Tag Archives: Giles Lauren

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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