The April 1861 Madness

By Patrick Bray
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2014, All Rights Reserved

Sesquicentennial observations of the Civil War will end in April 2015. This past August marked the beginning of centennial observations of World War One (WWI), a conflict to which the Civil War has been compared.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, whose assassination triggered the start of WWI

In this analogy the Civil War was the first full-scale “modern war” which yielded substantial improvements in weaponry, communications, transportation, sanitation, medical treatment, logistics, and naval capability. Moreover, the ability of the national governments, particularly the Federals, to mobilize vast social, political, and economic resources previewed the possibilities of total war in which whole societies, not just their militaries, were deeply drawn into conflict. The experience of total war — at least in some if not most parts of the South — would make civilians painfully aware of the suffering and deprivations of a new front, the home front.

Despite the presence on both sides of numerous European military observers as well as actual combatants from abroad, it seems that few if any of the lessons of the Civil War were put to use in WWI. Despite the overwhelming advantages which modern military technology afforded the defense, WWI was marked by frequent futile frontal assaults on well-fortified positions. Élan proved ineffective against machine guns as no man’s land repeatedly became a killing field.

The futility of the frontal assault: The Civil War and World War One

In my view less attention has been paid to psychological and political similarities at the outset of both wars. In August 1914 there was unrestrained cheering throughout the capitals of Europe when war was declared. All sides were convinced of the righteousness of their cause, the certainty of victory, and the brevity of a war in which “the boys will be home by Christmas.” In retrospect this ill-founded exuberance became known as the “August Madness.”

In April 1861 after the firing on Fort Sumter similar enthusiasms and rash predictions were evident both North and South. The previous decade had been an escalating tide of tensions over the Fugitive Slave Act, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Bleeding Kansas, the Dred Scott decision, and John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry to name only some of the more incendiary flashpoints. Compromise was seen as craven weakness and dire submission. Each section subscribed to its superiority and considered itself under mortal threat. “And the war came” as tensions were released and madness held sway.