Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Civil War Moment

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

Way back when I was an undergraduate at UCLA, my Civil War professor - Joan Waugh - spoke a lot about what she called the Civil War moment.

The moment, she described, was the exact instant when you made a personal connection with the war - when the whole thing became clear to you...what it was all about - the cost, the consequences, etc.

In all honesty, I didn't think much of it. It all sounded pretty weird to me...I mean - I have a long list of ancestors who fought in the war, I had been to a number of battlefields...and nothing - no "moment." it was all just history. Fascinating yes, but no connection.

And then it happened. I was conducting research for my masters thesis my first year at UVA at the old special collections department in the Alderman library (before they built the fancy schmancy new one) and I came across a collection of Civil War letters buried in a long-forgotten collection of family papers. They didn't really have much bearing on my work but I thought they were interesting so i read them anyway.

I won't get in to too much detail, but I will say that they were letters written by a Confederate cavalry officer to his wife in Virginia.. He talked about the usual stuff - how much he missed seeing her, their children, the general goings on at their farm, and mundane stories of life in the military. He wrote his wife often and I got to know him and his family.

And then on September 17th, 1862, the letters stopped. I looked through the files thinking that I had missed something...somewhere. But what I found instead was a bundle of condolence letters from the soldier's comrades - expressing their sorrow for the loss of their friend, and hoping that his widow would make it through her grief.

The soldier had been killed leading a cavalry charge at Antietam - I had never heard of him before I discovered his letters, and I certainly did not agree with the cause for which he fought. But it occurred to me that soldiers and events in this war were more than paintings hung on museum walls...or distant stories long past. They were people. People with hopes and aspirations and plans for the future. People with families who missed them and mourned their loss. People not so unlike myself.

This was my Civil War moment - what was yours?




  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by C. Greer, C. Greer and Keith Harris, Joseph A Swanson. Joseph A Swanson said: “@MKeithHarris: The Civil War Moment” [...]

  2. Twenty-some years ago, visiting Ford's Theater and realizing, this is not a movie set, it's not a picture in a book. That's where this momentous event happened, right there, up in the box. I know that sounds silly, but there it is.

  3. This is certainly an issue I need to do more research into, appreciation for the blog post.