American Civil War
(Taught by Professor Gary Gallagher, The Teaching Company)
Professor Gallagher’s course represents, almost as a war unto itself (!), a massive, elegantly-presented and very worthwhile undertaking. He provides us with forty-eight inviting, in-depth and detailed lectures that focus on the nature, conditions, causes, political strategies, and military campaigns of the costly Civil War between the Northern and the Southern States; an internal war which marks the identity of the United States in a radically unique way. The very fact of this war’s permanent recounting, continual exploration and constant re-interpretation ——both at the academic and non-academic levels—– reveals to us the very strength of the United States as a modern democracy and the necessary conditions for the rise of a politically powerful republic in any historical moment. For it was then that the United States really moved from using the verb “are” to the verb “is” in reference to itself. Truly, it seems, a healthy —–though painful—- memory may bring forth greatness. But, how can one see this uniqueness? Comparatively.
Canada —-country of which I am a citizen—- has really had no such internal war (it even boasts of a “Quiet Revolution” in the Province of Quebec). Little wonder the identities of these two modern liberal democracies can be so different even if there are obviously shared underlying realities and manners of self-understanding. No wonder how different at times is their population’s understanding of their role in armed conflict throughout the world. In contrast, as a citizen of Colombia one easily appreciates that there is a much closer possibility for an understanding of the dilemmas both past and present which both countries have had to face historically. Little wonder the USA and Colombia are currently well-intentioned allies (though at times the friendship seems quite one-sided). However, Colombia has not been able to win decisively the fundamental, if not perfect, unity that the USA won after the terribly disruptive Civil War. In this respect, courses such as these are of central concern for Colombian citizens in positions of leadership as we have gained much in securing our democratic liberties and freedoms via a costly bloody struggle primarily against narc-terrorists (also paramilitaries and drug cartels), but still have a long way to truly secure our greater happiness as a republican nation with a complex reality like few others. Examples of such resolutions may aid us even if ours is in no way a civil war in the accepted understanding of the term. This is the more so in that we are reaching the bicentennial of our first struggles for independence in 1810 against the Spanish Crown.
In other words, my not being a citizen of the USA ——not really knowing in detail who was Lee or Grant or Davies, or what happened at Vicksburg or Antietam or Richmond (not to mention the lesser known names; can a well-formed US citizen really imagine/accept this?)—— can be immensely helpful in trying to gather the relevance of a such a study beyond the borders of the historical imagination of the United States. Perhaps an understanding such as the one provided by this course reveals, as Thucydides believed, the permanence of certain elements of the human condition regarding political conflict and the constraints of war. For surely, in the same manner, few —if any—- US citizens will know who was Rondón (to whom the much more famous Bolivar said “Coronel Rondón, salve usted la patria“), or Anzoátegui or Sucre or know much of the Battle of Boyacá or Carabobo or Pichincha. In this limited sense, maybe an understanding such as the one provided by this course reveals core elements of our political nature as human beings beyond the vicissitudes of this or that conflict, this or that epoch. As Thucydides writes in his powerful The Peloponnesian War and the Athenians —which in very important respects contrasts dramatically with Gallagher’s course as the acknowledged Greek historian focuses primordially on military and diplomatic history (with little mention of economics, or everyday life, or the life of prisoners, etc.)— his is a book for all times, a book which reveals what gathers permanence beyond endless historical variation:
“In fine, I have written my work, not as an essay which is to win applause for the moment, but as a possession for all time.” (my emphasis: TPW: Book I, 22, 4; Strassler edition)
But leaving this point aside, Professor Gallagher’s inspiring understanding of the dynamic of the war and all its complex and unique protagonists, its multiple causes and its harsh day-to-day realities is delivered in such a passionate and careful manner that, although of great length in itself, one finishes the course with a feeling that actually little has been said in contrast to the true dynamic of the war itself! Moreover, Professor Gallagher’s serious undertaking is broken at times by a very fine sense of humor which reminds us that a certain elegant kind of humor can never be overcome by the dramatic tragedy of events. This is particularly so in his recounting of the nature of some of the Generals and their absolutely unique personalities. Perhaps one can recall the unforgettable case of the General, seen as having an extremely difficult personality, and who is said to have denied his own letter for provisions! “You have picked a fight with yourself now”, he is supposed to have been told by a superior. Quite revealing indeed. (more…)
Read Full Post »