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CIVIL WAR MILITARY HISTORY: A Few Revisions in Need of Revising Ludwell H. Johnson The recent revolution in the historiography of the Civil War era has perhaps been more extensive than is generally realized. The revisionist school of the 1930's, with its thesis of an avoidable and undesirable war, is being supplanted by historians who revert to the Manichaean outlook so prevalent among the men of the 1850's and who regard the war as a struggle between good and evil, thus making it both an inevitable and a desirable conflict. Radical Reconstruction, once the object of almost universal opprobrium, is now pictured as a noble experiment unwisely abandoned. Andrew Johnson was formerly pitied as the victim of a malign and cynical Radical conspiracy; now he is blamed as a doctrinaire obstructionist afflicted with both political and moral obtuseness. Lincoln has been transformed from a lily-white Republican and reluctant emancipator into a prophet of the equalitarian millenium. Abolitionists are no longer destructive, emotionally unstable, and sometimes racist fanatics, but have become angels of light. Such reinterpretation, as always, is a function of the times. To the 1930's generation the Civil War seemed needless, and the moral issues confused, because that was the way World War I seemed. To the succeeding generation, thinking in terms of the struggle against Hitler, and then against communism, the Civil War appears to have been inevitable and to have involved clear-cut moral issues. And, of course, Radical Reconstruction is being reexamined in the midst of the present equalitarian crusade—as a "deferred commitment" dating from the 1870's, a commitment which the Radicals gallantly attempted to meet, albeit with much fumbling and many mistakes. While it is to be expected that changes in the ideological climate would alter interpretations of the causes and aftermath of the war, it is somewhat surprising that such a politically neutral subject as militar)' science should also have been affected, but such seems to be the case. The reason is perhaps less obscure than might be supposed. In the afterglow of the Second World War, seen as inevitable, moral in purpose, and constructive in outcome, the generals who achieved an unconditional victory in 1865 are more apt to be admired than they were a generation ago, when war seemed neither inevitable nor righteous nor constructive . The overthrow of Hitler gave men a new faith in war as an instrument—sometimes the only instrument—of progress. Looking at the 115 116civil war history Civil War from this vantage point, it appears that the Union did not triumph because it was more powerful than the Confederacy, but because it was more progressive, in the sense of more closely approximating contemporary American ideals. Thus it was more modern, and the revisionism that has taken place in military history has attempted to demonstrate and describe that modernity. Today's scholars are likely to see in Grant, Sherman, and Lincoln (the real architects of northern victory) men representative of a new age, a new society, men who realized the necessity for fighting a new kind of war. By contrast, the Confederacy becomes an anachronism, whose leaders were products of an out-dated traditionalism that controlled their military as well as their political and social ideas and that foredoomed them to defeat.1 ". . . Confederate leaders could no more disenthrall themselves from Jomini's theories than they could from a belief in slavery or state rights."2 There followed naturally a comparison of the training and modes of thought of the leaders on each side to determine exactly why the Grants and Shermans defeated the Lees and Johnstons. This led to the discovery that the American military man of that day was nurtured on the maxims of Baron Jomini, whose experience dated from the Napoleonic wars and whose heart was with Frederick the Great and the good old days of eighteenth-century warfare. Grant admitted that he had never read Jomini, therefore his success could not be attributed to a more skillful application of Jomininian principles than the Confederates were able to achieve. Hence (the line of reasoning seems to have gone), Grant's success resulted in part from the fact that he...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6271
Print ISSN
0009-8078
Pages
pp. 115-130
Launched on MUSE
2013-01-02
Open Access
No
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