Union of opposites

11th April 1997 at 01:00
Scott Bradfield considers what the American Civil War was really about. THE AMERICAN HERITAGE NEW HISTORY OF THE CIVIL WAR Narrative by Bruce Catton Edited by James M McPherson. Viking Pounds 25

Despite Abraham Lincoln's own persuasive and long-lasting PR, the Civil War wasn't fought to free slaves. It was, rather, fought to decide once and for all what America was all about.

On the one hand, Northerners tended to believe in a large Federal government telling the States what to do, big cities driven by heavy industry, and a classless society in which an individual's free-market value was determined by how much money he or she made. On the other hand, Southerners believed in local government, an agricultural economy, and landed families sustaining their massive cotton-producing estates by means of a permanently enslaved underclass. In many ways, these conflicts weren't resolved when the Civil War ended. They may, in fact, never be.

The Civil War officially began with the election of Abraham Lincoln, a staunch Federalist in 1860. In reaction, South Carolina promptly seceded from the Union a few weeks later, and when more southern states followed suit, the Confederate States of America was established. But while the War's first shots were actually fired at Fort Sumter in April 1861, the real war didn't get going for almost another year. This was because while the North was busy exhorting citizens to engage in a war of principles, it couldn't find a Union general eager enough to take that war into enemy lands.

In the beginning, the South was outmanned, outgunned, and financially ill-equipped. But at the same time, Southerners were a lot clearer about what they were fighting for - their own homes, properties and institutions.As a result, Confederate soldiers came close to winning what many believed was an unwinnable war.

In the beginning, the North couldn't take the war seriously. When the Union Army first journeyed south and met the Confederates at Bull Run, Washington citizens took picnic baskets to a nearby hill in order to observe the day's entertainment. When the Union was violently routed by gutsy Southern soldiers and a firebrand general named Stonewall Jackson, Washington's partygoers fled homeward with the new-found conviction that this war might last longer than anybody originally expected. They were right.

The first general in command of the Northern Army, Winfield Scott, was old and infirm; the second was egomaniacal and uncertain. When General George McClellan (after months of urging from Lincoln) finally took the largest American army ever assembled into Confederate territory, he was strategically outmanoeuvred by Robert E Lee's now legendary Army of Northern Virginia. At which point McClellan promptly withdrew, thus inaugurating what would become a standard Northern strategy of the war, and one which proved particularly vexing to Lincoln. Whenever the North suffered any sort of defeat by Southern troops, they perfunctorily turned around and went home. At this rate the War, quite literally, could have lasted forever.

It took Lincoln two years to find a general who would fight, lose, hunker down, and get up to fight again. Ulysses S Grant wasn't especially smart or skilful, but unlike any Northern general to precede him, he did know how to get off the dime. After winning the Union's only serious early victories at Shiloh and Vicksburg, Grant was placed in charge of the Union Army, and led the dogged three-pronged attack which eventually defeated the South, both physically and spiritually. (As part of this final campaign, Sherman's infamous "march to the sea" through the Shenandoah Valley didn't engage troops so much as decimate farmlands and cities.) By the time Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox on April 9 1865, the Civil War had claimed more than 620,000 lives - almost as many as all other US wars combined. To this day, people still argue whether preserving the Union was worth the price of so many of its citizens.

The original American Heritage History of the Civil War was published in 1960 to commemorate the war's first centennial, and it's now being reissued with most of its original text intact - and that written by one of America's foremost authorities on the war, Bruce Catton. It includes hundreds of pages of illustrations and photographs (most of them new to this edition), detailed maps of how individual battles were fought, and many first-hand accounts of this costly and unpredictable war by those men who lost their lives in it.

While the book lacks the emotional punch of Ken Burn's recent 10-part documentary on the conflict, it assembles a remarkable amount of well-organised material with clarity and heft. As a result, it provides a perfect introductory text for those young history buffs in our media-enlightened age who don't just want to read about what happened a century ago, but want to see it, as well.

Scott Bradfield is assistant professor of English and American literatures at the University of Connecticut

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