The Civil War still matters to a great many Americans, even with the passage of more than 150 years since Robert E. Lee’s surrender to U.S. Grant at Appomattox Court House in April, 1865. An estimated 620,000 Union and Confederate soldiers died during the conflict, giving their last full measure of devotion in a war whose cost in lives and property was unimaginable at the start. The death toll went on to claim 2% of the population, which in today’s terms would equate to six-million battlefield dead.
So why does the war still matter?
Civil War historian Shelby Foote said that before the war, our representatives referred to the country as “these” United States, but afterwards it became “the” United States. The war established who we are as a nation, and what we are. Likewise, it established what we are not. Millions of immigrants flooded to America based upon the values that the nation nurtures and embodies. Freedom. Opportunity. Self-determination. Self-sufficiency. They still come. They become Americans. In addition, they learn about the connection of the Civil War to the freedom of all citizens.
Slavery was abolished, and the South’s economic model of a slave economy was forever eradicated. President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, a 273-word masterpiece that ranks as one of the nation’s most important speeches, referred to the “unfinished work” that would be needed to guarantee “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from this earth.” That work remains unfinished with regard to race relations, even though significant progress has been made. Our journey as a nation and as a people continues, albeit imperfectly and sometimes slowly.
At the brutal war’s end, Lincoln and Grant extended generous surrender terms to the defeated Confederates—an important first step in unifying the country. Years later, the U.S. was magnanimous toward the defeated Axis nations at the conclusion of World War II, very much akin to the standard established at the end of the Civil War. Thus, Germany and Japan became important post-war allies as a result.
There is still great interest in the war, from the well-preserved battlefields to the many fascinating figures of the era. Leaders and commanders such as Lincoln, Lee, Grant, Jackson, Sherman, and Forrest are still written and read about widely. Clara Barton and Belle Boyd are also appealing characters. Such Civil War topics as infantry tactics, weaponry, logistics, communications, and medicine are still studied by historians and military professionals.
Since 1865, this nation has freed the slaves, produced the American Century, won two world wars, birthed the Greatest Generation, cured diseases, become the “shining city upon a hill,” and landed men on the moon. Our history, like our present, is far from perfect, but America’s greatness is unquestionably linked to the sacrifice of those 620,000 men in bringing the nation to the place it now occupies.
Yes, the Civil War still matters.
And always will.
Gerald Gillis is the award-winning author of the Civil War historical novel That Deadly Space.