By Alan Lewis of Ground Zero Books in Silver Spring, Maryland
The Civil War was perhaps the quintessential American experience. It features battles, political intrigue, espionage, technology development, foreign relations, civic duty and citizenship, patriotism, nationalism, philanthropy, humanitarian assistance, liberation, and military occupation and much more. However, the one common thread throughout all the adjectives in the preceding sentence is that people were the means and the ends of each of these words. These words have a flesh and blood quality in rhetoric and reality.
In the past, there was ‘The Great Man’ theory of history, in which larger historical events, trends, and social values were often addressed through the biography of generals, statesmen, entrepreneurs, and scoundrels. The use of biography has endured long past the expansion of the historical narrative beyond the ‘Great Man’ model. Thus in the literature of the Civil War there is a vast array of works on lesser known individuals and small groups.
Many North Americans will be familiar with the famous life stories of the major figures like Abraham Lincoln, the generals Ulysses S Grant and Robert E Lee and Confederate leader Jefferson Davis. Sometimes I wonder if George Armstrong Custer is only remembered for his defeat at the Little Big Horn – Custer’s Civil War accomplishments led to him to become the youngest Union officer to “make General” but his actions are often forgotten. There are many men and women from this conflict who now survive in books rather than in the memories of American citizens.
For instance, Allan Pinkerton was a Chief of the United States Secret Service during the Civil War and later founded one of the earliest detective agencies. In 1885, he published, for subscription, The Spy of the Rebellion, detailing the spy system used by the US Army.
The Century Company published in magazine format many articles by participants from both the North and South. These were assembled in a four-volume set, published as Battles and Leaders of the Civil War. This compendium is fascinating both for the facts and perspectives offered.
Memoirs and reminiscences were published by survivors for decades after the conflict ended. Even today, diaries and manuscripts are uncovered and presented in magazine, pamphlet, and book form. One such item is Lieutenant L. D. Young’s Reminiscences of a Soldier of the Orphan Brigade - a famous Confederate unit.
In some instances, cases of right and wrong were argued in print. Among the most famous scandals on the Union side was the court martial of Major General Fitz John Porter for insubordination. For years Porter sought vindication, but was always opposed by Major General John Pope and others. Another general who fell into disrepute, but avoided Porter’s consequences, was Benjamin Butler, who was known as “Beast Butler.” He was especially reviled in the South due to his brutal military occupation of New Orleans – James Parton’s General Butler in New Orleans is worth investigating.
Not all the focus should be on senior officers. There are many works that provide insight into the ordinary lives of Billy Yank and Johnny Reb. One such is John Billings’ Hardtack and Coffee, a story of army life. Another is the famous Thirteen Months in the Rebel Army by “an Impressed New Yorker.”
There have been many diaries and groups of letters published, such as Frederic August James’s Civil War Diary which covers the fall of Fort Sumter through his imprisonment at Andersonville. The conditions for prisoners of war were horrid and, at times, were nearly as bad for those wounded in battle. Mary Livermore wrote My Story of the War covering four years as a nurse in the Union Army and in other relief work in homes, camps, hospitals and at the front. Some nurses did more than help the wounded and the sick. Just after the war ended, Emma Edmonds published her Nurse and Spy in the Union Army.
The scholarship continues into the modern era. In 1988, Eli Evans produced an excellent modern biography of a man who served in Jefferson Davis’ cabinet as Attorney General, then Secretary of War, and finally as Secretary of State. His name was Judah P. Benjamin, and some have suggested anti-Semitism led to his fall into obscurity over the generations while other Southern luminaries were revered as if saints.