What emotional place does our Civil War occupy within our broader national narrative? One way to get at this is to step back and reflect on our reactions to hearing about civil wars in other parts of the world. I would argue that for most people the news of foreign civil wars conjures up images of confusion, sadness, corruption, uncertainty, and violence. Individuals and causes are rarely viewed as heroic or the product of benevolent design. No, foreign civil wars are reflective of the failure of governments and of the individuals who occupy high positions of power. We may see these nations and societies as the victims of a corrupt past void of democratic tendencies. For many it no doubt confirms American exceptionalism. Whatever the case, civil wars are events that happen elsewhere and to others. I may have captured something here that you can relate to or I may be completely off track.
I point this out to draw a sharp contrast with the way many Americans interpret our own Civil War. If you peel away the celebratory layer that has been applied to this moment in our past, you will see that it has a great deal in common with the way we view civil wars elsewhere. Perhaps my choice of “entertainment” missed the mark in trying to describe how we relate to the war. I could have expressed the idea by saying that most Americans choose to celebrate the war in heroic terms. It is the celebration of the war which troubles me because it seems to me that our gut reaction to foreign civil wars is a much more appropriate stance. Where is the confusion, uncertainty, violence, and sadness in our Civil War? I’ve said this before, but it worth repeating: I sometimes have the feeling that many are thankful for the Civil War. Even the guerilla warfare in the border areas, which perhaps comes closest to the chaos and raw violence of foreign civil wars, has been turned into our own little celebratory show—thank you Jesse James, William Quantrill, and John S. Mosby. I see the Civil War as a humbling event that serves as a reminder of the fragility of governments and the depths of violence that we all too often reach. In that sense I can more easily empathize and/or sympathize with stories surrounding civil wars elsewhere. Once we get beyond our tendency to “play” with our Civil War characters one notices that we have more in common with the rest of the world than we like to think.