150 Years of Misunderstanding the Civil War

As the anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg approaches, it's time for America to question the popular account of a war that tore apart the nation.
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The Battle of Gettysburg, lithograph (Currier and Ives/Wikimedia Commons)

In early July, on the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, pilgrims will crowd Little Round Top and the High Water Mark of Pickett's Charge. But venture beyond these famous shrines to battlefield valor and you'll find quiet sites like Iverson's Pits, which recall the inglorious reality of Civil War combat.

On July 1st, 1863, Alfred Iverson ordered his brigade of North Carolinians across an open field. The soldiers marched in tight formation until Union riflemen suddenly rose from behind a stone wall and opened fire. Five hundred rebels fell dead or wounded "on a line as straight as a dress parade," Iverson reported. "They nobly fought and died without a man running to the rear. No greater gallantry and heroism has been displayed during this war."

Soldiers told a different story: of being "sprayed by the brains" of men shot in front of them, or hugging the ground and waving white kerchiefs. One survivor informed the mother of a comrade that her son was "shot between the Eye and ear" while huddled in a muddy swale. Of others in their ruined unit he wrote: "left arm was cut off, I think he will die... his left thigh hit and it was cut off." An artilleryman described one row of 79 North Carolinians executed by a single volley, their dead feet perfectly aligned. "Great God! When will this horrid war stop?" he wrote. The living rolled the dead into shallow trenches--hence the name "Iverson's Pits," now a grassy expanse more visited by ghost-hunters than battlefield tourists.

This and other scenes of unromantic slaughter aren't likely to get much notice during the Gettysburg sesquicentennial, the high water mark of Civil War remembrance. Instead, we'll hear a lot about Joshua Chamberlain's heroism and Lincoln's hallowing of the Union dead.

It's hard to argue with the Gettysburg Address. But in recent years, historians have rubbed much of the luster from the Civil War and questioned its sanctification. Should we consecrate a war that killed and maimed over a million Americans? Or should we question, as many have in recent conflicts, whether this was really a war of necessity that justified its appalling costs?

"We've decided the Civil War is a 'good war' because it destroyed slavery," says Fitzhugh Brundage, a historian at the University of North Carolina. "I think it's an indictment of 19th century Americans that they had to slaughter each other to do that."

Similar reservations were voiced by an earlier generation of historians known as revisionists. From the 1920s to 40s, they argued that the war was not an inevitable clash over irreconcilable issues. Rather, it was a "needless" bloodbath, the fault of "blundering" statesmen and "pious cranks," mainly abolitionists. Some revisionists, haunted by World War I, cast all war as irrational, even "psychopathic."

World War II undercut this anti-war stance. Nazism was an evil that had to be fought. So, too, was slavery, which revisionists--many of them white Southerners--had cast as a relatively benign institution, and dismissed it as a genuine source of sectional conflict. Historians who came of age during the Civil Rights Movement placed slavery and emancipation at the center of the Civil War. This trend is now reflected in textbooks and popular culture. The Civil War today is generally seen as a necessary and ennobling sacrifice, redeemed by the liberation of four million slaves.

But cracks in this consensus are appearing with growing frequency, for example in studies like America Aflame, by historian David Goldfield. Goldfield states on the first page that the war was "America's greatest failure." He goes on to impeach politicians, extremists, and the influence of evangelical Christianity for polarizing the nation to the point where compromise or reasoned debate became impossible.

Unlike the revisionists of old, Goldfield sees slavery as the bedrock of the Southern cause and abolition as the war's great achievement. But he argues that white supremacy was so entrenched, North and South, that war and Reconstruction could never deliver true racial justice to freed slaves, who soon became subject to economic peonage, Black Codes, Jim Crow, and rampant lynching.

march.png Nor did the war knit the nation back together. Instead, the South became a stagnant backwater, a resentful region that lagged and resisted the nation's progress. It would take a century and the Civil Rights struggle for blacks to achieve legal equality, and for the South to emerge from poverty and isolation. "Emancipation and reunion, the two great results of this war, were badly compromised," Goldfield says. Given these equivocal gains, and the immense toll in blood and treasure, he asks: "Was the war worth it? No."

Few contemporary scholars go as far as Goldfield, but others are challenging key tenets of the current orthodoxy. Gary Gallagher, a leading Civil War historian at the University of Virginia, argues that the long-reigning emphasis on slavery and liberation distorts our understanding of the war and of how Americans thought in the 1860s. "There's an Appomattox syndrome--we look at Northern victory and emancipation and read the evidence backward," Gallagher says.

Very few Northerners went to war seeking or anticipating the destruction of slavery. They fought for Union, and the Emancipation Proclamation was a means to that end: a desperate measure to undermine the South and save a democratic nation that Lincoln called "the last best, hope of earth."

Gallagher also feels that hindsight has dimmed recognition of how close the Confederacy came to achieving its aims. "For the South, a tie was as good as a win," he says. It needed to inflict enough pain to convince a divided Northern public that defeating the South wasn't worth the cost. This nearly happened at several points, when rebel armies won repeated battles in 1862 and 1863. As late as the summer of 1864, staggering casualties and the stalling of Union armies brought a collapse in Northern morale, cries for a negotiated peace, and the expectation that anti-war (and anti-black) Democrats would take the White House. The fall of Atlanta that September narrowly saved Lincoln and sealed the South's eventual surrender.

Allen Guelzo, director of Civil War studies at Gettysburg College, adds the Pennsylvania battle to the roster of near-misses for the South. In his new book, Gettysburg: The Last Invasion, he identifies points when Lee's army came within minutes of breaking the Union line. If it had, he believes the already demoralized Army of the Potomac "would have gone to pieces." With a victorious Southern army on the loose, threatening Northern cities, "it would have been game over for the Union."

Imagining these and other scenarios isn't simply an exercise in "what if" history, or the fulfillment of Confederate fantasy fiction. It raises the very real possibility that many thousands of Americans might have died only to entrench secession and slavery. Given this risk, and the fact that Americans at the time couldn't see the future, Andrew Delbanco wonders if we ourselves would have regarded the defeat of the South as worth pursuing at any price. "Vindicated causes are easy to endorse," he observes in The Abolitionist Imagination.

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Tony Horwitz is a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist who has written for The Wall Street Journal and The New Yorker. His books include Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War and Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War.

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