Battle Pieces | The Nation


Battle Pieces

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Faust sees this providential view of the war as essentially a device to make sense of pointless slaughter. In a chapter on the way American writers responded to the bloodshed, she gives pride of place to Dickinson, Ambrose Bierce and Herman Melville, each of whom tried, through ironic detachment, to "undeceive" readers by stripping the war of comfortable, exalted meaning. The short stories by Bierce, who had seen action in numerous battles, including Shiloh, as a member of the Union army, stripped various kinds of wartime death--battlefield, suicide, execution--of any romantic meaning. Melville's poetry collection Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War rejected the idea that the war had served a glorious purpose. For Faust too, war remains, as it was in her 2004 lecture, meaningless violence.

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Eric Foner
Eric Foner, a member of The Nation’s editorial board, is the DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia...

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Except, that is, for the more than 200,000 black men who served in the Union army and navy. Faust notes the special dangers black soldiers confronted. The Confederacy viewed them not as legitimate soldiers but as rebellious slaves (unlawful combatants, to use a current phrase). "We cannot treat negroes...as prisoners of war without a destruction of the social system for which we contend," one Southern newspaper declared. Many atrocities took place in which black soldiers were massacred after surrendering, most infamously at Fort Pillow, Tennessee, where nearly 200 perished at the hands of Southern soldiers under the command of Maj. Gen. Nathan Forrest. Nor were white officers of black troops spared; and Confederates did not return their bodies to the Union army for proper burial, as they did for other officers.

"Black soldiers," Faust writes, "approached war's violence differently from white Americans." They saw the war as a righteous struggle against slavery, offering not only spiritual redemption but an equal place in American society. The struggle for freedom gave the war a "special meaning" for blacks.

But her treatment of black soldiers stands in sharp contrast to her account of the white combatants, Northern and Southern. They regularly wrote home of service to nation, God and their comrades; yet Faust seems to see in such sentiments little more than a rationalization of violence that gives it a nationalist and Christian overlay. Indeed, her chapter on white soldiers' response to death mixes letters by Union and Confederate soldiers to show the essential sameness of their responses. Here she diverges from Chandra Manning's What This Cruel War Was Over (2007), an examination of soldiers' letters that demonstrates that as time went on, more and more Union soldiers saw the war as a struggle over the future of slavery in a nation dedicated to freedom. For Faust, pointless violence and mass death compelled Americans to seek meaning in the war; for Manning, what led Northerners and Southerners to be willing to lay down their lives was a meaningful difference in essential values.

All history, the saying goes, is contemporary history. Current concerns affect the questions we ask of the past and, frequently, the answers we find. The Civil War offers a striking example. During the 1930s and '40s, in part because of a revulsion against what they saw as the needless slaughter of World War I, historians presented the Civil War not as an irrepressible conflict between two societies with fundamentally different systems of labor and social outlooks but as an unnecessary struggle brought on by a blundering generation of politicians. In the aftermath of World War II, historians reinterpreted the Civil War in light of the struggle against fascism and a growing civil rights consciousness. Refracted through the lens of those experiences, the moral was clear: if it was worth a war to destroy the Third Reich, it was worth one to rid the nation of slavery.

Today, war has taken on a different aspect, and historians have followed suit. Like Faust's book, Upon the Altar of the Nation (2006), a work by the Yale scholar of religious history Harry Stout, condemns the Civil War clergy for justifying slaughter. It is hard not to see the shadow of Iraq--a prime example of senseless carnage cynically overlaid with exalted rhetoric--hovering over these books. And at a time of the increasing militarization of our society and politics, any reminder of the true costs of war is certainly welcome.

Yet on the question of whether the Civil War had any larger meaning, This Republic of Suffering is oddly agnostic. At one point, Faust does refer to "a war about slavery." But overall, the war's meaning for her lies in death, not life; in destruction and suffering, not any other outcome. The Civil War was, indeed, a terrible tragedy. But because of her unrelenting preoccupation with death, Faust strips the war of political meaning. She never steps back to ask what the price of avoiding war might have been.

A look at the unsuccessful "compromise" proposals advanced in Congress during the secession winter of 1860-1861 suggests that war could have been averted only at a very high cost, if not in lives then in the nature of American society itself. To try to bring the South back into the Union, these plans included, among other things, a ban on Northern criticism of Southern institutions, a Southern veto on national policies and the recognition of slavery as a permanent feature of American life. What about letting the "erring sisters depart in peace," as Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, advocated? Confederate leaders were bent on expanding their slave-based empire into Mexico and the Caribbean. Either way--a compromise settlement or peaceable disunion--the United States and, indeed, the entire Western Hemisphere would be very different today if the Civil War had not taken place. In other words, the price of peace would have been a different harvest of death--the death of freedom of speech, political democracy and any hope for an end to slavery.

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