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 Civil War Issues


Introduction: Into the Discourse

Section Index

  1. The Civil War in American History
  2. Aspects of the Civil War
  3. About this Paper

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1. The Civil War in History

From a European perspective, Americans are often said to be lacking a history. Those studying American history are derided as having little to do, and historiography still tends to be more Europocentric in many aspects, as in the case of the French Revolution - which is seen as a rather original and unique phenomenon of utmost importance, while the events and literature paving the way for it are being found not only in English Enlightenment thought but even more in the events of the American Revolution. In this case, American history proves to be linked to European history, but also, and perhaps more than usually acknowledged, is European history linked to American history, one could perhaps speak of a Euro-American history.

But it is not the American Revolution this paper is about, at least not in its main stream of thought. The American Revolution created a chimera, a synthesis of old and new elements - a synthesis into which certain conflicts were already implicated, but also a synthesis offering hope for betterment and positive change, a synthesis of both optimism and pragmatism.

The American Revolution created an America which was fused together out of very different areas, differing in cultural heritage and cultural norms, differing in economy, territorial properties and also differing in the basic mind-set of their inhabitants. E pluribus unum is the optimistic approach, aiming at a working union of states, aiming also at the creation of one American nation, of one American democracy, of one American justice. But only a blind approach could possibly be surprised about the conflict which were to unfold between 1861 and 1865.

The American Civil War is no neat and tidy topic. It is not about a period hundreds of years away, it is not about dead people. The Civil War and the discourses it belongs to are still alive today - continuing to prosper, continuing to draw upon old material, continuing to create new material, continuing to haunt a nation which - not only overseas - is seen as incomplete, as a work in progress.

History is never truly local, never truly regional. History is never written in a vacuum, and even less is it made in a vacuum. History is always about roots and consequences - both can and will never be restricted to the place of happening. America was modeled on ideas originating from antiquity: The idea of democracy, whose mother is Athens, and the idea of empire, whose mother is Rome. But even these idealized progenitors have had a genesis of their own, originating not in empty space but in the history of their predecessors, be it Egyptians, Phoenicians, Persians or Indoeuropean roots. Likewise, the history of one region can become relevant for another. Especially today, we can see dissolution and dissension all over the world, be it Yugoslavia, Italy, the Holy Land, the former Soviet Union or the glued-together parts of Germany. While every occurrence in history has to be seen as singular, there are still sufficient similarities and analogies which allow for a comparison.

America is not just a copy of Europe, it has developed into something quite unique, initially fed by European thought and history, but over time - mostly through immigration and expansion - including other cultural elements as well. And since World War I, at the latest, the United States of America have become a global player, influencing Europe in turn and also the world. American culture and global culture are intermingling already, the world itself becoming a melting pot of different cultures. But if cultures merge, histories, too, merge, opening the local and the regional to the global level, letting everybody share a common stream of ideas. This is globalization - in the best sense. And with borders gone, which is already the case on the internet, the most powerful promoter of global identity and global unity, with borders gone, everything other becomes one's own, and the Civil War, a truly American phenomenon, becomes an occurrence in world history, or, just in history.

2. Aspects of the Civil War

The Civil War is a war of ideas, it is a war about democracy. Both sides have claimed to be more democratic than the other, both sides have claimed the other to be the traitor of independence. Thus the Civil War is also a war of speeches and of propaganda.

The Civil War is also one of the turning points of military history. It is perhaps the first modern war, it is a war in which the railroad and entrenchments rose to strategical and tactical importance, thus already providing a glimpse on the horrors two later world wars were to bring to the soldiers.

The Civil War is a war of contrasts - contrasting old style warfare with a newer, more pragmatic agenda, a contrast which best manifested into the two central figures of Lee and Grant. It is a war of pragmatic rationale against sentimentality, a war of abstract political agendas against a more emotional patriotism; at least in a stereotypical theoretical view.

The Civil War is a war of economy and infrastructure, it is a war showing very clearly the state in which both contestants were at the time of conflict. It is a war which is closely linked to territorial and climatical conditions, but also to the technology to overcome any such hindrances.

The Civil War is a war without a winner and without a loser. Like in every Civil War, the enemy is relatives, friends; family. Thus it is a very painful war, a very complicated and complex war which has created wounds which are deeper than the time period between 1861 and 1865.

The Civil War is no thing of the past. Confederate flags being still an issue in contemporary US politics, Southern dialect and lifestyle being the focus of movies and television[1], not necessarily under a derogative agenda, the war and its discourse still remain present in the American people.

3. About this Paper

Other than my other study papers, this one is envisaged as an internet paper, meaning that it is conceptualized as a web site rather than a dry research paper. Thus it will focus more on personal opinion and interpretation than on consequent analysis of sources and literature. I still hope to remain on a solid factual basis, but you will also encounter some extrapolation and speculative thought.

Furthermore, the nature of this paper is a more open one. While it may be conceptualized as a closed entity in its main thread, you may also have noticed that I've expanded this sub-section into other areas as well, including everything on this site which is related to the topics of the Civil War and US Slavery. Unlike my other papers, this one is open to future additions or even modifications.

The main thread of this paper is connected with the thesis established in its title: That the cause of the Southern Confederacy has been a "Lost Cause" indeed, and that not only the odds were against it, but also its own management and perspective. This is connected with the second thread, listing various aspects of the Civil War, issues related to the conflict, some of them directly contributing to Southern Defeat, others only indirectly or insignificantly.

The third thread comes with the subtitle: "The Civil War in Retrospect". Of course this has been written in retrospect, as the author of this text has in no way been historically involved in the Civil War. But there's also something else to it. The Civil War being an issue of the past, the analysis of this conflict is not only made in hindsight, but several issues of the War are still present in today's culture. Nothing and nobody vanishes without a trace, and an event as disrupting as a war will last in the memory of the people and in their cultural artifacts, and much more so such a dividing issue as a Civil War. The ruptures having caused this war, as well as the ones being caused by it, are still present today in one way or another. Thus this paper is not only about the Civil War, but in part also about this very act of retrospection.

The Civil War is no past phenomenon. It is still living history. While it has ceased to be a military confrontation, some of its issues are living on today also. From the mere history of acts and dates, the Civil War has entered cutural history - has entered culture. In culture, however, past, present and future are merging and continue to shape history.

September 13th - October 22nd, 2000

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Endnotes - Introduction

[1] as in movies like 'O Brother, Where Art Thou' (2000), 'The General's Daughter' (1999), 'Man on the Moon' (1999), 'Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil' (1997), or - regarding television - the Civil War plot of Babylon 5, the Dharma and Greg episode 2.14 'Dharma and Greg on a Hot Tin Roof' (1999) and the rather unnerving and infamous X-Files - episode 4x03 'Home'

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