Those Who Fail to Learn From History
Americans anticipate another civil war—
but do they understand what the last one meant?
Jeffrey A. Lockwood (307-399-3402; email@example.com)
Artist-in-residence, Stones River National Battlefield, November 2022
America will not be destroyed from the outside.
If we falter and lose our freedom,
it will be because we destroyed ourselves.
In 1858, Abraham Lincoln declared that, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Three years later, the nation descended into a civil war that would cost the lives of 750,000 Americans. At the end of that horrific struggle, although the country was bloodied, smoldering, and weeping it was still standing.
A century earlier, when Benjamin Franklin was asked about the nature of the United States of America, he replied that we had a republic and ominously added: “if you can keep it.” Jump forward to the insurrection of January 6, 2021, which called into question whether the nation will remain a commingled union or become a fractured entity. Today, the country is deeply, perhaps irretrievably, polarized—divided against itself.
At the moment, I’m serving as the writer-in-residence at Stones River National Battlefield, where a polarized country amassed 81,117 young men who would suffer the highest casualty rate of any Civil War battle. After three days, 3,024 lay dead on the battlefield, with 15,747 wounded (of which perhaps 2,250 would die of their injuries—or gruesome amputations and raging infections), and 4,744 captured (then sent to prison camps such as Andersonville, where one-in-four would die of hunger and disease). The casualty rate was four-times that of D-Day.
Technically, the Union won because the Confederates retreated, but a 30% casualty rate confers a hollow victory. I bet you’ve never heard of this wintertime battle (I hadn’t until my residency), timed to give Lincoln a desperately needed military victory to support his Emancipation Proclamation. But I’ll wager that you’ve heard about the expectations of another civil war.
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Recent surveys reveal that about half of Americans anticipate the outbreak of a civil war in the near future. Indeed, a majority believe that the country is already in the midst of “cold” civil war, which one might interpret to mean that they expect this tension could rapidly degenerate into a shooting war.
The Civil War pitted northern states against southern states. Surely Americans don’t anticipate that sort of geographic division, right? Wrong. More than half (52%) of Trump voters favor having red states secede and form their own country. Surely those are just right-wing extremists, right? Wrong. Nearly half (41%) of Biden voters would favor having blue states form their own country. If one compares a map of Union and Confederate states to a political map today, the overlap is stunning. Setting aside border states that contributed soldiers to both sides and purple states, every state except one (Kansas) that was Union or Confederate back then is correspondingly blue or red today.
But surely young people are more hopeful, right? Wrong, again. A majority of those between 18 and 30 thought that our democracy was either in trouble or had already failed. Nearly one-half of young Republicans and one-third of young Democrats put the chances of a second civil war in their lifetimes at 50% or greater. A quarter of youthful voters gave even odds for the chances of at least one state seceding. Like a couple declaring irreconcilable differences, secession appears to be emerging as the preferred tactic to deal with divisive issues between red and blue states.
# # #
Based on my highly unscientific poll of twenty friends, 0% of Americans know anything about the Battle of Stones River. They’d heard of Antietam, Shiloh and Gettysburg, of course. But a soldier had a better chance of surviving any of these battles than Stones River. And few people comprehend the importance of the battle or would guess that President Lincoln was referring to Stones River when wrote the Union commander: “…you gave us a hard victory which, had there been a defeat instead, the nation could scarcely have lived over.” Nor is the internet helpful, given that the Battle of Stones River is virtually invisible on almost every website, including the History Channel and National Geographic.
One might think that the locals would be keenly aware of the battle, even if the nation is clueless. However, more than 80% of the “hallowed ground” on which thousands died is devoted to strip malls, apartment complexes and parking lots. At the National Cemetery inside the battlefield where Union soldiers were laid to rest, one-third of the graves are marked with a numbered block of marble—no name, rank or unit being known. And at Evergreen Cemetery, more than 2,000 unknown Confederate soldiers are buried in a mass grave.
From my conversations with the good citizens of Murfreesboro, they probably know little more about Stones River than their fellow Americans know about the Civil War (this might be different for the Murfreesboro folks if the Confederates had won the battle). Only half of Americans can correctly identify the decade in which the war took place, while just two-thirds of college graduates know this basic fact.
