In today’s New York Times Ken Burns echoes some of my points regarding how the Civil War is perceived in popular culture (see The Civil War in Fiction) . . . he has eloquently put forth my reasons for writing The Hanlin Trilogy . . . . some excerpts, though I encourage everyone to read the entire article, it’s important as so many embark on a four year ‘celebration’ of the war:
. . . . in the years immediately after the South’s surrender at Appomattox we conspired to cloak the Civil War in bloodless, gallant myth, obscuring its causes and its great ennobling outcome . . . We struggled, in our addiction to the idea of American exceptionalism, to rewrite our history to emphasize the gallantry of the war’s top-down heroes, while ignoring the equally important bottom-up stories of privates and slaves. We changed the irredeemable, as the historian David Blight argues, into positive, inspiring stories.
The result has been to blur the reality that slavery was at the heart of the matter, ignore the baser realities of the brutal fighting . . .
. . . The centennial of the Civil War in 1961 was for many of us a wholly unsatisfying experience. It preferred, as the nation reluctantly embraced a new, long-deferred civil rights movement, to excavate only the dry dates and facts and events of that past; we were drawn back then, it seemed, more to regiments and battle flags, Minié balls and Gatling guns, sentimentality and nostalgia and mythology, than to anything that suggested the harsh realities of the real war.
. . . It was an emotional archaeology we were all after, less concerned with troop movements than with trying to represent the full fury of that war; we were attracted to its psychological disturbances and conflicted personalities, its persistent dissonance as well as its inspirational moments. . .
. . .Today, the war’s centrality in American history seems both assured and tenuous. Each generation, the social critic Lewis Mumford once said, re-examines and re-interprets that part of the past that gives the present new meanings and new possibilities. That also means that for a time an event, any event, even one as perpetually important as the Civil War, can face the specter being out of historical fashion.
But in the end, it seems that the War of the Rebellion, the formal name our government once gave to the struggle, always invades our consciousness like the childhood traumatic event it was — and still is.
Maybe Walt Whitman, the poet and sometime journalist who had worked as a nurse in the appalling Union hospitals, understood and saw it best. “Future years,” he said, “will never know the seething hell, the black infernal background of the countless minor scenes and interiors … of the Secession War, and it is best they should not.
“The real war,” Whitman admonished us, “will never get in the books.” We are, nonetheless, obligated to try.
“. . . the full fury of that war . . . its psychological disturbances and conflicted personalities, its persistent dissonance as well as its inspirational moments. . .” a perfect summation of my motivations writing a personal narrative from inside the horrors . . . and triumphs.