Escape from total war

I look through old issues of Harper's Weekly (1861-65) with a mixture of anger and sadness. It's not the war news that gets me down, it's the lack of war news. It's a lack that accumulates to prodigious dimensions. Read the accounts of summers past and trips abroad and any frivolous nonsense. Get away from that event destroying your country, its economy, its youth, and your sense of normalcy.

The Northerners took their Civil War in pill-size doses. Perhaps it was a matter more of personal stories and private letters - as public experience, it's nothing we can relate to as moderns, certainly not those of us even one generation removed from the Total War experience of WWII.

You have to go through loads of primary sources - not just Harper's - to get the full effect of Yankee war avoidance.

I remember the time I spent going through every New England newspaper the Boston Public Library could serve up, testing two ideas: (1) the Centennial doctrine that McClellan rode into Washington on a wave of popular acclaim in July 1861; and the alternative view, from Boston in the Civil War, that his appointment to replace McDowell was widely and vigorously opposed.

War news in the papers tended to be slight. In New England, the news was confined to what Banks and Butler did during a given week. Butler and Banks, week after week, column inch after inch. Hundreds of items about Butler and Banks. They were the whole war - all of it - but despite the space given them, that space never surpassed 5% of the ink spilled in any particular issue.

Among perhaps seven newspapers I found exactly two brief references to McClellan's Western Virginia campaign. The basis of Lincoln's appointment of McClellan in popular acclaim is the very keystone of the Centennial interpretation of the early war, as we know.

The laugh is not on the newspaper reader of that time, the laugh is on us. We're so disconnected from history, we think Banks and Butler were marginal figures instead of living founts of ACW experience for an entire region. Every new military history of the Civil War takes us farther away from understanding the civil part of this war and the immense chasm between the experiences clad in "shoddy" and mufti.

The careless reader - or writer - might imagine a WWII level of intensity and unity in Northern Civil War society. That would be a good joke indeed.

Look at Harper's. Read the papers.