Saturday, July 7, 2012

On why rebels went to war

The Confederate War by Gary Gallagher comprises a series of lectures he gave in 1995-96 at the University of Texas at Austin. While not specifically saying so he seems to be emphasizing issues that should be explored further perhaps inspiring some in his audience to take those issues up in theses or books of their own.

While he doesn't discount the importance of other concerns, the impetus for reaction against the intrusion of the North was closely tied to the military, especially to Robert E. Lee. Lee surrendered only a portion of the Southern Army at Appomattox, but virtually all southerners recognized that by virtue of his doing so, they had lost the war. He was the symbol of their success and their hope. When he fell all was lost and they fell silent.

One might ask whether it was important for each individual in the south to have a separate "motivation" for fighting or supporting the fight or whether the typical Southern signed on to someone else's motivation. Few are us philosopher's like Descartes who supposedly erased all preconceived ideas from his mind and declared cogito ergo sum (I think therefore I am.) No, most us us accept someone else's thinking. Were we alive back then and living in the South we would believed what the "great men" told us especially about our duty and would have rushed to do it (most of us).

It is a truism that soldiers don't fight for lists of values but for each other. A soldier who went home on furlough didn't return to his unit because of love of country or belief in slavery; he returned because he didn't want to let his fellow soldiers down. It is the same in all wars. Units that don't have this esprit de corps don't fight well as we see time and time again when we read that 'green units' were routed and fled wide-eyed from the field.

Gallagher writes "historians today have redefined the study of the Civil War, shifting attention from military action to the diverse experiences of individual groups, the impact of emancipation,' and the ways in which the war exacerbated old social divisions and created new ones. In calling for a shift away from 'narrow, antiquated views' of history represented by undue attention to Civil War battles and generals, Gardner manifested a stunning innocence of the ways in which military events helped shape all the dimensions of the American life he considered important."

Gardner, deputy executive director of the American Historical association, spoke these those words in 1990. There used to be a popular saying which went "wars never solve anything," but that is patently untrue and has been ridiculed to the point that few would come out and say precisely that, and while Gardner doesn't, he seems to come powerfully close, and Gallagher comes equally close to ridiculing him.

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