January 5, 2009

THE AUSTRALIAN EXPERIENCE:

Goodwill can wait, I feel the tug of war (Stephen Matchett, January 05, 2009, The Australian)

[T]he US National Park Service does an extraordinary job in explaining the history of the fighting on battlefields mainly preserved as vast parkland, almost all of which in the eastern theatre are within an easy day's drive from Washington, DC.

In fact, there are only two must-sees that are off the beaten track, the battlefield of Shiloh on the Tennessee-Mississippi border and the superbly preserved historic precinct in Lincoln's home town, Springfield, three hours south of Chicago. (While buffs hate its popular approach, the new presidential museum there is also well worth a visit.)

The NPS also makes an excellent effort at putting into perspective the way the war affected civilians and slaves. The restored Ford Theatre in Washington (where Lincoln was murdered) provides a fascinating insight into how city folk were entertained in the 19th century.

The new visitors centre on the battlefield at Gettysburg emphasises history beyond the battlefield. Inevitably, there are times when scholarship is overwhelmed by storytelling. There is a memorial at Shiloh to a drummer boy who never existed, but because he is the subject of a poem Americans used to learn at school, visitors expect to see him there and so the NPS sensibly decided to give the customers what they wanted.

Yet even without the fiction, the story of the Civil War is an extraordinary story, and one that resonates with Australians interested in the way democracies develop as much as stories of slaughter.

For anybody interested in straightforward military history, it marks the end of Napoleonic styles of combat and the beginning of war as a profession where managerial skill mattered more than a mastery of mayhem in battle.

But there is a bigger reason for Australian interest in the conflict: it was also that rare thing, a war between democracies (at least for white men) fought by citizen soldiers. Both sides held elections during the war and public opinion shaped strategy.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 5, 2009 8:33 AM
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