“That this war will result fatally to slavery I have no doubt. This assurance is to me one of the brightest promises of the future. But I am equally clear that a declaration of emancipation by the administration would be a most fatal mistake. The logic of argument wielded with the varied power of all the minds that have labored on this theme has not brought the people of the North even, up to the necessity. Nothing but the terrible logic of events will do it…Let the war be conducted for the Union till the whole nation shall be enthused, inspired, transfigured with the glory of that high purpose. Let all of the deeds of valor add their glory to that purpose, all the blood of noble men that die in the fight hallow it, all the love of the people for the fallen ones sanctify and exalt it, till the integrity, indivisibility, and glory of that Union shall gather round itself all the hero-worship, pride and power of the nation, and then, perhaps not till then, they will love the Union more than slavery and slay the python…” — James A. Garfield, February 1862, Camp Buell, Kentucky
“Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide:
In the strife of Truth with Falsehood, for the good or evil side;
Some great cause, God’s new Messiah, offering each the bloom or blight,
Parts the goats upon the left hand and the sheep upon the right,
And the choice goes by forever ‘twixt that darkness and that light.
Hast thou chosen, O my people, on whose party thou shalt stand,
Ere the Doom from its worn sandals shakes the dust against our land?
Though the cause of Evil prosper, yet ’tis Truth alone is strong,
And, albeit she wander outcast now, I see around her throng
Troops of beautiful, tall angels, to enshield her from all wrong.”
– James Russell Lowell, The Present Crisis (1844)
“If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through his appointed time, he now wills to remove, and that he gives to North and South this terrible war, as the woe that is due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to him?…Yet, if God wills that it [the war] continue until all the wealth piled by the bondman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn by the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, ‘The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’” — Abraham Lincoln, March 4, 1865, 2nd Inaugural Address, Washington, D.C.
On April 12, 2011, the President of the United States issued a proclamation marking the beginning of the sesquicentennial (150th anniversary) of the Civil War. President Obama called upon citizens of the country to observe the event in order to “honor the legacy of freedom and unity” that the war engendered. The Proclamation is full of references to sacrifice and the principle of equality and dedication to the Union and the Constitution. (Read it here: Civil War Proclamation) Although the main contention of the war was slavery, that takes a back seat here to a celebration of nationalism. The official remembrance is driven by patriotism rather than moralism.
At Civil War battlefields around the country, re-enactors are preparing for and performing in mock battles bloodlessly reanimating the violent conflicts that left so many dead, wounded, and broken. They talk about bringing history to life, assure that their uniforms conform to standard, and blast their impotent cannons at other actors for the edification of bystanders. They preen for cameras in reproduction garb and slump to the ground in pretend agony and fake expiration. It’s all very practiced and researched.
Museums in various states have joined in the commemoration as well, and academics — not to be outdone — are holding conferences dissecting every detail of the war and its causes. Even the media has jumped in with both feet. News outlets are running stories by scholars about various aspects of the conflagration and advertisements from civic organizations announcing commemorative events. They all invite you to remember and to feel a patriotic swelling or even reignite the passions of sectionalism with the fervor of ancestor worship. Amateur historians and associations dedicated to honoring participants in the war also fill the blogosphere and national conversation on the event with postings, meetings, and other organized activities.
All of these undertakings are scholarly or political or patriotic. None of them, interestingly, are expressions of grief. At least 600,000 Americans died in the Civil War. Untold others were wounded and maimed. The Indian nations suffered great deprivations during the war and then forfeited more of their land as punishment afterwards. Cities in the south were utterly razed and their societies were turned upside down. Families were literally torn apart and it took some time for the economy and political organizations to recover. Most importantly, the greatest tragedy of the war was that we had to go to such lengths to rid ourselves of the evil of slavery and introduce citizenship to non-whites. These losses and calamities give us much to grieve for and regret — yet, we don’t. Instead, we recreate the killing of our own and eschew a national period of mourning. We do not reflect on the war to ask why we failed — and so miserably — at diplomacy, compromise, and republicanism. Why do we not sorrow at this? Remembrances of the Vietnam conflict always include the laying of wreaths, tearful reflection, and admissions of error. In retrospect, we love the troops there and hate the war. Perhaps we have yet to learn to hate the war that divided us the most. Is our commemoration a sign that we are all still in our hearts not yet reconstructed?