My enchantment with, or addiction to reading about, the Civil War has deep roots that go back to early childhood. And it came through both sides of my family.
From my mother came the romance. If you had asked her, at any time of her life, what her favorite movie was, you would have received the consistent answer of Gone with the Wind. She was 16 when she first saw the movie. I don’t know how many times she watched it, especially after it became a regular staple of television. But the story of Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara, set against the backdrop of the Civil War and its aftermath, captured my mother’s romantic heart.
The novel by Margaret Mitchell won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. The movie passed into American film legend, and my mother knew all the details, like how the directors searched long and hard for an actress to play Scarlett. Filming had started (like with the scene depicting the burning of Atlanta) when they finally decided on Vivien Leigh. And my mother adored Clark Gable, talking about him long after his death in 1960.
The movie, like the book, was imbued with the myth of the Lost Cause, that the Civil War had really been about states’ rights and that the South had fought a just and noble war. Today, our understanding has turned 180 degrees. It makes one wonder about the validity of extreme positions, whatever extreme they represent.
Because my father didn’t care much for movies, I became my mother’s movie partner by default. One of the movies we saw together was The Horse Soldiers, starring John Wayne and Constance Towers. It is a highly fictionalized and considerably misleading account of Grierson’s Raid, an 1863 foray through Mississippi by 1,700 Union cavalry troops. (A better account is the book The Real Horse Soldiers by Timothy Smith.) I must have been an impressionable age; I still remember much of the movie today, and it, too, channeled my interest in the Civil War. When we told my father about the movie, he mentioned that the raid went right through the area where his father and grandfather had lived.
A few years later, I attended LSU. At the time, chaired by T. Harry Williams, it had one of the most highly regarded history departments in the U.S. Williams had published a slew of books on the Civil War, but it was his biography of Huey Long that won the Pulitzer Prize and the national Book Award. He taught a senior-level history course on the Civil War that was limited to 12 students, and history majors had first call. I had to content myself with reading his books, like his biography of Confederate general P.G.T. Beauregard.
The subject of the war remained a reading interest, like Bruce Catton’s Civil War trilogy and James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom. About 25 years ago, I was in a local antique store that also carried books, and I found a first edition of Ulysses S. Grant’s Personal Memoirs in two volumes). Grant’s memoirs have been reprinted in numerous editions over the years; you can even find a Kindle edition for 49 cents. I paid $75 for my edition; the same edition now lists on some web sites for $1,250. Who knew?
I’m not a fan of visiting battlefields, but my youngest son and I did visit the Pilot Knob Battlefield Park, less than an hour from St. Louis. And I discovered that the Missouri Civil War Museum sits adjacent to the Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery, about a 20-minute drive from my house.
The clincher for my Civil War interest was family history, again on both sides. My mother’s grandparents lived in New Orleans when it was occupied by Union forces; my paternal great-grandfather, born and raised in Mississippi, was a Confederate soldier.
It is that great-grandfather’s story that has turned out to be the most problematic. What was handed down by my grandfather and father may, or may not, be what actually happened to my great-grandfather in the war. While it’s been frustrating to track it down, it’s been a fascinating research exercise as well. And I’ve followed all kinds of trails down Civil War rabbit holes.
My interest in the Civil War has taught me many things, but most of all it’s taught me is that the past is never really the past.
Top photograph: Clark Gable and Vivien Liegh in Gone with the Wind (1939).