I’ve been reading a copy of the The Atlantic‘s Special Commemorative Issue, The Civil War, which includes an introduction by President Barack Obama.
Most of the essays and photos curated for the issue were drawn from the pages of The Atlantic during and after the Civil War — and capture a wide swath of the mood and torment of the divided nation at that time.
In the collection, Ralph Waldo Emerson offers a poem written in the fall of 1863, “Voluntaries,” in praise of soldiers who gave their lives for the Union. . .
In an age of fops and toys,
Wanting wisdom, void of right,
Who shall nerve heroic boys
To hazard all in Freedom’s fight,–
Break sharply off their jolly games,
Forsake their comrades gay,
And quit proud homes and youthful dames,
For famine, toil, and fray?
Yet on the nimble air benigh
Speed nimbler messages,
That waft the breath of grace divine
To hearts in sloth and ease.
So night is grandeur to our dust,
So near is God to man,
When Duty whispers low, Thou must,
The youth replies, I can.
From September 1896, Booker T. Washington commented in his piece, “The Awakening of the Negro”:
Some one may be tempted to ask, Has not the negro boy or girl as good a
right to study a French grammar and instrumental music as the white youth?
I answer, Yes, but in the present condition of the negro race in this
country there is need of something more.
Three months after President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, Charles Creighton Hazewell opened his piece published in The Atlantic in July 1865 with:
The assassination of President Lincoln threw a whole nation into mourning . . . Of all our Presidents since Washington, Mr. Lincoln had excited the smallest amount of that feeling which places its object in personal danger. He was a man who made a singularly favorable impression on those who approached him, resembling in that respect President Jackson, who often made warm friends of bitter foes, when circumstances had forced them to seek his presence; and it is probable, that, if he and the honest chiefs of the Rebels could have been brought face to face, there never would have been civil war, –at that all that they had any right to claim, and therefore all that they could expect their fellow-citizens to fight for, would be more secure under his government than it had been under the governments of such men as Pierce and Buchanan, who made use of sectionalism and slavery to promote the selfish interests of themselves and their party … Ignorance was the parent of the civil war, as it has been the parent of many other evils, –ignorance of the character and purpose of the man who was chosen President in 1860-61, and who entered upon official life with less animosity toward his opponents than ever before or since had been felt by a man elected to a great place after a bitter and exciting contest …
There are essays as well by still living writers — including, as mentioned, President Obama, and Atlantic editors James Bennet, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jeffrey Goldberg.
In the collection’s opener, “The Duty to Think,” James Bennet writes:
Sheltering from a thunderstorm
in an empty freight car, the one-term congressman–the one with the
habit of telling dirty jokes, and dodging tough questions, and lying to
deflect annoying visitors–squatted on the floor, wrapped his arms around
his knees, and roared with laughter at his wife’s ridiculous ambition
for him. “Just think of such a sucker as me as President!,” Abraham
Lincoln told our correspondent, Henry Villard. Villard would later
marvel that this man, who caused him “disgust and humiliation,” would
prove “one of the great leaders of mankind in adversity.”
As the writers in this issue witnessed the country’s most terrible
and transformative passage, they felt, and reported, the “magnetic
personality” of John Brown; walked the anxious streets of Charleston on
the eve of the attack on Fort Sumter; joined with Union soldiers
quartering (and making mock speeches) in the House of Representatives;
listened late one starlit night as Ulysses Grant, puffing on a Havana
cigar by his tent, defended himself against the charge that he was a
butcher of men. They saw the tide of war turn, and were in Richmond when
it was liberated–when Lincoln, holding his young son’s hand, passed
through the jubilant crowd, pausing to remove his hat and, in silence,
return the bow of an elderly black man.
It’s simply a magnificent collection of essays — all brief — complemented by evocative photography of the day. The photos were curated by David Ward and Frank Goodyear of the National Portrait Gallery.
I also highly recommend 1861: The Civil War Awakening by Adam Goodheart that starts much in the same spirit of The Atlantic‘s special report — opening with a nearly real time feel for the decisions, constraints, and conflicting orders received by Major Robert Anderson whose squad sustained the first assault from Confederate forces.
What is terrific about the Goodheart book is the rendering he gives of the state of play politically, culturally, psychologically in the nation before the war.
It too would make a great holiday gift for those people who like a powerful read.
More to come, and happy holidays to all.