A Short History of the History of the Civil War

A Historiographical Essay
John Rocco Roberto

“Any understanding of the nation…has to be based on an understanding of the Civil War.”  So said the writer Shelby Foote at the beginning of Ken Burn’s PBS series, Civil War.  In popular memory the American Civil War came down to a contest between two generals, Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant.  It has also come down to one important battle, Gettysburg.  Grant is seen as the hero of the Union army, taking over from a series of incompetent generals to finally provide the leadership needed to move the Army of the Potomac forward in defeat of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.  Most historians consider the Battle of Gettysburg as the turning point of the war, the decisive battle that marked the end of Lee’s ability to continue the fight.  When taken in conjunction with each other, Lee’s defeat at Gettysburg, and Grant’s ascension to command, it is not surprising that the eventual outcome of the war seemed pre-determined.

There have been, at last estimate, over sixty thousand books written about the American Civil War.  That is as author C. Brian Kelly puts it, “forty-one books for every day of the Civil War, or close to two books for every hour of the conflict.” (C. Brian Kelly. Best Little Ironies, Oddities and Mysteries of the Civil War. Nashville: Cumberland House, 2000. Page xiii.)  The American Civil War was one of the defining moments in American history.  It represented the nation’s growing pains, and for better or worse, it made the nation what it is today.  The people who fought the war, who suffered through it, who died because of it, will forever be in the mind-set of our collective memory.  Millions of Americans were involved in the war, over 300,000 were wounded and over 600,000 lost their lives.  When the war ended in April of 1865, over two-thirds of the population was either dead or wounded.  Therefore, is it so surprising that sixty thousand books have been written on the subject?

The history of Civil War publications seems to be as varied and interesting as the events surrounding the war itself.  They basically came in two waves, one comprising a bulk of work written in the years immediately following the war, the other beginning around the time of the 125th anniversary of the war and continuing to this day. The first publications regarding the war began to appear during the last years of the war itself, although none of these accounts would delve into the causes of the war or the political aspirations of the war in any detail.  Most were accounts of the various military campaigns or the personalities involved in these events.  Not until twenty years after the war ended did a serious series of books and articles find there way onto American bookshelves.  Again most of these works focused on personal reminiscences and unit histories, although a strong tendency by both ex-soldiers and politicians to justify their causes began to develop at this time.  One example of this is provided by Civil War historian Gary W. Gallagher, who writes, in the forward to David J. Eicher’s The Civil War In Books, “Jefferson Davis and Alexander H. Stephens…offered a two-volume set of memoirs that argued the constitutional purity of the South and played down the issue of slavery as a factor in bringing secession and war.” (David J. Eicher. The Civil War In Books. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1997. Page xiii.)  Another example can be found in Henry Wilson’s History of the Rise and Fall of the Slave Power in America.  Wilson, a radical Republican, presented a counterpoint to southern writers like Davis and Stephens, claiming that the war was a result of sectional tensions fostered during the 1850s.

While a number of generals published their own accounts during this time period the most famous of these were of course, the memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant.  Written while the ex-general and President was dying of cancer, Grant’s accounts of the war seemed to have been totally unpartisan, a response, as some historians have pointed out, to the work by Jubal A. Early, who made the claim that the Southern Confederacy was only defeated because of the North’s overwhelming numbers and resources.  Grant argued that manpower and resources could not alone explain Union victory.  It was these type of arguments that seemed to exemplify most of the material written on the war during this time period, as Gallagher puts it, “Much of the writing between 1865 and the mid-1880s reflected a common belief that former enemies could not be trusted.” (Ibid.)

One of the earliest writers on the Civil War was John Codman Rope (1836-1899).  Rope, the son of a leading Bostonian merchant, was born in St. Petersburg on April 28th, 1836 while his family was in Russia on business.  At age fourteen his family returned to Massachusetts, attending Harvard in 1853, and graduating in 1857 with a law degree.   His interest in military history began with the outbreak of the Civil War, where a spinal deformity kept him from serving.  He did however, provide services to the 10th Massachusetts Regiment in which his brother, Henry, served until his death at Gettysburg. (John Codman Rope ‘s biographical information from the JRank Online Encyclopedia.)  It was thus after the war that he began his interest in chronicling the events of that great conflict.  In his 1881 book, The Army Under Pope, Rope centered his attention on the eastern theater of operation following the Peninsular Campaign, Cedar Mountain, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s valley campaign, and Second Manassas.  In the book Rope is overly critical of Major-General John Pope’s command at Second Manassas, but clearly places the blame for the Union failure on Major-General Henry W. Halleck for not supporting Pope with Major-General George B. McCellan’s army.

The first major work that addressed the events of the Battle of Second Manassas is The Army of Northern Virginia in 1861 – 1862, written by William Allan and published in 1892.  In the book Allan bases his account on eyewitness testimony, describing in detail the movements and activities of the Southern army during the first year of the war, and looks at the Peninsular Campaign, Second Manassas, Sharpsburg and Fredericksburg.

