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

Some years ago, an aging businessman who had shot down 15 Nazi planes as a young World War II fighter pilot told me his stories for a Minnesota oral history of the 20th century. He had led a successful and eventful life after the war. But he admitted that it had all seemed “kind of slow most of the time” once one had experienced combat.

The estimable heroics of the “greatest generation” notwithstanding, American history might seem “slow” in spots without the Civil War. It is the grand, Shakespearean epic of our national life. It may be that keeping Burke’s sacred veil drawn over its villainies and resentments allows us more comfortably to embrace the story’s inspiring and romantic qualities.

There were of course many devastated psyches among Civil War veterans, much post-traumatic stress disorder. Back then, with their irrepressible ear for poetry, they called it “Soldier’s Heart.”

But the awful ambiguity of war — horrid and bewildering, thrilling and clarifying — inspired other poetic flourishes.

“I do not know the meaning of the universe,” said famed Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., wounded three times on Civil War battlefields. Holmes would become one of the most influential skeptics and pragmatists of the dawning modern age. “Certitude leads to violence,” he said, arguing that the Civil War illustrated the danger of ever being sure one knew the total moral truth.

But for Holmes “the soldier’s faith” was always something different.

“But in the midst of doubt,” he said, “in the collapse of creeds, there is one thing I do not doubt ... and that is that the faith is true and adorable which leads a soldier to throw away his life in obedience to a blindly accepted duty, in a cause which he little understands … under tactics of which he does not see the use.”

“We [soldiers] have shared the incommunicable experience of war,” Holmes added. “[W]e have felt, we still feel, the passion of life to its top.”

No doubt Holmes was right in believing — as have so many other combat veterans before and since — that what he was talking about is ultimately “incommunicable” to those of us who haven’t been to war. But, however faintly, the “passion of life” comes through in Civil War stories, partly because Americans have chosen to remember the heroism more than the horror.

The heroism of the First Minnesota Volunteer Regiment at Gettysburg is remembered in a moving front-page Star Tribune story today. And it figures large in Richard Moe’s fine regimental history, “The Last Full Measure,” which he will discuss in a Minnesota History Center lecture Monday evening.

In his book, Moe quotes Gen. Winfield Hancock’s stunning tribute to the First Minnesota’s sacrificial charge at Gettysburg (which he ordered):

“There is no more gallant deed recorded in history,” Hancock said.

Surely that qualifies as having said it all.

A mighty scourge

There is, all this acknowledged, a more sorrowful ingredient in America’s Civil War reconciliation. In the postwar Reconstruction era, the triumphant North attempted for a time to impose a semblance of racial justice on the defeated South, ensuring basic rights for freed ­African-Americans.

Plagued by corruption, undermined by the terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan, that effort failed and was abandoned, not least because the North, in the end, was little more prepared than the South for real racial equality.

It simply has to be admitted that America made peace with itself partly by making peace with the continuation of a white supremacy that changed little for another century.

It’s been noted that Reconstruction should have prepared America for the difficulties it has recently confronted in Iraq and Afghanistan. It showed how hard it is to use a military occupation to accelerate change in a traditional society, to establish peace and justice between majorities and minorities.

Lincoln didn’t live to see Reconstruction falter, but he would have understood. About a month before he was assassinated, in his strange and beautiful Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln proclaimed bluntly that the sufferings of the Civil War were God’s punishment on America — “North and South” — for its 250-year-old sin of slavery.

In what is, perhaps understandably, not one of Lincoln’s most fondly remembered passages (though it was impressively dramatized at the close of last year’s “Lincoln”) the weary president said that “this mighty scourge of war” would be a righteous divine judgment on America even “if God wills that it continue … until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword.”

Lincoln then closed with what is a well-loved passage, urging the nation to make peace “with malice toward none; with charity for all …”

It didn’t turn out exactly that way. And yet, in a sense, perhaps Americans have embraced down to this day Lincoln’s final understanding of the Civil War — as a shared national calamity, without which the journey toward a broader definition of justice could not even begin.


D.J. Tice is at Doug.Tice@startribune.com.