Historical and mathematical illiteracy conspire to undermine the impact of big numbers at Stones River and other national battlefields. So, imagine corpses packed side-by-side covering a football field from goal line to mid-field—that’s about 3,024 dead soldiers. Try to fathom the heartbreak of some 20,000 parents, siblings, wives, and children. That would be the number of heartbeats that pulse through your body in about four hours. The short film at the Stones River visitors center is appropriately and surprisingly stark, with vivid scenes of dead and wounded soldier-actors, although far less graphic than what is portrayed in Hollywood films. But do special effects and videogames provide any understanding of the suffering associated with war?
The transcription in the Park Service’s gallery of a soldier’s letter to a comrade’s mother is more compelling than anything appearing on a screen: “He was killed almost instantly by a cannon ball passing through both thighs, severing his legs from his body.” Almost instantly. What about those final moments? The rest of the letter makes clear that writer meant to assuage the mother’s grief. I suspect that he failed. But he succeeded in searing an image into the hearts and minds of Americans 160 years later—if they make the time to visit this place—which is far more important than their remembering the dates of the battle (December 31, 1862, to January 2, 1863).
And this leads to the next, deeper question about what Americans believe when they say that another civil war is coming.
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When people say that war is on the horizon, they might mean one of three things: wholesale killing, targeted violence, or metaphorical struggle.
So first, what if we had a full-blown shooting war between Americans? Pitting blue versus red states would be too simple, as the north-south political differences are less intense than the urban-rural ideological divide. To distill the complicated cultural factors into a single, absurdity: we’d pit the young women of a big-city, private college against the middle-aged men of a small-town, fundamentalist church. The point being that choosing up sides would be very complicated.
If the outcome of a 21st century civil war was proportionate to that of 1861-1865, we could expect about 7.5 million deaths—equal to every man, woman and child in Maine, Mississippi, Nebraska, Vermont, and Wyoming. But today, there nearly 20 million semi-automatic weapons in the hands of private citizens (setting aside the US military and its destructive capacity). So, with even a ten-fold increase in lethality, the death total would equal the combined populations of Alabama, California, Georgia, and New York (I picked two populous blue states and skipped over the red states of Texas and Florida to reflect that only16% of Democrats own guns versus 41% of Republicans, so mortality in our nightmarish war would not be evenly distributed).
But are Americans really prepared to slaughter their fellow citizens? Maybe. One-in-six registered voters believe that we will need extra-legal means to fix the nation. And of these, about one-in-ten say they would take up arms or engage in civil war. Among those ages 18-29, 39% think that it will become necessary to go outside the law—and 11% say that they’d go to battle. The percentages aren’t staggering, but they translate into 3,760,000 Americans saying that they’d take the lives of their countrymen.
At least that’s what people say. And perhaps that’s one reason that the nation so desperately needs places like Stones River National Battlefield to provide vivid context for Americans’ violent imaginings. Rather than settling into movie theater recliners or gaming chairs for a dose of video effects, we need to stand on the once blood-slicked rocks of the Slaughter Pen or in the tangled woods at Hell’s Half Acre and contemplate what it was like to see the carnage, taste the rising bile, hear the screams, smell the gunpowder, and feel the bone-chilling rain.
Yes, I’m advocating “dark tourism.” However, in our world of virtual reality there are good reasons to preserve and interpret Auschwitz, Hiroshima, and Stones River. These places compel us to contemplate our mortality—and our capacity for evil. Here we encounter our Steppenwolf, wondering what we would have done, as well as pondering how we would have felt and if we would have survived.
At national battlefields, we can no longer get away with bullshit, political fantasies of civil war. Until January 6th 2021, most of us would have considered an armed insurrection on the U.S. Capitol unimaginable. Today, we would do well to cultivate an understanding that another civil war is unthinkable.
