Writing the Civil War, Researching the Causes

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Many an aspiring short story writer or novelist has dreamed of putting to paper a romantic tale to rival at least come near to the quintessential civil war novel Gone with the Wind. Romance, treachery, occupation and struggle were the overt messages from Margaret Mitchell's best seller. But few have a grasp on the depth of research needed to even build a storyline to equal Mitchell's. As a Historian and fiction writer I've put together my own knowledge and research into the American civil War in hopes of steering other writers who may not come from a research background in the right directions.

As historians, whether academic, short story writer or essayist, we live and die on the level of research we are willing or able to conduct. The depth that we are able to attain will firmly plant our efforts upon the proper historical time frame. Others may dispute our conclusions or subject matter, but they will not question our research unless we show ourselves to be shallow or relying upon one or the other source that is in itself questionable.

There are several sources for research, each having its own pros and cons to deal with and consider.

First hand sources.

These are interviews with survivors, auto-biographies, letters and correspondence, diaries, records, and anything that ties the source directly to the participant or subject. Are these the best sources? Yes and no. Yes, in that you can get the words right from the horse's mouth. Should a research paper on slavery be totally based upon first hand sources? No. The main problem with first hand sources is that they are biased. They are filtered through the hopes and fears of the individual and at times written or produced several decades after the event and time has colored the source.

First hand sources are excellent for capturing the feeling of the times. You do not have to guess what a person is thinking or feeling at a particular time as you will be able to divine that directly from the individual. First hand accounts also give us a microcosm of the society and its current events as seen through the source. First hand accounts definitely have their place within the pantheon of an historian's bookshelf, but they should be considered with a wary eye when tackling such things as judging their involvement in the grand scheme of the events being written about. A case in point, many of the biographies and auto-biographies written after WWII by German generals or interviews conducted upon capture paint the picture of Hitler as the maniacal mad man and themselves as innocent and at times frustrated or ignorant participants. Because Hitler did not survive the war, he could not be interviewed nor could he defend himself. The common thread running through all material, whether auto-biographical or interview based paint the subjects as victims and Hitler as the sole perpetrator of Germany's demise. That he played the major role can not be denied, he was in fact the supreme ruler and therefore worthy of the accusation. But archival records paint a different picture of the subjects conduct in the war than they were willing to admit to.

Second hand sources

This is where second sources came into play. They help balance the bias of first hand accounts with more data. Although the second hand accounts may also be biased, their bias is usually tilted in a different direction, allowing the historian to fill in a few gaps. They are not reliable for discerning the intent of the subject or of motivation, but they are reliable in giving a second view point of any event. Criminalists interview participants and witnesses in hopes of building a complete picture, as though first nor second hand accounts contain the complete picture.

Examples of second hand accounts are reports, records, biographies, news paper articles, or anything produced after an event by a non-participant.

Causes for conflict

To really understand the causes of the sectional strife that flared from time to time, one has to go back to the Revolutionary war and the documents that ever formed the United States of America.

What of the below events caused the American Civil War?

All of the above


Lincoln's election in 1860

Anderson's refusal to surrender Ft. Sumter in 1861

Missouri Compromise of 1820

If you chose anything but Anderson's refusal to surrender Ft. Sumter, you were incorrect. If your fist impulse was to select Slavery, then you would be like many others who have been taught from an early age that slavery caused the civil war.

This is to highlight the differences between a cause and a catalyst. When a fire starts, is it the wood that starts the fire or the spark? The wood certainly plays a large part in the fire, it is the fuel by which the fire lives. But the wood is just the potential energy by which the spark ignited. Likewise, the spark that ignited the first cannon to lob a shell at Sumter had nothing to do with slavery. But the question of slavery and the emotions that charged the men on both sides of those cannon played its part. Certainly, the question of slavery was at the core of the sectional strife and indeed was the reason for the separation of the sections along philosophical boundaries. But, it goes much deeper than that. Slavery was not just the holding of human chattel. It was power, it was control in congress, it was the maintenance of the social order, it was the differences in rural versus urban society, and it was the belief that slavery needed a constant move westwards in order to maintain and feed itself, as arable land became depleted. In this sense, Slavery was defiantly a catalyst to the conflict, but not the cause.

Abraham Lincoln has been criticized by modern and racial historians for not declaring a purpose for the war from the beginning. In attempts to ennoble the war, to state that Lincoln bought a higher purpose to it by issuing the Emancipation Proclamation brings with it a certain political and social agenda. His, the arch nemesis of any historian is the filter by which he / she uses the research. 100% objectivity can never be attained, for we are who we are and that that is what allows us to see and understand the world around us.

It is true; Lincoln's move to change the purpose of the war by issuing the EP was an act of boldness and calculation. The ending of the war for either side would have signaled the end or continuity of slavery in some form or the other.

However, to describe such high sounding qualities to ones actions is an act of post-occurrence declaration, meant only to make excuse or elevate ones standing in the present – but does not describe true motivation.

Putting slavery in its proper light is essential for any writing on the war, as it is always an undercurrent for everything that happened. Like a rip current in the ocean, it is invisible from the surface until one is done in it.

After the firing on Ft. Sumter and Lincoln's call for ninety days volunteers to put down the rebellion, the war was preceded as a struggle for the rights of an individual state to choose to leave the Union or if its association was binding once measured. This then, as the start of the war, remained its focus and its ultimate resolution at the surrender of the last
Confederate Army at Bentonville, North Carolina the surrender at Appomattox being the first and most famous surrender, but not the last. The issues brought in 1863 after the Federal victory at Antietam only solidified the Federal resolve to end slavery once and for all as a goal of victory, making it a public declaration instead of just an assumed result.

Understanding this one point, will take you far in writing a story or essay on the civil war, as it puts the pieces in proper context, and allows you to write with the perspective of a character caught up in the middle of the strife. It also avoids ascribing motivations to those characters that are not realistic to the time.

© 2005 by Phil Bryant

Source by Phil Bryant