What the Civil War Can Teach Us About COVID-19

tags: Civil War, coronavirus

Jason Phillips is the author of Looming Civil War: How Nineteenth-Century Americans Imagined the Future (Oxford University Press, 2018) and the Eberly Family Professor of Civil War Studies in the department of history at West Virginia University.


History cannot unveil tomorrow, but it can help us understand how our view of the future, whatever it brings, changes over time. The Civil War, the last major conflict on American soil, disrupted life and brought death like no other event in US history. “I cannot believe I am the same person that was ever so lighthearted and hopeful in the future,” a war widow wrote her uncle in October 1865. Before the war, most Americans thought the future was open, opportunities abounded, and humanity made history. These people believed in progress, looked forward to tomorrow, and imagined themselves traveling through time, and shaping the future and their lives in the process. In 1861 thousands of volunteer soldiers embodied an optimistic view that daring, enterprising men controlled the future and held the fate of the nation in their hands. As New Yorker Theodore Winthrop put it when he marched to war, “We are making our history hand over hand.” He scoffed at politicians’ speeches and women’s prayers; only men of action forged time. Weeks later Winthrop was the first officer killed in battle.

When the war acquired its own momentum and killed thousands, it undercut Americans’ confidence that they made history by anticipating events and fashioning the future. The destructive indecision of military campaigns challenged people’s faith in perpetual progress. Facing uncertainty, some Americans looked to God to design tomorrow and provide a meaningful ending to the war. Others doubted that the Almighty was responsible for such carnage and waste. For doubters, the war defied linear narratives toward civilization or salvation. Whatever fate awaited America, people sensed that the war’s outcome would arrive in its own time and on its own terms. The crisis over slavery and the Union changed how Americans imagined time. Instead of focusing on an open future that people made, survivors envisioned a closed future that other forces, impersonal or supernatural, had already determined. Tomorrow remained ahead of them, but instead of moving toward it, people expected time to approach them like waves crashing ashore.


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