Few events in American history rival the magnitude and luridness of the Civil War, with its seemingly innumerable tales of sacrifice and Shakespearean drama. Each generation, from the War’s conclusion in 1865 to present, has taken up the task of dissecting and analyzing its causes and effects to discern its many lessons and to engage in a great deal of introspection as to the meaning of the War and being an American citizen. The War’s impact on American life continues to the present day. Its impact just after the midpoint of the 19th Century could hardly be overstated: if the Revolutionary War secured the existence of the states and if the War of 1812 created a sense of nationalism amongst the inhabitants of those states, the Civil War represented the fragility and value of the national union that the various states formed.
At the heart of the conflict was a systematic and ideological difference between the North and the South as to the coexistence of the two labor systems — the North’s wage labor system and the South’s slave labor system; a conflict that had played itself out in government for the duration of the preceding decades. When the North outmuscled the South in preventing the expansion of slavery, albeit by legitimate governance, the South had both the alienation and ammunition to bring the latent conflict to a head. The spirit of compromise, that often has been a hallmark of American government, lapsed. Thus, in 1861, the “Second American Revolution” was born.
For the following four years, battles would be fought on fields, in forests, and near streams throughout America; from New Mexico to Ohio to Florida. Small towns, like Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and wandering, bubbling creeks, like the Antietam Creek, would be the settings for some of the most devastating battles in American history. The violence would lead to astronomical losses of life and limb, touching nearly every community in the country and all but wiping out some communities. With great tragedy came extraordinary heroism as legends were born: Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, and Abraham Lincoln being perhaps the most cherished geniuses of the War. As with any great war, technology advanced at a rapid pace. The invention of a new, deadlier projectile, the minié ball, combined with the advent of submarines and ironclad warships to lead to unprecedented levels of casualties in battle.
There was prolific documentation of the War and its participants, through their letters, records, and photographs. The literacy of the common man and woman during the War as well as the emergence of photography left a rich, often overwhelming, mosaic of the experiences of Americans from all walks of life. These sources continue to bring to life the putrid smell of the battlefields, the empty-stomached yells of both sides charging into battle, and the long slogs through rain and knee-deep mud.
Countless lessons emerge from reflecting on the War. The atrocities — like the tens of thousands of Union prisoners of war that died at Andersonville — were preventable: politics could have resolved the conflict and averted the War entirely. The friction between slavery and wage labor, as well as their respective interests, had existed since the founding of the country. While some could interpret that existence as justification for blaming the first generation of Americans for the War, this is a misguided notion. The founders provided the country with a system capable of resolving conflict through representing the people’s various interests and engendering compromise. While conflict was foreseeable, violence was not. The fact that the representatives working within that system leading up to the War folded under pressure and failed to avert a far from inevitable war suggests that the blame is more squarely placed on those representatives involved in the months and years prior to the War.
The War was the most recent time in American history (joining the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812) where the continued existence of the country was questioned and even in doubt. Its survival, as one country, was not assured. Lincoln’s administration deserves credit for the unyielding pursuit of maintaining and perfecting the Union, the accomplishment of which through the Confederate surrender on April 9, 1865 places Lincoln in the highest echelon of presidents.
Remembrance of the War — as well as both sides’ perspectives, figures and ideologies — is fundamental for America. Viewing the victor’s ideology as absolutely correct in all facets and the defeated’s as lacking value impedes understanding the War and its context. Marginalizing the Confederacy’s virtues and exaggerating its flaws, with time, ferments and warps its ideology into a forbidden fruit that deft politicians can exploit to accomplish their more sinister agendas. Viewing the Confederacy and the Union as two interpretations of government in the American tradition, and therefore reconcilable, is crucial for understanding the trajectory and direction of the country.
Presently, the Civil War is the only attempted revolution or widespread rebellion since the birth of the nation. Its resulting in the abolition of slavery and a rebirth of the nation ensures that the War will be studied for generations to come. To avoid a war of the magnitude of the Civil War, Americans must study and understand that even the deepest divisions and most rancorous partisanship that emerge in the country are better solved by politics than violence.