The Wilson Quarterly

Good Fortune and Great Sorrow: The Civil War Generation’s Place in History

The generation that lived through the American Civil War faced a changed nation, and used their shared experiences to shape and reflect on the new society they had to build on the ashes of the old one.

The Civil War generation knew what it was about. As much as any other generation in American history — as much as the Revolutionary generation, the “Greatest Generation” of World War II, or the Baby Boomer generation of the late twentieth century — the men and women of the Civil War generation realized as the bloody ordeal of war unfolded around them that they were going through something awful and something unique, a moment unlike any other, a milestone in the nation’s history. The Civil War generation gained a distinctive identity, its defining traits, out of what it witnessed on the battlefield and suffered behind the lines. After the war was over, members of that generation realized that it had driven them apart and, at the same time, had brought them together in a common experience of human loss and societal transformation.

A Generation Sees Itself

It’s quite clear that Americans who experienced the Civil War consciously thought of themselves as part of a distinct generation, a generation defined by its terrible and (in the case of Northerners) triumphant experiences, although historians have been less than astute in acknowledging this cohesiveness among Civil War participants or the extent to which those who lived through the war viewed the conflict as a tragedy — and a challenge — that had beset their particular cohort. Abraham Lincoln, for one, regarded the crisis of the war as a “people’s contest” that required Northerners to respond as a generation solidified in purpose to save the Union. In remarks made in 1864 to a Ohio regiment whose term of service had expired in the Union army, Lincoln urged the men to return home and “rise up to the height of a generation of men worthy of a free Government, and we will carry out the great work we have commenced.” Jefferson Davis also saw the sectional conflict as a generational crisis. In 1858, he confessed his own dismay over the sectional issues that had divided the Democratic Party: “My own generation — and I regret to say it — seems too deeply steeped in the trickery of politics to be able to rise above the influence of personal and political gain into the pure field of patriotism.” His observation, as it turned out, was prescient; the Confederacy would later be plagued by internal dissent and the conflicting ambitions of its most prominent politicians.

Noah Webster

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Samuel Finley Breese Morse

No hard and fast rules informed Americans who lived through the Civil War era how to define a generation or how specifically they should discern the essential qualities of their own generation, but they understood nevertheless that their generation differed from the ones that came before it or after it. Generally, they drew on the Bible for their understanding of what constituted a generation and how each one, since the time of Adam and Eve, passed through history. Noah Webster, America’s most famous lexicographer, relied on Scripture for the definitions of “generation” included in his 1828 dictionary. A generation, he said, was “a single succession in natural descent, as the children of the same parents; hence, an age” (citing Genesis 15:16 as his source), and it could also be defined as the “people of the same period, or living at the same time” (citing Luke 9). Yet the Bible never set forth precisely how long a generation lasted except in Psalm 90, where a generation was vaguely defined as lasting seventy or eighty years, a definition obliquely confirmed in Matthew 1.

Frequent references to generations in the Old and New Testaments spoke less of a generation’s length than of how one generation inexorably followed another through the march of time. “One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever,” promised the Book of Ecclesiastes (1:4,5), a verse that Lincoln himself quoted after the Civil War had begun. The sentiment was comforting, for it reassured humankind that life would go on no matter what trials and tribulations might threaten its survival, but the Civil War generation found no great solace in those spiritually encouraging words. The war, in fact, made some wonder what would become of subsequent generations. Writing after the Union army passed through Columbia, South Carolina, which it left smoldering in ruins in February 1865, Lt. Col. George Ward Nichols of Sherman’s staff saw the shadow of doom at work: “Even if peace and prosperity soon return to the land, not in this generation nor the next — no, not for a century — can this city or the state recover from the deadly blow which has taken its life.”

