Comment Drive: Why’s the Civil War So Fascinating?

I suspect that I’ve blogged long enough that I’m running out of mildly embarrassing self-revelations, but here’s one oddity I might not have shared: I like to relax by reading about the American Civil War.

Yes, while others spend spring break on Florida beaches, I mentally visit Chickamauga and Antietam. Having read Allen Guelzo’s acclaimed book on Gettysburg last March, this year I picked up his general history of the conflict, Fateful Lightning.

To be clear, this is totally outside my fields as a European/diplomatic historian whose research is on Pietism and higher education. While I do teach classes on 20th century wars, I’m no more than a well-read amateur when it comes to the events of 1861-1865 (whatever Americans call them).

Peculiar as my way of relaxing may be, I’m not all that unusual in my interest. As the eminent Civil War historian James McPherson points out in the introduction to his new collection of essays, The War That Forged the Nation: Why the Civil War Still Matters:

McPherson, The War That Forged a NationEven before the many conferences, commemorations, books, exhibits, and other public events associated with the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth in 2009 and the sesquicentennial of the Civil War from 2011 to 2015, that war was the most popular historical subject in many parts of the United States. In 1987 the historian at the Vicksburg National Military Park declared that “Americans just can’t get enough of the Civil War.” A bookstore owner in Falls Church, Virginia, said a year or so later that “for the last two years Civil War books have been flying out of here. It’s not [just] the buffs who buy; it’s the general public, from high school kids to retired people.” In 1990 some thirty million viewers watched the eleven hours of television documentary produced by Ken Burns, and rebroadcasts in the past two decades have lifted that number to at least fifty million in the United States and abroad. Civil War books are the leading sellers for the History Book Club. An estimated two hundred Civil War Round Tables meet monthly to listen to lectures and discuss the war. Thousands of Americans (and even some foreigners) are Civil War reenactors who fight mock battles every year before thousands of spectators at or near where they took place 150 years ago.

But why this fascination? McPherson notes, first, that the sheer scale of the conflict (if 2.4% of Americans died in a war today, as they did over the course of the Civil War, this nation would lose over 7 million people) “continues to horrify us but also solemnly to impress us 150 years later.” Then second, he suggests that “There is a kind of romance and glory, as well as tragedy, surrounding” figures like Lincoln, Lee, Grant, Sherman, et al. (Says someone who just published a biography of Jefferson Davis…)

(Indeed, I do think there’s some resonance between today’s question and the previous post in this “comment drive” series, asking about the popularity of biographies. And, shifting from the stories of individuals to the stories of a nation, today I’m just asking a version of John Gaddis’ third question about biographies: “What is it… that brings distinctive characters in history to the attention of the historian in the first place?” What accounts for what Gaddis would call the “reputation” of the Civil War, and those individuals who fought it?)

In the end, McPherson offers a more presentist explanation: the Civil War fascinates because it is relevant. To his mind, the issues being fought over in the 1860s remain “salient and controversial”: e.g., the nature of our republic, and citizenship in it; and conflicting ideas of freedom. Inevitably, he quotes Faulkner: “The past is not dead; it is not even past.”

What do you think: What fascinates you about the Civil War? And — even if it’s not one of your favorite historical topics (I ran this topic by a friend earlier this week, and he shrugged: “I’m not all that interested in the Civil War”) — why does it seem to have such a grip on so many Americans?

<<Read the previous post in this series

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