It has taken a long time, but I seem at last to have found the book I have been looking for, namely a single volume history of the American Civil War. There is no shortage of books about the war, but they tend to be either highly specialised – dealing with matters such as the role played by Confederate women, or minute dissections of a single battle – or else immensely long works running into several volumes. Most of these books seem to be written by academics, perhaps based on their doctoral theses. But now at last I have The Civil War, A History, by Harry Hansen, who was a journalist and writes like one. The book was first published before I was born, back in 1961, and thus has the status of an enduring classic. Now at last I can read a clear account of who, let us say, Dred Scott was, and why he mattered.
Wars make difficult subjects for literature, the Civil War above all; perhaps I am not as familiar as I ought to be with the geography of Northern Virginia or the Shenondoah Valley; or perhaps it is simply because battles are very confusing, and making sense of them very hard. I cannot think of anyone who really writes well about fighting – not even Virgil can make battle scenes anything more than catalogues of carnage, boring lists of who killed whom. As for modern authors, they rarely explain why one side wins and another loses: I do not mean that they fail to explain the macroeconomic forces at work, for that is what they usually do explain rather well – but rather why one side runs away, and the other side does not. It seems that at the first Battle of Bull Run, the Unionist troops did run away, and Hansen gives the reason that they had enlisted for three months, and thought that their time was up. Their heart was simply not in the fight -a simple human emotion which we can all understand. Inidentally the “run” of Bull Run was, and presumably still is, a river.
I have visited several sites associated with the Confederacy. I have been to Fort Sumter, the rather small fort in the mouth of Charleston Harbour, where hostilities began in April 1861. Most interesting of all is the city of Richmond, Virginia, the former Confederate capital. It served as such for only a short period, just under four years, but the mark of those four years is everywhere. Many of the heroes of the Confederacy are memorialised in the extremely fine Monument Avenue. The inscriptions to the heroes make absolutely no mention of the fact that they were slaveholders who fought a war in order to protect slaveholding.
Also of great interest in Richmond is the White House of the Confederacy, the house where President Jefferson Davis lived. I visited it some years ago, and the guide pointed to a picture of the Blessed Virgin and Child hanging in what had been the Presidential bedroom, which was supposed to be a present from Pope Pius IX, who, we were told, was a warm supporter of the Confederate cause. I have never found any evidence that the Papal States ever recognised the Confederacy; in fact while the Confederacy did seek European recognition, it was singularly unsuccessful in its efforts. I suppose the picture could have been sent by the Pope to Davis, through the Confederate agents in Europe, Mason and Slidell. But the sending of pictures to foreign dignitaries must have been something of a routine matter in those days. In no way would it have signalled any approval of the Confederate position. But even the suggestion that the Blessed Pius IX might have supported the Southern States reminds us of the contention made in the introduction to the book I am now engrossed in – namely that the last word on the Civil War will never be written. The conflict rages still.