Civil War carnage, not romantic novel

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July 28, 2011 - 12:00 AM

The 1939 epic “Gone with the Wind” was a popular interpretation of the Civil War, said Jeff Kluever, executive director of the Allen County Historical Society.
Popular, but hardly accurate.
Kluever spoke about “The ‘Forgotten’ Civil War” at ACHS’ summer meeting Tuesday evening, to draw attention to the war’s sesquicentennial.
The Revolution and Declaration of Independence set the stage for the nation, he said, but “no other single event changed the United States as dramatically” as did the Civil War.
Many want to remember the war as being fought over state’s rights, he said, with the primary right in question being southern states’ right to subject African American to slavery.
After the war, when reunification became the watchword and many who had roles wanted to paint themselves in the best of lights, memoirs and letters often failed to mention slavery. Some of Confederate persuasion even became early revisionists of history and tried to portray what were resounding Southern defeats as quirks of fate, brought about by overwhelming numbers favoring the north not any lack of ability on the rebels’ part.
More than anything else, Kluever made the point that the war in as many as 50,000, movies and television productions was romanticized, mythologized and idealized to death.
In years afterward celebrations were held to recall battles, but, he noted, it was a reach to celebrate what was carnage of a magnitude never before or since experienced by U.S. forces, in part because casualties on each side were of Americans. Deaths in the Civil War exceeded those of U.S. troops killed in all wars the nation fought through Vietnam. That, Kluever said, is the “forgotten” element.
Statistics are mind-boggling.
As many as 2.2 million Union soldiers fought, with 360,000 of them dying — 110,000 directly in battle and the rest from wounds, disease and peripheral causes. Another 275,000 were wounded.
Confederate losses were more numbing. Of about 850,000 men who donned gray uniforms, 260,000 died, including 94,000 in battle. That meant one of three Confederate soldiers never saw home again. Another 200,000 were wounded.
The countryside and cities in battle zones — Richmond and Vicksburg were stark examples — sustained substantial damage from bombardments and disregard for collateral damage.
Stately Richmond buildings were shells of their pre-war condition and Union forces fired on Vicksburg with such vigor that residents dug holes anywhere the terrain permitted to escape death and injury.
The North had the upper hand, with well over twice as many troops and the accessibility of industrial might.
An example of ruthlessness — the Kansas-Missouri border war fought in large measure by renegades on both sides was another — was Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s campaign in Georgia in 1864.
He led 65,000 troops in a 25-mile-wide march to “crush the will of the southern people,” Kluever said.
His forces burned Atlanta and along the way to the sea left “Sherman sentinels” at sites of many previously elaborate southern mansions. The “sentinels” were chimneys left standing when all else was burned to a crisp.
The march, in a pragmatic way, led to the defection of many southern soldiers who on receiving word of their families’ distress from Sherman’s utter disregard for civilians returned to their homes.
South Carolina also felt the wrath and was torched worse than Georgia, Kluever said, the Union forces’ way of punishing the state for being the hotbed of succession that led to war.

IN ADDITION to personal accounts, post-war monuments fed the notion that the war was more noble cause than enormous disaster for the nation.
Statues and other edifices were made not necessarily in the image of individuals, including Gen. Stonewall Jackson, but in generic and often superhero fashion.
Jackson’s statue resembles a Greek god, 6-4, 235 pounds with layer after layer of muscles rippling under a cape. In reality Jackson was a troubled soul, 5-11 and of average build, said Kluever; an everyman who would quickly become anonymous in a crowd.
The filtering and manipulation of history continues 150 years later, Kluever said, but he encouraged his listeners to see the Civil War for what it was, an event that changed U.S. history and also a dreadful time when thousands of young soldiers — many little more than boys who had never been 20 miles from home before —  were killed and maimed.
“They, and their leaders, were real people, someone who could have walked the streets of Iola,” without being noticed, he said. “A dirty, awful mess really was what the war was.”

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