The Civil War Convulsion


“The real war will never get in the books.” This may be the most famous sentence ever written about the Civil War, at least by a writer of literary consequence. But what kind of reality did Walt Whitman have in mind when he made that claim more than 130 years ago? And considering the scores of thousands of Civil War books that have appeared since, how well has the prediction held up?

Granger Collection
Winslow Homer: Young Soldier, 1864

In the first place, he meant the reality he had seen, heard, and smelled while working as a nurse in a Union hospital: the sight of boys with worms burrowing into their wounds, the sound of their whispers as they dictated letters home, the smell of dysentery and gangrene mixed with chloroform and lime—all of which he tried to capture with phrases (“seething hell,” “butchers’ shambles,” “slaughter house”) whose lameness only made his point.

Even before its official start in 2011, the Civil War sesquicentennial has brought many attempts to prove Whitman wrong. There have been hour-to-hour accounts of the major battles, notably Allen Guelzo’s Gettysburg; scholarly studies and popular biographies of key figures (Eric Foner on Lincoln, Michael Korda on Robert E. Lee); an “international history of the American Civil War” as a struggle between North and South for the allegiance of contending European powers (Don H. Doyle’s The Cause of All Nations); assessments of the war’s legal and literary ramifications (John Fabian Witt’s Lincoln’s Code, Randall Fuller’s From Battlefields Rising); as well as sweeping narratives of events before, during, and after the war (David Goldfield’s America Aflame, Brenda Wineapple’s Ecstatic Nation).1

But perhaps most striking is the surge of books that belong to what might be called the school of gore—exemplified most recently by Mark M. Smith’s The Smell of Battle, the Taste of Siege: A Sensory History of the Civil War—books that almost seem to savor the range of ways in which living bodies were converted into corpses by fire or disease, in mud or in bed, quickly enough to block awareness of death’s arrival, or slowly enough to taunt the dying with false promises of reprieve. The rise of the genre can be dated to 2008, with the publication of Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering, from which we learn that after three days of fighting at Gettysburg in July 1863, “six million pounds of human and animal carcasses lay” rotting in the sun—a numerical measure to which Faust adds eyewitness accounts of “blackened bloated corpses with blood and gas protruding from every orifice, and maggots holding high carnival over their heads.”2

But Whitman also had in mind another reality: the jumble of grievances, ideals, and conflicting interests that provoked the war in the first place. These he tried to sum up, from the Northern point of view, as

the People, of…

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