I am a member of probably the last generation that will have any direct contact with the Civil War. My great-grandfather, Sterling Thrower, was a cavalryman from Alabama who fought at Gettysburg and in the Virginia Campaigns. He came home at the close of the war with a ball in his leg, became a judge and died in 1925--but not before my father, born in 1906, had had time to know him, and to relate his stories to me. I have his rusty saber on my office wall.
It is unfortunate that for much of our younger generation, the war is only ancient history. Disturbing reports come from the hinterlands: Most high school students can't place the dates, events, causes or principal players in the conflict. Many can't even identify the century in which it was fought. Perhaps that will change.
This year has seen an almost unprecedented reawakening of interest in what has been described as "the last of the great romantic wars and the first of the great modern wars." Much of it centers around the public television series last month, "The Civil War," a five-year-in-the-making documentary that received perhaps the highest viewer response in public-broadcasting history. As well, the movie "Glory" gained Academy Award nominations. Bookstores are selling out of the more popular works about the war, and publishers are rushing to reprint them.
Included in this historical feeding frenzy are two handsome volumes just released by the Library of America: the memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman. Totaling nearly 2,400 pages, these books encompass, from the point of view of how and why the Union won the war, perhaps the most tantalizing personal accounts of that savage era.
The craving to write about the war, and the greed to know, began almost immediately after the conflict ended and continued for the next 20 years: assessments, memoirs, official histories, explanations, accusations, defenses and reaccounts by those involved. But as the nation moved toward the dawn of this century, interest waned; the original players were dying out; the battles had been fought time and again on paper. Other wars, other heroes and other villains were on the horizon.
The next great revival of American Civil War hoopla occurred about a quarter-century ago, when the event gained its centennial. I'm not sure what went on in the rest of the country, but in towns all over the South, men grew beards to commemorate the occasion and Confederate flags flew from many buildings. Ceremonies were held, monuments dedicated, speeches given and, most important, books were published.
The theses of many revisionist historians appeared to bring the South closer and closer to having won the war--so much so, it was once remarked, that if the trend hadn't died out, the historians would have actually had the South winning it by the end of the decade!
In fact, the Saturday Evening Post even published a series of hypothetical articles entitled "If the South Had Won the Civil War," which, years later, came up in a late-night conversation among several of us, including the writers, Willie Morris and William Styron. Styron proclaimed that had we all been living back then and the South had actually won, Morris and I would most likely have already died on the battlefield before the thing was over, "while I," Styron declared, "would have been sipping sherry in London as the Virginian ambassador to the Court of St. James's!"
Why, then, are we so interested today in an event that took place 130 years in our foggy past? A standard answer is that the Civil War defined us as a nation, rid us of the blight of slavery, preserved the status of the Union, and settled forever the question of precedence of the federal government over the various states. But at another level, many Americans want to experience as best they can the vicissitudes of our nation in a death grip upon itself, and how it behaved then, vis - a - vis the turmoil of the late 20th Century. At first, young men of the Union fought for the Union, then against slavery and, finally, it became fighting for fighting's sake, as most wars eventually become: men spewed into a furnace of hatred.