A War So Terrible: Why the Civil War Gives Us Hope Today

Abraham Lincoln, 16th U.S. President, 1809-1865

This piece appeared in the April 15, 2011, edition of the Ashland Daily Tidings. Unfortunately, the Tidings requires registration to view the Guest Opinion section. I’ve posted my piece here to make it more accessible to interested readers:      

The U.S. Civil War is an event awash in superlatives: Our nation’s bloodiest war. The war that freed the slaves. The war that made the election of America’s first black president an inevitability.

Admittedly, those statements do more than ring true. Whether it is the distant past or this week in April 2011 marking the 150th anniversary of the war’s beginning, we remember it because we know instinctively there is nothing else like it in American history. The mangled and diseased bodies of more than 625,000 Americans – about 2 percent of the population during the 1860s – manured fields, stream banks, pastures and prairies from Poison Spring, Arkansas, to St. Albans, Vermont. Not even Hitler and Tojo killed as many U.S. soldiers. Today, that casualty percentage would equal 6 million dead Americans.  It is impossible to conceive of a slave-labor nation that by 1860 was the third-largest economic power on the planet simply abandoning such might without a struggle – North and South, slavery had its ardent supporters as well as its silent partners. Although modern voters were more likely swayed by weariness with George W. Bush than by memories of the Battle of Antietam, whatever future historians say about Barack Obama all must acknowledge he is the first African-American president of a republic that nearly committed suicide because of slavery. (For those looking for the local angle on the Civil War, Southern Oregon in 1861 was such a hotbed of secession it was nicknamed “Little Dixie,” easily the most rebellious area of the state and completely worthy of its own historical superlative.)

Yet, two things beyond the usual sweeping statements are worth considering as we note this milestone marking a century-and-a-half since the nation’s new birth of freedom.

First, the Civil War regenerated the American concept of freedom. It was a Second American Revolution, one that finally fulfilled Thomas Jefferson’s promise in the Declaration of Independence: “All men are created equal.” Abraham Lincoln had spent his lifetime extolling the virtues of the Declaration as the moral, economic, and political blueprint of a nation “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Then, the United States was a rare bird, a country founded and maintained on the principles of classical liberalism in a world that still embraced monarchy and empire. As Allen Guelzo points out in Lincoln: A Very Short Introduction, our greatest president guided a democratic republic at war with itself into understanding the Declaration declared slavery a moral poison.  “To kill slavery, a democracy had to believe it was wrong – not just inconvenient or unpopular, but wrong,” Guelzo writes. “No lesser energy, in fact, would suffice … (since a new birth was) the complete renovation and restoration of a peoples’ dedication to ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people’ and the only real guarantee that it ‘shall not perish from the earth.’”

Second, we died as a nation and a people so we could change as a people and a nation. Which of the following is correct: “These United States are a large nation,” or “The United States is a large nation”? Both – depending on whether you are speaking of the United States before or after the war. We had been a plural noun, a country held together by shared language, faith, ideals, and customs, but politically one nation quite divisible with liberty and justice for some. The war transformed us into a singular noun established on the idea that we would be one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. The shame of disenfranchisement, lynchings, and failed promises to black Americans that marked this nation until the 1960s is both undeniable and heartbreaking.  Yet, it is also undeniable that the Civil War forged a nation (not just “a Union”) that converted four million slaves into citizens and voters within five years, the most rapid and fundamental social transformation in American history.

Lincoln once said, “As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.” Let us take hope from the Civil War, a war so terrible it taught us that freedom, once bought for a price, can never be given away cheaply. Though long ago, it made possible who we are today.


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