The American Civil War (1)

According to Wikipedia:The American Civil War was a civil war in the United States fought from 1861 to 1865. The Union faced secessionists in eleven Southern states known as the Confederate States of America. The Union won the war, which remains the bloodiest in U.S. history.”

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I am presently half way through watching a TV series on the American Civil War:The Civil War is a 1990 American television documentary miniseries created by Ken Burns about the American Civil War. It was first broadcast on PBS on five consecutive nights from September 23 to 27, 1990. Approximately 40 million viewers watched it during its initial broadcast, making it the most-watched program ever to air on PBS. It was subsequently awarded more than 40 major television and film honors.”

I suppose, war has long fascinated me, especially in my studying of the two World Wars, but not for ghoulish reasons, for I recoil from the idea of doing violence against my fellow man and am all too aware of the terrible and needless suffering that invariably occurs. Rather war shows life in the raw and helps us to understand the reasons and consequences of war. While taking a view that every measure should be taken to avoid war if at all possible, there is a case for a “just war”, for example the need to defeat Nazi tyranny, and if called upon I would do my duty and participate in war. Yet I have never had to participate in any war, and compared with those who are caught up in war I have escaped unscathed.

I have never visited the USA even though I would liked to have done so. The nearest I ever got to doing so was some 25 years ago, when I had an opportunity that in the end I was unable to take up to tour the Civil War battle fields. This was in part a response to viewing the American TV Series “North and South”, with the added fascination that this was a war that did divide a nation, family and friends. It is tempting to make comparison between the American Civil War and the English Civil War (1642–1651), which “was a series of armed conflicts and political machinations between Parliamentarians (“Roundheads”) and Royalists (“Cavaliers”) over, principally, the manner of England’s government”, but when it comes to defining a nation and the long term effects of these past conflicts, I am inclined to think it is much greater in the American case.

I was struck recently by the repeated statement that in order to understand the USA we need to understand the American Civil war, and having been edified by watching the “World at War” series (see here) I decided to turn my attentions to that on the American Civil War. While I watch happenings in the USA with interest, having come to a view what happens in the USA effects my own country and the rest of world, in part because the USA is still the most powerful nation on Earth (although for how much longer, who can say), it seems to me that by digging into the past, especially during this momentous civil war period, I might understand things better. Why are polarized positions, like opposite ends of the political spectrum, Clinton versus Trump, contending to become the next US president and daily evidences of the waging US culture wars and looking on the religious naivety and fundamentalism verses great sophistication and pride, the things that come to my mind when I cast my eyes across the Pond, and I turn to the American Civil War for answers.

I confess I don’t have the answers I would like, but I have posted with the intention to post again my further reflections on the matter. As far as the TV series goes, it is fascinating. Unlike with the producers of “World of War”, it had no one who was around at the time that it could interview. Yet they did what all good historians do and examine primary sources, which exist in abundance, including photographic. Wars are invariably tragic, not least because it is the innocent and most vulnerable that suffer, but those that pits brother against brother and affects the entire nation maybe even more so.

Freedom of the slaves and the politics that went with it was a key issue but I doubt the main one. Federal rights versus States rights and “Southern culture” wanting to assert itself against a more powerful “Northern culture” threatening to subsume it may be nearer to the truth but even then the picture is more convoluted than this. But in the meanwhile I will go away and watch the other half of the series and reflect further, feeling deep sorrow in my heart of the tragic, needless, huge loss of lives that were sacrificed in making the USA the country it is, with its many failures amidst successes and challenges it now has to face.

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