More thinkable is the second possible meaning of “war”—armed conflicts tactically located along the nation’s fracture lines. No single issue uncompromisingly divides modern America, although abortion might come close. But even with this dispute, we negotiate the meaning of personhood, which seems disturbingly similar to counting Blacks as three-fifths of a person. Understand that I’m not equating abortion and slavery, only pointing out that compromise cannot stave off violence, and attacks on abortion clinics might be viewed as a kind of tactical civil war (there have been about five bombings or arsons annually for the last 45 years). Other warriors might attack houses of worship, such as a synagogue in Pittsburgh (11 dead, 6 wounded) or public rallies such as the counter-protest at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville (1 dead, 19 wounded).
Extrapolating from polls, 70 million people believe that, “The traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it.” What they mean by “traditional” can be inferred from the finding that 60% of Americans think that the United States was intended to be a “Christian Nation”. But using physical force to advance an ideological objective is not the exclusive purview of the right.
Whether Democrat or Republican, about one-third of Americans believe that violence could be justified to advance political goals. And while 16% of those identifying as very conservative felt that there is a great deal of justification for using violence if their candidate loses the presidency, 26% of very liberal Americans made the same argument if their political hopes are dashed. Presumably neither group would initiate a full-blown civil war, but tactical violence is most certainly in the cards.
If an important political objective is at stake—presumably something like abortion, immigration, gay rights, public health, or racial justice—about 18 million adults think that violence is justified, and 7% of Americans say they’d be willing to kill another person to advance their goal. That’s “only” about one in fifteen of your fellow citizens, but in a rally of 500 far-right protestors in Charlottesville, it took only a single, 20-year-old White Supremacist to wreak murderous havoc.
The third interpretation of “war” is that people use this term metaphorically. Marjory Taylor Green has called for a civil war within the Republican party. And according to various politicians and activists, we’ve waged wars on poverty, drugs, terror, science, crime, women, and coal. These can be understood as figurative civil wars—pitting one set of values against another. In this light, the United States has been engaged in conceptual combat for our entire history. Maybe this isn’t such a terrible thing, as a culturally, religiously, ethnically, racially, and genderly diverse nation will constantly battle over values, wielding free speech to gain political territory.
Language is a potent weapon. What we now called the Civil War was variously named the War Between the States, War of Rebellion, War of Secession, Second American Revolution, War for the Union, and War of Yankee Aggression. It’s not hard to figure out which name was favored by which side. Indeed, the difference between a civil and a revolutionary war comes down to who wins, which explains why America won the Revolutionary War and the South lost the Civil War.
We even battled over the naming of battles. Had the Confederacy emerged victorious, the Battle of Stones River would be called Battle of Murfreesboro (the North typically named battles after natural features while the South used names of nearby towns) or even the Second Battle of Murfreesboro given that the first was a 12-hour raid the previous summer which the Confederates won handily. Except for a smattering of Civil War buffs, there can’t be more than a few dozen Americans who know of that encounter or the Third Battle of Murfreesboro in the winter of 1864 which was much more about destroying Union infrastructure than killing the enemy.
And nobody can name who is buried in grave 6138 at the National Cemetery which contains “Three unknown U.S. soldiers” whose bodies were unceremoniously exhumed by a street grader 34 years after the battle that their side named Stones River.
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According to historian Shelby Foote, prior the Civil War, Americans said, “The United States are…” and afterwards, “The United States is…” We became a unified republic in part through men having fought their way across the nation transforming distant states from political abstractions into parts of a concrete whole. As patriotism waned in the late 1800s, there emerged a movement to re-instill a sense of unity in the schools, where students had no experience of the war (just as undergraduates today have no memory of September 11, 2001).
The first pledge of allegiance was written by a veteran of the Civil War, although today’s familiar wording was provided by a Christian socialist Baptist minister (a combination that many would find hard to comprehend today). His version included, “one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” The phrase, “under God” was added during the Cold War to distinguish the religiosity of Americans from the atheism of the Soviets. Today, we have begun to question whether the nation is indivisible. Perhaps we can return to a sentiment of our founding days, when 13 colonies struggled to express their collective identity.
E pluribus unum—out of many, one—was widely embraced after the Revolutionary War (which is, itself, memorialized in four national battlefields). This aspirational aphorism captures America’s cultural paradox of unified pluralism. But it raises the contemporary question: What is the one? That is, what keeps our 21st century motto from being E pluribus conflictus? Three possibilities come to mind.
