The title of this, the first post of A Stillness on the Internet, is taken from the introduction of a James McPherson book, Writing the Civil War. For any Civil War enthusiast, the words take on an instant meaning. For someone not as interested, the question might arise: what are they talking about? What participants? What quest?
The participants are sometimes known as Civil War buffs. It is a fair question to ask why there is such a thing as a Civil War “buff.” Why would someone spend so much time reading about an event that took place long ago? Why would someone dress up in a costume and march around? (In all fairness to myself, I do not dress up in costumes, at least not anymore, but to each his or her own). Some historians of the Civil War have claimed that to understand the United States you must understand the Civil War. Historians in general will often tell you that history helps us to understand who we are in the present, in an emotional/psychological sense, and in a broader way related to how our social institutions are structured and how they function. They will also tell you that history has practical applications, perhaps reciting the dictum “those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” In regards to the former sense of self-understanding, fine. In regards to the latter sense of practicality, I’m not so sure. At any rate, it must be noted that people who often claim how important the Civil War is/was are people who have spent large chunks of their lives studying it. It seems unlikely, then, that they would concede that the whole thing is meaningless.
I, on the other hand, am perfectly willing to concede it’s meaningless. But that doesn’t mean I don’t find it fascinating. Delving into the Civil War is in some ways like delving into any subject: it’s an entire world, an entire universe, and the more immersed you become, the more complexity (and simplicity) you uncover. The more you learn about one thing, the more you are required to learn about a thousand other related things. At the same time you see very basic human emotions at play that we all experience and that continue to muddle our relationships with others on an individual level and much larger social and political levels.
Back to the Civil War, though, it is incredible (to me) to learn what the individual players knew, why they made the decisions they made, and how these decisions impacted the finished product. Or, you can ponder if individuals played much of a role at all. Perhaps the whole thing was a mishmash of impersonal, historical forces. And then you can ponder if indeed anyone on this planet has free will and can make rational decisions, or if it only seems that way.
I’ve had an interest in the Civil War since I was around 12. My interest has grown exponentially in the past year or so. I now have a college education, for what that’s worth, and happened to major in a humanities-related field. So while I now bring a formal education to the table, and my skills and tools are more advanced than they were when I was 12, the whole emotional motivation is really the same. The Civil War is a story, a drama that allows me to learn about interesting characters and events, that allows me to picture an idealized version of the world. It might seem strange to conceive of a war as an idealized version of the world. But indeed, there is something about the Civil War that seems pure and genuine. I can imagine that these men believed deeply in what they were doing and were making every attempt to create a society that they believed was righteous and just. For the record, I might as well state that of course I do not believe slavery is acceptable and therefore it’s rather dubious to say that Southerners were in any way participating in a just cause, yet I can also acknowledge that I do not hold any monopoly on righteousness and it’s more interesting to try and understand why slavery could be seen as acceptable than to quickly pass judgment and move on. Indeed, if there is any truth to knowing history so that it won’t be repeated, we must take the approach of trying to understand rather than becoming emotional – nothing is gained from that.
So yes, I look at the Civil War and at least pretend that great men were involved and that something important was really happening, something with cosmic implications. If in reality I don’t feel that way about my own life or the current age or if, deep down, I know the Civil War was no different, I can at least imagine that something truly meaningful happened here from 1861-1865. Therefore, for me, the Civil War is really about my quest for meaning. Yet I also accept that “meaning” may be nothing more than entertainment, enjoying yourself while you are here on this planet, and nothing more. But it is nice to hope that there is more.