- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 25, 2003

It isn't often that a book on the Civil War offers a unique insight on America's bloodiest conflict.The War Between the States is one of the most written-about episodes in American history and certainly one of the most hotly debated, even more than 140 years after Fort Sumter. There are, however, few studies of the war that put it to an intellectual test; most speak of strategy and tactics, success and failure on the battlefield.

But in "Patriot Fires," Melinda Lawson describes not a single battle. She writes not of tactics and troop maneuvers, nor of strategy and generals. The book is filled with relevant points about the duty of the civilian populace in a time of war and the peculiar attitudes of Americans toward their government and their national identity.

"Patriot Fires" is an exceptionally well-written discussion about what happened behind the curtains of carnage to which most historians devote their time. The author, a visiting assistant professor at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., moves her narrative effortlessly and accessibly along. It is a fascinating study of the evolution indeed the birth of the United States as a modern nation rather than a collection of states. Or, as Shelby Foote noted, the transition of the United States from an "are" to an "is."

Miss Lawson recounts the mobilization of the North at the outset of the war, a mobilization that was begun not at the highest levels of the government, as was the case a half-century later during World War I and not at all during the Vietnam War but at the very lowest level. While President Lincoln grappled with a bickering Congress and an ambivalent population, groups of women in communities across the North formed, seemingly spontaneously, "sanitary leagues" to provide comfort and aid to the thousands of men being mustered into blue uniforms.

Those women were heralded as angels, and their selflessness inspired a movement that would, literally, change the course and cause of the war. They organized huge rallies designed to raise materials and funds for the soldiers on the front, and they produced an enormous groundswell of support.

Interestingly, this support was not necessarily for the war itself, but for the men in harm's way in defense of the Union. Thus, the women defined patriotism as something separate from political persuasion; their goal was to enable patriotism, which they defined as support for the men in combat to transcend politics in order to raise money and goods for front-line troops.

It is from this discussion of thousands of good-natured souls and the exhortations of their leaders that a most intriguing portion of the book comes to light.

When faced with the most serious threat to the existence of the United States, Americans tended to react from a materialistic point of view: The war was worth fighting, as long as someone else fought it. Reading these passages, one cannot escape the parallel between the selfish lack of interest toward the Civil War and Americans' tepid commitment toward today's war against another enemy just as determined to destroy the United States.

There also is much to think about in Miss Lawson's discussion of American politics at the time.

At the outset of the war, Republicans seized the moral high ground by accusing opponents of the war of being traitors. This tactic dealt a near-fatal blow to anti-abolition Democrats until they began to reshape the arguments in their own terms: Both patriotism and racism could exist within them as long as they were seen as good soldiers for the cause, and the cause, of course, was the preservation of the Union.

However, the Democrats' argument was as flawed as the Republicans'. The latter paradoxically supported abolition in the South and the status-quo ante in the North, which meant whites would keep their power and jobs. Each political party hijacked the common man's emotional patriotism for its own uses. How did this divisive rhetoric serve to unite the nation?

Both parties clung to the idea that the people of a nation, when challenged and properly motivated, will put nation above region. In some respects, both parties succeeded. By the same token, both also failed.

The political turmoil during the war resonates with today's war as well, as it serves to remind us of the tension of the Vietnam War. The author quotes a Northern soldier, for example, as saying, "It makes the blood boil within my veins, to think we came out here to fight for the Government, while they at home are fighting against the Government … when we are enduring the hardships of a soldier, and exposing ourselves to sickness and death, they are at home making political capital out of it."

Miss Lawson hinges her narrative on this theme, and in so doing, she contradicts many commonly held myths instilled by generations of revisionist history. (Whether this is intentional is left to the reader to decide.)

The most common of these myths is that the war was a popular crusade against evil. The reality, of course, is far different. The war was arguably the most unpopular the United States has ever waged including the war in Vietnam. It was the first war to institute a draft and the first to witness draft riots. Racism was rampant in the North, as working-class immigrants fell under the sway of firebrands who warned them that abolition would cost them their jobs and their lives and as the upper class paid their way out of their mandatory enlistments for as little as $300.

Yet, amid the politics and manipulation, one fact rings through: Out there on a cold picket line stood men, apprehensive and lonely, each willing to die for what he believed, while others who deemed themselves above the fray debated the validity of their cause. As the author points out in crisp tones, this debate shifted throughout the four-year struggle, from an argument over the right to secede to the immorality of slavery to the importance of the government to the definition of patriotism.

In this cauldron of emotion and counterintuitive logic, a nation indeed, a superpower was born.

Phillip Thompson is the book editor for Army Times Publishing Co. He is the author of "Enemy Within" and "Into the Storm: A U.S. Marine in the Persian Gulf War."


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