What does the Civil War mean to you?

I’ve been away on vacation to New Orleans for the past week. While doing the museum circuit, I went to the excellent D-Day museum and then took a stroll around the corner to the Memorial Hall Confederate Museum. The Confederate Museum is mostly a context-free collection of miscellaneous gear: uniforms of famous men like Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard, swords, guns, battle flags and so on. This is interesting stuff to the enthusiast, but not so great for the idle visitor. Happily, there was no hint of white supremacy or “the South will rise again” sentiment to the place.

While I was there, I heard a boy ask his mom who won the battle of Gettysburg. She paused, evidently not knowing the answer, but since she wanted to answer the boy she hesitantly said “I think the South won that battle.” Being nearby, I piped up and gently corrected her. After another minute the woman came up beside me and said, waving her hand in a nonspecific way, “You sound like you’re from the South. Does all this mean anything to you?” I said “Sure it means something to me. I imagine it means something to a lot of northerners too.” She said, “I’m from Michigan, and to me it’s always been confusing. We don’t ever think about it.” I didn’t ask why she came to the museum, but I did point out that a lot of Michiganders fought and died in the war, including those from the famous Iron Brigade. She was quiet and unconvinced, but asked another question. “Was the Civil War about slavery?” I said, “Yes. It was about slavery.” She said inconclusively “Because you hear people saying it was about other things…”

Two things puzzle me. One is the complete indifference (most often by northerners) to this cataclysmic nation-shaping War Between the States, and the other is the insistence (most often by southerners) that the war was not about slavery.

So what does the Civil War mean to you?

10 thoughts on “What does the Civil War mean to you?”

  1. Dear Sir (Ned?), I have been reading your ramblings for some time now and have often considered writing to you or commenting on something you’ve written. For whatever reason I never actually did. Until now. Your question “What does the Civil War mean to you?” struck a chord in me and gave me pause to think. You are completely correct in that the war was about slavery but it was also about a lot of other thing but none that would have lead to a war I think. I, as a Canadian (some of us fought on both sides) have little do do with it but it was one of the most interestin things we studied. Not just because it was about war (we had WWII to occupy us) but because it pit one people against their brothers and fathers. What are the mechanics of getting friends and neighbours to kill oneanother? I have been to Bosnia twice, Africa and also to Kosova only in Bosnia did I see the kind of blind hate for individual people that had once been friends. That is being called a war of religion but it was not. It was a political war and a war of human grred and ambittion. The men who caused the fighting planted the seeds and reeped the harvest of religious hate/violence. A cival war is the most troubling and destructive war and I thank God/god for never putting me in the position to face that side of myself.
    I could go on, I have quite a lot to say on the subject but I do not want you to feel compelled to make political observations on my account. Keep writing and know that we will continue reading.


  2. I grew up in California, not that it should matter, and don’t really remember spending a lot of time studying the Civil War in school.
    Here’s what it “meant” to me at that time:
    We had to memorize and recite the Gettysburg Address. One of the worst things you can do to a kid…There is no attempt at understanding what it MEANT. Just memorize it, Junior.

    Slavery is bad(The South) and Freedom is good(The North). That’s what we learned and it wasn’t until later in life that I learned that people had arguments against this notion.

    A civil war is the worst kind of war: Witnesss Bosnia, Rwanda(!) and I’d venture Cambodia. What is amazing is that we manged to rebuild and move on(well, it’s been over a hundred years, but…)

    What strikes/interestes me now: Was it all about slavery? What about the notion of “States’ Rights” that is even until this day trotted out in Congress?Is this considered a serious argument…? Or Economics…the mostly industrial North vs. the agrarian South…Would the North have embraced slavery had they needed low-skilled farm hands instead of low-skilled miners/factory workers?

    One last note: The side affects- Without the Civil War, we would never have had so many Westerns featuring gunslingers, train robbers etc.
    Also(last thing, I swear) the Gun culture/Right To Bear Arms history of the US has been traced back to AFTER the Civil War, though don’t tell Chuck Heston I said that…

  3. Hi Randy, thanks for the comment.

    It sounds like you have more experience with civil wars than most of us. Civil war is often more terrible than other wars, I agree, but it’s interesting to observe that, in the case of the American Civil War, the singularity of the slavery issue actually made for a better outcome (ultimately) than many other ethnically-based civil wars around the world. The American Civil War was about states’ rights, but only inasmuch as the states’ rights defended slavery. The war was about the southern “way of life” (for wealthy white folks), but only inasmuch as that way of life was supported by slavery. Once the slavery issue was resolved, there was no need for disunion. Slavery being out of the question, there was no longer anything incompatible between the ways of life north, south, east, or west. It took four years of brutal warfare to make this simple point clear, but the result was a stronger rather than a weaker nation, even given the terrible fraternal nature of the conflict.


