Ken Burns’ Documentary “The Civil War” is currently on Netflix. Cory and I have been watching it. It’s the first time I’ve seen it. Most of my education on United States History focused on the American Revolution, so I’m relatively ignorant about this particular part of the past. What I’d been taught was that it was NOT a war about emancipation, but state’s rights. The concept I’ve found the most interesting, as presented by the series, is that while the war may have begun about the division of the Union, what it eventually became was an event that defined what “freedom” truly meant in this nation. For whom did freedom exist? What began, in the north, as a political war eventually became a war for a higher ideal. Granted, the aftermath did not result in equality, but on some level this war embedded the concept of freedom firmly into the cultural mind, and I think it is on this basis that further advancements were made. And continue to be made.
What’s been the most shocking to learn is the horrific incompetence that plagued the north’s generals. In particular, I found George B. McClellan’s constant delay, avoidance, and hesitance to be appalling. The numbers of altercations that were lost due to inaction, or the amount of times that the war might have ended had he simply chosen to act, saving tens of thousands of lives, is astounding. To the point where one has to wonder if the man was actually working for the other side. I kept thinking that people like McClellan are the reason that Shakespeare’s Hamlet still remains timeless. There is a time for prudence and a time for action, but agonizing between the two, letting the world collapse around you, is rarely anything but disastrous. On the other hand, had he not drawn out the war so long, it might not have transitioned into a war for freedom. It might have stayed a war for unification, wherein the President had promised not to join the abolitionists. The Civil War could have ended years earlier, with slavery unchanged, a specter to rise up later in a different form, and the principal of freedom rendered a weak shadow.
I wish history had been presented in a more engaging way when I was growing up — although, to be fair, it was usually one of the more enjoyable subjects — but with the focus on dates, I often missed the stories. The wonders of coincidence, with their intricate, often impenetrable web of cause-and-effect events. The many ways one event can be seen, and how the picture shifts depending on the lens through which it is viewed.
What’s your favorite period in world history? What are the most interesting or surprising things you’ve learned about it?