The Civil War continues to fascinate

March 14, 2012 

The students in Shauna Devine’s Civil War class at Duke University this semester surprised her. Twice.

First, Devine said, “They came in knowing less than I thought they would” about the war.

Then, she said, “I was surprised by how fascinated they were by it. I was trying to get them to understand why others have this enduring fascination with the war,” but they came down with it, too.

“I call them my ‘civil warriors,’ ” she said. “Some said they ‘love’ the war. I tell them I think that’s the wrong word. ‘What was it you loved about it?’ I ask them. ‘Was it the 600,000 people killed? ... The amount of death and destruction provide a gruesome fascination to some people, because we look for meaning in all that carnage.”

Count me among both those hooked on the war and among those who plan to be at the Civil War Symposium at Duke’s Perkins Library on Friday. The symposium lasts from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., and admission is free.

Devine, an assistant professor of history and one of the symposium organizers, specializes in Civil War medicine. “One of the misconceptions of the war is that they were just chopping off limbs, drinking whiskey and biting on sticks,” she said. “Some of that ‘Gone with the Wind’ impression was true ... Surgery was rudimentary, but they learned as they went along.”

When Devine asked what I found so intriguing about the war, my politically correct response referred to the fact that the war was fought in this country, much of it in this state, and that it rent families apart, pitting in many instances brother against brother.

But the main reason I’m hooked on the Civil War is because without it, I might be standing on some balcony in a starched collar going “Y’all want some mo’ mint in dis heah julep, suh?”

Ah, don’t look at me like that. While history revisionists contend that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, but about “states’ rights,” we know the real deal.

Devine said, “It’s hard to say it wasn’t about slavery, because before the war, the South had the fourth largest economy in the world. All Southerners” – from gentrified landowners to poor folks, she said – “were tied together through this ‘Peculiar Institution.’ ”

Somebody – ANYBODY – explain one thing: What would make poor white dudes fight for the cause of keeping free labor, which in turn would serve to keep them poor? Hey, just asking.

I was unable to reach the person who could answer that question – Joseph Glatthaar, history professor at UNC-CH. Glatthaar, who will be at the symposium, has written a scholarly book called “Soldiering in the Army of Northern Virginia: A Statistical Portrait of the Troops Who Served Under Robert E. Lee.”

Me? I plan to ask Glatthaar and his symposium confederates – not Confederates, mind you – to answer that question and whether they’ve ever heard of one of my relatives who supposedly fought in the war, Col. Beauregard T. Saunders.

We don’t talk about him much, because he fought on the wrong side: He was nearsighted and thought the crossed-rifles insignia on the Confederate soldiers’ caps stood for “X,” as in Malcolm X.


Saunders: 919-836-2811

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