The later part of the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth centuries saw Southern writers weave into their writings the notion of the “Lost Cause.”  Authors began to argue that the eleven southern states that formed the Confederacy did not do so to protect slavery, but to protect the notion of states rights.  This outlook, of the south fighting a second American revolution, coincided with the move to present monographs that began to romanticize the bravery and high-moral motives of the soldiers on both sides of the conflict.  The early part of the twentieth century also saw the beginning of scholarly work that supplemented the more personally orientated materials.

Jones Williams’ Life and Letters of Robert Edward Lee, Soldier and Man, published by the Neale Publishing Co. in 1906 is an example of this type of work.  Serving in the 13th Virginia Infantry, Williams had personal access to Robert E. Lee both during and after the war, and served on the staff of Lt. General A. P. Hill, later holding the position of secretary of the Southern Historical Society.  The author provides an overview of Lee’s life, looking at his Mexican War activities and army life through the Civil War.  The majority of the book relies on letters and official reports as its source.

The lull between the First and Second World Wars saw a number of publications which advanced the field in a more scholarly direction.  “Civil war publishing,” writes Gallagher, “developed along two quite distinct paths.  Most academic scholars have focused on nonmilitary topics, while…a great many others have contributed titles on battles, campaigns and military biography.” (David J. Eicher. The Civil War In Books. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1997. Page xv.)  W. E. B. DuBois produced one of the first examinations of Black Americans during the war, while Bell I. Wiley focused his attention to the field of soldier studies.

It was during this stage that the next major work to address the war was begun by Kenneth P. Williams in 1948.  Born in Urbana, Ohio on August 25, 1887, Williams taught mathematics at Indiana University receiving his degree from that university in 1908 and assuming the Chair of the Mathematics Department in 1938.  He was the founder and first commander of the Student Army Training Corps, later to be known as The Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) at Indiana University, but is best remembered for his work, Lincoln Finds A General: A Military Study of the Civil War. (Kenneth P. Williams’ biographical information from Indiana University website.)  Originally intended as a seven volume set, the first volume saw publication in 1949 with subsequent volumes following.  In the set the author looks at the Union response to secession, its search for a strategy to win the war, and a general to implement that strategy.  Based on official reports published by the U.S. government, Williams’ volumes assess the troubles the Union faced, especially in the early years of the war.  Unfortunately the untimely death of the author on September 25th, 1958 ended all hopes of the series continuing, and only five volumes were published.

While interest in the war once again gained momentum during the Civil War Centennial of 1961-1965, it quickly died back down during the early seventies, especially as the American public’s appetite for war history had been soured by Vietnam.  Most of the material of this time period however, centered on the military side of the conflict.  This tended to elicit from both the general public as well as the academic community a feeling that most of this work had already been done.  It would not be until the later part of the twentieth century that an almost unprecedented amount of material would be produced.  Fostered by the tremendous success of James M. McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom, and the Ken Burns’ PBS series The Civil War, Civil War studies took on a new light, and the 1993 big screen release of Ted Turner’s Gettysburg, and History Channel series’ Civil War Combat, only helped to promote the study of the war to a television generation.  In addition, several very public appeals to save threatened Civil War battlefields also brought the war to the forefront of the American mindset.  It would also be during this stage that revisionists would begin to produce some of the more controversial ideas.

Arguments about the importance of Lees’ campaigns can be found in Richard McMurry’s 1989 book, Two Great Rebel Armies: An Essay in Confederate Military History.  McMurry, a native of Georgia, received his B.A. in history from the Virginia Military Institute.  After serving two years active duty in the United States Army, he entered graduate school at Emory University in September 1963, receiving his M.A. in June of 1964 and his Ph.D. in June of 1967.  From 1967 until 1981 he taught history at Georgia State College and then moved to the position of adjunct professor of history at North Carolina State University until 1988. (Richard M. McMurry’s biographical information taken from The Louisville Civil War Round Table website.)  McMurry’s book presents a comparison of the Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of Tennessee, examining the Confederate policies that saw Jefferson Davis and the Confederate high command support Lee’s army over Joseph Johnson’s command.  McMurry points out that the weakly supported Army of Tennessee fought the battles that supported the Confederate war effort, and that the eastern battles fought by Lee were strategically less important.

In 1993, author John Hennessy provided the first in-depth look at the Battle of Second Manassas in more than one hundred years (see The Army of Northern Virginia in 1861 – 1862, written by William Allan above).  In his work, Return to Bull Run: The Campaign and Battle of Second Manassas, Hennessy provides a detailed account of the battle, following the maneuvering of both the Union and Confederate forces, providing a full analysis of the battle on the division, brigade and regimental levels.  “The victory at Second Manassas,” the author writes, “brought the Confederacy to the crest of a northward-rushing wave of success.” (John Hennessy. Return to Bull Run: The Campaign and Battle of Second Manassas. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993. Page vii.)  Hennessy also points out that the battle has been overshadowed by Lee’s victory over McClellan months before, and the bloodbath that would be Antietam in September 1862. The author also paints a picture of Union commander Irvin McDowell as incompetent and part of the reason the Union lines collapsed on August 30th.  However the author also suggests that Halleck, McCellan and Pope all contributed to the Union failure.  John Hennessy is the Chief Historian of the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park.