On the secular side, nineteenth-century Americans assumed that a generation lasted about thirty years, give or take a few years. Lincoln thought so, and so did most of his contemporaries. Their estimates are the same as modern academic presumptions about the length of a generation, which are largely based on the scholarship of Karl Mannheim, a Hungarian sociologist. Yet the Civil War generation hardly thought of itself as a “cohort” limited to birth dates contained within a thirty-year time frame. The generation bridged a longer time span than three decades: its oldest members had been born around 1800; the youngest closer to1850, if you count the drummer boys who enlisted at age eleven or so. Northerners and Southerners identified themselves as members of the Civil War generation primarily by having experienced the war years, either on the battlefield or on the home front, not by when they had been born. Those who went through the war realized it was formative, galvanizing, and debilitating.

A Generation Is Marked by War

Carl Schurz

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Nearly every American family was touched by the war. According to the most recent estimate, the war resulted in 750,000 military deaths, North and South — more deaths than in all other American wars combined. No one knows how many civilians — directly or indirectly — were killed or wounded in the conflict; no one has ever calculated how many American lives were smashed, ruined, or broken because of the war. After describing the agonizing suffering of the wounded in the field hospitals at Gettysburg, Maj. Gen. Carl Schurz of the Union army said grimly: “There are those who speak lightly of war as a mere heroic sport. They would hardly find it in their hearts to do so, had they ever witnessed scenes like these, and thought of the untold miseries connected with them that were spread all over the land.” Hardship was the order of the day. Human losses meant that America would never be the same.

The war ended lives; the war changed lives. Those who suffered from battle wounds or lingering illnesses often received poor or no medical treatment for their maladies. Former Union and Confederate soldiers met with a variety of medical problems, some of which were difficult to identify. Doctors knew nothing of sterilization, bacteria, microbes, or the causes of contagious diseases like measles. Consequently, more soldiers on both sides died of diseases or infections than of battlefield wounds. After the war, wounded and ill veterans caused something of a health crisis, if only because their numbers were so large and their need for medical treatment so acute. Scholars now realize — as Peter Blanck, Michael Millender, Chen Song, and others have pointed out — that “the Civil War forever changed public and medical conceptions of the then new class of disabled citizens in American society.” The war had brought about not only suffering, but a prolonged period of time that required care and support of wounded soldiers who wore red badges of courage for the rest of their lives, even well into the 1930s and early 1940s.

Veterans and nonveterans alike saw how much the war had transformed the nation. At first glance, the notable differences in the country could be measured by the suffering and losses inflicted on the American people, what Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman called “the hard hand of war.” North and South in the postwar years were very different places from what they had been in the antebellum decades. It was not only that a huge portion of the American population, mostly male, had been cut down on the battlefields or had withered away in crude military hospitals; nor was it only that the American landscape, at least east of the Mississippi and south of the Ohio River, now showed the signs of battle scars and wartime devastation. From the outskirts of Washington, D.C., to the vicinity of Fredericksburg, Virginia, the terrain stood bare, without trees, bushes, or sod. Union and Confederate soldiers had efficiently stripped the land of vegetation (and, in some cases, wooden houses) for firewood or logs to build cabins used in winter encampments.

After the war was over, members of that generation realized that it had driven them apart and, at the same time, had brought them together in a common experience of human loss and societal transformation.

Many white Southerners, perhaps most of them, faced years of hardship, privation, and poverty in the postwar decades, a long travail that lasted in some locations until the end of World War II. During the twelve years of Reconstruction, which white Southerners bitterly resented and resisted, the eleven former Confederate states were divided into five military districts for a time; the South lamented that the war — and the resulting military occupation — had swept away its way of life. The readmission of the previously rebellious states was completed in 1877, when Congress allowed South Carolina to rejoin the Union. To salve their wounds, white Southerners embraced a “Lost Cause” ideology — essentially, an effort to rewrite history — that promoted the notion that Yankees and Rebels had both fought for equally noble causes; that the Confederacy had lost the war because of its smaller population and limited resources; that Reconstruction had been harsh on whites; and that the war had been fought over the issue of states’ rights, not slavery. It was astonishing how successful the idea of the Lost Cause became in the decades after the war, to the point where Northerners — and even former Union soldiers — came fully to believe in its tenets, like a social creed or a political religion. Ironically, the ideology made the reconciliation between the two sections smoother to accomplish during the four or five decades that followed the war. Most Americans unquestioningly accepted the Southern narrative of its Lost Cause. It was easier to do so than to assert that slavery had been the real cause of the war.

