Why The American Civil War Is Important

I just got through listening to a set of college lectures on the American Civil War. I find that as I grow older, I become more and more fascinated with history.

I think this is because when I was younger, everybody over 30 was ancient and “history” to me was stuff that happened in the 1950s. Now I realize that it’s really the folks over 80 who are really old and history is just life, as remembered and written down.

Instead of thinking how different people were in the 1800s, it’s much more useful to view mankind as basically the same species that came from the savannah eons ago. The technology and clothes may change, but people are basically the same. We can feel their pain, read their words, and learn from their lives.

So here are the reasons why I am fascinated with the American Civil War:

  • It shows Americans losing – America has never really lost a war. We quit in Vietnam, but to really lose, like the French did when getting overrun by the Germans in WWII, is something that is beyond our common understanding. When the South lost the war, American homes and cities and towns being burned, subjugated to military rule, reduced to abject poverty — all of the things that are part of losing. This is a lesson we need to remember, especially when we see the same thing happening to others on the evening news.
  • Lee Showed How To Run An Effective Organization – Against overwhelming odds, Lee took an army of mostly random civilians and shaped it into a cohesive unit. His observations — how subordinates worked with their subordinates to make decisions, were the basis of his promotion strategy. You either fit the culture or you were eased out. Lee never lost his temper with his men. Everybody loved Lee, yet he was able to take a huge organization and mold it to an aligned, highly motivated team. This is sorely lacking in most organizations.
  • It was a critical point in history – More than anything, the American Civil War was the dividing line between the old theater-set battles of the 1800s and the modern maneuver warfare of the 1900s. As such, we get to see large groups of people evolve to drastically new situations, like the machine gun, trench warfare, and even aerial reconnaissance. Add to that photography, and you have a unique point in history that’s not exactly back in the darkness revolutionary war days, yet not modern enough that you can watch footage of it on the History Channel. It sits right on the edge of major change along many axes.
  • It shows democracies in extreme circumstances – Ever wonder where the draft began in America? It began in the south in the Civil War. Did you know that in the North people could buy their way out of joining the army? Or that tens of thousands of immigrants were allowed in only to be immediately conscripted? Did you know that Lincoln suspended habeus corpus — during the war authorities could arrest anybody they chose, and never had to show cause? Or that Lincoln arrested congressmen for speaking out against the war? If you want to see American democracy under great stress, the Civil War is the prime example. As a libertarian, when my libertarian friends start in about recent civil rights issues, I have to point them to the Civil War for a bit of context. The workings of systems are most illuminated when they are under the most stress.
  • When it was over, it was over – Aside from reconstruction (an Orwellian term if there ever was one), when the Civil War ended, it ended. Both sides basically went from trying their best to kill one another to shaking hands and going on with their lives. Sure — it’s more complicated than that, but that’s basically what happened. Lee didn’t start a guerrilla campaign as some of his officers suggested. We disagreed, we fought, one side won and one side lost. The nation grew.

    Nowadays one side would hang on to the bitter end, fighting it out in desultory warfare for generations. But Lee saw civilization as a greater cause beyond the immediate issues. Lincoln saw reconciliation as a greater goal than punishment. People can disagree, even violently, and still have something good come out of it.

    Or not.

  • It happened right here – The nice thing about so many battles, a wag once said, was they happened in national parks. If you’re in the U.S., especially on the east coast, it’s all right here. You can spend a week or two vacation and see all of the major battle locations by car. If you happen to live here, as I do, you can read about battles and suddenly realize, hey, that happened where I went hiking last year. Or I know that explosion had to be huge because I saw the pit it made when I was in Petersburg last year. History about someplace far away and thousands of years ago is one thing. History where you have pictures, books, and it happened in that big field in front of that house you wanted to buy? Much more intimate.
  • It shows how people start fighting for one thing and end up fighting for something else – Wars have a momentum of their own, and the victors write the history books. A war started because the political battle over slavery exacerbated the state’s rights claims of the south became for one side, a New American Revolution. For another side, a moral crusade to abolish slavery. When you look at current political events, the slant people give things today isn’t necessarily the same slant they’ll be giving them 50 years from now. People do as they want. They make up reasons later on. There’s lies, damned lies, and history books.

