Americans have a skewed image of what civil war entails, mainly because ours was somewhat exceptional, if not unique. Two vast geographical regions squared off and went at it in a large-scale conventional war featuring classical Napoleonic movement of great armies and titanic battles like Gettysburg, Antietam, Chickamauga and the sieges of Vicksburg and Petersburg. Victory or defeat hinged upon one force’s ability to conquer the enemy’s armies and occupy his territory.
Most civil wars are considerably more chaotic than that, with less well-defined territorial identities for the combatants and fewer clear strategic goals. When a society and a polity unravels, it looks more like Syria c. 2011 than it does USA c. 1861. Or maybe it looks like France c. 1572.
France had already been embroiled in its Wars of Religion for a decade when the August 18, 1572, nuptials of Margaret of Valois and Henry of Navarre rolled around. Catholics and Protestant Huguenots had been at each other’s throats in a nasty, brutal conflict that mixed armed conflict and popular unrest. The marriage was supposed to bridge ideological and political chasms. Instead, it touched off one of the most incredible slaughters in European history.
From Encyclopedia Britannica:
The Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Day had for its background the political and religious rivalries of the court of France. Admiral Gaspard II de Coligny, a Huguenot leader, supported a war in the Low Countries against Spain as a means to prevent a resumption of civil war, a plan that the French king, Charles IX, was coming to approve in the summer of 1572. Catherine de Médicis, the mother of Charles, feared Admiral Coligny’s growing influence over her son. She accordingly gave her approval to a plot that the Roman Catholic house of Guise had been hatching to assassinate Coligny, whom it held responsible for the murder of François de Guise in 1563.
On August 18, 1572, Catherine’s daughter, Margaret of France (Marguerite de Valois), was married to the Huguenot Henry of Navarre (the future Henry IV of France), and a large part of the Huguenot nobility came to Paris for the wedding.
The attempt on Admiral Coligny’s life four days later failed; he was only wounded. To placate the angry Huguenots, the government agreed to investigate the assassination attempt. Fearing discovery of her complicity, Catherine met secretly with a group of nobles at the Tuileries Palace to plot the complete extermination of the Huguenot leaders, who were still in Paris for the wedding festivities.* Charles was persuaded to approve of the scheme, and, on the night of August 23, members of the Paris municipality were called to the Louvre and given their orders.
Shortly before dawn on August 24 the bell of Saint-Germain‑l’Auxerrois began to toll and the massacre began. One of the first victims was Coligny, who was killed under the supervision of Henry de Guise himself. Even within the Louvre, Navarre’s attendants were slaughtered, though Navarre and Henry I de Bourbon, 2nd prince de Condé, were spared. The homes and shops of Huguenots were pillaged and their occupants brutally murdered; many bodies were thrown into the Seine.
Bloodshed continued in Paris even after a royal order of August 25 to stop the killing, and it spread to the provinces. Huguenots in Rouen, Lyon, Bourges, Orléans, and Bordeaux were among the victims. Estimates of the number that perished in the disturbances, which lasted to the beginning of October, have varied from 2,000 by a Roman Catholic apologist to 70,000 by the contemporary Huguenot Maximilien de Béthune, duc de Sully, who himself barely escaped death. Modern writers put the number at 3,000 in Paris alone.
* Historians dispute the degree of Catherine’s direct complicity in the killings. Whether it was her idea or not, she certainly gave her consent.
I have long been fascinated by the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. It is the setting of two works of art that I find grimly compelling — the 1994 French film Queen Margot (an adaptation of the 19th Century Alexandre Dumas novel), and Tim Willocks’ gory masterpiece Twelve Children of Paris. The power of these works of fiction derive in great part from the vividness with which they portray a society gone utterly insane with hate — when neighbors no longer recognize themselves as being of the same people, and turn on each other with the atavistic fury of aroused tribal instinct. And the chilling thing is, we’re not so very far from those blood-maddened Frenchmen at all…
Any society in which factions develop and harden around profoundly powerful aspects of identity — ethnic, religious, ideological — is vulnerable to rents in the fabric that knits it together. When economic, political, environmental stresses begin to tear at that fabric, when political leaders pander to those identities and stoke the flames of discord for their own aggrandizement, when rumor plays on paranoia, we risk a catastrophic and bloody unraveling.
Such unravelings are not 450-year-old artifacts in a museum of human fallibility — we have seen them in our time through the Arab Spring, in Ukraine, in Africa and the Balkans. The institutions of the West remain more robust and resilient than those more volatile societies — but that is no reason for complacency. Resilience is contingent, and without diligence it erodes. Some commentators have opined that the U.S. is already in a “cold civil war,” and it is hard to argue the point. We are an angry, distrustful people, and nihilistic rage is already stacking bodies in the streets.