Thinking About the (American) Civil War

Even though it’s “not my field”, I’ve been thinking about the American Civil War a lot recently. (Actually, I’ve been thinking about England’s Civil War, too, but that’s a different story.)

Those of you who don’t hang out in Popular History Land may not have gotten the word, but 2011 is the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. Re-enactment groups, historical societies, and national parks are gearing up.  For the next four years, you’re going to have a wide choice of articles, television programs, exhibits, lectures, recreations and other events commemorating the war.   (Here’s a great list of 150th anniversary events and resources to keep your eye on.)  In fact, you’ve already missed some.

I’m not a full-scale Civil War buff, but I’ll doubtless visit an exhibit or two.  Maybe re-visit Wilson’s Creek Battlefield when I go home this summer.  As a writer, I’ve already produced three pieces related to the war this year.  (That’s compared to one Civil War article in the past five years.  Did I mention that I’m not a Civil War buff?)  I expect I’ll write a few more.

There are lots of ways to think about the Civil War. (You don’t believe me?  Look on the shelves of your local library.) The one that I’ve been chewing on lately is the idea that it’s the first modern war.

When you read about the Civil War, the details feel familiar in a way that the American Revolution does not. The technology of telegraph and railroad transport . (Not modern, but was still in use in World War II).   Reports from the field on the front pages of Harper’s Weekly. The grimness of Mathew Brady’s photographs. Hometown efforts to collect comforts for the troops.

In fact, all of those elements made their first appearance in two earlier, smaller wars.  The Crimean War (1854-56) saw the first use of the telegraph, the first war photography (sorry Mr. Brady but Roger Fenton got there first), the first true war correspondents, and the birth of modern nursing (Clara Barton would be the first to acknowledge her debt to the redoubtable Miss Nightingale.) Railroads played a critical role in Indian Mutiny of 1857.

Ultimately, the Civil War earned its claim to modernity in terms of its devastation and the role played by the relative industrial capacity of the two sides.

Welcome to the modern war.


  1. Karen S. Elliott on June 10, 2011 at 5:43 pm

    One word – Gettysburg. My first few forays to Gettysburg were with school trips and I was, “yeah, whatever” at that stage in my life. What a wonderful (and horrible) place. So much history, preserved. Went there again a couple years ago and was emotionally caught up in the history and suffering and upheaval. I feel that it also played a big part in the Industrial Revolution – you?

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