What is the relationship between war and creativity? Let’s think about this for a moment. On the one hand, a great many inventions have resulted from our desire to slaughter each other, and the Civil War is no different. There were advancements to technologies like the rifle, where breechloading and repeating rifles were developed, the invention of an early version of the machine gun, along with upgrades and development of grenades, mines, submarines, ironclad ships with turrets, along with the widespread use of trains to speed the transportation of troops and telegraphs for the maintenance of civilian command and control over troops in the field. On the other hand, wars are immensely destructive. The Civil War killed somewhere above 600,000 men when the losses of North and South are combined. On top of that hundreds of thousands more had suffered grave injuries, many of which left them crippled in body and mind for the rest of their lives, with legs or arms amputated or afflicted with PTSD (although it was not known at the time). How much creativity was gained in the push for victory? How much creativity was lost in the wholesale destruction of a generation of Americans?
These are not easy questions to answer. Nor is it obvious that creativity and innovation as it took place in the Civil War is necessarily a positive. Yes, technologies like the telegraph allowed for the rapid spread of news throughout the United States, but that spread of news allowed for increasing civilian and political pressure on generals to gain victories quickly and sometimes led to the publishing of plans through leaks, harming the ability of armies to surprise their foes as much as they may have wanted. And no doubt many generals would have preferred not to have Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis impatiently sending telegraphs urging movement, and would have preferred the old days where generals on the spot had more latitude to conduct warfare with far less interference. Gains in the effectiveness of control by commanders in chief are losses in the freedom of action by subordinate commanders in the field. These are matters that need to be taken into consideration as well.
Nor are all of the innovations of the Civil War things that the nation as a whole would have been proud of. For example, the massive losses of the Civil War, including large amounts of prisoners (far more Southern than Northern prisoners, it must be noted) led to the establishment of large prison camps in both the North and South where there were a variety of deaths due to disease and starvation. And while Andersonville’s horrors were such that they led the camp’s Swiss-born commander to the gallows for war crimes, other camps like Camp Douglas and Elmira, among others, were not much better. Indeed, the experiences of the Civil War in terms of keeping large amounts of prisoners in dire conditions was one of the forerunners of the Nazi concentration camps and Soviet gulags and Chinese laogai. This is not something that most civilized people would celebrate, although it should be noted that the Spanish in Cuba in the 1890’s and the British during the Boer war at the turn of the 20th century similarly helped to innovate with regards to prison camps as well, so the blame does not entirely fall upon the Americans in this regard.
In many ways we must do a bit of a thought experiment to ponder on the creativity and innovation that was lost through the Civil War in terms of the deaths and injuries that were suffered by people in both the North and South. How are we to count for what these people might have done and created if they had lived? What masterpieces of literature were snuffed out because someone didn’t survive to write them? We got the writings of Ambrose Bierce and Lew Wallace, but what would we have had otherwise? It is impossible to say. We may marvel at the guns and ships that more effectively killed other people, and that would be honed to kill even more people in World War I when the machine gun made suicidal charges even more costly than Picket’s charge at Gettysburg or Hood’s equally futile charge at Franklin, but what could those people have more creatively done than kill each other, and what kind of creativity would have been fostered had the 1860’s been peaceful rather than bloody? Again, we cannot say, but given even the aggregate numbers it is clear that a great many creative men were snuffed out prematurely by the war.
In examining the creativity of the Civil War, we must also be aware of the sort of society that existed in both North and South when it comes to the acceptance of various kinds of creativity. The South was certainly creative in scrounging for war material, in the development of homemade ironclad ships, in the use of landmines and torpedo spars as well as seaborne mines, in the creative substitution for items that they had to do without. Yet as a whole the South has not been viewed highly as an innovative culture, largely because it lacked an educational and industrial infrastructure to turn its creative potential into large scale technologies, and largely because the creativity of the South in coping with the losses of war were conducted in a traditionalist society that was hostile to the sort of changes that were sweeping the United States, especially the North (and West). On the other hand, it is easy to recognize creativity in the booming industrial power of the United States and in the way that the North was able to gain in population and expand American culture westbound while simultaneously supporting white homesteaders and land-grand colleges even while winning the Civil War. The difference between what was and what could have been requires creative thinking and moral imagination, as is the case any time we examine counterfactual scenarios.