Tuesday, January 15, 2013

None Died in Vain

It may be common in other countries and in history, but it's still odd for me to think that Americans had a Civil War.  Now, I know that we're in the midst of the 150th anniversary of the conflict, and it was a topic that came up in school a lot.  Growing up in Maine, I probably put a lot more significance in the role of Joshua Chamberlain than most people (other than the filmmakers behind Gettysburg and Gods and Generals).

Lately I've been reading books about the American Revolution and the War of 1812, so I figured it was time to revisit the Civil War as well.  No other period in American history has as many devoted followers as this one, which is also known as the War Between the States.  Consequently there are certainly buffs who know enough where they don't need a survey like Robert Leckie's None Died in Vain to refresh some fairly basic details.  They certainly don't need Leckie to remind them about the significance of the major engagements, and the generals who fought them.  Well, someone like me does, and even after this survey I'd still need reminding about such details, because there's a lot of stuff to remember, especially since the Union army went through a lot of generals.

This was a war between North and South, Union and Confederacy, the right to continue the practice of slavery and the desire to finally end it.  I've read about some of the key figures (in JFK's Profiles in Courage) who helped forestall the war (Clay, Webster, Adams) through the strength of their convictions and willingness to compromise.  Continued expansion of the country meant that the South was continually faced with the issue of the North not agreeing with its structural policies, and felt threatened enough to finally secede after the election of Abraham Lincoln.  Leckie tracks the progress of the war and how it was fought, including the succession of Union generals as the North struggled, to my mind, with the same problem I expressed at the beginning of these thoughts.  Leckie presents the facts and personalities pretty well and concisely, never bogging down in unnecessary details or complicated accounts of specific battles.  He doesn't, however, bother too much with the psychology of the war, which is plain enough to read, at least as far as the North is concerned.

He also has a latent bias for the Confederacy, exhibited by his frequent glorifying of its generals and how handsome they all seemed to be.  I realize that a lot of writers talk about physical characteristics and tend to focus on the beautiful ones, because readers theoretically love that, but every time Leckie does it with the Confederacy, it's not easy to fight the reaction that he's as much in awe of men like Robert E. Lee as his own soldiers.  True, he talks about the Union generals who inspired their troops, but most of his thoughts in that regard are about their ineffectualness in combat.  The psychological approach might take into account a certain reluctance, or address the personality conflicts a little more forthrightly, or not armchair general every single military decision.  Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but Leckie seeks to make it an artform, in essence joining the ranks of the North who kept wondering why the war took so long.  As far as I can tell, every battle seems to have degenerated into a quagmire.  There's simply no telling how anything could have played out differently.  War is in the end war, which is not pretty, and the Civil War was the least pretty war to that point in history (at least as far as Americans are concerned).

I wish Leckie would also have spent as much time, or given comparable attention, to what came after the war as he does to what led up to it.  Reconstruction is probably a tricky subject, especially if I'm accurate in deducing the author's true sympathies, although if the author is as conflicted as I think he was, then that's just another part of the book, another example of how complicated the subject matter remains.  It's hard to admit any sympathies.  Even the North was deeply ambivalent at best about the war.  Anyone who thinks Vietnam or Iraq are unique in American history as unpopular wars should probably be reminded that the Civil War was received in exactly the same way.  And just imagine if the Union had given up the fight!  Americans today probably can't imagine it, and those who can probably have a completely different reaction to how it ended anyway.

Above all, my reaction to None Died in Vain is appreciation for Leckie' character sketches.  Even though he limits himself almost exclusively to the generals who prosecuted the war, it's almost like seeing an entirely different version of what happened (and sometimes why).  I'm sure there are plenty of books that explore this aspect of the Civil War...

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