Southern Cultures 12.2 (2006) 90-91
[Access article in PDF]
When Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. went to war in 1861, he had almost no idea what he was getting into. He had seen a picture of a Revolutionary soldier, "a white-haired man with his flint-lock slung across his back." And he had met a few Revolutionary war vets. (They were, of course, older men too by the time he met them.) Thus, he made what seemed to him a natural assumption: most of his fellow soldiers would be older men. What he discovered is what we all take for granted: the young fight our wars. Their bodies are more flexible (as are their minds and consciences). They have the least to lose, the most to prove, a high tolerance for risk, and a low degree of cynicism. Thus, when it comes to killing, we tap our children; they are the most willing and able to do it, and, anyway, we don't want to do it ourselves.
Given all this, it is surprising that it has taken until now for someone to put youth at the center of their analysis of Civil War soldiers. As its title suggests, Peter Carmichael's new book takes a generational approach to the conflict and its remembrance. Looking closely at 121 Virginia males born between 1830 and 1842, Carmichael concludes that these young men were not, as they have been portrayed, "lazy, emotional, hotheaded, [or] anti-intellectual." Rather, this "last generation" (the last to live as slaveholders) took their role as Virginia's heirs apparent very seriously. It pained them deeply that the state's reputation had declined so precipitously since the days of Washington and Jefferson. And it really stung that northerners portrayed the South as sinning and backward. Rather than withdrawing [End Page 90] into a cocoon of happy fictions and stultifying traditions, as their fathers seemed to be doing, this "last generation" dreamed of leading Virginia into the fully progressive and modern American mainstream.
When Lincoln was elected, the "last generation" faced a conundrum. The American mainstream had turned against slavery. Soberly, Virginia's sons measured their state's options and determined that the interest of progress would be best-served by disunion. War would chasten the timid and test the true-believers. Shorn of its deadwood and revived from its torpor, Virginia would emerge from the conflict to stride boldly again at the forefront of a bid to erect a great (and good) progressive Christian nation. Thus, the "last generation," which had wanted so much to Americanize the South in all things except slavery, was rapidly transformed into the fiercest group of Confederate die-hards. They served as junior officers in Lee's army and operated as go-betweens to secure the nonslaveholding rank-and-file to their patrician officers. Indeed, the "last generation" did more than anyone to stave off defeat . . . until it came. Then they accepted it easily; they were young, after all, and not given to looking back. Instead, they moved quickly to secure home rule, a more diversified economy, and, as always, progress. Only as old men, when their futures began to flicker and fade, did the "last generation" do as old men will, telling rapturous stories of their youths, when their "hearts were touched with fire."
What is marvelous about Carmichael's line of argument is that it so beautifully explains seeming inconsistencies. With perfect coherence, Virginia's young men believed rabidly in America until 1860, in the Confederacy until 1865, and in the New South almost immediately after. A "new" South is what they had dreamed of all along, and they clung to their vision until they were too old to play a part in erecting it. By matching the natural arc of aging to the arc of the society they controlled, Carmichael paints the most compelling portrait we have of a generation uniquely committed to modernization and slavery...