We’ll soon be hearing more and more about the Civil War. Or, as it is sometimes called, the “Great Rebellion,” the “War of Northern Aggression” — in some places, it is still simply called “the War.” That’s because we’re soon to begin commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the outbreak of hostilities. Some of us remember the centennial of the war. I do.
Indeed, the early 1960s were particularly exciting for a little kid, my occupation at the time. The popular press had extensive coverage of the numerous ceremonies and re-enactments. Turn the page and you might read a speculative article about how we’d soon be on the moon, and then there would be no limits. I can’t think of any time in which the past and the future fought more for our attention. When you’re a little kid, though, you have attention enough for both. (At least we did then, but we had no “Playstation” contraptions and had to be content with the real world around us.)
It is probably the memory of that long-gone excitement that prejudices me in favor of the sesquicentennial of the war. I hope that families devote some time to visiting the great battlefields and to learning how individual battles unfolded. (As I write this, I realize that I’m imagining those families dressed in the style, and driving the station wagons, of 1961, but never mind.) There is something spiritual in standing where the fighting took place, looking at the hills where cannon fired, kneeling down behind the fencerows and outcroppings that served as cover for soldiers.
My most stunning memory of a 1963 visit to Gettysburg was the realization that despite the grainy black-and-white pictures we have of the battle’s aftermath the whole thing happened in color. It took longer for me to gain the perspective that in many ways the world is unchanged since the Civil War. There were hot days and cold ones, days when it rained and days when it was very windy. Thinking about these things while at the site of a significant battle makes the experience a lot richer.
So does studying the battle a bit before visiting the battlefield. For instance, it takes about five and a half hours to drive from where I live to Sharpsburg, Maryland, where the Antietam National Battlefield is located. Add half an hour’s reading ahead of time and in a neat six hours I’ll be at — and appreciate — that here was fought the bloodiest one-day battle in the nation’s history. There were 23,000 casualties on that day, September 17, 1862. Without reading a little bit ahead of time, you would not fully grasp the horror of Rohrbach's Bridge, where the saying is that “Antietam Creek ran red” with the blood of Union soldiers. Standing on that bridge and imagining the day is an experience that everyone should have.
Everyone should visit Gettysburg, too, and it is an easy weekend trip from here. Full appreciation of what happened there would require more than a half hour’s reading (some historians have devoted years, whole careers, to the study of that three-day battle), but it’s worth it. Even if you live farther away from these sites, a Civil War tour is a tremendously interesting vacation. If you live east of, say, Kansas, there is a battlefield or two within a day’s drive.
We can expect a good deal to be written about the war in the coming years as well, and this worries me because much of it is likely to engage in historical revisionism. For the last few decades it has been fashionable to say that the war was about slavery, period. Slavery was surely a factor, but to stop there is to miss much that is very important. Remember that it was Abraham Lincoln himself who wrote to Horace Greeley in 1862 that, “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.” This was after the war had been underway for more than a year, so if it were entirely about slavery no one told the president. Critical thinking is always required when one reads history.
In any case, we’re approaching what I hope will be several years of national attention paid to an exciting and extremely important period in our history.
Actually, we’re more than approaching it. Exactly 150 years ago last Monday, an Army major from Kentucky named Robert Anderson was put in command of Fort Sumter, near Charleston, South Carolina. Anderson was in favor of slavery; indeed, he was himself a former slave owner. He was also loyal to the Union.
Anderson could not have known that less than six months later, Fort Sumter would be attacked (ironically, by Confederate General G.T. Beauregard, a student of Anderson’s at West Point who had not remained loyal to the Union). With that battle, the war would begin.
Dennis E. Powell is crackpot-at-large to Open for Business. Powell was an award-winning reporter in New York and elsewhere before moving to Ohio and becoming a full-time crackpot. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.