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Private Lives of the Civil War


Just as symphonies and paintings can be left unfinished, so can wars. As the press and bloggers remind us almost daily of its sesquicentennial anniversaries, the Civil War remains one such. Even now there’s talk of Atlanta’s capture by General William Tecumseh Sherman and his famous March to the Sea, which occurred in the autumn of 1864.

The discussion of the war, influenced by enduring sectional attitudes, suggests the nation’s memory of the conflict is far from resolved. To cite just the most obvious disagreement, there’s the matter of the Confederate flag, and whether it is a symbol of Southern pride or of racism. That’s a debate that regularly resurfaces at colleges and state capitols.

For me, as an architectural historian, the American past is linked to places. I see stories in houses and, in recent visits to several dozen Civil War–era dwellings—from New England to Louisiana, from Illinois to Charleston—my idiosyncratic house tour offered a fresh vantage for lifting some of the more opaque of the Civil War’s mythic overlays. The well-restored house doesn’t lie, and revisiting the war’s characters at home has left me with a more nuanced view of the war between the states.

I understood in childhood that the yeomen of the North fought to free the enslaved. Yet to travel to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s home in Concord is to be reminded how mistaken was the presumption that average, mid-nineteenth-century farmers and factory workers in Massachusetts harbored abolitionist sympathies.

They didn’t. Just the word abolitionist made people angry. To most New Englanders, abolitionists seemed bent on solving other peoples’ problems while impoverishing the North, which relied on Southern cotton to fuel its textile mills. Emerson discovered the depth of resistance to abolitionism in 1844, when he went public with his opposition to slavery.

The ownership of slaves, though once legal in the region, had never been widespread and had ended decades earlier. Yet when the Women’s Antislavery Association invited Emerson to speak, it met one obstacle after another. Hoping to host the lecture in a local church, the ladies found that the subject cowed the elders at all the nearby houses of worship. When rain prevented an outdoor lecture—Nathaniel Hawthorne had offered his glade—the Concord Town Hall became the venue, but the man charged with tolling the town bell refused to announce the gathering. Emerson’s young friend Henry David Thoreau had to ring the bell himself.

Emerson drafted his address in his study at Bush, his home beside the rutted dirt road known as the Cambridge Turnpike. From the outside, it resembles many houses built for middling men at the time. But to walk beneath the columned portico and into one of the front rooms is to don Emerson’s thinking cap. A wall of books towers over a Windsor rocker and a pedestal parlor table; this was the study where Emerson wrote speeches and essays. Nearby a hall tree holds the walking sticks that Emerson, an inveterate walker, used on his contemplative strolls.

The lecture he delivered at the town hall called for “a moral revolution” and an end to “the habit of oppression.” Though labeled a fanatic, he remained undeterred. Soon Bush’s barn housed fugitive slaves moving north on the Underground Railroad. Emerson would welcome into his home both John Brown and, later, the man’s fatherless daughters after Brown was hanged at Harper’s Ferry. His neighbors thought Waldo too militant; most had little firsthand knowledge of slavery or African-Americans, who made up less than one percent of the North’s population.

In childhood, I knew many houses like Emerson’s, but on visiting Bush, I felt both misplaced and at home. Raised by conservative Yankees in the Emersonian hills of central Massachusetts, I understand why such antipathy greeted his abolitionist coming-out: there is a perpetual tension between the wish to do right and an instinctive resistance to change. Abolitionism would gain adherents in the years to come, but even with the cannonade at Sumter in April 1861, only a small minority in the North thought slavery a rationale for war.

On a hilltop in northeast Washington, Abraham Lincoln finally decided what was to be done about the enslaved.

In 1862, the president and his family had taken summer refuge in a Gothic Revival–style cottage, a stucco dwelling with multiple rooflines and tall chimney pots. Their domicile shared the property with the much larger Soldiers’ Home, which housed disabled veterans. Lincoln played with his son Tad in and around the spacious house, as did the soldiers stationed nearby, who dubbed the boy their “third lieutenant.” In the evening, the president read Shakespeare to his male secretaries and regaled them with tales from his deep store of anecdote. In short, Lincoln diverted himself from the tribulations of war.

