Churchill and the Civil War

By William F.B. Vodrey
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2002, 2007, All Rights Reserved

Sir Winston S. Churchill remains, four decades after his death, perhaps the most admired Englishman of all time. His indomitable leadership as British prime minister during World War II and his close personal ties to both Roosevelt and Truman are still remembered here; less well-known is the fact that his mother, Jennie Jerome, was an American.

Churchill loved history throughout his life, and often wrote about it. When he was virtually exiled from the British government in the 1930s, he supported his family through his writing. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature for his four-volume A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, and it is from those books and several others that Churchill’s grandson, who bears the same name, has collected and edited Churchill’s writings on America. Churchill’s The Great Republic: A History of America (Random House 1999) is a sweeping overview of American history from Columbus’s voyages to the dawn of the Cold War.

Churchill was very interested in the Civil War. He took an extended coast-to-coast tour of the U.S. in late 1929, and visited Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Spotsylvania, and the battlefields of the Seven Days Campaign. He knew the war well, and once corrected FDR when the President mistakenly referred to the Battle of Gettysburg as having been fought in 1864. In “Old Battlefields of Virginia,” Churchill wrote that Virginia was “beaten down, trampled upon, disinherited, impoverished, riven asunder and flung aside while Northern wealth and power and progress strode on to empire. And yet it had to be. Hardly even would the adherents of the Lost Cause wish it otherwise.” At Spotsylvania, Churchill’s battlefield guide was a man who’d been just eight at the time of the battle, but still remembered its tumult and carnage. Churchill, always a glutton for military detail, was thrilled.

In “If Lee Had Not Won the Battle of Gettysburg,” Churchill spun a bizarre what-if tale in which Jeb Stuart’s cavalry wreaks havoc in the Union rear while Gen. Robert E. Lee’s troops are able to seize Little Round Top. The Army of the Potomac is routed. Lee captures Washington, D.C. and abolishes slavery throughout the South. Oh, sure. Even if Lee had wanted to, he was too much the obedient soldier to issue such an edict, which would have been strenuously opposed by his commander in chief, to say nothing of the Confederate Congress. Even so, it makes for an interesting – if utterly implausible – read.

In his nonfiction writing on the Civil War, Churchill largely reflected the conventional wisdom of his times. He admired Lee and Jackson, criticized Grant for butchery, and thought Union victory was virtually inevitable. I was most surprised by his defense of Gen. George B. McClellan. Churchill believed that McClellan got “ill treatment” from the Lincoln administration, and that he was held to impossibly high expectations after assuming command. Churchill didn’t seem to understand that McClellan was largely responsible for these unrealistic expectations in the first place, and he wrote little about McClellan’s obvious arrogance, lack of fighting will, and contempt for President Lincoln. Still, for a trans-Atlantic view of American history by a masterful writer, I recommend Churchill’s book.

The Great Republic: A History of America by Winston Churchill

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