The Lost Cause - A poetic tribute to the middle-class farmers of the South who fought and lost the Civil War.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Henry Mosler

While reconciliation may have consoled the preponderance of whites in the North and South, black Southerners, once jubilant over the breaking of their chains and the promised blessings of freedom, discovered that their new start in life lacked any visible means of support. Southern whites, eager to reinstate white supremacy in the war’s aftermath, concocted the means by which blacks would be kept subservient for decades to come, despite the legal protections of the so-called Civil War amendments to the Constitution — the thirteen, fourteenth, and fifteenth — which remained largely toothless until the twentieth century. In the postwar decades, many white Southerners feared that freed blacks would rise up and murder them in their beds — a fear that had existed in the slaveowning South before the war, but one that emancipation intensified, if only in the worst imaginings of former slaveowners. That fear, in turn, only gave impetus to white violence against blacks — a means to keep “uppity” or potentially dangerous blacks down before they could attack and kill their former masters in retribution for their years in bondage. Race relations in America, and not only in the postwar South, deteriorated in the wake of the war, although one must confess that the issue of race had left Americans bewildered and contentious since 1619, when the first blacks arrived in the English New World.

To sustain white supremacy, Southerners knew that they had to deal with the exigencies of emancipation. Without slavery, which was both a labor force and a means of racial control, how could African Americans be managed? When blacks resisted unfair treatment, white Southerners turned to the intimidation and violence of the Ku Klux Klan. Plantation owners created a system of share cropping that paid working blacks wages low enough to keep them dependent on their former masters and otherwise under control. Mindless violence against blacks continued even after the Ku Klux Klan faded from public view in the early 1870s. By the 1890s, the lynching of blacks grew to epidemic proportions. Some blacks moved out of the South, hoping to find new lives and take advantage of new opportunities in the North or West, but the fate of the freed slaves — and of African Americans in general — remained one of cruel poverty, unrewarded labor, and elusive liberty, no matter where they lived in the United States. Today, the nation still has not fulfilled the promises of freedom and equality made to blacks during and after the Civil War. The prolonged struggle for civil rights, even in our own time, represents a relentless struggle for what the Civil War and later generations of Americans could not deliver: an end to bigotry, bitterness, and hatred.

They Coped with a Transformed America

For all Americans, the Civil War — so catastrophic in its scope, so revolutionary in its social and political dimensions — shook the very foundations of the North and South, ending, ruining, and uprooting lives. In the aftermath of war, it was difficult for members of the Civil War generation, then much reduced in number, to pick up the pieces. One Union soldier, Oscar Ladley, a blacksmith who served as a sergeant in the fighting ranks of the 75th Ohio, returned home after the war only to discover that he could find no employment there. He moved on to LaFayette, Indiana, but admitted in the spring of 1866 that “I have not succeeded in any thing yet but intend to keep trying until I do[,] as something must turn up after a while.” After failing in several enterprises, Ladley reenlisted in the army in 1867 and received a commission as a second lieutenant in the 22nd U.S. Infantry. For Ladley, who looked to carry on his life as he had known it before the war, the only recourse became going back into the army and continuing the new life the war had begun.

Magnolia Plantation, Cotton Gins and Presses, Natchitoches Parish, LA

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

What stymied Ladley and countless other Northerners and Southerners was that both sections of the country — and the West as well — had been drastically altered by the war in what can only be called a deep, revolutionary transmutation. Over time, Americans became increasingly aware that the war had fundamentally reshaped their lives and their nation, sometimes into unrecognizable forms. Everywhere in the country, people faced an enormous challenge: adjusting themselves to the unforeseen outcomes of the war. In a postwar novel, The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885), William Dean Howells, the dean of American letters during the final quarter of the nineteenth century, wrote of the changes wrought by the war. His fictional character, Lapham, a former Union soldier, says to a newspaper interviewer: “I found that I had got back to another world. The day of small things was past, and I don’t suppose it will ever come again in this country.” Two years after the war ended, a writer for the New York Times looked back in amazement: “The truth is neither section, and but few persons in either section, appreciate fully the tremendous effect of Civil War, and especially of such a war as ours, upon every interest and every sentiment of the whole community.... It leaves us a different people in everything from what we were when it came upon us.” The transformations sparked by the war left many Northerners and Southerners feeling disoriented and wary, as if they were now strangers living in a strange land.