1996 and 1999 saw the publications of two never before published war memoirs, Sylvanus Cadwallader’s Three Years With Grant: As Recalled by War Correspondent Sylvanus Cadwallader, published by the University of Nebraska Press, and Horace Poter’s Campaigning With Grant, published by William S. Konecky  & Associates.  Cadwallader is able to provide a first-hand account of the battles of Vicksburg, Chattanooga, The Wilderness, and Appomattox, because of his unique situation at Grant’s Headquarters (where he was accepted as one of the staff).  Porter, who served as lieutenant colonel from April 1864 until the end of the war, was also attached to Grant’s staff, where he accompanied the general into battle in the Wilderness, Cold Harbor and Petersburg, as well as being present at Appomattox. His portrait of his two years with Grant provides a first-hand account of the General in action.

1999 also saw publication of Steven E. Woodworth’s Civil War Generals in Defeat.  In it, Woodworth, an assistant professor of history at Texas Christian University and author of Davis and Lee at War, brings together essays from several Civil War historians who examine the nature of defeat and how generals on both sides of the conflict bore the stigma of defeat.  The work addresses some of the “long-accepted simple explanations for battlefield failures,” (Steven E. Woodworth. Civil War Generals in Defeat. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1999.  Page 7.) while it providing an in-depth look at Civil War commanders.  July of 2000 saw White Mane Publishing Company issue Rocks and War: Geology and the Civil War Campaign of Second Manassas by E-an Zen and Alta Walker.  In the book, Zen and Walker look at the role topographic mapping and geologic provinces played in the battle. By applying the notion of military geology to the campaign, the authors showed how landforms were used by both sides in their tactics both to their advantage, and to their disadvantage.

In 2002 Osprey Publishing presented a series of short essays devoted to military history under the series title Campaign.  In Campaign #95: Second Manassas 1862, Robert E. Lee’s Greatest Victory, author John Langellier dissects the battle by providing a day-by-day account of the battle, a look at each sides battle strategies, and profiles of the commanders in the field.  Langellier, who received his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from the University of San Diego, presents a straightforward look at Second Manassas, allowing the reader to make up his own mind on the importance of the battle.

Recently Gary Gallagher and Stephen Engle presented another overview of the conflict in, The American Civil War, a collection of essays and articles originally published under the Essential Histories series of Osprey Publishing.  Gallagher, who received his B.A. from Adams State College in 1972 and his Ph.D from University of Texas at Austin in 1982, is the John L. Nau III Professor in the History of the American Civil War at the University of Virginia.  Steve Engle is professor and chair of the history department at Florida Atlantic University.  His area of interest includes the ethnic, military, and, political considerations of the Civil War.  Published in 2003, the book explores the political, historical, strategic and cultural significance of the American Civil War, examining its impact on the civilians and military personal caught up in it.

2003 also saw the release of Hallowed Ground by James M. McPherson.  McPherson, considered the premier Civil War historian, is professor of history at Princeton University.  In Hallowed Ground McPherson takes the reader on a “tour” of the Gettysburg battlefield, explaining the events that comprised the battle, looking into the military strategies of its participating generals, and describing the changes in the physical features of the battlefield since 1863.  In addition McPherson attempts to explain the draw of the battlefield on both American and foreign visitors alike.  “During the bicentennial in 1976, a delegation of historians from the Soviet Union visited the United States as a goodwill gesture,” McPherson writes.  “When they arrived [they were] asked which historic sites they wanted to visit first…Independence Hall…Yorktown…Lexington and Concord.  They wanted to go first to Gettysburg.” (James M. McPherson. Hollowed Ground. New York: Crown Publishers, 2003. Page 16.)

Civil War history, like history itself, is not static.  As noted Civil War historian William C. Davis writes, “Oddly, history changes…history is a fluid process in which little remains certain for long.” (General Edward J. Stackpole. Chancellorsville: Lee’s Greatest Battle. Harrisburg: Stackpole Books, 1988. Page ii.)  The material of today builds upon and supplements the material of yesterday.  It is not that the early history of the Civil War has become useless, but has been redefined as new information has been brought to light.  It is therefore possible, using the vast wealth of material that’s been published since the end of the war, to re-examine the events of each battle, look at the personalities of each general, and re-evaluate their individual battle plans.  One may then begin to see a very different picture from the general view that has been presented over the years.  It may be that if one examines the history close enough, one may find that Grant was not the great general history has made him out to be, that Lee himself was the architect of his own destruction, and that the seeds of the Confederate defeat can find its roots back in August of 1862, nine months before the Battle of Gettysburg, on a little focused upon battlefield known as Second Manassas.

Essay © 2005 John Rocco Roberto.