January 1, 2011 will mark the official start of the U.S. Civil War Sesquicentennial, the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War. I am old enough to remember the Civil War Centennial and the publicity surrounding it. In fact, it probably played a key role in my early interest in Civil War history. We lived in South Carolina at the time, and I recall reading the April 1961 issue of National Geographic Magazine, which featured an article about the war. I practically wore that issue ragged over the next few years, reading and rereading it. But, I look back now, wondering what that Centennial accomplished and ponder what this Sesquicentennial will leave as its legacy, if anything.
From a scholarship and historiography point of view, the Centennial did bring forth a renewed interest in the war, with the publication of numerous new works about the war's history, among them Bruce Catton's monumental three-part Centennial History of the Civil War (The Coming Fury, Terrible Swift Sword, and Never Call Retreat) published in 1961, 1963, and 1965. In my mind's eye, as a young reader who was making his first foray into Civil War history, Bruce Catton would become a sort of spokesman for the Centennial. His rich narrative style captured my imagination and his own personal ties to the war, which came through the old veterans he had known growing up in Michigan, provided a very real link to that terrible time so long ago.
However, one must also look at how the war was presented to the general public at the time of the Centennial. The history of the war was that created by the Lost Cause movement, one in which slavery was not the genesis for the war and Lincoln really did not oppose slavery, the South's just cause was lost merely because it was overwhelmed by greater resources, and Robert E. Lee was the tragic saint of that war, an anti-slavery soldier leading the Army of Northern Virginia out of love for his home state. Plus, the Centennial took place as a backdrop to the very real drama of the Civil Rights movement. Ignoring slavery as the cause of the Civil War, therefore, seems now to have been an even greater obscenity than it was to some of us at the time.
So, while I cannot defend this view with anything other than anecdotal evidence and my own gut feeling, it seems as though the Centennial served to somehow trivialize the war in the eyes of the American public at large. It devolved into a largely commercial undertaking with a surge in sales of toy Civil War soldiers, t-shirts, and hats, and a resolve to maintain the 100 year old, “politically correct” version of the war so carefully crafted by Jubal Early and his fellow travelers in the late 19th century. And, as such, it would give new life to that perverse version of history that endures in the minds of most Americans until this day and causes every attempt at correcting the course of popular history to be labeled by modern day Lost Cause devotees as a new and dangerous form of “politically correct” revisionism
To me, the war, its causes, its tremendous impact on this nation's course, and the sheer magnitude of the calamity have been steadily minimized with the passage of the last 50 years. On the one hand, historiography, study, and publication of new works continue unabated, and that is a very good thing. I believe that, in recent years, the quality of the scholarship coming from Civil War historians has been nothing less than remarkable and, in many cases, groundbreaking. But the war in the eyes of the general public is another matter. To them, the war is a distant chapter of our history that is either largely ignored in junior high and high school history classes or is still presented as an unpleasant clash over state's rights. It is also seen as a rather silly thing, a subject studied by a brand of geek known as a 'buff” or one in which grown men dress up in old uniforms, reenacting battles as though they were just playing soldier. And, perhaps worst of all, the war has become just a product of a distant, irrelevant past, and, so much so, that commercial interests can now safely seek to plow under its battlefields and defile our collective history in order to build yet another strip mall or superstore. After all, these merchants will say, it was all so very long ago.
At the beginning of this piece, I wondered aloud what the products of this Sesquicentennial might be. Well, I do not have a crystal ball and, therefore, I cannot say. However, I can say what I hope they would be.
First, a reintroduction of the history of the war and its essential role in defining us as a nation into education at all levels. And that history must be based on the solid ground of fact, and not on the diatribes of a 140-year old political movement, no matter the fact that a more accurate view of the war and its causes makes some people feel uncomfortable. In some ways, I would not care if a single American student could list one major battle of the war. Rather, I would like American students to know that the war's root cause was slavery, the perceived right to own property in the form of a human being, and in the unfettered right to transport that property and expand that institution throughout nation's territories. That cause resulted in secession of the Southern states when an anti-slavery candidate, Abraham Lincoln, was elected to the office of President of the United States; the firing on Fort Sumter; and the formal call by President Lincoln for volunteer soldiers from the states to suppress the rebellion and preserve the Union. Moreover, they should understand that, while the government's initial aim of the war was to preserve the Union, Lincoln carefully guided it to emancipation and, finally, the concept of a “new birth of freedom.” The latter idea is an essential one and very central to an understanding of the war's outcome, of our history since that time, and to the unfinished task for all of us–every American child should understand it and see that they have a role in its continuing evolution.
