Why The Civil War Matters


As the nation is now well into the Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War with the next four years to follow, there is a rebirth of interest and curiosity about the war. Much media attention is beginning to be devoted to its history and what it all means as professional and amateur historians alike try to place it within the context of the American experience. They will revisit the events and personalities that made up those tumultuous and bloody years that have been called ‘our national fratricide.’ And along with all the history that is coming down the pike, we are beginning to hear the endless discussions and accusations from some that our nation has not come far enough and from others that we have come far too far.

We will hear talking heads argue, to no end, as to whether the war, and by that they will mean secession, was about ‘states’ rights’ or slavery. Other folks will write letters explaining that it was not a ‘civil war’ and, hence, must be called ‘The War Between the States’ despite both Lee and Forrest, two who, for sure, really should have known, calling it a ‘civil war.’

Before you start that letter to the editor or burn my last book, don’t get me wrong or assume I have some liberal or conservative bias and you know what it is. I, like many of you, have strong opinions about all that will be discussed and rehashed.  As someone who grew up in the South, in a time when there were still real, living links to the past (my grandfather was born the year before the war began and had vivid memories of Grant’s army coming to his family farm in West Tennessee), I look forward to all the historians and pundits that are waiting around the corner. With the book-publishing world facing a not so glorious future in light of the ever-growing electronic media, the Sesquicentennial may be timed to be their last hurrah as they churn out books covering every detail and minutia of it all.

If it’s like the Centennial, which I have some childhood memory of, it will all begin to fade well before the four years are over. That would be a great shame because the battle I’m most interested in, Franklin, happened in late 1864, which means we won’t get around to it until 2014. But, then again, as Americans living in the second decade of the 21st Century, can we really keep focused on anything for very long? I hope so. For I love history and I know there are many of you out there just like me.

Yet, for the rest of America – those who are neither historians nor from my interest group – is their any real reason to keep looking backwards? Does the American Civil War still have any value or impact as to who we are, what this nation is, good or bad? Are there any lessons to be learned from the war as we move forward?

In the end, these are going to be the most important questions to come out of all the hoopla. Our biggest hurdle is not whether the war was about slavery or ‘states’ rights’ but whether the American Civil War is any longer relevant.

That’s the issue I would like to address. For if we don’t, I will predict, here and now, that the American Civil War will continue to travel that same road that The English Civil War took long ago and will fade into the darkest crevasses of ancient history. 

That would be the greatest of shames. For the truth is, if the line to immigrate into this country is longer than the line to immigrate into any other country on earth, it is because of the Civil War.

Let me be clear when I say the Civil War is not something reserved for those whose ancestors fought on one side or the other or even for those whose ancestors were freed from enslavement. The Civil War is important if you came over last year from Ecuador, Laos or anywhere else. For if you have chosen to throw your lot in with this country, the American Civil War is at the foundation of ‘why,’ whether you ever understand it or not.

That said it would be an equal shame if you never understood this. You see, all those glorious platitudes that our Founding Fathers were spouting ‘four score and seven years’ before were at the heart of the struggle.  Again, I will let others argue about what all those issues were (and believe me, they will) but there should be little or no argument about whether or not there were issues.

The truth is, in the end, when it was all over, those four arduous years had given birth to The American Century. While quoting Nathan Bedford Forrest may offend some, I feel that he summed up the future in his farewell address to his men on May 9, 1865 when he said;

“Civil War, such as you have just passed through, naturally engenders feelings of animosity, hatred and revenge. It is our duty to divest ourselves of all such feelings, and, so far as it is in our power to do so, to cultivate feelings toward those with whom we have so long contested…whatever your responsibilities may be to government, to society, or to individuals, meet them like men.”

We should remember that while the Civil War was not a given, because of the way the constitution was set up, secession pretty much was. It was only time before some state or states, whether it was to be New England or the South, bolted over something. How can I say that? Well, that’s what was threatened and that’s what finally happened.

So more than just redefining who we are as individuals, as people, as humans, as if that was not enough, the Civil War sealed us as a nation. Shelby Foote liked to say that before the war our representatives abroad would refer to us as these United States and afterwards we became The United States.

Don’t be tricked, while Europe remained outwardly neutral, the powers that be overwhelming wanted The United States, as a world player, out of the picture. Out of our ashes, came the rise of their worst nightmare, The United States as a world power.

Do any of us really believe that we wouldn’t (at least in all official communications) be speaking German today without the American Century? Think about it, ‘Isolationism’ was rampant in the years before both World War I and II. What if each sovereign nation-state could have voted on whether or not to support a war-effort?

The truth is the Civil War not only redefined who we were, black and white, as a people, but also gave us the opportunity to do good and great things. Understand, I am not saying that we have arrived at our final destination as a nation or as a people. There is much that has been worked out, but there is still much to come.

So as we move into this Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War, we have much to commemorate. Somehow, The American Century, the ‘Greatest Generation’ and all that has come about since the war is linked to those four years and it’s outcome and aftermath. None of it has been perfect, but I wouldn’t want to be here without it. 

If you’re like me and felt the attack ‘personal’ when those planes crashed into the towers, in a way that someone in France or Canada or wherever else could never have felt, then you will have good reason to commemorate the Civil War. If we are to remain that nation that 620,000 men and boys died for, we must understand what they gave us through their sacrifice. It would seem that the Civil War matters at this time in our history as much as it ever has, if not more. Besides, truth be told, my German is lousy.

I am reminded, again, of the words of Sam Watkins, a soldier from the 1st Tennessee, who fought as hard as anyone, when he wrote some twenty years afterwards;

“America has no north, no south, no east, no west. The sun rises over the hills and sets over the mountains, the compass just points up and down, and we can laugh now at the absurd notion of their being a north and a south. We are one and undivided.”