Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Sesquicentennial of the Civil War

It was 150 years ago today that the Civil War began with the Battle of Fort Sumter.

In hindsight, it was probably inevitable that a civil war would occur. There were simply too many issues that had to be resolved — and they had to be resolved before the young nation could begin its maturation process.

The election of Abraham Lincoln as president in November 1860 led to South Carolina's decision to secede on Christmas Eve, and half a dozen Southern states followed in the next six weeks. Four more states seceded after the attack on Fort Sumter.

Folks have been anticipating this anniversary.
  • Mike Litterst of the National Park Service wants people to know that what will take place today and over the course of the next four years, as the 150th anniversaries of everything that happened during that time are observed, are "commemoration[s], not celebration[s]," writes Jay Clarke in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

    I guess it's crucial to make that distinction in today's politically charged, politically correct atmosphere.

  • It could be a little hard to discern, given the somewhat romanticized approaches that have been taken to the anniversary of the first battle of the war by outfits like MSNBC and NPR.

  • The Americans of 1861 had been anticipating the start of hostilities for some time, but they had no idea, as I wrote a few months ago, what their future held.

    If they had, I rather suspect they would have made more of an effort to avoid the whole thing.
There really was very little that the Americans of the mid–19th century knew, to be honest about it.

Southerners knew who their general was going to be — Robert E. Lee — but he was seen as old and not necessarily in touch with developments in modern warfare — kind of the John McCain of his day.

In the heat of battle, though, Lee won the respect of his men and the confidence of the Confederacy. To this day, he is admired and remembered for both his military knowledge and his integrity. He could have been the general of the Union forces — Lincoln wanted him — but he declined, choosing to fight for his home state of Virginia, even though he disagreed with its decision to secede.

Well, that's been the official story for quite some time now. But, as Elizabeth Brown Pryor wrote in American Heritage in 2008, it may have been a lot more complicated than that.

Lincoln went through several generals before deciding on Ulysses S. Grant to lead the Union forces. In the course of that journey, Lincoln relieved the man who would run against him in 1864, George McClellan.

Frustrated with McClellan's rather plodding approach to warfare, Lincoln, in what may be my favorite example of his unique wit, said to his general, "If you don't want to use the army, I should like to borrow it for awhile."

Grant had served in the Army during the Mexican–American War, then abruptly resigned in 1854; several biographers have written that Grant had been drunk off duty and had been told by his commanding officer to resign or face a court–martial. He was not in the service when the Civil War began on this date in 1861, but he re–enlisted shortly thereafter.

Initially assigned to recruiting and training, he performed so well he was rewarded with a field command and eventually given command of the entire Union army.

As America pauses, from time to time, in the next few years to re–examine that pivotal period in the 19th century, I hope we will re–examine the people who fought in it and their reasons for doing so.


Atlanta Roofing said...

While I agree ending slavery was not the only cause for the war, it clearly was a cause for the war. Would the secession have occoured if slavery weren't the issue? Would the war have started without the secession? Therefor because of slavery the south seceded causing the north to attempt to "save the union." So yes, slavery was a reason for the civil war.

David Goodloe said...

You are responding to a point I did not raise.