The Civil War Sucks!

by Joe Queenan

(March 1994 Spy magazine)

Admit it! It sucks!

You know the feeling: Some friends call and invite you down to their house in Charlottesville, Virginia. There'll be pecan pie, horseback riding and, of course, that old barn burner between Virginia and Virginia Tech. But the real lure - the bait they know you can't refuse - is a chance to visit some of the important landmarks of the War Between the States. Your friends, huge Civil War buffs, are real tight with this 103-year-old lady who just happens to be Stonewall Jackson's niece, and she'll be taking everyone on a guided tour of the battlefields of Fredericksburg, Richmond, Appomattox and, yes, even Bull Run. Sound like fun or what?

You can hardly suppress your enthusiasm. Ever since PBS ran that nine-part series about the Civil War three years ago, you can't get that titanic struggle for the nation's soul out of your thoughts. You positively love Civil War history - the War Between the States was the crucible in which this Mighty Union was forged, and that brother vs. brother imagery hits you right in the pit of your stomach every time. You adore Civil war films like Glory; your eyes get all misty whenever you hear "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" - particularly when it's sung by Mahalia Jackson - and one of your lifelong ambitions has been to free up enough time to read Shelby Foote's peerless, three-volume, 2,976 page history of the Civil War. Oh, yes, you'd love to visit Fredericksburg, Richmond, Appomattox and Bull Run with Stonewall Jackson's niece.

But then you remember: Your apartment needs a paint job, your car's been acting up lately, there's the new Laurie Anderson show at the Brooklyn Academy of Music this Friday, and, oh yeah, your mom's planning to come up for the weekend. So reluctantly, remorsefully, you beg off.

But after you put down the phone, you have to be honest with yourself and admit that the real reason you turned down that trip to Charlottesville isn't because of your apartment or your car or Laurie Anderson's new show or your mom. The real reason you backed out is because deep down inside, you harbor a dark secret that millions of Americans share with you but never, ever dare to admit in public.

The Civil War sucks.

Admit and you'll feel a whole lot better. Ever since you were a kid, you've despised the Civil War, an inglorious, unheroic and wretchedly downscale series of horrid massacres pitting scraggly gangs of racist, barefoot, poorly equipped Neanderthal rustics against a sea of inept but numerous urbanites in a pointless confrontation that schoolchildren are still taught to believe was fought for moral principles, when everyone knows it was fought over money. Ever since you were a little kid, you're dreaded words like Gettysburg and Chancellorsville, bland theme parks for the dead where Civil War-buff teachers used to drag you on class trips when you'd really rather have been in New York City, Disney World or even Asbury Park learning something useful. Ever since you were a little kid, you've had a niggling suspicion that, compared with the Peloponnesian War, Caesar's Gallic Wars, the Crusades, the Napoleonic Wars or World Wars I and II, the American Civil War was a hokey, small-time, ginsu-knife affair that would have been over in three months if the North's generals hadn't all been cowards, bunglers or drunks. The only reason people visit Gettysburg is because it's easier to get to than Waterloo, el-Alamein, Stalingrad or Hastings, battlefields were genuinely important historical events took place.

By every criterion imaginable, the Civil War is a hopeless failure. Certainly we are taught as impressionable schoolchildren to believe the Civil War was a noble crusade to free the slaves. But by the time we reach adulthood, most of us either are white people or have been around enough white people to know that white people just don't do things like that - it isn't in their DNA. And unlike other famous wars, which were suffused with brilliant strategic ploys such as Hannibal's sneaking over the Alps with his elephants or Nelson's slipping between the French fleet and the Egyptian shoreline at the Battle of the Nile, the Civil War was a dreary series of slogging hecatombs in which the Union expended vast amounts of manpower to defeat absurdly outnumbered, poorly equipped rebels who never really had a chance to win a war they had no business starting in the first place. The North vs. The South at Vicksburg was like a fistfight between you and your three-year-old niece Brittany - with Brittany blindfolded. Gettysburg involved about as much tactical genius as a contest between the Indianapolis Colts and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

If Americans were really honest with themselves, they would admit that few words in the entire English language inspires more pure dread than Civil War. What was the novel that tens of millions of Americans grew up loathing? The Red Badge of Courage. What's the movie that Aunt Emily always drools over? Gone With The Wind. What was that horrible song Elvis used to bring down the house with just before he died? "American Trilogy" - featuring "Dixie," "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" and "All My Trials," Cuisinarted together in one odious smorgasbord of patriotic twaddle. Gone With The Wind, indeed.

The movie we should really be paying attention to is The Miracle Worker. About halfway through this inspirational classic, the Keller family is sitting around the dinner table chatting when suddenly the deaf, dumb and blind Helen, played by Patty Duke, throws an unbelievable fit and starts breaking all the furniture in the house. Why would she unexpectedly explode in such a fit of rage? Easy. She threw a fit because her dad was discussing Ulysses S. Grant's siege strategy at the Battle of Vicksburg. Even though the kid is deaf, dumb and blind, she can sense that another idiotic conversation about the War Between the States, conducted by a pair of pedantic Civil War buffs, is taking place a few feet away. So she loses it.

Don't we all feel some of Helen Keller's rage deep down inside? Thanks to Civil War buffs, we've got mind-numbing board games with names like Gettysburg and Chancellorsville, in which geeky teachers' pets manipulate a bunch of cardboard armies in a prepubescent effort to recreate the great one-sided battles of the past. Thanks to Civil War buffs, we've got Raymond Massey as Young Abe Lincoln, Henry Fonda as Young Abe Lincoln, Sam Waterston as Young Abe Lincoln.

Thanks to Civil War buffs, we've got unreadable crap like Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All and washed-up first basemen like Keith Hernandez who would rather talk about the silence at Appomattox in 1865 than the silence at Shea Stadium in 1987. Thanks to Civil War buffs, the Disney Company's perfectly wonderful plan to build an amusement park that normal people might actually enjoy a few miles down the road from Manassas Battlefield may now be deep-sixed. Thanks a lot, Civil War buffs. Thanks for books like The Outlaw Josey Wales, written by a redneck fascist, that make redneck fascists seem like heroes. Thanks for all that horrible Walt Whitman poetry. Thanks for "O Captain, My Captain." Thanks for "Sic semper tyrannis" or "Sic semper fidelis" or whatever it was that screwy #!@#!! was hollering while leaping from the balcony at Ford's Theatre. Thanks for Confederate flags that bikers can wrap around their foreheads. Thanks for movies like The Birth of a Nation that the Ku Klux Klan used as recruiting films. Thanks for expressions like "You ain't just whistlin' Dixie.'"

Let's face it: The only good thing that ever came out of the Civil War was the remark "Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?" And Mrs. Lincoln, a retard, probably didn't get the joke.