Ethan Rafuse recently shared a writing assignment that he was given by “America’s Civil War” magazine to come up with a list of six Civil War generals that we “like to hate.”
Civil War buffs love to blame particular generals for lost battles and campaigns—McClellan, Bragg, McDowell, etc. Why do we like to hate them so much, and do they deserve it? Pick a couple from each side and examine what made them pariahs—and whether hindsight should rehabilitate their Images. Pick three from each side, 500 or so words on each, and a 500-word intro for about 3,500 words.
I guess the editor could have framed the question around major mistakes made in the field by Civil War generals, but the choice to inquire as to why some military figures engender such a visceral reaction in some is potentially interesting. Perhaps we should take one step back for a little perspective. Is there anything comparable in America’s other wars? Anyone out there hate Henry Knox, Winfield Scott, John J. Pershing, Omar Bradley, or William Westmoreland?
If I were given this writing assignment I would address the issue of why some of us allow ourselves to get so worked up over Civil War military leaders. I think it has something to do with the fact that the Civil War is seen by many as one big soap opera with larger than life personalities. Generals such as Forrest, McClellan, and Sherman come pre-packaged with deeply embedded narratives that allows them to be manipulated to make a moral/emotional point about the war. Many have a need to identify with the suffering of those who found themselves in the path of warring armies. Others are no doubt committed to imagining a different outcome to the war and this lends itself to counterfactual scenarios that turn on decisions made by a select few.
The problem with the editor’s question is that this particular response or identification has almost nothing to do with history and everything to do with the rememberer. We don’t need a lesson in history here; rather, what we need is some serious deep Freudian analysis.
Let me suggest that if you really “hate” a particular Civil War general than you need to get out of the house more often.