I spend a great deal of time talking about reconciliation and the problematic treatment of the era by recent scholarship. In some ways – many see the common bonds between former enemies as a given and then work backwards from there to try and figure out how that could have possibly happened – more often than not, they wind up obscuring the tense sectionalism that remained in place after the war.
The scholarship concerning the forgiving nature of former enemies follows logically from an argument suggesting Civil War soldiers embraced a mutual respect for their enemies during the war – despite an unparalleled profusion of blood. In 1943, Bell Irvin Wiley’s The Life of Johnny Reb: The Common Soldier of the Confederacy departed significantly from historiographical trends emphasizing high command, such as Douglas Southall Freeman’s massive four-volume treatment of Robert E. Lee, R.E. Lee: A Biography, by accenting the sentiments of the Confederate private soldier. Wiley identifies a variety of factors that pushed the southern soldier to kill his former countryman. Further, he detects a hatred “deep-seated [that] had been accumulating from the time of [the soldiers’] earliest recollections,” constituting Confederates’ perceptions of a “godless and grasping society.” Testimony from the opening pages of one chapter suggests that Confederate soldiers anticipated carrying hatred beyond the war. One twenty-three-year-old remarked, “May God avenge us of our infernal enemies – and if I ever forgive them it is more than I expect.” Another wrote his wife, “Teach my children to hate them with that bitter hatred that will never permit them to meet under any circumstances without seeking to destroy each other. I know the breach is now wide & deep between us & the Yankees let it widen & deepen until all Yankees or no Yankees are to live in the South.”
Although testimony fueled by anger stands out in Life of Johnny Reb, Wiley’s emphasis quickly shifts to one of the cornerstones of the brothers’ war argument. His conclusions lend credence to the postwar respect accorded all Civil War soldiers embedded in the triumphal celebrations of Union. The tendency of enemies to fraternize between battles characterizes his overall view. “The war of the sixties has been called the ‘polite war,’” states Wiley, “and in a sense, the designation is apt. Men of the opposing armies when not actually engaged in a shooting fray were wont to observe niceties that in twentieth-century warfare would be regarded as absurd.” The pervasiveness of Wiley’s characterization of fraternity among soldiers has far surpassed any ideas regarding sectional animosity.
Bruce Catton, among the most popular Civil War historians of the twentieth century, adds his observations regarding fraternal feelings across the killing fields. “Men would shoot and kill when the time came. Yet there was a familiarity and an understanding, at times something that verged almost on liking.” Although Catton discusses animosity engendered by regional loyalties, elements of ill feeling are overshadowed by a brotherly respect throughout his works. In illustrating this idea, Catton relies primarily on stories depicting Confederate and Union soldiers meeting between lines during informal truces. One example describes how a meeting between and Rebel and a Yankee led to talk of the 1864 election. Before long, the Rebel referred to Lincoln as a “damned abolitionist, this immediately brought on a fistfight, and officers had to come out to break it up. Still, men who felt enough at home with each other to argue about politics and fight with their fists over it were hardly, at bottom, sworn enemies estranged by hatred.”
All of this is compelling work – and both Wiley and Catton deserve the respect accorded them then and now. But alas their conclusions are shortsighted – written in a haze of mid-century triumphalism that looked past section in a world where the United States was emerging within the context of a worldwide conflagration. Section was hardly their concern or their focus – and thus was obscured.