I’m beginning to love all of history — heck I think I could even stand becoming a bit of a classicist given enough time — but the American Civil War holds a special place in my heart. It was a time of great change and great challenges, yet the people meeting them were exactly the same as ourselves.

They just had beards and funny hats.

Richard S Ewell

General Ewell, also known as “Old Bald Head” is
a good example of why hats might be a good idea
Ewell was a bit of a humorist, and a good solider,
but he didn’t fit in with Lee’s ideas about what a good general should be

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12 thoughts on “Why The American Civil War Is Important

  1. DanielBMarkham

    I’ll have you know I’m shaving it all off this weekend for SCUBA classes over the summer. Plus I couldn’t find a hat funny enough to match the rest of me.

  2. Ken

    You are a brave man. I would never have the courage to admit to the internet that I was unable to find a sufficiently funny hat, because they would certainly oblige.

  3. StudyHarder

    I have a couple of points of disagreement:
    1. “Lee Showed How To Run An Effective Organization”.
    That’s an interesting comment coming from the Commander of the losing side. General Lee should have been hanged for treason. Instead the mythologizing began immediately and continues to this day. General Lee was responsible for tens of thousands of dead soldiers on both sides and we make him out to be an “effective commander”? Yeah, right!
    2. “When it was over, it was over”
    Tell all to all the African Americans slaves. In fact, the “civil war” continued all the way into the twentieth century with the lynchings and murders of African American descendant of slaves. The KKK was just a continuation of the Southern Confederacy(i.e. guerrilla warfare).
    Most of what’s taught about the civil today is just romantic mythologizing.

  4. DanielBMarkham

    StudyHarder — you’re entitled to your opinion, but let’s look at the substance here. Whether or not Lee should have been hanged for treason is not relevant to his abilities as a leader. Ghengis Kahn was a great leader, but I wouldn’t want to invite him over for dinner. Lee did incredible things against overwhelming odds, in many people’s opinion.
    Yes, mythologizing happened. As far as as the degree of exaggeration invovled, suffice it to say that Lee’s campaigns are still studied.
    And when I said “when it was over, it was over” I was referring to the fighting, not the entire issue of using force to try to make southerners think differently than they had for generations. That process took generations (and much more was accomplished through non-violence then force-of-arms)
    To Joe’s point, the Civil War was more about the question of whether a loose union of individual states were going to grow into a commercial powerhouse than the issue of slavery. But that argument is still being fought! LOL

  5. jack

    im doing a dissertation on why the battle of gettysburg was so significant to the outcome of the civil war and why american people have such a special place in their hearts for gettysburg and its effects on how society is today – patriotism, respect for lincoln’s views. why is the battle still so prevalent? etc. could anyone give me some ideas? please! need help with thoughts and reliable resources as well ie. books, articles whatever.

  6. Sharon

    Thank you for this post. I’m teaching Jr. High Civil War History, so I’m trying to read everything I can get my hands on. Interesting points you’ve made. Please continue to write more about the War Between the States.

  7. Sharon

    Anybody would agree with the fact that there is still some racism in the world, even in our country. But, you must also admit that the African Americans bring most of the racism on themselves these days.
    They had great opportunities, and they have squandered most of those opportunities. Nowadays, the ultra-sensitive chip on their shoulders effective squelches any debate or discussion that might help further the end of racism.

  8. Emil

    I really likes the fact that your giving out!
    As my self I got a project in school about The American Civil War so I want to find information about it.
    I like the way you write.

  9. Trevor Jackson

    I also agree. I want to add on that Abraham Lincoln was a republican. But the fact he arrested congressman for speaking against the war was unconstitutional.


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