Bruce Catton’s writing on the Civil War is every bit as fascinating as its reputation. (I have read in several places that if he is not the best writer on the war, than certainly he is one of them.) Right now I am reading his second book in his trilogy about the Army of the Potomac, Glory Road.
It’s really interesting getting into the lesser known details of this war, that we are still dealing with the political ramifications from. This war is a large part of our country’s DNA, even if it is something not always dealt with. I often marvel at the lack of movies and TV shows that deal with this period in comparison to something like World War II, which is much more of an easy sell, as it is one of the few wars where people can be proud of.
Because the Civil War was a war of a people, there are many moments in the war when different sides strangely put down their arms, only to resume horrible bloodshed later. Different sides would often trade with each other. They also made deals where they would promise not to shoot each other at night so that they could get a comfortable nights sleep. In one instance in the book, an argument between a Confederate and a Union regiment gets so heated, that they all put down their weapons for a fist fight between two members, only to pick up their weapons and go their separate ways once the fight was settled.
But for every story like this, there are also stories of typical wartime behavior that often don’t make it into the more popular accounts we see on TV documentaries and such. Here is a passage that deals with the looting of Fredericksburg:
“The city had been rudely sacked; household furniture lined the streets. Books and battered pictures, bureaus, lounges, feather beds, clocks, and every conceivable article of goods, chattels, and apparel had been savagely torn from the houses and lay about in wanton confusion in all directions. Fires were made, both for warmth and cooking, with fragments of broken furniture. Pianos, their harmonious strings displaced, were utilized as horse troughs, and amid all the dangers animals quietly ate from them.” A solider in another Pennsylvania regiment noted “great scenes of vandalism and useless destruction of books, furniture, carpets, pianos, pictures, etc.,” and reported a grotesque carnival aspect in the streets still swept by Confederate shell as Union soldiers cavorted about in women’s dresses and underwear. “Some of these characters,” he added, “might be seen with musical instruments, with big horns, violins, accordions, and banjos”; and he noted that his own regiment took several hundred bottles of wine out of someone’s cellar, a part of this wine appearing later on the colonel’s own mess table. One illiterate private rifled an express office and carried off a huge bundle of receipts and canceled checks under the impression that he was robbing a bank and getting money.
It should be noted that some of the soldiers looking upon this were horrified. It should also be noted that this kind of behavior was not by any means only on the Union side of things. There is a passage roughly around this one where the Confederates rob a large amount of dead Union soldiers, leaving them naked by the time they are picked up for burial. And that is only one story. Both sides acted in surprising ways, good and bad, at times. Catton does go into explanations for this behavior, but I will not get into that here.
The point, or question, that I wanted to make was that this is only 150 years ago, carried out by many of our ancestors against one another. What kind of strange blood is flowing through our National veins, inherited from this time period?
As a side note, again, I don’t know why more films and shows aren’t made of this time period. Only a small way through this book, though I have read others, and there are endless scenes that one could fashion interesting story lines around.