As Americans in 2021, we live in the epilogue of the Civil War and on the eve of momentous times.
The Civil War of 1861-65 is not far behind us. My mother, 69, grew up knowing her great-great grandmother, Lillian, who was born before the Civil War in 1860. Lillian’s father (my great-great-great grandfather) joined the Union army and died in 1864, “fighting to free the slaves,” as the saying goes in my family. We are not far removed from “old” events which define our nation. All Americans are children of the Civil War in one way or another.
This column seeks to clear away the mists of time so America’s foundational events emerge into relevance. Just 160 years ago:
• Our great (-great-great) grandparents rose to a challenge they hadn’t envisioned and didn’t want — a war with their own countrymen to keep America alive.
• Men left families, farms and futures to preserve the Union and abolish slavery once and for all.
• A large proportion of soldiers were teenagers, led by generals often in their thirties. All hopes were bright when war fell upon them.
• More than 650,000 died. Millions more fought and survived, often maimed and mentally scarred. They carried our nation into the twentieth century on war-weary shoulders, like champions from another era.
These civil warriors — our fore-fathers and -mothers — were not people of frowning black-and-white photos. They were funny and sarcastic, industrious, godly and perhaps braver and more capable than we are — or than we have yet shown ourselves to be.
They were a vibrant, energetic generation full of ideas and principles — principles they believed were worth dying for. When war brought tumult and tore apart families, they responded to defend what God had established as the greatest nation on earth.
In cultural terms, they — with God’s help — performed a miracle. We live in the country they helped to create, and for which they paid the price in blood and dreams. The Civil War is our shared family history.
In this column, we will look at people, events and lessons from that war to help us here in Ventura County, in our own neighborhoods, in our own battles. We will arm ourselves with wisdom from the past so that — whatever events may encompass us — we will be those of whom our great-grandchildren boast: “My ancestors helped save our country.”
After all, our children will judge us by the nation they inherit.
Let’s illuminate that American inheritance. Because, like those living in 1860 — my Grandma Lillian among them — we may not foresee what’s ahead, or the forces that may shake our nation to its roots again. Like their generation, we may not believe that costly conflict is possible in civilized places.
But the Civil War teaches us that the terrible glories of war, which none wish upon themselves, can visit any generation. Somehow, those events also clarify, revitalize and renew. In Abraham Lincoln’s words, they help us to “achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
So it was in their day, so let it be in ours.
Americans tend to sleepwalk into war.
On the eve of the greatest bloodletting ever to take place on the North American continent, most Americans — North and South — were fully convinced that any armed conflict would be brief and nearly bloodless.
Alabama state legislator LeRoy Pope Walker famously predicted, “All the blood shed as a result of secession could be wiped up with a handkerchief.” U.S. Senator James Chesnut, Jr., of South Carolina, opined that, “a lady’s thimble will hold all the blood that will be shed,” and promised to drink any that might be spilled.
Members of Lincoln’s own cabinet called it “the thirty days war,” and men enlisted so they wouldn’t miss the opportunity for glory.
Having never witnessed nor conceived of a war of any magnitude on their own soil, the American people were convinced that a peaceful solution — or a peaceful separation — would be effected, perhaps involving a few border skirmishes or a single, grand battle.
“[C]ivil war, by reason of the existence of slavery,” was anticipated for 50 years by leading American statesmen, wrote William Tecumseh Sherman — the brilliant, chain-smoking, red-headed Union leader from Ohio — in his memoirs. Sherman recalled how America’s top military commander “told me [Sherman] as early as 1850 that the country was on the eve of civil war … yet the Government made no military preparation, and the Northern people generally paid no attention, took no warning of its coming, and would not realize its existence till Fort Sumter was fired on [in April 1861]. … it does seem to me that our public men, our politicians, were blamable for not sounding the note of alarm.”
Even after Sumter, there was a widespread sense that any war would be over by next Tuesday, and involve no coffins.
Later in 1861, with the war a few months old and without major battles, Sherman was again shocked when he “came North, [and] found not one single sign of preparation. It was for this reason, somewhat, that the people of the South became convinced that those of the North were pusillanimous and cowardly, and the Southern leaders were thereby enabled to commit their people to the war, nominally in defense of their slave property.”
In other words, had the North prepared rather than procrastinated, Southerners may have backed away from the costly conflict. Or the war might have been shorter and more decisive — costing far fewer lives.
As it was, the North stumbled through 1861 and slowly woke up to the horror that was upon them, while sabers rattled in the South to the strains of “Dixie.”
By this time, neither side was backing down, and so the nation plunged into a four-year maelstrom that not even the most jaundiced pessimist had expected — but from which the nation somehow emerged to become the greatest economic and military power the world has ever seen. A modern Phoenix rose from the ashes of fratricide.