For Lincoln, the new birth of freedom was the true goal–the creation of a nation free from the tyranny of human slavery, where all were free to reap the fruits of their labor, where all had the opportunity to make a better life for themselves, no matter their race, their religion, or their ethnicity. I believe that, while Lincoln saw that freedom in the sense of the more near term, he knew in his heart that a long road was ahead to truly achieve that kind of freedom in any complete sense. Therefore, every American, whether their family has been here for generations or just landed on our shores, has this goal as a legacy that is firmly attached to their citizenship. And let me state unequivocally that I believe Lincoln's vision is more important, more relevant now than ever before. That vision, while it was crucial in achieving victory for the Civil Rights movement of the 20th century, is endangered by new forces, by those who see freedom and opportunity not as rights, but as entitlements meant only for white, Christian, native born, middle and upper class Americans.
Next, I think that it is terribly important for modern day Americans to know the people of this time and to understand the calamity, the absolute catastrophe this war was to them. Perhaps that context will undo the trivial nature some would assign to this chapter of our history. The people of that time were not so different than us. They worked and raised their families as best they could, and all they asked was to have peace and live their lives. But, as happens, fate would not give them that wish and their world was ripped apart. Even cold statistics tell how deeply the war ravaged this nation. In total, around 1 in every 10 Americans would serve, meaning that no town, no neighborhood, no street, and virtually no home was safe from feeling war's terrible burden. Worse, with over 618,000 men dead as a result of the war, almost 2 percent of the nation's population was lost and a staggering 20 percent of those who served. In contrast, the American deaths in World War II, at just over 320,000, were only 0.2 percent of the overall population and a mere 2 percent of those serving. If you were to inflict similar losses from a war today, the death toll would reach over 6 million Americans. And this does not measure the losses in terms of destroyed homes, towns, and farms. Perhaps worst of all, one must remember that all this horror, all this death and destruction did not come at the hands of a foreign power–we did this to ourselves.
But, this generation of Americans survived, they rebuilt, they moved the nation west, and laid the foundation for the nation we see today. The soldiers who fought the war knew what it was about and, no matter what side they fought for, they are deserving of our respect. In my mind, they were as great a generation as that which lived through the Second World War, and that is another lesson I would like to see taught by the Civil War Sesquicentennial. But, they did not achieve Lincoln's vision. Perhaps they were not ready to do so, and the politics of post-war reconstruction certainly did not help matters. A century of Jim Crow laws and institutionalized segregation would follow, denying real opportunity, citizenship, and freedom to black Americans. The impact of those 100 years is still with us, and is only slowly fading. Therefore, their legacy is also ours.
The writer Shelby Foote once described the Civil War as the “crossroads of our being” and that is a pretty good statement. The war defined us, and what we might become. It provided another key milestone in our progression because it opened the door to a pathway that might allow us to achieve all the promise that the Founding Fathers envisioned. In closing, I will reiterate some passages from Bruce Catton that I wrote about in another essay. In 1958, just three years before the Civil War Centennial, Catton said that, in examining the war and trying to understand it, many had failed to see its true meaning.
We have all failed to grasp it. It was not a closed chapter in a bloody book of history: it was a commitment, a challenge to everything that we believe in and live by, a point from which we must measure our progress within our own hearts. Let us begin by understanding just what was bought by that tragic expenditure of life and hope, ninety-odd years ago. Let us try to see just what sort of door into the future was flung open by that fearful war between brothers. Then let us try to make the most of what was gained.
For the enduring legacy of the Civil War is an unending challenge; a challenge to the world's greatest democracy to establish itself on a foundation so broad and solid that it will endure through the great world upheaval of the twentieth century. Democracy will survive only if it lives up to the promise that was inherent in its genesis. The fulfillment of that promise is in our keeping.
And, as I said in that same essay, for all those who do not believe that the Civil War has meaning and relevance in the 21st century, I would ask you to ponder Bruce Catton's words. I believe their essential truth cannot be denied and I would hope the Civil War Sesquicentennial allows more Americans to study the war and see that truth. Like those who were fighting the war at the time when Lincoln spoke of “the great task remaining before us” at Gettysburg, we still have much unfinished work ahead of us. And, as Catton would also write:
Like Lincoln, we are moving toward a destiny bigger than we can understand. The dark, indefinite shore is still ahead of us. Maybe we will get there someday if we live up to what the great men of our past won for us. And when we get there, it is fair to suppose that instead of being dark and indefinite, that unknown continent will be lit with sunlight.
Perhaps this coming anniversary of our nation's greatest tragedy will bring us closer as a nation, as a people, and allow us to move towards that sunlit shore. I know the odds are against me in this hope, as most Americans won't even be aware of the Sesquicentennial. Still, one can dream and one can hope. Without dreams and without hope, what else do we have?