- The Washington Times - Friday, February 9, 2007

Winston S. Churchill fought in colonial wars in Africa, briefly fought in the trenches of the Western Front during World War I, served as first lord of the Admiralty in the early years of World War I and World War II, and served as British prime minister during World War II and in the early years of the Cold War. He, arguably, was the greatest statesman of the 20th century.

Churchill was also a remarkably prolific writer and historian. He wrote multivolume histories of his ancestor John Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough, and his father, Randolph Churchill. He wrote six volumes on World War I and its aftermath, and six more volumes on World War II. He was also a historian of the American Civil War.

His fondness for the United States and its history derived from three main sources: first, the British roots of America; second, the common strategic interests of Britain and the United States; and third, the fact that Churchill’s mother was American. He once quipped in a speech to Congress during his first wartime visit to the United States: “I cannot help reflecting that if my father had been American and my mother British, instead of the other way around, I might have got here on my own.”

Churchill devoted six chapters of the fourth volume of his “History of the English-Speaking Peoples” to the American sectional crisis and the resulting Civil War. Churchill began writing this work prior to the outbreak of World War II, and completed it after the war, when he was in his late 70s. He told his doctor, Lord Moran, that he “read four or five books” on the Civil War before he dictated anything.

Churchill recalled in his book “Thoughts and Adventures” (1932), that he gained his “first great interest in the American Civil War” as a child by looking at the cartoons in Punch magazine. “Mr. Punch,” he wrote, “was against the South, and we had a picture of a fierce young woman, Miss Carolina, about to whip a naked slave. … I was all for the slave.”

He recalled a cartoon that depicted a regiment of Yankees “running away from a place called Bull Run.” He also recalled a “picture of North and South, two savage, haggard men in shirts and breeches, grappling and stabbing each other with knives as they reeled into an abyss called Bankruptcy.” Finally, he remembered seeing “a picture of Lincoln’s tomb, and Britannia, very sad, laying a wreath upon the cold marble.”

At the age of 12, Churchill wrote his mother from school that he would like Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s memoir of the American Civil War as a present on his 13th birthday. Later, while attending Harrow, he listened “with great attention” to lectures on the Civil War, and he chose that subject for an essay assignment.

He told his mother in another letter that he read Stephen Crane’s great novel of the Civil War, “The Red Badge of Courage,” and revealed to her that he intended to write, “a short and dramatic history of the American War.”

Following his political party’s defeat at the polls in May 1929, Churchill took a two-month tour of the United States. In October of that year, he toured several Civil War battlefields in Virginia, including the Seven Days Battle sites, where, he later wrote, “The farm-houses and the churches still show the scars of shot and shell, the woods are full of trenches and rifle pits; the larger trees are full of bullets.”

He also toured the battlefields of Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Spotsylvania Courthouse and the Wilderness, accompanied by the great biographer of Robert E. Lee, Douglas Southall Freeman. Churchill wrote that it was impossible to fully comprehend the Civil War “merely through reading books and studying maps. You must see the ground; you must cover the distances in person; you must measure the rivers and see what the swamps were really like.”

In his “History of the English-Speaking Peoples,” Churchill began his chapters on the Civil War with the intertwined issues of slavery and secession. He explained how in the years preceding the outbreak of war, a “gulf of sentiment and interest opened and widened between the Northern and Southern states.” As that gulf grew wider, Churchill explained, “It needed but a spark to cause an explosion.”

Churchill identified three “sparks” that led to the outbreak of war. First was the effort by extreme abolitionist John Brown and his followers to capture Harpers Ferry in October 1859. “The South,” wrote Churchill, “declaring the outrage the work of the Republican Party, was convulsed with excitement. In the North millions regarded John Brown as a martyr. His body lay mouldering in the grave, but his soul went marching on.”

The second spark, according to Churchill, was the election of Abraham Lincoln as president, and the resulting secession of South Carolina and other states of the Deep South.

