War, Civil and Otherwise


We like to think of our country as ever reinventing itself, plunging without fear into the future, a still-young nation unburdened by the past. Not that a rich history necessarily stultifies, as the people of Egypt have amply demonstrated. And you don’t have to be as gloomy as F. Scott Fitzgerald, with his “boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly,” to recognize the pull the past has on the American imagination. However misused the Founding Fathers are by a crackpot Supreme Court justice, or representatives who read only the uplifting bits of the Constitution in the well of the House, or those history-challenged contemporary Tea Partiers, nobody could seriously argue that our inexhaustible interest in Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, and their fellow fathers is misplaced. Against that steady beat of attention to our revolutionary beginnings come the occasional paroxysms of Civil War fervor. These usually arrive on anniversaries of the war, such as the 150th on which we are now embarked. If I could I would solve, once and for all, the riddle of the Civil War’s enduring power: Is it because it was fought on our own soil? Is it because it righted the great wrong committed by the Founders? Or is it simply because a wound so terrible takes many generations to heal? But that’s for wiser heads.

I won’t promise a fervor-free zone in these pages for the next four years, but I’m happy to report that our first 150th anniversary offerings, in this issue, approach the subject obliquely. Adam Goodheart’s “Civil Warfare in the Streets” focuses on a bloody exchange occurring after Fort Sumter and before First Manassas, in a city distant from either place, St. Louis, where the hatreds were fueled as much by xenophobia and European republicanism as by the overriding questions about slavery. The Camp Jackson massacre led to urban warfare of a sort we associate with Beirut, Goodheart writes.

Jill Lepore’s “How Longfellow Woke the Dead” takes a close look at the often-maligned poet and his most famous poem, “Paul Revere’s Ride.” Not much can be said for the poem’s metrics, but Lepore traces the growth in Longfellow’s thinking about slavery and suggests that when the poem was published 150 years ago, it could be read not only as romantic history but also as a fugitive-slave narrative and an abolitionist call to arms.

Adam Hochschild’s article in this issue about the “war to end all wars” honors the impulse of those who struggled for peace. “I Tried to Stop the Bloody Thing” traces the British antiwar movement before and during the First World War that was led by one of the country’s best-known intellectuals, Bertrand Russell. It’s a good story to keep in mind as Civil War fervor sweeps the land.

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Robert Wilson's most recent book is Barnum: An American Life. He was the editor of the Scholar for more than 17 years.


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