First, many Americans would assert that ours is the freest country in the world. They are mistaken, as the United States is ranked 15th, between the United Kingdom and Japan. We excel in economic freedom but lag in personal freedom, which reflects factors such as fairness of laws (one in 81 Black adults is serving time in prison), freedom to run for political office (campaigns for the Senate average $6.5 million), and freedom to pursue same-sex relationships (27 states have no legal protection for LGBT+ citizens, including every state that was in the Confederacy).
Next, some might contend that our democracy sets the standard for the world. By some criteria, the United States has the longest-standing democracy (although universal suffrage came later than in several other countries). However, we are ranked around #32 by various political analysts. According to the World Population Review, we’re the highest rated “deficient democracy,” sitting between Israel and Cape Verde.
Finally, there is a pervasive sense that America is the land of opportunity, that anyone can flourish with sufficient grit. If only. While our nation ranks near the top in terms of business opportunities, individuals fare no better than the citizens of France and Austria which bracket our ranking of #24. We fare well with respect to freedom and choice, but rather poorly in terms of personal safety, health, and inclusion.
And so, in this time of echo chambers and social media bubbles which create and sustain factions, what holds the center—if anything? The answer lies at the Stones River National Battlefield.
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The mission of Stones River National Battlefield, like other such sites, is to preserve landscapes and artefacts, while promoting the public understanding of the battle and an appreciation of its larger context. I’ve spent many weeks at National Parks, Monuments, Seashores, and Lakeshores which exemplify the breathtaking beauty of nature, but this residency is my first prolonged visit to a National Battlefield which epitomizes the jaw-dropping horror of human nature. One doesn’t come away from a visit to this place with many facts that will long be remembered, but perhaps a visitor takes away feelings that persist, even haunt, one’s memory. Spending time at a National Battlefield is much like sitting down with a family photo album and encountering images that demand reflection (why was nobody smiling on that vacation; when did she quit resenting our move to the new house; how did that beloved pet disappear; who was that odd groomsman in his wedding?).
I would contend that what holds together America is what makes for an individual’s meaningful life. Stories. Philosopher Richard Kearney maintains that, “Telling stories is as basic to human beings as eating. More so, in fact, for while food makes us live, stories are what make our lives worth living. They are what make our condition human.” And they are what make a nation cohere. Without a story, individuals and societies lose their identities.
When my mother was descending into dementia, she was losing her memories, her story—her self. The nation risks early-onset Alzheimer’s if we can’t remember who Jefferson Davis was, which states remained in the Union, and when the Civil War took place, let alone where the Battle of Stones River took place. It is clear that America’s freedom, democracy, and opportunities do not define or distinguish the nation. Nor are we bound together by a common religion, language, cuisine, music, or dress. Multiculturalism virtually assures that we do not share values, beliefs, or norms. Our story is who we are. It’s all we have.
Even a healthy individual’s memory is, at best, partial and prone to errors. We can slide into confabulation—the production of false memories without any intention to deceive. When there is a gap in our memory, we tend to fill in the missing details. Individuals are particularly likely to confabulate when providing an autobiographical account, which might well describe our national memory. And we need not go back 160 years to see the problem.
Studies of Americans just three years after 9/11 showed that we misremembered both how we felt at the time, as well as the details of what happened. About 40% of those questioned, changed their personal stories over time—and stuck with the revised version. The week after the attack, 87% of people could recall where President Bush was at the time, but this dropped to 57% after just a year. Of course, we can check many of our individual recollections against objective sources. But what of the national memory of September 9th 2001 or December 31st 1862? That’s why we need skilled, knowledgeable interpreters at sites of shared significance.
And we need these people and places because some false accounts are not unintentional but purposive. There are those who foster erroneous histories for ideological purposes. The Civil War was not fought over tariffs, taxes, or states’ rights, unless one means the right to own slaves. Every Confederate state’s “Articles of Secession” explicitly referred to preserving or expanding slavery.
