Charles Bracelen, Grant and Sherman: The Friendship that Won the War, Harper Perennial, New York 2005 p.238

[12] Ibid. Clausewitz p.90

[13] McPherson, James. The Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 1988 p.809

[14] Weigley, Russell F. The American Way of War: A History of United States Military History and Policy University of Indiana Press, Bloomington IN, 1973 p.149

[15] Nevins, James H. and Styple, William B. What Death More Glorious: A Biography of General Strong Vincent Belle Grove Publishing Company, Kearney NJ 1997 p.57

[16] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.558

[17] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.857

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Hallowed Ground: A Weekend at Gettysburg


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Once again I am leading a group of my students on a Staff Ride at Gettysburg. We left the Staff College later than I like to but even so we made much better time getting up here than we usually do, only a little traffic to slow us down on I-495 on the way out of Washington D.C. This got us into Gettysburg earlier than I expected so after getting my stuff in my hotel room I took a walk around Cemetery Hill and through the Soldiers Cemetery.

As always I was astounded and humbled as I walked the ground. This really is hallowed ground. I think that Abraham Lincoln, who spoke “a few words” at the dedication of the Soldiers Cemetery said it the best:

“But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion…”


As I walked around Cemetery Hill and through the Soldiers Cemetery I felt the presence of the men that fought and died to preserve this remarkable Union. But when I got to the Masonic Memorial on the western slope of the hill was touched by an image of one of the more human things that happened on the battlefield. That image is a statue of a Union officer, a Captain Bingham rendering aid to Confederate General Lewis Armistead as the latter lay mortally wounded after leading his troops to the High Water Mark of the Confederacy. The story of Armistead is tragic, I have written about it before and it was movingly portrayed by Richard Jordan in the movie Gettysburg.

But when I come up here it is always Lincoln’s words, as well as the gallantry of the soldiers of the Army of the Potomac that inspire me more than anything. Please don’t get me wrong, while I admire the bravery and many of the cities of the Conferate soldiers, I despise the cause that they died for, and no, it is not the myth of states rights. It is the reality that Confederate leaders seceded because they had failed in Congress and at the ballot box to expand slavery outside of where it was legal.

I guess that is why Lincoln’s conclusion of the address resonates with me so much, “that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

So anyway, I hope that you are enjoying my latest Gettysburg posts.

Peace

Padre Steve+q

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