‘Our War’ spans Civil War through eyes of 19th-century Granite Staters

Last modified: Monday, November 19, 2012
Maybe there’s no such thing as a just war. Centuries of argument by theologians, philosophers and politicians have yet to yield a simple rule we can use to sort good fights from flag-wrapped scams. Of course, it’s hard to define what a just war is when we have so few examples. Maybe we’d do better at listing things that a just war isn’t.

I’ll start.

A just war is not a war during which we pretend there isn’t a war on. If the president urges us to support the troops by going shopping, we’re talking about a war that doesn’t need to be fought.

Historians are still debating the necessity of the Civil War, but no matter how you assess national catastrophe, it was no trip to the mall. Historian and journalist Mike Pride’s latest history, Our War: Days and Events in the Fight for the Union, is a stirring and often startling portrait of New Hampshire’s war effort, at home and on the battlefield.

In New Hampshire as throughout the nation, our war was everyone’s war.

Pride knows both New Hampshire and the Civil War better than most of us know the Pledge of Allegiance. As the editor who managed the Concord Monitor’s newsroom for three decades, he owns an encyclopedic understanding of today’s Granite State.

Pride’s Civil War expertise qualifies him to be a presenter and guide at Gettysburg College’s Civil War Institute, and he has co-authored books including My Brave Boys: To War with Colonel Cross and the Fighting Fifth.

So it’s fair to say that no other writer could offer us Our War’s insightful recreation of this state’s battle to preserve the Union. Pride’s sense of New Hampshire’s destiny – our present – informs his writerly gift for evoking New Hampshire’s past.

Our War covers the state’s Civil War as a chronology of character studies, ranging from the Concord night watchman who becomes the state’s first volunteer soldier to the pioneer feminist whose speeches helped turn back anti-war Democrats’ bid for the governor’s office. We get to know battlefield photographers, soldiers’ sisters, schoolboy sailors and leg-snatching surgeons. Some make repeat appearances in Pride’s first-shot-to-last-parade narrative, offering fresh perspective on many of the war’s major and minor campaigns. Others fall along the way, at Bull Run or Gettysburg or a hospital tent.

Pride makes these 19th-century Granite Staters come alive with deft description and a fine sense of how much research to deploy in setting a scene.

Here’s the opening paragraph to a chapter on the dispiriting days following the Union army’s retreat from First Bull Run:

Just before the executioner placed a handkerchief over his face, Private William F. Murray stared out with apparent indifference upon an army of witnesses. There were thousands of them, ordered to Fort Ellsworth in Alexandria to see him hang. From the scaffold erected along the timber wall of the newly built fort on Shuters Hill, Murray may have gazed beyond the soldiers and down King Street toward the Potomac River. This was Alexandria’s main thoroughfare, its two-story and three-story brick buildings near the river housing taverns, inns, and brothels. The war had ignited a boom, drawing thousands of Union soldiers to town with sorrows to drown and sexual urges to satisfy.

Our War relives New Hampshire’s experience of a conflict that asked everything of Americans – not only “the last full measure of devotion” for which Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address honors fallen soldiers, but the “increased devotion,” day in and day out, which Lincoln asked of all citizens if we were to complete their “unfinished work.”

The war changed lives, landscapes, government and economy. Most important, it changed ideas.

Using letters and newspaper articles, journals and headstone inscriptions, Our War charts the nation’s progress from romantic notions of war’s glory to the murderous pragmatism of victory. And Pride records a concurrent shift in the war’s justification. Once the dying began, the cause of Union was weakened by the temptation to let the South go its own way. A just war – a war worth all that blood and treasure – needed a higher purpose.

Stumping for Republican votes in New Hampshire’s 1863 gubernatorial election, feminist and abolitionist Anna E. Dickinson “argued that without emancipation, ‘we have no war-cry – no noble motive. Where the flag of freedom waves merely for the white man, God will be against us.’ She wanted slavery treated as the moral evil it was,” Pride writes. “She said the war would be shorter if abolition were its explicit aim.”

Maybe there’s no such thing as a just war, but Our War is a reminder that some wars are fought with all we have to give. Those wars aren’t optional or preemptive experiments in the showmanship of “shock and awe,” in sideshow strategies of “surge” and “draw-down.” Some wars are fought for reasons so urgent and true they demand our attention from start to finish.

Our War was the kind of war we don’t forget while soldiers are still dying.

(William Craig is a professor of history and humanities at River Valley Community College and the author of “Yankee Come Home: On the Road from San Juan Hill to Guantanamo.” He can be reached at williamcraig.com.)

Conflict changed N.H. lives, ideas