In the best (or at least better) of all worlds, the National Park Service would have adequate funding for staff and facilities—and the battle at Stones River would be woven into the stories of Murfreesboro and Nashville, of Tennessee and the Mid-South, and of the nation. This chapter of American history would then be linked to Reconstruction (there is a small section of the visitor center devoted to this period), and then to the era of Jim Crow laws which persisted until 1965—and to today’s misunderstood framework of Critical Race Theory.
The core of CRT is the story of structural racism: red lining, discriminatory school funding, residential segregation, unfair lending practices, environmental injustice, biased policing and sentencing, and voter suppression. Just as the educators of the 1890s perceived the need for students to pledge allegiance to one indivisible nation with liberty and justice for all, today’s teachers must be allowed to tell the story leading from the Emancipation Proclamation issued on the second day of the Battle of Stones River, to the Black Lives Matter protest calling for the removal of a Confederate statue in Murfreesboro on the Rutherford County Square (it’s still there). Or a class might learn about the march on the city’s Middle Tennessee State University campus to protest retaining the name of Forrest Hall, honoring Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Confederate General who commanded the First Battle of Stones River—and then became Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan (the name on the ROTC building is still there). Or perhaps we might even imagine a panel at the Stones River National Battlefield museum telling the story of Cemetery, a postbellum community that was home to U.S. Colored Troops who were employed by the war department in one of the few jobs available to former slaves. Their grisly task was to exhume the bodies of Union soldiers from the hastily dug graves on the battlefield and bury their remains at the National Cemetery. If that work wasn’t sufficiently demeaning, the Black residents were then forced to sell their property to the federal government for the creation of what became the Stones River National Battlefield.
The good news is that Americans across the ideological spectrum grasp the importance of the nation’s autobiography as the source of our collective identity. The interpretation of events is hotly contested, but nobody dismisses the value of the story. In a sense, today’s civil war is a struggle for how we will narrate the history of our first Civil War—what it meant then, how it shaped what followed, and why it matters into the future. I hope the onslaught of liberal iconoclasm can be halted and that statues such as the one the Rutherford County Square are preserved somewhere, not to celebrate a dark chapter of our story, but as a reminder in another 160 years of how far we had come and how far we had yet to go.
The bad news, of course, is that our story is dividing us. Just as in the 1860s, our youth are impassioned by fiery sermons and inspiring rhetoric, although more often from websites than pulpits. But pronouncements of absolute righteousness, intolerance of “them”, and justifications of violence come from both sides of the great divide. Might young and old be less willing to kill their countrymen, if they knew the nation’s story? Perhaps we should say “stories,” for there is no single, canonical interpretation of the facts. Make no mistake, there are historical facts, postmodern relativism notwithstanding, although the weight we give to these truths is legitimately contested. I worry that we are like the two armies stretched across 3½ miles of cold, damp fields and forests along the Stones River on the night of December 30, 1862. But there’s a story of those soldiers that is almost enough to instill hope. Almost.
On the bitterly cold eve of battle, Union and Confederate troops were camped a few hundred yards apart, able to see one another’s fires. And they could hear one another’s military bands. A musical battle unfolded as each side tried to drown out the other. A salvo of “Bonny Blue Flag” unleashed a volley of “Hail, Columbia.” A torrent of “Dixie” (“In Dixie’s Land I’ll take my stand / to live and die in Dixie”) drew a fusillade of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” (“As He died to make men holy / Let us die to make men free”). As the barrage of martial music faded, each man contemplated his fate the next morning. Patriotic songs lifted spirits for a few moments, but dread and an icy rain soon soaked into the men. And then came an incredible moment.
As one band began to play the melancholy strains of “Home, Sweet Home,” the musicians on the other side took up the tune. Soon, the men in both camps began to sing together. These enemies, goaded into war by powerful men, were ultimately homesick sons, brothers, husbands, and fathers who understood that within hours they might well die horribly and kill mercilessly. Across the no-man’s land, they sang together and cried alone, hiding their tears lest their comrades see their vulnerability, their humanity.