I found it telling that, in the summer of 1862, Mary Todd confided that her husband, a chronic insomniac, slept hardly at all. He took late-night rambles around the Soldiers’ Home grounds, newly declared a national cemetery. The sight of the fresh graves of men he had sent into battle helped galvanize him to draft the Emancipation Proclamation. Though it did not free the slaves in the Union border states (that would have risked the defection of Maryland and Missouri), the landmark document signaled that the war was being fought not only to save the Union but to free the slaves, an important message to the South’s many friends in England. Britons could no longer avert their gaze; Lincoln had put slavery front and center, and the Confederacy’s chances of gaining much-needed British recognition plummeted.

Modern savior narratives such as Spielberg’s Lincoln would have us believe that the sixteenth president went to war to gain equality for black Americans. But in reading accounts of life at Lincoln’s Cottage, examining correspondence, and visiting the place itself, I came to recognize that the evolution of Lincoln’s racial thinking was an ambiguous journey. Although Lincoln had expressed his moral opposition to slavery many years earlier, the Emancipation Proclamation, drafted during those July weeks, was primarily a war measure. It was born of his desire to stanch the loss of life and to win the war sooner by undermining the Confederacy’s war efforts, which relied upon slaves for provisioning and other support.

While Lincoln was clearly a man of ideals (preservation of the Union foremost among them), equality of the races was not on his list. That same summer he consulted African-American leaders to advocate colonization, the return of dark-skinned peoples to Africa. “Even when you cease to be slaves,” he warned, “you are yet far removed from being placed on an equality with the white race.” He had spoken against “Negro equality” in debating Stephen Douglas in 1858, and would not advocate suffrage for blacks until the very last speech of his life. It wasn’t any sort of “postracial thinking” that revealed itself in Lincoln’s proclamation, but rather his gift for pragmatism in the service of multiple principles—namely, adding freedom to the cause of union.

These days the summer cottage contains few furnishings (little evidence survives of what the Lincolns brought to their summer residence), but the visitor encounters Lincoln’s thoughts through audio and video. His carefully crafted phrases echo in the empty spaces, asking us to ponder the challenges Lincoln faced.

My trip to Georgia grew from a book written in Boston Harbor. Barely a month after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Alexander Stephens, vice president of the Confederacy, arrived at Fort Warren, on Georges Island. On May 27, 1865, he began a journal, his purpose to preserve “some regular record of the incidents of [my] imprisonment.”

The small, sickly Stephens—five-seven and less than a hundred pounds—left a compelling account of his incarceration, describing bedbugs, his “low, underground, damp room,” and his jailers’ kindly character. He often pined for his “dear home” in Crawfordville, Georgia. His Recollections would be published posthumously, but Stephens’ correspondence with President Andrew Johnson had a speedier significance. In October 1865, Johnson pardoned Stephens, who was never charged with a crime, and “Little Aleck” returned home.

Visiting Liberty Hall, one gains an intimate view of the man. It isn’t so different from Emerson’s Bush, despite the taller ceilings at Stephens’ home. Several homemade wheelchairs are on view, used by Stephens after a heavy gate crushed one of his legs. It’s a place where he was loved—family and former slaves alike wept at his homecoming. He grew up an orphan, receiving aid from other people as he pursued an education, and numerous young men read law under his tutelage in the Liberty Hall library. During the war, wounded soldiers found accommodations in his home; afterward, transients were welcomed to the “Tramps’ Room.”

Stephens could never accept the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, which granted citizenship and the franchise to people of African descent. He remained true to his words to his fellow Georgians, delivered in Savannah on March 21, 1861, on his return from the Confederate constitutional convention. Claiming that Union policy was based on equality of the races, Stephens told his audience, “our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea, . . . the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery—subordination to the superior race—is his natural and normal condition.”

Yet Stephens had initially opposed secession and, more than anyone else in the Confederacy, he looked to negotiate a peace, meeting with Lincoln aboard the River Queen in Hampton Roads, Virginia, in early 1865. Lincoln remembered him fondly from their shared congressional days two decades before, remarking, as he helped the little man out of his wool greatcoat, “Never have I seen so small a nubbin come out of so much husk.” But the friends reached no understanding to speed the peace.

