The Civil War Is Always With Us
By Frank J. Williams
(October 2011 Civil War News - Preservation Column)

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The sesquicentennial of the Civil War is upon us. The commemoration between 2011 and 2015 will generate dozens of books and scores of other kinds of remembrances. Major battles and events will be commemorated from Fort Sumter to Appomattox.

Abraham Lincoln’s re-election in 1864, the abolition of slavery in Washington, D.C., in 1862, and the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, were momentous occasions which deserve special attention.

Unfortunately, many events have been and will be memorialized differently in the North and South. These ongoing differences serve to divide rather than understand the crisis.

For example, on March 6, the reenactment of Abraham Lincoln taking the oath as President was held in the Visitors Center in the U.S. Capitol with actor Sam Waterston reading Lincoln’s first inaugural address only to be preceded on Feb. 26 with “Jefferson Davis” sworn in as President of the Confederacy on the steps of the Alabama Capitol.

The Confederate reenactment was organized by the Sons of Confederate Veterans, as one in a series of commemorations planned during the 150th anniversary of the Confederacy and the “War for Southern Independence.”

The causes of civil wars are complex and whether they might have been avoided are equally complex questions. Slavery, of course, was the major reason behind the Civil War, but why did it suddenly break out in the early 1860s? What additional factors pushed the nation to the point of no return?

In one sense, Lincoln’s election in 1860 precipitated secession and the outbreak of the war, so some think that Nov. 6, 2010, really marked the beginning of the cycle of commemoration.

If Lincoln’s leadership is at the heart of both slavery and the war itself, a volume from Asia, Lincoln Without Borders,edited by J. Tripathy, S. Rath and William D. Pederson (Delhi: Pencraft International, 2010), marks the first book dealing with Lincoln’s legacy abroad.

This was followed by another similar volume from Europe this year, The Global Lincoln, edited by Richard Carwardine and Jay Sexton (Oxford, 2011). Douglas R. Egerton’s Year of Meteors: Stephen Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, and the Election that Brought on the Civil War (Bloomsbury Press) presents a thorough analysis of our nation’s most critical election as well as the differences between Northerners and Southerners.

Why did these differences turn lethal? While anti-slavery, Lincoln was no abolitionist and he held fast to the belief that slavery in the states where it already existed was a local decision. Eric Foner’s prize-winning study of Lincoln and slavery, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery (W.W. Norton, 2010), studies Lincoln’s evolving    attitudes toward “the peculiar institution.”

On the other hand, many historians believe the Civil War started on April 12, 1861, when soldiers for the Confederacy began firing on the federal garrison at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, S.C.

With over 65,000 Civil War books published and, according to USA Today, 12,586 non-fiction books still in print along with 1,899 works of fiction, new books keep coming at a fast pace. An anthology, Hearts Touched by Fire: The Best of “Battles and Leaders of the Civil War,” edited by Harold Holzer (Modern Library, 2011), conveys the immediacy of the conflict as experienced by generals and civilians.

America Aflame, David Goldfield’s account (Bloomsbury Press, 2011) of the coming, conduct and consequences of the war is a riveting, often heartbreaking, narrative of what happened while causing us to consider other options with the implicit question of whether the nation might have somehow avoided the carnage of 620,000 deaths and, if so, what kind of a nation would we have become?

Two recent reference-like works are Louis P. Masur’s The Civil War: A Concise History (Oxford, 2011) which deals with the origins of the war in approximately 20 pages with the remaining 90 pages providing a political and military analysis. Harold Holzer and Craig L. Symonds have edited The New York Times Complete Civil War 1861-1865 (Black Dog and Leventhal, 2010) containing hundreds of contemporary articles reproduced and accompanied with a DVD of the paper’s complete coverage of the war.

A wonderful read is Adam Goodheart’s 1861: The Civil War Awakening (Alfred A. Knopf, 2011) by a gifted story-teller who infuses his narrative with nuance and lively descriptions of the personalities and the cultural era.

Another much longer delight is Amanda Foreman’s thousand-page epic, A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War (Random House, 2011). By taking the British perspective, the author captures the full complexity of the war with its confused aims, mixed motives, and the agendas of the combatants. She skillfully brings out the misperceptions of foreigners whose favor was courted so assiduously by the participants.

The first book to collect the President’s writings on the Civil War, Lincoln on War by Harold Holzer (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2011), creates the context for this commander-in-chief who both in his time and now is often described as lacking military experience.

The vivid images of the Civil War are well represented in Dorling Kindersley Publishing’s 2011 The Civil War: A Visual History.       

Last year, outstanding exhibits opened at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. The exhibits were designed not to recapitulate the war’s battles, nor survey the conflict’s causes and effects, nor focus on slavery, nor even on Lincoln. Instead the staff searched through its vast holdings to reveal another dimension of the war.

“Discovering the Civil War” caught engrossing and fascinating views of the country’s social and economic life through seldom seen documents and photographs. A book with the same title as the exhibit depicting these treasures has been published by D. Giles Ltd., London, with the Foundation for the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

One may continue to debate whether the Civil War was inevitable or justified since passions and myths are part of the human experience. But in an effort to understand and commemorate the event, it is necessary to recall that the war was about more than the clash and deaths of soldiers.

As Lincoln fully understood and expressed in his writings, it dealt with the fate of democracy in the modern world. The United States and the Great Emancipator were up to this challenge.


Frank J. Williams is founding Chair of The Lincoln Forum and President of The Ulysses S. Grant Association, serves as Chair of the Rhode Island Civil War Sesquicentennial Commemoration Commission.