Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The American Civil War Sesquicentennial

“The past is never dead. It’s not even in the past”
--William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun

On April 12, 1861, the first shots of the American Civil War were fired from Charleston, South Carolina across the harbor at Fort Sumter. Nearly four years and 618,000 American lives later, the war ended with the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia under the command of General Robert E. Lee to General Ulysses S. Grant and the Army of the Potomac at the crossroads called Appomattox Courthouse on April 9, 1865. Despite the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth six days later, the peace held, as another contentious period of American history known as Reconstruction began in earnest. These facts, however, tell us little about the importance of the conflict in the history of the United States. To understand the importance of the conflict, we turn to the voluminous number of books and other material that seek to explain the events and their importance.

Most importantly, the Civil War ended slavery, the right of a person to hold other people as property. Ending slavery was not the stated aim of the federal government at the beginning of the conflict; Lincoln requested the mobilization of the loyal state militias (which became most of the Union Army) “… to maintain the honor, the integrity, the existence, and the perpetuity of the National Union.” The issue of slavery was never far away, however, because “Without slavery, the rebellion could never have existed. Without slavery, it could not continue.”