The Eyes Say It by Jesse Gardner
In this sesquicentennial of the Civil War, The American Interest has been running The Long Recall, a history of the Civil War in “real time.” Drawing on original sources–newspapers, magazines, sermons–it summarizes the events of each day, and often provides some poetry, art, and culture in the context of the time.
The most striking thing about telling the history of the war this way is that it is presented without foresight: we know now the horrors of Antietam and Shilo, but in the early days of 1861, before Lincoln took office, the posturing secessionists and vacillating Buchanan administration could not imagine the path they were stepping onto. So far, we’ve read about the rumors of gun running to the South (smugglers arrested in New York City!), the reinforcement of Federal forts on the Southern coast (Major Robert Anderson of Fort Sumter became quite a media celebrity in the North), and the Peace Conference that sought to reach a compromise before Lincoln could take office. And not a shot has been fired yet: we’re still more than two months away from the bombardment of Fort Sumter.
When I read Thucydides in college, it was explained that the ancient Greeks had a different view of time than we have. We imagine ourselves moving forward on time’s river, faces to the future and the past receding behind us; we seldom glance over our shoulders. The ancients drifted down the same river backwards: blind to the future, but very much aware of the past, time could not be understood until it had gone by. I’m sure this is a gross over-simplification, but a useful one: the Whig interpretation of history, with its inescapable telos of freedom and progress, is the dominant one in the modern world, as much an axiom of the modern left as of the right.
The Long Recall is a great antidote to the Whig interpretation, and of any attempt to squeeze history into a story of inevitability. Immersed in the events, trying to block out the foresight that 150 years have given us, we see that there were points all along the way when things could have been different: possibly better (opinion in Virginia was divided on secession, and had the Unionists won the debate there, the Confederacy would have lost much of its leadership and momentum); possibly worse (the Peace Convention could have ended with another compromise on slavery, and dragged out the sectional tensions for another decade even while avoiding immediate war). The way things actually happened wasn’t the result of the guiding hand of historical narrative, but of decisions made by people who couldn’t see the future.
When I try to explain history to the boys, I find myself telling it backwards. To understand Martin Luther King, Jr., you need to know more than a little about Reconstruction and Jim Crow; but that means talking about the Civil War, and the early compromises about slavery; and that ought to lead to a discussion of the Atlantic trade and why slavery came to the Americas to begin with. And so on and so on, backwards through time. The future is fuzzy, but the past is a sparkling if confusing constellation.