# # #
In our mad rush to STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education, precise formulae push aside vivid stories. Using some plausible assumptions, the force generated by a 12-pound cannonball upon being fired at the Battle of Stones River works out to about 9,000 N. What does a Newton feel like? Well, it’s the force needed to accelerate one kilogram to one meter per second squared. Still not helpful, eh? Okay, compare the cannonball to the force of a small car, accelerating from 0 to 40 mph in 10 seconds, which would be 2,040 N. So, the cannonball’s force is about 4½-times that of a speeding automobile. That’s more understandable. But what does the force of a cannonball mean? Ponder this account of a round shot ploughing through a line of men:
I heard a thud on my right, as if one had been struck with a heavy fist. Looking around, I saw a man at my side standing erect, with his head off, a stream of blood spurting a foot or more from his neck. As I turned farther around, I saw three others lying on the ground, all killed by this cannon shot… the next was shot through the breast, the next through the stomach, and the fourth had all his bowels torn out.
Without the humanities, STEM students might calculate the forces involved with a canister munition (a thin shell filled with twenty-seven, 1½-inch iron balls packed in sawdust that turned a cannon into a giant shotgun). But will a physics class consider what this augured to a charging line of men or to an artillery officer at Stones River who knew the effects of his weapon: “The approach of the enemy was parallel… when he arrived within about 300 yards we opened upon his first line [with] canister…the enemy fell back beyond our view.”
And we mustn’t overlook the importance of philosophy when considering the role of the humanities in understanding past or future civil wars. Ethicists would be hard pressed to defend Sherman’s March to the Sea, which employed a scorched-earth strategy, targeting military and civilian infrastructure while encouraging troops to pillage the countryside. For those contemplating a modern civil war of any nature, there is much to be learned from “just war theory,” beginning with the ancient Egyptians, refined by Thomas Aquinas, and taught at the U.S. Military Academy.
Finally, to grasp what it means for Americans to kill one another over ideological differences, the arts are essential. On a curving wall in the Stones River visitors center is a floor-to-ceiling enlargement of a drawing by Henry Lovie, a “war artist” who risked his life to show America the corporeality of battle (there are no photographs of the carnage). On the left side of the sketch is a headless rider, Colonel Julius Garesche, depicted at the moment he was decapitated by a cannonball. In the chaos of the scene, few (if any) visitors see this gruesome element, although perhaps there is a darkly subliminal perception.
Maybe a better way to tell the story of Stones River is through Claire Lynch’s “Dear Sister”, the International Bluegrass Music Association’s 2014 song of the year. The plaintive music captures the feeling of a Confederate soldier writing a letter on the night before battle, and the words conjure the impending doom and the surreal moment when the Union and Confederate bands joined together:
And I’ll wait for you there where all is bright and fair
Where the light on His face outshines the blue and gray
Where all of humankind yes every man will find
Of home, sweet home.
History tells us that at dawn, the tender strains of shared voices gave way to screams of agony. But from that first morning comes a transcendently (dare we say, “spiritually”, given the importance of religion to the American experience?) humanizing scientific insight.
An icy fog hung over brigadier general James E. Rains as he lay mortally wounded. Let every American who anticipates taking up arms in a civil war take a deep breath. It is all but certain that they will inhale at least one atom exhaled by Rains in his dying gasp: “Forward my brave boys, forward!”
The calculation is mathematically simple, but the meaning is profoundly complex.
Jeffrey Lockwood bio: I have authored seven books of creative non-fiction (“Grasshopper Dreaming: Reflections on Killing and Loving,” Skinner House, 2002; “Locust: The Devastating Rise and Mysterious Disappearance of the Insect that Shaped the American Frontier,” Basic, 2004; “Prairie Soul: Finding Grace in the Earth Beneath My Feet,” Skinner House, 2004; “A Guest of the World,” Skinner House, 2006; “Six-Legged Soldiers: The Use of Insects as Weapons of War,” Oxford, 2008; “The Infested Mind: Why Humans Fear, Loathe, and Love Insects,” Oxford, 2013; “Behind the Carbon Curtain: The Energy Industry, Political Censorship and Free Speech,” University of New Mexico, 2017). Most of these books were written to make science available to the general public through evocative storytelling. I also have 133 magazine articles and literary essays.