As promised, here are some of the questions that crossed my mind while reading the last third of Robert Penn Warren’s The Legacy of the Civil War:
1. Warren offers an explanation why the Civil War grips the national psyche. Of course, he was writing fifty years ago: since that time one could argue that in different ways World War II and the Vietnam War have also had a similar impact. How well does his explanation still hold? Does the war indeed still have a grip on the national psyche, and, if so, is it the same now as it was when Warren wrote? Why/why not?
2. Does the Civil War still grow in our consciousness? Is an understanding of the war and its meaning still “a way of understanding our deeper selves”?
3. What do you make of Warren’s assertion that people viewing a divided country use it as “a great mirror in which the individual may see imagined his own deep conflicts, not only the conflicts of political loyalties, but those more profoundly personal.”
4. Is our interest in the Civil War an exercise in nostalgia? Does nostalgia reshape/distort our understanding of that event?
5. What do you make of the link Warren makes between the issue of inevitability and the question of guilt? Do you agree that (white) southerners still see the war as inevitable? What’s your response to Warren’s argument that one’s response to the question of inevitability is shaped by one’s own circumstances and concerns? After all, that implies that a discussion of inevitability can be reduced to “well, you believe that because of who you are or where you are,” thus neatly sidestepping the merits of the argument.
Let’s see whether these inquiries (or ones that you may have) lead to discussion.
A few years ago the University Press of Kansas asked me if I would help out an old friend whom I’d never met. The friend in question was Al Castel, who had been working on a manuscript on Union leadership Of a projected eighteen chapter manuscript, Al had completed thirteen chapters and had provided text for an additional five chapters, but those chapters needed some work. I agreed to help out, provided everyone understood that this was Al’s book, and he would have to concur with whatever arrangement I proposed. Thus, as the dust jacket indicates, this is primarily Al Castel’s book, not a coauthored endeavor: at most I could claim a secondary role (thus “with”) as someone who assisted in bringing the manuscript through to publication.
In case you didn’t already know it, Al Castel is the author of a good number of books on the American Civil War, including the Lincoln Prize-winning Decision in the West, a study of the Atlanta campaign. His books are lively and sometimes controversial. He does not hold William T. Sherman in as high regard as do some people, and he ranks William S. Rosecrans more highly than is usually the case. We did not always see eye-to-eye on various subjects (his treatment of Henry W. Halleck is more favorable than mine; he holds the opinion I used to hold about Phil Sheridan, about whom I am now somewhat more ambivalent; I tend to view George B. McClellan more kindly and sympathetically). Sometimes he made some concessions where I must have been persuasive; in other cases I rested content with the knowledge that I would have my own say elsewhere.
That said, working with Al and Fred Woodward at the University Press of Kansas to bring this book to publication this fall has been a satisfying experience. The experience has also made me wonder whether it might not be interesting to embark on as yet undefined project where multiple authors debate key issues in Civil War history, engaging each other, exchanging views, and accepting the notion that historians disagree and hold different perspectives. After all, historians usually question interpretations offered by colleagues, and at times these disagreements can get fairly intense. Sometimes people say in print what I suspect they dare not say face-to-face, and sometimes it becomes tedious to deal with an author who seems bent on misrepresenting an argument for the sake of countering it (or constructing straw men for the same reason). It would be interesting to bring people together to chat about various issues and see what happens.