Why did brothers fight on opposite sides of the Civil War?

Image Gallery: The Civil War An early photo of Confederate volunteers stationed at Pensacola, Fla., circa 1861. See more Civil War pictures.
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The American Civil War is the bloodiest conflict in which the United States has ever engaged. More than 600,000 American soldiers lost their lives in four years [source: Library of Congress] at a time when the total U.S. population was around 34,000,000 [source: U.S. Census]. This is proportional to about 5.2 million Americans dying in a four-year period beginning in 2008.

No one -- no matter how prestigious -- was exempt from the divisiveness of the Civil War. While she and her husband represented the Union's interests, First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln had six close relatives who fought for the Confederacy. Three died in battle [source: NNDB]. And the leader of the Confederate Army, Gen. Robert E. Lee, resigned from his 30-year post in the U.S. Army to fight for the Confederacy. Perhaps no family was more affected by the divide between North and South than the Crittenden family, though.


John J. Crittenden was a senator from Kentucky, the state maybe most divided by the Civil War. Sen. Crittenden struggled to hold his state together as dissident factions debated over whether to side with the Union or Confederacy. Originally, Kentucky had been neutral. But after contingents from both the Union and Confederacy traveled to Kentucky (Confederate troops entered first), the state government became divided. Crittenden was torn by the disputes between the Union and the Confederacy. While he ultimately remained loyal to the United States, he also proposed a plan (the Crittenden Compromise) which called for the federal government to leave the issue of slavery to the states [source: Murfreesboro Post]. His plan ultimately failed.

Kentucky's ambivalence was reflected in the Crittenden family as well. The senator's sons, George Bibb Crittenden and Thomas Leonidas Crittenden, both served as generals in the Civil War. However, each fought for a different side. While George, the eldest, served the Confederacy, Thomas commanded Union troops.

Read about the Crittenden brothers on the next page.


George and Thomas Crittenden

John J. Crittenden, father of George and Thomas Crittenden, circa 1835
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

George Bibb Crittenden was something of a revolutionary soldier throughout his lifetime. He certainly had something of a rebellious nature: George fought against the Mexican Army for an independent Texas in the 1840s, and he sided with the Confederacy when the Civil War began between the states. George rose quickly in the Confederate ranks from infantry colonel, to brigadier general and to major general in less than a year. His drinking proved a problem for him in these higher stations, however.

A bad defeat in the clash with Union forces at Mill Springs, Ky., caused him to be transferred off the front lines. Rumors that he'd been drunk during the battle further tarnished him [source: Brown]. Still, he retained his rank -- until he was discovered drunk later that year at his post in Mississippi and was court-martialed [source: TSHA].


George resigned from the Army but returned to fight until the end of the Civil War, this time as an enlisted soldier.

Though his younger brother Thomas had a starkly different demeanor, he suffered a fate similar to George's. Thomas was the more staid of the Crittenden brothers. While George studied law, Thomas became a practicing lawyer and achieved the rank of U.S. consul in England [source: Murfreesboro Post].

Thomas was a talented commander, but his reputation was harmed by others less gifted than him. As major general in the Union, he commanded flanks of troops during a number of battles. The Battle of Chickamauga in Georgia, at which the Union forces were led by Gen. William Rosencrans, proved to be the second bloodiest battle of the Civil War. In just two days, both sides saw 34,624 casualties [source: NPS].

After the battle, a Confederate victory, Rosencrans incorrectly attributed the defeat to Thomas Crittenden. The major loss was enough for the Union generals to relieve Crittenden of his command [source: Murfreesboro Post]. He eventually regained his status after Rosencrans continued to wage losing battles, however.

Clearly, the brothers had different characters, but what motivates members of the same family to fight on opposite sides of a war? We'll explore civil strife on the next page.


Opposite Ideologies, Opposite Sides

An early photograph of Union general Thomas L. Crittenden, circa 1860-65
Courtesy Library of Congress

Exploring why two brothers would fight on opposite sides of the Civil War is no easy task: It's difficult not to overestimate their motives. This is especially true when the division of a family seems to reflect the divisions of an entire country, as the Crittendens appear to. It's important to remember that the motives behind the Civil War, like the people involved in it, were complex and multilayered. It's easy to stray into generalizations, claiming that George represented a drunken and rebellious South and Thomas stood for the staid and cosmopolitan North. But neither of these interpretations accurately represents either side -- or either man.

Neither Thomas nor George left any written account of their perspectives. It's up to us to decipher their motives. The brothers didn't die in the Civil War. And there's no evidence that the Crittenden boys ever fought one another in the same battle. But their story reveals the truth in the oft-used term to describe the Civil War, the "Brothers' War" [source: PBS].


In the United States, the division between North and South that began during the Civil War has left a lasting effect on the national psyche. It seems unthinkable in the 21st century that states could secede -- let alone that Americans would fight one another in battle. While the U.S. has suffered the strife of a civil war only once, other countries have seen their citizens engage in ongoing battles over religious and political divisions.

Many of these tensions have been ongoing for millennia, flaring up sporadically. In A.D. 661, 29 years after the prophet Mohammed's death, a dispute over whom was the rightful leader of Islam led to a division among members of the Muslim faith [source: CRF]. The result was Islam splitting into two opposing sects -- Sunnis and Shiites. The tension between Sunnis and Shiites has ignited in centuries of violence, most recently after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. As a result of this invasion, the Sunnis and Shiites living in Iraq and surrounding nations plunged into a secular civil war between members of the same faith [source: WSJ].

In 1990, long-held hatred between the African nation of Rwanda's Tutsi and Hutu populations resulted in civil war. The two indigenous tribes had fought for resources like water in the poverty-stricken area for decades after the Hutus overthrew the ruling Tutsis. By the late 1980s, a rebel faction of Tutsis had developed and was strong enough to attempt retaking control of Rwanda in 1990. The ensuing civil war resulted in the genocide of 800,000 Tutsis and the Hutus who sympathized with them [source: CIA]. In a reverse recreation of the 1959 coup, the Tutsis regained control. Some Hutus that were forced out of the country have regrouped as a rebel faction.

When a nation's people wage war, the results are tragic and cannot be discounted. But somehow a civil war smacks of something darker, almost cannibalistic. Civil war pits members of the same faith, the same nationality, and, in some of the worst cases, the same family against one another. It takes deep conviction to choose ideology over family, which makes civil war all the more dangerous.


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