Thursday, July 20, 2017

What Died in the War

Before the Civil War, Oliver Wendell Holmes had been a passionate abolitionist, an idealist, a follower of Emerson, a believer in the pursuit of earthly perfection. After serving for nearly three years in the war, being wounded three times, and seeing the two best friends of his youth killed, he went on to be one of the founders of Pragmatism. Pragmatism is a complicated phenomenon but at its root is a deep suspicion of passionate belief, and a conviction that the wise should devote their efforts to smoothing over conflicts between different factions.
Holmes believed that it was no longer possible to think the way he had as a young man before the war, that the world was more resistant than he imagined. But he did not forget what it felt like to be a young man before the war. "Through our great good fortune," he said in the speech in which he memorialized Abbott's advance into Fredericksburg, "in our youth our hearts were touched with fire." — a sentence that both ennobles the antislavery cause and removes it to an irretrievable past. . . .

In 1932, after he had retired from the Court and was nearing the end, Holmes tried to read aloud to Marion Frankfurter, Felix Frankfurter's wife, a poem he liked about the Civil War, but he broke down in tears before he could finish it. They were not tears for the war. They were tears for what the war had destroyed. Holmes had grown up in a highly cultured, homogeneous world, a world of which he was, in many ways, the consummate product: idealistic, artistic, and socially committed. And then he had watched that world bleed to death at Fredericksburg and Antietam, in a war that learning and brilliance had been powerless to prevent. When he returned, Boston had changed, and so had American life. Holmes had changed too, but he never forgot what he had lost. "He told me," Einstein reported, "that after the Civil War the world never seemed quite right again."
–Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club


David said...

Errr, do you mean William Henry, or Oliver Wendell?

David said...

In any case, it is perhaps worth noting that historically, it was not abolitionist passion, but slaveholding passion, that brought the war. Lincoln's platform of 1860 was achingly moderate and compromising.

After the war, the South decided with consciously bad grace to accept the verdict of superior force and the abolition of chattel slavery. It was, however, their passion, violence, and refusal to compromise that won them a new social order very much to their liking. They also won, until the post-WWII era, the verdict of history, which saw northern Reconstructionists as the violent, radical, uncompromising ones for advocating things like, you know, equality before the law and the enforcement of constitutional amendments.

John said...


Holmes obviously knew a lot about Southern passion and violence, quite likely more than anyone in our century could ever know. This was a man who volunteered to serve in the war at the very beginning and volunteered to go back twice, despite having a very low opinion of the generals he fought under. His commitment to the causes of Union and Abolution can hardly be questioned. But he ended up thinking that the war was every bit as bad as slavery, so nothing was ultimately gained from fighting it.

I didn't post this to agree with Holmes; I just found this description of how war and loss changed one passionate young man quite moving. It also struck me that Ken Burns used the "touched with fire" quote as if it were about the Civil War itself, which it was not; it was about the world that Holmes and his friend lost in the war.

I am not a pacifist, but I think war is so horrible that we ought to think long and hard before embarking on one, and try very hard to avoid them.

David said...

Okay, but I get the sense that Holmes tended to put the onus on the abolitionists, with a good deal of self-blame in the mix, and to feel obliged to bend over backwards to accommodate southern whites. That was certainly the overall outcome of US historical development after Reconstruction.

G. Verloren said...


The Civil War was a monumentally brutal and nasty conflict. I imagine that for many men who survived the carnage, no ideal or morality on earth could make what they suffered or saw feel worthwhile in the aftermath.

When you watch so many people die so horribly, it eats away at you, and robs you of the ability to take joy in things you once loved, or to believe so powerefully in the goods you once devoted yourself to. You lose the ability to be passionate, and you instead become jaded and suspicious.

Anyone who has suffered through depression will be familiar with these feelings. When you've been deeply hurt in such a way, you withdraw and become defensive. You develop a compulsion to protect yourself from further possible or perceived harm, and you become unwilling to do things which might make you vulnerable. You view the things you used to be passionate about with suspicion and distrust, because you feel your passions led you to the pain that has crippled you.

Of course, the fact remains that the war freed millions of slaves, and untold millions more then unborn. But such knowledge seems distant to the suffering veteran, and their thoughts are consumed by all the horrors that they bore witness to - such that even the fact that they helped to save so many people from such unspeakably awful fates is of little comfort to them.

The same guilt, the same sorrow, the same feeling of the world they loved having been eternally lost is present among the veterans of other wars. World War II, despite being hailed as a just war against an unquestionably evil threat, nevertheless produced many veterans who felt that in saving the world, they'd somehow destroyed it, and who pined for happier days before the fighting.

These feelings are not normal. They're the product of psychological trauma, and soldiers who experience them need help coping with them and healing from their scars. But the men who fought in the Civil War did so in a time before medicine understood what was happening to them, and before any sort of formal treatment could even be conceived of. It would be roughly another fifty years before science began to seriously look into the issue, in response to what was then called "shell shock".

While it is in some sense true that the world is never quite the same after a major war, that doesn't mean those who lived through it must be doomed to never again experience joy or passion in their lives. They need to be helped to realize that while some things have indeed been lost, there is so much that invariably still remains, and still other things that have even been gained. They need to be reassured that the new world is not so fundamentally different from the old, and that life is not now less worth living, but in many ways even more so. They need to be rehabilitated, healed in both body and mind, and taught how to hope and believe again, in the same way they used to.