One of the ways in which war becomes palatable to those not in the fight is by cliché. Even Sherman’s impassioned plea that all glory in war is moonshine, that war is hell, has been rubbed smooth by the retelling. It has lost its humanity and its truth. As it must. Who would go to war if, in fact, he knew the true hell that it is?

All war—indeed, all kinds of extreme experience—may acquire this sheen, but the Civil War seems particularly vulnerable. The Lost Cause and the Union both have taken on a mantle of dignity and rectitude that no economically motivated clash could ever wear. Consider the term “civil war buff.” Although this doesn’t stand up etymologically—the term derives from a buff-colored uniform used by New York volunteer fire fighters in the 1920s, and, according to the American Heritage Dictionary, was “originally applied to an enthusiast of fires and...


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