The final spark was Lincoln’s refusal to surrender Fort Sumter and the Southern bombardment of the fort April 12-14, 1861. Churchill, describing the significance of the attack on Sumter, wrote, “No blood had been shed, but the awful act of rebellion had occurred.”

Churchill, like many historians of the war, focused on the Eastern theater: Maryland, Pennsylvania, and especially Virginia. He did not ignore the West; the battles at Forts Henry and Donelson, Shiloh, Murfreesboro (Stones River), Vicksburg, Chickamauga, Chattanooga, Knoxville, Franklin, and Nashville were all mentioned, but not in great detail. Indeed, Churchill referred to the West as the “secondary theater” of the war—a judgment that more recent historians have called into doubt.

Virginia dominated Churchill’s history. After the Confederacy moved its capital to Richmond, he wrote, “the two capitals stood like queens at chess upon adjoining squares, and, sustained by their combinations of covering pieces, they endured four years of grim play within a single move of capture.”

With far more detail than his coverage of the key Western battles, Churchill described the battles at Bull Run (Manassas), the Peninsula, the Seven Days, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Spotsylvania Courthouse, the Wilderness, and Petersburg.

Antietam and Gettysburg, two important Eastern battles fought outside of Virginia, also received significant treatment from Churchill. He memorably described the fate of Pickett’s Charge on Gettysburg’s third day of fighting:

“We see to-day, upon this battlefield so piously preserved by North and South, and where many of the guns still stand in their firing stations, the bare, slight slopes up which this grand infantry charge was made. In splendid array, all their battle flags flying, the forlorn assault marched on. But, like the Old Guard on the evening of Waterloo, they faced odds and metal beyond the virtue of mortals.”

Describing the fierce fighting in the East, Churchill wrote, “War had never reached such an intensity of moral and physical forces focused upon decisive points. … The number of battles that were fought and their desperate, bloody character far surpassed any events in which Napoleon ever moved.”

Churchill judged that, with the Union victories at Gettysburg, Vicksburg, Chattanooga, and Nashville, “By the end of 1863 all illusions had vanished. The South knew they had lost the war, and would be conquered and flattened. … In the North, … success was certain.” In his last chapter on the war, Churchill preceded his account of the battles of 1864-65 with the conclusion that “The Confederacy was defeated, and the last long phase of the war was one of conquest and subjugation.”

The inevitability of the South’s defeat and the North’s victory, however, was not as certain in 1864 as Churchill claimed. Indeed, as Churchill himself noted, many in the Union political establishment doubted Lincoln’s ability to get re-elected and carry on the war to a successful conclusion.

It was only after Gen. William T. Sherman’s forces captured Atlanta and began their famous march to the sea that Lincoln’s political fortunes brightened. Churchill showed his grasp of the political nature of war when he noted that “the most important conflict of 1864 was fought with votes.”

Churchill wrote admiringly of Lincoln, Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and, surprisingly, George McClellan. He called Lee “one of the noblest Americans who ever lived, and one of the greatest captains known to the annals of war.” Lee’s “noble presence and gentle, kindly manner,” wrote Churchill, “were sustained by religious faith and an exalted character.”

Of Lincoln, Churchill wrote: “By his constancy under many varied strains and amid problems to which his training gave him no key he had saved the Union with steel and flame.” Lincoln’s death, wrote Churchill, “deprived the Union of the guiding hand which alone could have solved the problems of reconstruction and added to the triumph of armies those lasting victories which are gained over the hearts of men.”

Churchill closed his Civil War history with the judgment that the war, “must upon the whole be considered the noblest and least avoidable of all the great mass-conflicts of which till then there was record.”

During Churchill’s last visit to the United States, in May 1959, he visited with President Eisenhower at Ike’s Gettysburg farm which is located just behind the hallowed ground of Seminary Ridge. There, Churchill viewed a Civil War battlefield for the last time.

Francis P. Sempa, author of “Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century,” is an assistant U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania and an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University.

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