At times it seems we are close, very close, to the events and people not only of the Civil War, but of the earliest period in this country's history. Not necessarily through blood, politics, cultural backwash, or personal connections, but through the trans-historical human lifespan. We are closer in time than appearances might allow.
We would know this better if we history readers didn't suffer a time distorion effect brought on by our reading. Call it "periodization." We become period-conscious, unlike those friends and neighbors who read less history.
For example, scouring some archives last year, I was a little bit surprised and confused to read the letters columns in various newspapers after General George B. McClellan (USA) died and his obituaries ran (1885). You see, some letters to the editor were by Mexican War vets remembering McClellan in the Mexican War and it was very confusing for a history reader like me to think that Mexican War veterans could cross the divide from one period to the next (Civil War) and then to yet another (Gilded Age). And at the end of that crossing, they remembered McClellan exclusively in his Mexican War context.
Disorienting. But Mexican War veterans were living well into the 20th Century.
The feeling of awe at how close we are in time struck me again last night in reviewing a note on the career of the Rebel George Rutledge McClellan. The note appeared in A Fighter from Way Back: The Mexican War Diary of Lt. Daniel Harvey Hill, 4th Artillery, USA. (Hill mentioned the obscure George R. in his diaries but not the more famous George B.)
I thought of the time spent with my mother's father, a gold mine of first-hand history. When he was six, before the 20th century began dealing him its history cards directly, he experienced it vicariously through newspaper reading. He even began a scrapbook of news clippings featuring those Russo-Japanese incidents that led to war. That reading and clipping started in 1904, the year George R. McClellan died.
So, my grandfather and George R. were connected in time. Col. McClellan had figured in the removal of the Cherokees in 1838; he fought in the Mexican War (as a USV); and he was even a cavalry commander in the Civil War (CSA). His death overlapped my grandfather's birth by six years. This instrument of Jackson, Polk, and Davis was hardly one person away from someone I was quite close to. Someone who could have clipped his obit for a child's scrapbook.
The feeling you get from these associations is odd, very special, and a limited byproduct of history reading. It might even be fair compensation for the time distortion we suffer through periodization.