Enormous in scope, yet established as a shared calamity, a boundary on differences.
When Barack Obama was born, John Kennedy was president. When John Kennedy was born, Woodrow Wilson was president. And when Woodrow Wilson was born, Abe Lincoln was still just a country lawyer, almost unheard of outside Illinois.
The past is closer than we think. But it is also, in another sense, farther away.
One hundred fifty years ago this week — only two average lifetimes ago — Americans butchered one another with frenzied abandon on picturesque fields and hillocks near Gettysburg, Pa. The 160,000 men who fought there on July 1-3, 1863, made up slightly more than one half of one percent of the nation’s entire population at the time.
A proportionately sized battle today would throw 1.6 million Americans against one another — and leave 78,000 of them dead.
The scale of the American Civil War overpowers the modern imagination. Gettysburg, its largest and most decisive battle, was not its deadliest.
What was still a young and experimental nation (when Lincoln was born, the author of the Declaration of Independence was still in the White House), with just 31 million residents (less than the current population of California), inflicted upon itself what remains by far America’s bloodiest conflict, even in simple numbers. In relative terms, the Civil War was six times as deadly for Americans as World War II.
A comparably scaled internal war today would kill 7 million.
It can feel presumptuous to reflect on the meaning of the Civil War. An oceanic tide of literature, scholarship and dramatization has surely said it all. The astounding eloquence of the participants, from Lincoln on down, bids us to be silent.
And yet, however long Lincoln’s cherished nation endures, Americans may never be able to stop trying to understand how such a thing could have happened and what they must learn from it.
“There is a sacred veil to be drawn over the beginning of all governments,” wrote the 18th-century English statesman Edmund Burke. Usually, he said, the passage of many centuries allows brutal and unjust national origins to be “sanctified by obscurity.” But “prudence and discretion,” he added, “make it necessary to throw something of the same drapery over more recent foundations.”
Americans have drawn a form of this “sacred veil” over the Civil War — a second founding of America as a truly unified nation, in which festering disputes over slavery and states’ rights, left unresolved by the “founding fathers,” were violently settled at last.
It isn’t that the carnage and tragedy is ever overlooked in modern recollections of the Civil War. But to a striking extent, the horror is remembered as a common tragedy, a shared ordeal, North and South, and as an epic national drama in which bravery and self-sacrifice on both sides is unreservedly admired.
Do the British, the French, the Spanish, the Russians, the Koreans, the Vietnamese remember their internal bloodlettings in quite this way? I don’t know, but surely America’s divisions have been bridged as well as any.
The Civil War could so easily be remembered, on each side, as one of history’s greatest crimes. The South might recall it as the violent imposition of alien rule on people claiming nothing more than the right to self-government America’s framers established. The North might see it as a mass conspiracy of traitors to overthrow democracy, all to perpetuate human slavery — “one of the worst causes for which people ever fought,” as Ulysses S. Grant put it in his memoirs, even as he praised the courage and skill of his Confederate adversaries.
One can, of course, find angry (but defensible) views like this expressed even today — but they are curiosities.
It’s revealing to contrast how well America’s Civil War wounds have healed with the sensitivity that still surrounds Minnesota’s remembrance of the 1862 Dakota War. The state’s recent marking of the 150th anniversary of that grim disaster shows a welcome longing for reconciliation. But discomfort remains over many details of the story, and questions about who was most to blame, still seem open and painful.
It says something that the Dakota War, not the Civil War that raged at the same time, brought the largest mass execution in U.S. history — 38 Dakota fighters believed to have committed crimes against civilians. Robert E. Lee wasn’t hanged, though he led an insurgent army against his government at Gettysburg and dozens of other killing fields. Instead, Lee is remembered today, North and South, as, if not quite a hero, at least a model of soldierly integrity.
An ‘incommunicable’ passion
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