150 Years Later: Lincoln and the End of the Civil War

cvlwrmvI had the opportunity recently to watch again the magnificent documentary on the Civil War produced by Ken Burns (hard to believe) more than a generation ago.

The series captures with power and clarity the contradictions of a war that was utterly brutal, and yet somehow civil; fought over cherished land and powerful ideas about union, states’ rights, culture, freedom and slavery; noble yet savage, honorable yet despicable, inspiring and yet tragic beyond human comprehension.

This spring, we will be commemorating, some of us for the last time in our lives, a major Civil War milestone: the 150th anniversary of four historically and massively significant events, all of which occurred within a period of a few months: 1) Lincoln’s second inaugural (March 4), arguably the most important and beautiful inaugural in our history; 2) the surrender at Appomattox of General Lee to General Grant, which for all intents and purposes ended the war; the April 15 assassination of Lincoln, arguably our greatest president; and finally the official end of the war on June 2.

150 years is a long time, but considered in human terms it is only two lifetimes – some of our grandparents were alive during the war or certainly heard firsthand stories about it. The lessons of the war, of course, are legion and even today are still hotly debated and discussed.

  • It was the first modern war, some argue, and one in which weaponry advanced faster than tactics, hence the mayhem and slaughter that cost 600,000 Americans their lives, more than in all other American wars combined.
  • Total war was invented by Union generals Sherman and Sheridan, who redefined modern warfare by targeting without remorse a civilian population that was left homeless, foodless, and defenseless as entire stretches of the south were decimated.
  • It was a war that made a nation – as Shelby Foote put it so concisely: before the war, people said these United States “are;” after the war, it became the United States “is” – singular and united, one nation.
  • Slavery ended, but not the fight for civil rights. Great gains were won, but the resurgence of white supremacy and Jim Crow meant another 100 years would pass before blacks achieved true equal rights and freedom under the law. Even so, the foundations of that passage to freedom were rooted in the Declaration of Independence and Lincoln’s writings – a new birth of freedom.
  • As well documented as the war was, tens of thousands of photos were lost forever in the aftermath of the war, when glass plate negatives were repurposed for windows and gardens and all sorts of other daily uses.
  • Lincoln was elevated to secular sainthood and ever since is always rated one of our greatest presidents, if not the greatest 

We can argue and discuss for days the issues that were elevated, won, lost, won again, and lost again, because of those events during that unprecedented war. Remarkably, for so brutal a war, very view people were punished in any harsh way afterward, the exception being the commander of the southern prison in Andersonville under whose watch 13,000 men died, and the conspirators in Lincoln’s assassination. Confederate General James Johnson, who surrendered his army on April 26, actually served as a pallbearer at Sherman’s funeral decades later. With malice toward none became a cultural reality for soldiers in that war, except for those obsessed with or the victim of racial prejudice

Yet, we still carry the scars of the war, whether it is the flying of confederate flag or the overreaction to it; whether it is the continuing sting and stain of racism, or its opposite, the voluntary tribalization of our nation by those who cannot cohere around an idea but only around ethnic or racial grievances, real or imagined.

I will not live to see the 200th anniversary of the civil war, but my children might.

It is my prayer that the most important lesson of that war somehow be learned in the coming half century by those in our nation who seemed determined to sow discord and fragment our culture: that this nation, conceived in sin as it was (as we all are), was also conceived in fervent belief that the march to freedom and liberty should be continual and ever expanding, and that the very nation that once refused to acknowledge the equality of all men and women in law, did so in spirit, and has, in the ensuring decades, provided more freedom to more people of all races and creeds than any nation in history.

This fact should not be lost at a time when it seems as if half the world is determined to enslave the other half and march us back to the middle ages. My immigrant grandfather was a beneficiary of that dream and vision and so is every person in this nation today, including our African American president.

This journey toward expanding freedom and opportunity is worth remembering, celebrating and defending, for as long this nation and its founding ideas endure. They were reaffirmed in those months 150 years ago after the greatest shedding of blood and tears in our nation’s history.

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