Remembering the Civil War: Or Forgetting It

April 9th marked the 150th anniversary of Robert E. Lee’s surrender of his Army of Northern Virginia to Ulysses S. Grant’s combined Army of the Potomac and Army of the James.  This is fact that we can all agree on regarding the events at Appomattox Court House.  And that’s about it.  Southerners believe that Appomattox should be celebrated because it demonstrated the noble and honorable spirit of southern leadership.  Northerners, of course, rejoice in the end of the rebellion.  An increasing number of people have taken the opportunity to say that we focus on the Civil War too much and so it still divides us today.  Some say it shouldn’t be studied at all as the Confederacy was so terrible that it does not merit our attention.  Others have come out to admonish the “Lost Cause” writers, acting as though no one has done this before (Notable Civil War historians such as Gary Gallagher, Alan Nolan, and Jeffrey Wert have put it in its well-marked grave many years ago).  Still more people emerge from the woodwork to ask why, 150 years on from this event, any of this still matters?

To be sure, that is a valid question, one that I encourage all students to ask frequently, lest they stop caring and start rote memorization.  As evidenced by the reactions to the anniversary of Appomattox, the Civil War captures or repels the current American generations in intriguing ways.  It first of all tells me that our education system is doing a terrible job of teaching the Civil War.  Let me rephrase that: the Civil War is terrible for our education system to have to teach.  Why? Because the Civil War is merely a flashpoint in the 239-year old socio-economic political debate surrounding the nature of our Republic.  From the first assemblies of the Continental Congress to the Constitutional Convention, it was clear that the differing ideologies regarding the nature of government (state versus Federal) to control commerce and economic interests were going to remain at odds for the foreseeable future.  All agreed that the bedrock of the new American experiment was freedom, but they differed on who was free and who would dictate that.  To boil it down in crude economics, all sides believed in free trade, but one side believed that they could trade in the labor of non-free human beings, i.e, black slavery.

The seeds of Fort Sumter were planted even before that, in the creation of the North American colonies.  Political battles in and amongst the colonies were cruel and divisive in the 17th and 18th centuries, heralding future problems to come.  One can even argue that the divide goes back further, to the differing values and philosophies of the Enlightenment thinkers.

This saga continued through the Constitutional debates and played out in the Anti-Federalist and Federalist camps, as each side sought to convince the other of the dangers or benefits of strong Federal government.  This same argument, with slavery as its attending elephant in the room, waxed further as the United States grew through the early and mid-1800s.  Slavery relied on, and so bolstered, the myth of white supremacy that even after the bloodletting of the Civil War brought an end to the institution, the scourge of racism persisted.  And like the political debate, racism survived the war miserably intact.

Neither racism nor the debate on the role of government is dead.  Both can be seen in the newsfeeds daily, as they have for the 150 years since the end of the Civil War.  There is a key difference in the two, however.  The role of government should be debated and argued, at all times.  That is the key to sustaining the Republic and keeping it from slipping into a tyranny, oligarchy or, God forbid, a democracy.  In the light of that debate, the Civil War must continue to be present in our discussions, even if only to point to as an example of the dangers of radical political divisiveness.  Racism, on the other hand, is like the many-headed hydra, that continues to rear its ugly heads in different forms and guises over the years.  In order for the victory secured by Grant at Appomattox to be complete, we must destroy racism in our society.  The great tragedy of the Civil War is that racism did not die on the walls of Battery Wagner or Fort Blakely, where African-American courage and valor flew higher than the flags they bore, but has persisted on, long after those names have faded from popular imagination.

I can take no greater example than from the compelling mission that Abraham Lincoln passed on to future generations at the Gettysburg Address: 

It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

This is why the Civil War is still relevant: we have not completed the mission that Lincoln gave us.

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