I’ve been renting Ken Burns’ Civil War shows lately, from Netflix. I thought I’d share a misconception I learned I had about the Civil War. My memory from school left me thinking that the war would involve a large set of complicated virtuosic battlefield maneuvers, and that I’d come to appreciate how all the famous generals were geniuses. In fact, I’d somehow developed the opinion that the generals during that war outshine generals in other wars, that through a coincidence of history, the best strategists somehow simultaneously appeared during that conflict.
Well, now that I’ve written that idea down, you can see how ill-informed it must be. The way Ken Burns presents most of the battles, there are indeed arrows and colored bars moving over maps, but the level of intelligence rarely rises above common sense. In fact, it seems that common sense alone makes you a great general. There were many instances of really stupid attacks. A pattern that I’ve seen repeated (Picket’s Charge, Cold Harbor, etc.) is where a really entrenched group on a hill and/or behind a wall is charged by the enemy (the North, usually) and the troops that are dug in just mow down the attackers, for hours and hours, killing thousands of men. It seemed that all that was needed to be a great general was to avoid that kind of decision.