The horror of the Civil War is in the accounting—a terrifying piece of accounting.
Between April 12, 1861 and April 9, 1865 (the last shot was fired in June) almost 2.2 million Americans fought against each other—almost 40% of those eligible for military service. In that time, approximately 625,000 Americans were killed, either in action, in hospital or illness. Another 402,000 were wounded, with injuries as varied as a scratch and a severed limb. 10% of the North’s population of military age, and 30% of the South’s never came home.
We will never know for sure the total number of civilian casualties.
I bring out these numbers as a static, mathematical reminder of the costs of fanaticism, militaristic saber-rattling, authoritarian usurpation and a lack of compromise. The math can often resound decibels louder than any rhetoric.
Tomorrow, we mark the 150th anniversary of the greatest disaster in our history, and I mean “greatest” in all its senses. The Civil War has been written about to death. It has been the culprit of reams of academic pap, both useful and useless, often hashing and rehashing the debates about slavery, states’ rights, civil rights, Lincoln’s actions and inactions, as well as every slight movement of the battlefield in those little blue and red rectangles.
If that wasn’t enough, the unlettered masses have fistful of Hollywood movies, some good (Gettysburg, Glory, Gods and Generals) and some God awful (Sommersby –I threw up a little on saying its name). Then there’s documentaries, docu-movies, PBS documentaries, History Channel documentaries, even those weirdoes who dress up each weekend, playing ancestors with which they have a dubious family connection. There’s no way ALL you guys had a great uncle who fell at Shiloh, right?
In a sense, the sesquicentennial ruckus can be just as disturbing as the war itself. That’s pretty frightening, since the greatest effusion of blood in American history still hold lessons today—particularly in how we forget our past.
David Von Drehle, in a funny connection to two anniversaries this year (he wrote the book Triangle, about the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire) wrote an interesting piece in this week’s Time Magazine about a collective amnesia Americans from both North and South have about our greatest conflict. In a nutshell, Von Drehle writes about how Americans have washed away the more distasteful or painful elements of the Civil War in the course of 150 years.
Some of these include:
The persistent need to push the slavery issue as secondary to the issue of states’ rights. Slavery, in fact, was the elephant in the room ever since the Revolution, and even Thomas Jefferson (himself a slave owner) prognosticated civil war over the issue.
The connivance of monied interests on both sides. Arms, munitions and logistics industries in the North were itching for a conflict to cash in on army contracts. Yet there were even more business to be lost by the South. Southern cotton not only greased the wheels of the mills in New England and the clothing factories in New York, but also buttressed the textile industries of Great Britain, France, even Germany. New York City, in fact, came close to “seceding” from the Union over the issue of lost revenue due to the lack of cotton.
The lack of enthusiasm—and outright rage—over fighting to free enslaved Africans. The 1862 Emancipation Proclamation was not met with resounding enthusiasm, even in the North. Many states began to question continuing the war. The Irish of New York rioted outright in the summer of 1863, fearing they would lose their jobs to free blacks. Even the arrival of black soldiers did not ease the racism and hatred that pervaded the North—a hatred well established in the South.
The burial of the events leading up to the shots on Fort Sumter. Events such as the Kansas-Nebraska Act, “Bleeding Kansas,” the Pottowatamie Massacre, the 1857 Dred Scott decision, even so far back as the compromises of 1820, 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Act.
Furthermore, the period after the war became a time when veterans of the Blue and Grey would meet in reunions as brothers to remember the old times—and to decry the Northern reformers and shiftless Blacks that sent them to fight in the first place. Ever since, according to Von Drehle, we have been struggling to find the complete story.
This anniversary, we at the Neighborhood implore our readers to look at the Civil War with open minds, with clear eyes and with an empty heart.
Take a new look at the war for yourself, filtering out the din of media and talking heads. Look at the photos. Read the letters. Hear the arguments. Examine the carnage. Let the war speak to you.
In fact, 625,000 soldiers speak to us everyday.
They speak whenever we debate about the government’s role in our lives, be it on the federal or state level. They speak whenever an American is slighted due to race, ethnicity, religion, or socio-economic status. They speak when moneyed classes suffer a severe disconnect from the reality of the American people.
Most importantly of all, they yell—they scream—when intransigent politicians, policymakers and ideologues entrench in their opinions with no room for compromise.
The 625,000 are the warning of fanatical, unscrupulous, un-American partisanship. Their number, and their silence, is the loudest of all.
The Civil War Poems of Walt Whitman
Walt Whitman, circa 1860. Photo by Mathew Brady. Image via Wikipedia
As an adolescent, America‘s most original poet was best known as the local mall.
I grew up just a few miles from Walt Whitman‘s birthplace on Long Island, but his name was best known for gracing the shopping center across the street. If that wasn’t grotesque enough, the Walt Whitman Mall has the words of his famous “Song of Myself” painted across the outer walls, as if shoppers would grace their day with fine poetry while they splurge with their Macy’s coupons.
It really was more as an adult that I could really appreciate the power and uniqueness of Whitman’s words, especially apart from the walls of a suburban mall. Thus, the Neighborhood is celebrating our greatest poet at the anniversary of a pivotal conflict in Whitman’s life.
By 1861, three editions were published of Whitman’s seminal masterpiece Leaves of Grass. Like the first two editions, the third did not sell well. American readers were shocked at his unique meter and cadence, his raw, unflinching verse and his often overtly sexual emotions.
When his brother was wounded in 1863, Whitman went to Washington to help in the overcrowded Union military hospitals. Though he had no military or medical training, the wounded troops were comforted by Whitman’s poems, stories, songs and chores he would dutifully fulfill well past his appointed shift.
Whitman’s experiences in the hospital stayed with him for the rest of his life. Towards the end of the war, in 1865, Drum-Taps, a collection of wartime poems, was published. When his “O’ Captain, My Captain!” appeared after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, it made Whitman a celebrity almost overnight. Ironically, “O’ Captain” is a more traditional poem than Whitman’s other work–which probably helped readers ease into his more fiery verses.
Here is a link to Whitman’s Civil War poems, but attached below are a few of my favorites.
Of course, we must include the poem that made Whitman an international icon, the poem written in tribute to Abraham Lincoln:
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