Returning to Congress after the war, Stephens sat in the House wrapped in a cloak and layers of clothing (“a queer-looking bundle,” wrote one reporter). As Edmund Wilson observed, “It was as if he had shrunk to pure principle, abstract, incandescent, indestructible.”

Alexander Stephens—no monster, an admirable man in some ways—nevertheless embodied a pernicious paradox: for him, the “subordination of the inferior race” was a benevolent solution to a social problem. His Liberty Hall home survives, a sleepy museum and an incidental sideshow in a state park where visitors of all races enjoy camping, swimming, and horseback riding.

Named for its spectacular view overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, Beauvoir is undoubtedly America’s least likely presidential site.

Like Stephens, Confederate President Jefferson Davis was imprisoned. Unlike Stephens, he refused a pardon: he wanted his day in court. Instead, he was incarcerated for two years without trial, his legs shackled, at Fort Monroe, Virginia, sharing a small room with armed guards and all-night light. On his release, Davis’s vision, hearing, and memory had deteriorated, but he remained unrepentant. In the next decade, he would wend his way toward Biloxi, Mississippi, and Beauvoir, where he lived his last dozen years.

Beauvoir is as much a survivor as Davis was. Ravaged by Katrina and then meticulously restored, the Greek Revival house, with its broad roof overhangs and enveloping porches, today stands proudly, sharing its site with the Jefferson Davis Presidential Library. The Sons of Confederate Veterans, Mississippi Division, maintain the library and Beauvoir as “a perpetual memorial sacred to the memory of Jefferson Davis, the only president of the Confederate States of America, and sacred to the memory of his family and ‘the Lost Cause.’ ”

It’s a simple-seeming epithet, but, for me, the Lost Cause amounts to the missing skeleton key that opens the doorway to both Jeff Davis and the view many Southerners still have of the Civil War.

The conceit—in essence, that the good and genteel culture of the Old South was unfairly wiped out by the war—is almost as old as the war itself, dating to a like-named 1866 book by Edward Pollard, a Richmond newspaperman. Pollard and followers offered a partisan gloss on the war, asserting that the South possessed better soldiery; that the Confederate army wasn’t beaten but overwhelmed; that Robert E. Lee was “godlike,” Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson a true Christian martyr, and Ulysses S. Grant a butcher.

Contrary to Winston Churchill’s claim that the victors get to the write the history, the Lost Cause has animated mainstream texts for a century. That’s changing, as research by historians north and south discounts the claims of Pollard and company. The most essential Lost Cause assertion—that seceding states went to war to preserve not slavery but states’ rights—is now regarded by most historians as a disingenuous overstatement, for which some of the responsibility falls to Jefferson Davis. Tellingly, his 1881 opus, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, written at Beauvoir, was originally titled Our Cause.

A West Point graduate, Davis served his first nation as a U.S. Army colonel, a U.S. senator, and an effective secretary of war. Then, in 1861, like many other Confederates (Lee among them), Davis decided his first allegiance was to his region. Driven by duty, he led the losing side, only to be incarcerated without due process. In time, he went from displaced person to lord of the manor, visited at Beauvoir by former Confederate generals, as well as Joseph Pulitzer and even Oscar Wilde (after dining with Wilde, Davis retired early and later remarked of his guest, “I did not like the man”). Though imperious and stiff, he was no archvillain, a role once routinely assigned him.

At Beauvoir, Davis’ shaving mirror is poised before a window to catch the morning sun. One can almost see him performing his daily ablutions before it. His house contains big Victorian beds, quite like those at Emerson’s Bush and Stephens’ Liberty Hall. At any of these homes, it’s easy to envision the eminent man rising from his ample bedclothes, breakfasting with his family, then settling at his desk to compose his thoughts for his peers and posterity.

These are retrospective places, suitable settings for considering the humanity of the occupants as they wrestled with a war over race and union. If modern Americans want to understand why these Civil War players acted as they did, we have to see beyond self-satisfied Northern righteousness and the South’s hazy myth-making. So go and have a look for yourself. Catching these men in midthought may change how you view the Civil War—and help you understand our own moment of rising sectionalism.

HUGH HOWARD, A74, is the author of many books on architectural history, including Houses of the Presidents. His latest work, Houses of Civil War America, with original photography by Roger Straus III, will be published by Little, Brown in November.

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