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

Opposite Ideologies, Opposite Sides
An early photograph of Union general Thomas L. Crittenden, circa 1860-65
An early photograph of Union general Thomas L. Crittenden, circa 1860-65

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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