The Boundaries of Your American Civil War

21 06 2015

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As what appears to the general public to be the end of the American Civil War Sesquicentennial has drawn, or draws, to a close, discussion (chiding? lecturing?) abounds on just what areas of history fall under that heading, American Civil War. Most prominent among those areas is Reconstruction. Arguments are made that the Civil War did not end with the cessation of armed and organized military rebellion, and that Reconstruction was the continuation of War in a number of senses. Even within that framework, disagreements have arisen regarding military and non-military activities in the period. I’m not going to advocate for any position, because I have a problem with the word should when it comes to studying history. But I’m rather curious to hear what you think.

Is history a river which feeds streams of micro-histories, or is it a river that is fed and created by those sub-histories? Is it OK for a student to focus on a time frame or events, and not give equal attention to events that may have affected or been affected by those times and events? If a student is not as interested in what he or she may consider ancillary events as they are in what they consider the “main events”, should they feel guilty or inferior, or made to feel so? I recall one blog post – sorry, where and who escapes me – in which the author reacted to a lack of response to a Reconstruction focused post by declaring “I guess it’s just too hard to think about Reconstruction.”

I mean, think about it. A recent blog post claims that one cannot understand the Battle of Gettysburg without a good understanding of the Battle of Chancellorsville. The argument is not without merit. But what is meant by the word “understand?” Can one understand command decisions of professional soldiers in almost any battle of the Civil War without having a firm understanding of the education and experience of those making the decision? Wouldn’t one need a firm understanding of, say, the development of the U. S. Military Academy and the content and goals of its curricula, or of the duties of antebellum officers, or of the U. S. war with Mexico, or of the Crimea, or of Napoleonic wars, or of the development of military theory through the years, Machiavelli, Vauban, yadda yadda yadda? Might a lack of understanding of these things lead one to less than sound conclusions regarding those decisions?

To understand Reconstruction, do we need an understanding of the history of slavery and emancipation from ancient times? Or of the events following other civil wars, revolutions, insurrections in other countries throughout history, and of the re-absorption of affected areas into the body politic? And why stop at 1876? As you expand it, the focus on any limited period can be made to sound a trivial exercise.

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Or maybe, realizing we only have so much time on this rock, do we just study what interests us most – what floats our boats, or blows our hair back? Do we even want to think of it as “study” at all? There have been times I’ve wondered about folks who beat the bejeezus out of Gettysburg. Some showed little interest in the rest of the war. I’d ask myself, “Don’t you care? Aren’t you curious?” But I think I always asked those questions rhetorically, and assumed that they should care, that they should be curious. But guess what? Many don’t and aren’t.  I’ve learned to appreciate that, and also that should is my limitation, not theirs.

Just tossin’ stuff out, seein’ what sticks. What do you think? What are the boundaries of your American Civil War?