The American Civil War (even the way it is written: always capital “C,” capital “W”) sits isolated in a pristine crystal dome of American history, separate from all other events. There are certain ways to write about it that make it acceptable to Civil War scholars and their audiences, and these rules must be observed else the offending material will be relegated to the isle of broken essays.
These essays were written over the course of perhaps twenty years, a period of my harrying of long-suffering professors, Civil War Round Table members, and other unfortunates who have tolerated my distinct view of the 1861-65 conflict. I hope you will enjoy them because they should challenge what you may think of the American Civil War, its place in world history, and how it is indeed tied to the rest of the world.
Some of these essays are an attempt to make some sense of the most fashionable trends, fads and fancies of American historians and soothsayers in the early 21st century.
Seers of the future are an especially special breed of thinkers, and they already know it. What makes them annoying, however, is their irritating propensity for mistaking wit for brilliance. Case in point is the famous Albert Einstein quote:
I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.Albert Einstein
What those who depend on this quotation as a cudgel for disarmament forget that even Einstein missed the ironic point: After humankind blows itself into the Stone Age, they will still be fighting over the rubble.
Finally, there’s the constant refrain: War is not the answer. But that, of course, depends on what the question is.
These essays were written in a time when the concept of “strategy” had been formally defined for over a century, and in a world where the concept of “strategy” was intentionally driven by policy. As these essays show, strategy has been an evolution, a development of policy-making that stretches back millennia, and was sometimes driven by accident, sometimes by design. During the time period covered by the first two, dealing with the Mediterranean’s ancient world and with Europe and Asia in the early modern period, strategy was a matter of royal prerogative and trade demands.
In the third, dealing with the United States and Japan in the Pacific in the 19th century, strategy was the prerogative, at least in part, of democratically elected representatives. What is interesting is how similar the strategic choices are, and how similar the alternatives are. The greatest difference is that of scale.
Britain was strengthened by the American Revolution, even though it resulted in the loss of her thirteen colonies that would eventually become the United States. Both she and the United States, ultimately, resolved the last of a conflict in Anglo-Saxon society that had raged since the Tudors: Do governments have a right to rule, or a duty? Is society the master of an economic structure, or a servant or product of it?
Most scholars—especially Americans—when writing about the American Revolution (in this work, also the American War) emphasize the Western Hemisphere when considering the effects. However, in this scribe’s opinion this view is short-sighted. Great Britain, after all, is still around, and its Empire indeed flourished a century after it lost its then-largest and most prosperous colonies. The Empire may have steadily degraded after Victoria’s diamond jubilee gala in 1897, but by the much-ballyhooed “Brexit” from the European Community in 2016, Britain herself was still a force to be reckoned with.
Recent writers, especially Steven Sears in The British Empire, have suggested that the British Empire was really nothing more than a jobs program for the English middle and upper classes. In some ways this is arguably true. However trivial this may seem in the great scheme of things, it was also the largest single influence on human civilization between the fall of Rome and the triumph of the United States and the Soviet Union in 1945. As these essays argue, this influence was in part because of the sheer genius of hard-pressed Britons to survive on their harsh, rocky islands.
The War of 1812, often called the second war for American independence, took place during a global conflict between Britain and Napoleonic France, which then controlled most of Europe. The causes for the war are often obscured, and go far beyond the impressment of sailors so often cited. The long-ranging effects of the conflict are still being felt, and may be most evident in the American way of war, with the conduct of warfare at sea for the rest of the 19th century, and in the nature of the military and political systems of the United States.