For ordinary Americans in nearly every walk of life, the Civil War altered the ways in which they did business, worked for a living, raised their families, worshiped their God, and dealt with one another on a daily basis.

A few examples suffice to reveal how life in the postwar years had become so foreign to the war’s survivors. More than anything else, the rise of industry and the expansion of commerce after the war underscored the shift from a predominantly agrarian economy to a nationally integrated one, which increasingly was dominated by corporations, monopolies, and trusts. Although some historians argue that industrial expansion in the United States during the Civil War was uneven, due to slippage in the textile industry that had been deprived of Southern cotton during the war years, and that overall economic growth seems not to have been accelerated by the war itself, it is true nevertheless that the war significantly altered the distribution of wealth and per capita commodity output in the North and South. For example, per capita wealth of white Southerners in 1860 had been 95 percent higher that of white Northerners; a decade later, per capita wealth of white Northerners was 44 percent higher than that of white Southerners. Similarly, in 1860, Northern and Southern per capita commodity output had been approximately equal; ten years later, the per capita commodity output of the North was 56percent higher than that of the South.

They Coped with Transformed Americans

Mason-Dixon Line Marker, Zora, Adams County, PA

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

With the rise of the new, industrial, urban North, Americans living above the Mason-Dixon line encountered unfamiliar conditions and novel challenges during the postwar decades. New industries and mass production in factories created jobs in some locations, but most antebellum Americans had been family farmers, not wage earners. In what seemed like the blink of an eye, cities rose up as the centers of commerce where most jobs could be found. “In this generation,” wrote a Minnesota journalist, “a new era has dawned upon the earth. Formerly cities grew slowly, or by degrees, and were centuries in attaining their stable proportions; but in this age it is different. They spring up suddenly and progress rapidly towards completion, until some unlooked for obstacles check their progress.” Railroads and shipping companies emerged as bedrocks of domestic and international trade. When the war’s death rate left some communities bereft of laborers, immigrants poured into the country to supply industry’s need for workers. The rapid influx of foreigners made native-born Americans feel uncomfortable, and many worried that immigrants might steal away their jobs by accepting low wages. They also brooded over such things as acculturation and the babel of foreign languages. “Change, incessant change, is the order of the day,” roared the Merchants’ Magazine.

Incessant change was not welcomed by everyone. Soldiers coming home from combat always have difficulty readjusting to civilian life, but after the Civil War, Union veterans — like Oscar Ladley — occasionally discovered that jobs in their former trades or livelihoods, such as village blacksmithing, could not readily be found or, in many instances, no longer existed. For some former soldiers, the war had ruined them by training them to be good soldiers, but preparing them for little else. Some veterans, frustrated by America’s unpredictable wheels of fortune, set out for the West, where cheap land, subsidized by federal legislation passed during the war, offered an opportunity for them to leave the war’s worst consequences behind. Those who moved West often found survival difficult when Indians, nature, and simple bad luck brought dreams to a disastrous end. Yet the flow of people continued toward the western sun, eventually populating vast lands by either killing or driving out the Indians who could not turn back the relentless tide of manifest destiny.

All in all, the Civil War changed American life forever. War struck down the Civil War generation’s youth, crushed its dreams, ended its innocence and purity. Certainly other generations have endured war, tragedy, afflictions, and obstacles. But the Civil War generation suffered not only death, destruction, and heartbreak; it also confronted a new nation that barely resembled the old one. Sudden death in the war, when soldiers would be struck down in a flash, necessitated different rituals on the battlefield than the conventional ones long used at the quiet bedside of a departing loved one. “With this generation,” said a Texas judge, “scenes of blood have been so common that their moral sensibilities have been benumbed.” A news correspondent for the New York Times agreed: “Carelessly as the ghastly record of a stricken field has come to be regarded; slight and insignificant as the death of the individual soldier, among the hecatombs of his comrades, may seem to be the habit-hardened mind, each life was linked to other lives, and interwoven with interests that made its loss an anguish.” Everywhere the Civil War generation looked, all it could see was “a frightful picture of calamity and desolation.” The hardships and suffering of the war years continued beyond Appomattox, and a new America stood on the ruins of the old.

