What a Tragedy! (Cont’d)

Published:April 28, 2011 by Brendan Wolfe

To catch you up: The Atlantic blogger Ta-Nehisi Coates declared the Civil War not to be tragic. (After all, it freed the slaves.) He criticized our sister program BackStory for acting as if it were, and BackStory responded about “the enormous waste of human life.”

Yours truly, meanwhile, made a somewhat snarky remark suggesting that this whole argument is not so much history as it is literary criticism. (Not meaning to get too Greek about it, but in Aristotle’s Poetics, tragedy is “an imitation of an action”—that is, art—and not the action itself—that is, history.)

Anyway, now here’s the blogger J. L. Wall making my point for me. He’s writing about Shelby Foote’s Civil War trilogy:

By the end of Gettysburg, as I have mentioned, exhilaration has given way to frustration, disgust, and tragedy.  Rather than a misguided quest for glory, Jeb Stuart’s meandering during the first days of that battle are depicted as a lost child’s desperate search for his father. The scales begin to fall and the South’s “great” men are revealed to be self-serving (Bragg; the Hills; Hood; Stuart; etc.), blindered (Lee), or brutalizers of questionable sanity (Forrest; Quantrill). Longstreet, perhaps, has a measure of redemption in him—but while he, shaking his head at Gettysburg, is the only one who can see the reality of their military efforts, he is merely resigned by honor of some sort to stick around for the ride. Davis is compared from the outset to Lucifer; the image reappears near the end of Volume II as the Rebellion itself, for a moment, takes on the trappings of that angel’s against God.

Wall continues in this vein, and it’s a long and smart post. My point, though, is that to read the Civil War as drama is to engage in a kind of subjective manipulation of history. When you write about “a lost child’s desperate search for his father,” you are more likely to be revealing yourself than J. E. B. Stuart. For historians, the question of tragedy is moot; there is no answer but your answer. And your answer is right.

IMAGE: Dead Confederate soldier by Alexander Gardner (Antietam, ca. September 19, 1862)