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How the Civil War Changed Your Life

8 things to think about as we mark the conflict's 150th anniversary

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a dead Confederate sharpshooter

This 1863 photograph shows a dead Confederate sharpshooter after the Battle of Gettysburg. — Alexander Gardner/Library of Congress

6. We see war "up close and personal."

The Civil War was the first war in which people at home could absorb battle news before the smoke cleared. Eyewitness accounts by reporters and soldiers were relayed via telegraph to the country's 2,500 newspapers, printed almost immediately and then read voraciously by citizens desperate to know how their boys were faring. The Civil War created a tradition of intimate war reportage that is still with us today.

Take this excerpt from a dispatch from George Townsend, who was just 20 when he began to cover the war for the New York Herald: "In many wounds the balls still remained, and the discolored flesh was swollen unnaturally. There were some who had been shot in the bowels, and now and then they were frightfully convulsed, breaking into shrieks and shouts. Some of them iterated a single word, as, 'doctor,' or 'help,' or 'God,' or 'oh!' commencing with a loud spasmodic cry, and continuing the same word till it died away in cadence. The act of calling seemed to lull the pain. Many were unconscious and lethargic, moving their finger, and lips mechanically, but never more to open their eyes upon the light; they were already going through the valley and the shadow."

Tony Horwitz, a former war correspondent and the author of Confederates in the Attic and the forthcoming Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War, says that the front-line dispatches influenced his modern battlefront reporting. "Having been moved by soldiers' writing from the 1860s, I also sought them on foreign battlefields, even going through the pockets of the Iranian dead at Majnoon and getting a Farsi speaker to translate letters and diaries for me," he says. "This sounds ghoulish, I know, but I think you need to personalize the dead to bring home the shock and tragedy of it all. Otherwise, they're just statistics."

Photography, still in its infancy, was not yet a part of the daily news cycle. But the Civil War was the first such conflict recorded by photographers (the most famous of whom was Mathew Brady). Because the primitive wet-plate technology of the era required that subjects be still at the moment the camera's shutter snapped, images of the era depict virtually every aspect of the war but one: battle. But that in time would change, too.

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