Thursday, May 5, 2011

Civil War still draws a crowd -- May 5, 2011 column


Gertrude Stein got it right: “There never will be anything more interesting than that American Civil War.”

On Monday night, the Concert Hall at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington was packed. What attracted nearly 2,400 people was, of all things, a lecture. Civil War historian and Harvard University president Drew Gilpin Faust was speaking.

Faust delivered the 40th annual Jefferson Lecture, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities. The government’s highest honor for intellectual achievement in the humanities is also a small-d democratic event. People sign up for the free tickets online, and everybody gets to attend the reception afterwards. The speaker receives a $10,000 honorarium. Note to House Republicans: Private donations support the lecture.

Faust, 63, the first woman president of Harvard and the author of six books on the Civil War and the American South, grew up in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Her topic was “Telling War Stories,” and she began with a personal one.

“On a hot Saturday in September 1962, I crowded with my brothers and cousins into my aunt and uncle’s station wagon and drove off to war,” she said. The family drove to a reenactment of the Battle of Antietam in Maryland, the bloodiest single day in American history, when more than 3,600 Americans died. The battle also marked a turning point. Soon after the Union victory, President Lincoln issued his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.

Not that young Drew and her family were burdened by heavy thoughts.

“We were there for a picnic and for an exciting display of seemingly lifelike military action, a spectacle that would remind us of the courage and sacrifice we had been taught to revere since the time we were very small and first began playing Civil War with toy swords and rifles in the fields and woods that surrounded our house,” she said.

Her lecture covered a lot of territory, tracing the use of war narratives from Homer to George W. Bush. She said the president’s proclamation a decade ago of a global war on terror implicitly reassured the nation that terrorism could be defeated. Her thoughts resonated on a day when the story of Osama bin Laden’s killing dominated the news.

Still, it was the Civil War that drew the crowd – and it’s the Civil War that endlessly fascinates and still divides us. As observances of the war’s 150th anniversary began last month, more than half of Americans surveyed said the Civil War is still relevant to politics and public life, according to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

The publishing industry finds the reading public still hungry for the war. Books about the Civil War reportedly exceed 65,000, and the flow continues. Faust said more than a hundred Civil War books have been published every year during the past five decades.

At the war’s sesquicentennial, many historians’ views of the war’s causes and consequences have changed. “We remember a very different Civil War from the one we celebrated and contested in the 1960s,” she said.

The Civil War centennial was “designed to be less about remembrance than about forgetting. At Antietam in 1962, spectators got “carnival without carnage, a battle stripped of content and context,” she said.

A large part of the war’s missing context was slavery. “Race has moved from the margins of Civil War history to its center,” she said.

Today, most historians agree that slavery was the war’s root cause. Many people, however, don’t share that understanding. The Pew survey found no consensus about the war’s primary cause. More people – 48 percent – said the war principally was about states’ rights than said it was about slavery – 38 percent. Interestingly, people under 30 were far more likely than their elders to say the main cause was states’ rights.

When Robert K. Sutton, chief historian of the National Park Service, said in December that slavery was “the principal cause” of the war, he encountered widespread resistance and controversy, Faust said.

It should come as no surprise that our views of the past change. In July 1963, the late historian C. Vann Woodward wrote an essay for The New York Times examining the ups and downs of ideas and people in American history. The headline: “Our Past Isn’t What It Used to Be.”

One thing has not changed. For Americans, nothing is more interesting than that war.

© 2011 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


  1. Ms Mercer's column this week is a break from her usual reports on current politics and is a most interesting report on an most interesting lecture on the most interesting event in American history. An excellent piece of writing which we enjoyed immensely.

    The Civil War was one of many wars that never should have been fought.
    Undoubtedly, slavery would have ended in due course. Slavery caused the secession, perhaps, but we don't think Robert E, Lee and the bulk of his troops fought the war to keep slaves.

    Ms. Mercer, you may have started something here. Nice job, indeed.

  2. “Abraham Lincoln once said, "If you are a racist, I will attack you with the North…"”

    At least The Office’s Michael Scott was trying to get back to original sources; but I think he captured pretty well how slavery as one cause of the Civil War has transformed into the War to End Slavery myth, popular with both political parties for different reasons.

    Lincoln made it clear by words and actions that the war was pursued to preserve the Union. Exhibit A would be his letter to New York Tribune editor Horace Greely in 1862. Exhibit B would be his sacking of General Fremont for freeing the slaves in Missouri after it fell back under federal control. The list of exhibits is long.

    In terms of what set vast armies on the march, ending slavery was no more a cause of the Civil War than freeing the Jews from concentration camps was a cause of World War II. In both cases, those results were a happy byproduct of the war, not a cause. Hollywood and academic revisionism never ceases, though.

    Bitterness over the Civil War and slavery is kept alive by notions of a morally pure Northern Man waging war against the corrupt, evil Southern Man of Neil Young style imagination. I say this as someone who was born and raised in the north: there was no shortage of overt racism in any part of the country. Human nature is the same everywhere. The expansion of slavery in the south and its dying out in the north were a function of climate, geography, population density, and economics.

    We could get back to the spirit of the Peace Jubilee held in Manassas, VA 50 years after the war, when combatants from both sides came together for a festival of reconciliation. But I’m afraid there are political forces at work today who see no benefit for them in any reconciliation.