  4. Dear Ned, I agree with you whole heartedly. The US was lucky (if anyone in war can be) in that there was a main resolvable issue. Other nations as mentioned have none. The issues are brought up after the fact to support somebody in their quest for power and to justify their brutal means for oppression. It sickens me to think of it and I have no desire to wage war unnecessarily in Iraq or elsewhere, but that is another kettle of fish.
    Thank you for your response and I wish you good fortune. I will continue to visit your site for as long as I am able.
    Sincerely, Randy

  5. >>What does the Civil War mean to you?<<

    At first, it’s a map (level) for the outlaws game! ;) ;)

    But, to be honest, the civil war means for me the same as ANY war: murder, pain, fear, futility!!

    It doesn’t matter, what war it is!!


  6. It seems from your comment that at least you have no objection to simulated war, Matthias. Maybe that is a reasonable path forward to consider in the future: “whoever wins the next round of Warcraft III has to destroy their weapons of mass destruction.”

  7. Your question “What does the Civil War mean to you?” is a bit of a trap. It seems that most above has answered with some version of a historical knowledge of the events of the day. I could of course do the same seeing as how I have read numerous books on the subject (my father is a history teacher who specializes in the Civil War time period… some people bond over baseball, some over…etc). But I think that perhaps a direct answer to your question would be more enlightening.

    Studing history is about trying to learn from our mistakes while we realize that society never learns. This sad fact wrapped around this happy hope is why so many people become bitter about society. The Civil War shows us happiness and sadness as well.

    The sadness is in the fact that people are more than willing to be driven to the drumbeat of war without fearing the consequescies simply due to the fact that they have forgotten the reality of those consequences. (Neither the North nor the South thought the conflict would last past a few battles, and they both expected minimal casulties). We also see that society’s memory is short which causes us to have to relearn those same lessons (societially, not politically) each time we enter new conflict.

    The happiness is in the fact that we learn that the human indiviudal CAN rise up in the face of great hardships and become hardened like coal becoming a diamond. We see thousands of examples of individuals that rose to become something greater than what they were on their way to becoming, because (at least in part) of the conflict.

    The Civil War reminds me that when we forget we must relearn, and that when we become soft we must again become hardened.

  8. What the Civil War means to me. I am a very proud son of the south. The Civil War was fought over states rights to decide for themselves on a local basis issues that were very divisive on a national scale. The divisive issue of the day in 1861 was no doubt slavery. The issue of slavery absolutely dwarfed any others at the time and reduced them to only a footnote in history. Therefore, I can understand how many people conclude the Civil War was fought over slavery. That difference of opinion in the greater scheme of things is not that important to me. The main issue to me, it’s a good thing we fought that war and it’s a good thing we lost it. There are several positive things that came about as a result of the Civil War. The Civil War ended the institution of slavery in this country, which in my mind is second only to genocide in its moral corruption. The destruction and lack of opportunity left in the wake of the war, especially in the south, catapulted westward expansion. The resource rich west provided alternative opportunities that replaced those which had been destroyed by the war. Another accomplishment of the Civil War is that is established the Federal Government as the central power in the United States. Over next fifty years following the war we “grew up” into the industrial giant that won World War I, World War II, the Cold War and became the world’s moral compass. I cannot imagine how a divided nation, with an incomplete command of its resources, a weak sense of basic right and wrong and without a stronger central government than what we had before 1861 could have ever accomplished all this. Our country was born on July 4, 1776 in Philadelphia Pennsylvania and she was christened on April 9, 1865 at Appomattox Court House Virginia. To me, everyone who played a part in this transformation is a great American from Lee to Lincoln. We would not have become the nation we are without any of them. As we carry on the torch of promise our country has come to stand for we need to be mindful to learn from our heritage “childhood” as a nation, respect it, be proud of what it has made of us, cherish the opportunities it provides us, but not revert back to our “childhood”. I am as proud a son of the south as you will meet but an even prouder American.

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