I am often asked why I am a student of the American Civil War or of American history in general. It starts with patriotism for me— simple love of country. Patriotism was a natural thing for me growing up and it was nurtured in my school and church, too. It was like the love a baby has for his or her parents. The baby may not be able to explain it, but he or she instinctively knows it’s there and it exists and it is real.
In fifth-grade, I realized that I loved the subject of Social Studies. I liked matching dates to historical events, and more, I liked figuring out what occurrences led to those events happening just then. Why did they come about and what came next? I wanted to know why—that’s what history attempts to answer.
The answers I found deepened my patriotism and instilled in me a conviction never to take our freedom for granted. Did I find a perfect, flawless country? Certainly not. I found a battered and bruised one, some because of its own doing. But the love and appreciation remained.
One easy explanation for my study of the Civil War is this: if you want to know why we should value our freedom in America, we should "ask" the very people who stood on the battlefield willing to die in order to save or expand it. Who better to learn from?
Ultimately, it was simple curiosity that led me to the Civil War. On a western television show I liked, a Civil War veteran mentioned his time in Andersonville. Upon hearing that, the main character of the show was clearly distressed and said, “Oh, my God, Andersonville?” That’s all it took for me. My head filled with questions. What or where was Andersonville? What happened there that was so awful?
Turns out Andersonville was a prison camp during the Civil War, one known for terrible conditions and treatment for captured Union soldiers. I learned this because, first chance I got, I drove my teenage self to the nearest bookstore and bought the first book I found with Andersonville in the index. That book happened to be “Reflections on the Civil War” by Bruce Catton. It changed my life.
The book opens with Bruce’s defense of the study of history:
“What we shall someday become will grow inexorably out of what today we are: and what we are now, in its turn, comes out of what earlier Americans were—out of what they did and thought and dreamed and hoped for, out of their trials and their aspirations, out of their shining victories and their dark and tragic defeats.”
I went on a binge of reading books by Bruce Catton after the first one. In America Goes to War, which was first published in 1958, he wrote:
“For the Civil War is not a closed chapter in our dusty past. It is one of the great datum points in American History; a place from which we can properly measure the dimensions of almost everything that has happened to us since. With its lights and its shadows, its rights and its wrongs, its heroic highlights and its tragic overtones—it was not an ending but a beginning.
It was not something that we painfully worked our way to, but something from which we made a fresh start. It opened an era instead of closing one; and it left us, finally, not with something completed, but with a bit of unfinished business which is of very lively concern today and which will continue to be of lively concern after all of us have been gathered to our fathers. Forget the swords-and-roses aspect, the deep sentimental implications, the gloss of romance; here was something to be studied, to be prayed over, and at last to be lived up to.”
So to answer the question posed at the beginning of this post: yeah, what he said. If you’ve never read Mr. Catton’s words before, I highly recommend you pick up any of his books, but do start with America Goes to War and Reflections on the Civil War. They are easily digestible, compelling, and informative—and you just might fall in love as I did.
That’s what it boils down to, ultimately. I study the Civil War because I fell in love—and stayed there. The four years of the war present us with a microcosm in which to dissect every aspect of Americanness, both past and future. War and times of high stress bring out the very best and the very worst of people—and it did then. The stories of the war provide abundant fodder from which to unearth the answers to ‘why.’ The Civil War does a great deal to answer what it means to be an American and the true meaning of freedom. And, as Mr. Catton says, it’s a journey that never stops.
When I learned of Joseph Pierce, a Chinese soldier in the Civil War, I wanted to tell his story. I did first in a magazine format for a writing assignment and then it evolved into my novel. As a historian, writer, and patriot, the story was begging to be told. How could I pass up the opportunity to add to the annals of Civil War literature, shed light on a little-known fact of these soldiers to young people and adults alike, and contribute an answer to history’s great questions about American freedom? I couldn’t. I suppose it’s my little contribution to the American history that I love so much. And I will never stop trying to understand why.