While reconciliation may have consoled the preponderance of whites in the North and South, black Southerners, once jubilant over the breaking of their chains and the promised blessings of freedom, discovered that their new start in life lacked any visible means of support.

With their lives and their country changed beyond recognition, Americans slowly realized in the postwar years that there was also something different about the way in which people related to one another. Society now seemed coarse and rude. Individuals looked out for themselves, rather than for their neighbors or communities. Interchanges with others on the street or in the counting houses of business became direct and brusque. To be sure, small talk remained as a device of friendly conversation, but other dialogues about business, about getting ahead, about making money all took on a new urgency in a land based on laissez-faire capitalism and a robust economy. The rites of courtship and marriage changed as well, with fiancés scorning such old-fashioned ideas as chaperones and chastity. The war had compelled many couples to rush into wedlock without reckoning with routine customs or long engagements. Nuptials often occurred before the groom’s regiment went off to war, rather than after the bride’s parents could grant their permission. With war’s end, many communities realized that their young men — sometimes all of them — had been lost in battle. As a result, young women often had no choice but to marry older men or to remain “spinsters.” Some women, like Clara Barton, decided not to marry at all because they had found ways to fulfill themselves in professions like nursing and teaching, which took them out of the home and into the burgeoning Northern economy, where they gained autonomy and status.

In the South, men and women went through confusion in their households as they redefined their gender identities and domestic roles in light of the war and its aftermath. Within the Southern household, the war brought about a transformation in domestic law that reshaped the patriarchy and the role of the state. Slowly and grudgingly, men gave up their exclusive control in the public realm, which, in turn, helped to loosen the patriarchal bonds between males and females. More and more women, especially war widows, began to own property and businesses. Young women yearned for education and for the chance to live their own lives by making their own decisions. Countless women became activists in many social and political causes, particularly in fighting for the suffrage. Even in the South, former members of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, one of the great proponents of Lost Cause ideology, used skills gained in the public arena to work for women’s suffrage in their states.

For ordinary Americans in nearly every walk of life, the Civil War altered the ways in which they did business, worked for a living, raised their families, worshiped their God, and dealt with one another on a daily basis. In an almost-godless America, where scripture no longer rang with the same authority, a new language replaced earlier notions of conversational civility and the eschewing of vulgarity. Slang words and expressions — like shoddy, goobers, skedaddle, deadline, grapevine, fit to be tied, and fit as a fiddle — added to the vocabulary of Americans and to their style of expression, thanks to soldiers in the Civil War. Soldier life and the experience of becoming inured to death and human suffering produced new ways of speaking and writing, including more direct forms of communication that favored declarative sentences, the expunging of florid figures of speech, and a realism in literature that soon would cast out the romanticism of the antebellum years.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, 1885

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

All in all, the war gave birth to a plain style or a straight talk based on how people actually spoke rather than how the literati thought they should speak. One can find no better example of the Civil War’s influence on the spoken word, transmuted to the printed page, than in Mark Twain’s famous novel, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885). In an early scene, Huck is surprised to find his besotted father, who had been missing for a year, waiting for him in the night. Disapprovingly, Pap belittles how Huck is dressed: “Starchy clothes — very. You think you’re a good deal of a big-bug, don’t you?” No longer afraid of his father, Huck replies, “Maybe I am, maybe I ain’t.” “Don’t you give me none o’ your lip,” Pap fires back. Here, then, was the new American vernacular, replete with a Civil War term, big-bug, which was soldier slang for any important person, especially one who possessed an air of superiority. Indeed, the language of war unleashed the use of words as weapons in a newly constructed American idiom. When Huckleberry Finn answers his father with sarcasm, Pap fires back a salvo: “Looky here — mind how you talk to me; I’m a-standing about all I can stand now — so don’t gimme no sass.” In short order, Huck fakes his own death and flees down the Mississippi River with a runaway slave named Jim. Obviously, Huckleberry Finn had taken all he could stand, too.

