Our Civil War Soap Opera

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.

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12 comments… add one

  • John Maass Sep 13, 2011

    It might be interesting to ask the British this question regarding the 1st World War….

    • Ken Noe Sep 13, 2011

      There’s something of an academic cottage industry these days in saying that Haig wasn’t really all that bad. But he still gets skewered in popular culture.

  • James F. Epperson Sep 13, 2011

    Brooks once said it was a bad idea to fall in love with dead people. I think a corollary to that is that you shouldn’t hate them. The reason the Civil War is different in this respect, I think, is the emotional investment the Southern Heritage crowd has made in playing up their status as victims. They really “hate” Sherman and Sheridan for what they did to the South.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 13, 2011

      It is good advice. The problem with the anti-Sherman/Sheridan crowd is that they are making a choice as to which emotional response to imagine from the past. Their imagination has everything to do with their own need to feel a certain way. As far as I am concerned it has nothing to do with history. The same could be said of those who have a visceral reaction to McClellan.

      • James F. Epperson Sep 13, 2011

        Well, I can be considered very critical of Mac, and of course (irony alert!) I can justify all of it ;-) But your point about the folks who hate Sherman and Sheridan is well-taken.

        • Kevin Levin Sep 13, 2011

          Being critical is one thing, but once it turns into an emotional response, on the level of what the editor seems to be describing, we’ve left the realm of history.

  • Ray O'Hara Sep 13, 2011

    I find it easy to hate the great mass murderers Mao, Stalin and Hitler and the old saw about “never speak ill of the dead” strikes me as rather simplistic

    Douglas Haig, Churchill was asked about Haig after the WWI, “was he up to it? none of us were up to it, but hei equal or better was never discerned” who could he be replaced by? Sir John French? no I read a lot of WWI and the popular myth of Lions led by Donkeys, really doesn’t hold up. Modern Weapons and ancient transport” made for a very unhappy marriage.

    Amer Rev
    Richard Lee and Horatio Gates. two ex Red Coats who thought the Red Coats invincible and acted accordingly, each robbing the Rebels of well earned victories and in Gates case the ugly disaster of Camden, but it’s not that, it was their constant back-stabbing intrigues against Washington that earns my dislike.

    1812
    William Hull, he had a larger force well fortified and supplied, heavier artillery and he surrendered with nary a shot being fired when threatened will marauding Indians.
    He was rightly sentence to be shot by a court martial but the President pardoned him .

    James Wilkerson, the 5th GiC of the U.S.Army, later it was proven he was a paid agent of Spain and his treason was destructive to US plans aside ,

    Indian Wars,
    William Henry Harrison, his policies towards the Amerindians were near genocidal, his treaty moral abominations, He’d get Indians in Kentucky or New York to “sell” land belonging to Indians in Ohio and Indiana, fortunately for the Indian he got sick and died immediately upon becoming President. Very little in the American deaklings with the Indians gives cause for pride, but WHH was the worst.

    there are Generals of later wars who I find less than admirable but in no way does it rise to hate,

    Lloyd Fredendall of Kaserine infamy, he was ensconced in a bunker over 100 miles from the front and stayed there as his troops got hammered, But afterwards as Commander of the U.S. Second Army, the Stateside training establishment he did excellent work.

    And Bradley and Hodges were rather pedestrian, I could never fathom why they got their jobs and then kept them.

    Westmoreland was the modern McClellen, how he kept his job is beyond me, was the talent pool that bad?

    My Maternal Great Uncle Bill, ,{William O’Brien} was the head groom at the Myopia Hunt Club { a very prestigious position, akin to being the head groundskeeper at Augusta National CC} absolutely hated G.S.Patton,. Uncle Bill also took care of Patton’s brothers horses and George was in his opinion abusive to horses, an unforgivable sin in his book. He got into quite a row with General Patton about it but he had the prestige to get away with it and not jeopardize his job.
    He never had a good word to say about Patton and I can remember him talking about him when I was little.
    the only Army Uncle Bill was ever in was the IRA and because of that he found it politic to move over here in the early 20s.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 13, 2011

      We are not talking about “great mass murderers”.

      • Ray O'Hara Sep 13, 2011

        I wonder how many of the anti-Sherman-Sheridan crowd are Thomasophile?

      • Ray O'Hara Sep 13, 2011

        All three were also the supreme military leaders besides being Heads of their Statse, Kevin.
        Their mass murders were quite often in a military context. they all used “ethnic cleansing’ as part of their programs of conquest.
        For Hitler events like Lidice and Oradour-sur-Glane were directly related to actiions the Allies took.

        Stalin used it in Poland and against the Kazaks {Cossacks } who supported the Germans and he also ordered the mass executions of Katyn against the Polish army officers.

        Mao did it to suppress the Nationalists of Chiang Kai-shek

        I think that makes them eligible for this thread.

  • Karl Gottschalk Sep 13, 2011

    “Dugout Doug” was not beloved by all.

    • Ray O'Hara Sep 13, 2011

      Many of his men hated him. and the Dugout Doug followed him forever. but he also suffered fewer casualties in all his campaigns than the US Army suffered in the Battle of the Bulge

      and for what it’s worth Patton’s men hated him and Stonewall wasn’t beloved until after he was dead and they saw the alternatives.

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