Why do Americans continue to be fascinated with the Civil War?
The Civil War ended more than 150 years ago, but millions of Americans continue to buy books, see movies and attend lectures concerning this period in our history. Thousands of narratives have been written on this conflict, with hundreds on the Battle of Gettysburg alone- and there appears to be no end in sight to this continuing avalanche of material. Why? Perhaps it is because the Civil War truly IS one of the most interesting and thought-provoking times in our heritage,when brother fought against brother, the nation was being ripped apart and this experiment in democracy almost came to an end- but managed to survive despite long odds.
|The American Civil War|
The Civil War began on April 12, 1861 when Confederate soldiers fired upon Federal Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor. The real "break" came months before, when several southern states seceded after the election of Abraham Lincoln in November 1860. South Carolina was the first, followed by others as they attempted to form a new nation devoted to allowing slavery to survive. The abomination of slavery had been around for thousands of years- since Biblical times- but by the 19th century, many nations around the world began reconsidering their support for the atrocious practice. As the economy of the southern states was largely dependent on agriculture- and slaves supplied very inexpensive labor to support those activities- slave-owning plantation owners considered anyone promoting an end to slavery a direct threat to their sovereignty and way of life. Numerous events including those in "bleeding Kansas" pitted slave owners against abolitionists, the result being ever rising tensions as the nation seemed to be veering toward anarchy. Politicians in southern states openly stated their desire to form a separate country where they and their constituents would be free to own slaves- mere chattel, in their view- to pursue the lifestyle they desired. Thousands of abolitionists throughout the country- mainly in the North- felt slavery was a horrific stain on human dignity and had to be ended.
|The Battle of Fort Sumter which started the Civil War|
When the Confederate States of America was formed, it was a "nation" unlikely to survive. Roughly 90% of the manufacturing capacity of the country was in northern states, as was the bulk of our railroads and telegraph lines. No politicians in the newly formed Confederacy had ever run a Treasury before and few of them had any legal experience writing a Constitution. The shots fired in April 1861 may have seemed like the sounds of freedom to those rebels in Charleston, but little did they know how much misery and mayhem they would portend. The Confederacy did manage to get one of the very best Generals ever to serve in the U.S. Army- Robert E. Lee, who agonized over the decision to fight against his own country. Yet the Confederacy was really doomed from the start with limited money, natural resources and industrial capacity to fight such a conflict. It is astonishing that the Confederacy managed to survive for four years before that slave-owning experiment came to an end.
|Dead soldiers on the field of battle at Gettysburg|
By the time Lee decided to surrender- April 9, 1865- the Confederacy was in a shambles, the southern economy ruined, hundreds of millions of dollars of land and equipment damaged or destroyed through the course of the war. Roughly 600,000 persons or 2% of the population was killed during the Civil War; today's equivalent would be more than 6 million people- an unthinkable number. Southern politicians supporting secession likely had little idea that their efforts would not form a new country- but nearly destroy their own way of life. By 1895- 30 years after the war ended- the economic output of just one northern state- New York- equaled the entire economic output of ALL the southern states combined. After the war, northern states thrived as railroads and new technology helped business to boom, new markets to develop and commerce to thrive. By contrast, southern states were merely trying to heal the wounds opened decades before.
|Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrenders to Union Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox|
As we look back on this episode in our history, it is helpful to note that it was not all bad. The 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution were ratified due to what happened during the Civil War. In the decades following these Amendments, laws allowing blacks to freely live their lives, own businesses and become productive citizens were adopted around the country. Some of the first black representatives in Congress came from southern states, eager to participate in this experiment we call America. So instead of thinking of this period as a disaster, perhaps we should consider a rebirth of freedom, a necessary conflict that produced many great accomplishments which we enjoy today.