But the harrowing experience of war and the great metamorphosis it created in American society produced an atrophy in the country that could not be easily overcome. The war’s unprecedented death toll and endless casualty lists made many Americans on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line wonder if God — who had always smiled on the country in the past — had abandoned the United States, leaving it to the random tumbling and twisting of pure chance. Soldiers who earnestly prayed to their God to deliver them from the hellfire of combat sometimes had their prayers answered, but just as often they had not. Why were some soldiers killed or wounded while others were left unscathed? Why had God allowed the nation to be cast asunder in the first place? What sin had the American people committed to have earned such an apocalyptic punishment? Or did God really play any role in the war at all? How could a benevolent God, the God of the New Testament, allow such a harrowing slaughter to occur on American soil?

For many in the Civil War generation, there were no answers. For others, the war engendered a crisis of faith that also eroded traditional bonds of affection, gender roles, personal identities, and individual autonomy. In the postwar decades, a decline in organized religion signaled how death and destruction led Northerners and Southerners to question the existence of a loving God. Religion and faith did not entirely disappear, of course, but doubt replaced the ubiquitous spiritual certainty that had once propelled the Second Great Awakening during the first forty years of the nineteenth century. The war meant that God’s plan for America’s great destiny as a beacon of democracy had gone up in smoke. In Richmond, the ruins of a charred city reminded both Northerners and Southerners that the Almighty seemed to have waited in the wings for the fires to subside. In the words of a modern critic, Andrew Delbanco, the Civil War and its aftermath needs to be understood in light of “the loss of Providence” — an era in which “a stark sense that the world was run by chance” supplanted assurance in the mighty hand of God.

In its own mind, the Civil War generation had gone through an unprecedented era of kaleidoscopic transformation; life and death, suffering and loss, victory and defeat had changed the very character of what it meant to be an American. This generation knew nothing of sociological definitions of cohorts and coevals. It was the war itself that defined the Civil War generation and that bonded individuals together into a cohesive whole, Northerners and Southerners alike. Two decades after Appomattox, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who had been wounded three times in battle as he served with distinction in the 20th Massachusetts Infantry, expressed the essence of the war years as a shared generational phenomenon: “The generation that carried on the war has been set apart by its experience. Through our great good fortune, in our youth our hearts were touched with fire.”

For some, though, the war was a searing blaze that not only forged a generation, but also tore it murderously apart. Those war years, recalled a former Confederate soldier, were “four of the longest years that ever crowded into the lifetime of one generation.” The Civil War created modern America at a staggeringly high price. In many respects, we are only beginning to tally the war’s exorbitant costs, to appreciate its long reach forward into our own time, and to acknowledge that the enormous price paid by the Civil War generation did not necessarily culminate in a better America or put to rest the issues for which so many young men gave their lives.

In assessing the Civil War generation as a generation, we might recognize the commonality of its suffering and sacrifice and of its resilience in the face of vast and far-reaching changes. Those shared experiences occurred not in one section alone, but in both of them together. Northerners and Southerners confronted the war and its aftermath as one people, a distinct generation, for the war spared no one from its terrible pall. In the end, though, there are no clear or simple lessons that the Civil War generation can teach us, except perhaps for this: the course of war is always unpredictable; all it reliably produces is human misery. If we have inherited any legacy from the Civil War generation, it may be that each American generation defines itself by what it experiences and what it endures. Perhaps no more can be asked of any generation.

* * *

Glenn W. LaFantasie served as the director of Woodrow
Wilson Center Press from 1989 to 1991. He is now the Richard Frockt Family Professor of Civil War History and director of the Institute for Civil War Studies at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green. He thanks Joe Brinley for all his encouragement and help.

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