The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
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In Memory’s Mirror

How Americans have commemorated the Civil War at fifty, one hundred and 150 years tells us who we are as a nation-in-progress.

Published on September 1, 2011

Nationalism and historical memory are as inseparable in modern history as air and breathing. In his 1961 masterwork, The Legacy of the Civil War, Robert Penn Warren succinctly and lyrically described the place of the war in the nation’s memory: “The Civil War draws us as an oracle darkly unriddled and portentous, of national as well as personal fate.” This connection of the personal to the national, of individual and family memory to the country’s contending narratives of the Civil War, has infused the American imagination through one anniversary after another, up to the 150th this year.

In his recent book, The Legacy of the Second World War (2010), the historian John Lukacs ponders why, 65 years on, the conflagration of 1939–45 continues to stimulate the world’s imagination and shape attitudes toward geopolitics. He muses on several possible answers: fascination with historical drama on such a grand scale, with the horrible or with man’s capacity for “evil”, and with the enduring sense that the “structure of international history” had forever been changed. Lukacs also reflects on how and why many in the West, in the victor nations, at least, have reified World War II into the model “good war”, and he is, moreover, intrigued to know how a war for or against aggressive ideologies captured in the large abstract categories of fascism, communism and democracy left such powerful legacies in our subsequent debates over the place of ideas in history.

As any student of World War II must, Lukacs also seeks the roots of the Cold War in the consequences of 1945—and there are a multitude of legacies to be found and debated, perhaps forever. As a scholar of historical consciousness, Lukacs further believes the magnitude and stakes of that war gave historians and readers many fruitful ways to ask fundamental questions about just what in history may or may not be truly “inevitable.” However, Lukacs is most lastingly interested not only in how an unprecedentedly destructive war between nationalisms failed to banish such an impulse, but also how it can be that, well into the 21st century, “the essence of history is the nation” and that nationalism itself remains the “principal political factor” driving global events.

As we experience the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War, Lukacs’s musings on the meaning and legacies of World War II are a useful way of thinking about the place of America’s greatest crisis in our national memory. How Americans have processed and fought over the meaning and memory of the Civil War has long been an index of who we believe we are as a people and a nation. In broad terms, disunion, all-out civil war, a struggle of conquest and unconditional surrender, a war of genuine victory for the Union and utter defeat for the Confederacy composed the ultimate “test”, as Lincoln called it, of whether a “nation” conceived as a republic could survive at all in the 19th century. It was, therefore, an existential crisis of the American nation, over whether one would even exist, or would fragment into two or three regional nations on the North American continent, with huge consequences for one another and the rest of the Western Hemisphere as a whole.

Moreover, equally important and completely intertwined with the ultimate contest for the nation was the struggle to end slavery. The emancipation of four million slaves in the 1860s is the essential pivot around which American race relations and of American history itself have turned ever since. If the trajectory of history and the bearings of international structures and relations were forever re-shaped by 1945, so were American political, constitutional and social history forever re-shaped by 1865. If the world could never be the same after Yalta, the fall of Berlin and the bombing of Hiroshima, so the United States could never be the same after the massive slaughter at Gettysburg, the fall of Richmond, and the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution. But this only begins to tell the tale of the place of Civil War memory in America.

Some 625,000 Americans died of combat wounds and disease in the Civil War. Uncounted thousands of civilians and former slaves caught up in refugee camps also perished. This massive and still, for some, unfathomed loss is the price paid for what ultimately died in the Civil War: the first American Republic. That first republic, conceived in revolution and imagined in the first Constitution from 1776 to 1789, died on the killing fields of Shiloh and Spottsylvania Court House, in the prison hells of Andersonville and Camp Douglas, in the contraband camp at Corinth, Mississippi and on the roads of Georgia during Sherman’s March to the Sea. The Civil War brought the death of the first American Republic and the birth of the second.

In light of such consequences, history should teach us “humility” and not “hubris”, Penn Warren demanded. “History is not melodrama, even if it usually reads like that.” If Americans and, for that matter, others who may be interested in our history, are beginning to see the Civil War in these terms, then we can begin to understand how and why it is a marker in our national history similar to that of World War II for global history. We will then know that Mark Twain did not engage in hyperbole when in 1873 he mused:

The Civil War uprooted institutions that were centuries old, changed the politics of a people, transformed the social life of half the country, and wrought so profoundly upon the entire national character that the influence cannot be measured short of two or three generations.

Twain came up short; five or six generations later, we are still contemplating the enduring influence of this event.

“And so good-bye to the war”, Walt Whitman wrote in 1882. “I know not how it may have been, or may be, to others—to me the main interest I found, (and still, on recollection, find) in the rank and file of the armies, both sides, and in those specimens amid the hospitals, and even the dead on the field.” Whitman, America’s great death poet, the troubadour of our national bloodletting, often wrote as though he spoke for the multitudes of the dead and the living in wishing that a mourning without politics was possible.

Very soon, however, the politics of memory took hold in the land. A conflict of such magnitude, of such blood and sacrifice and overwhelming impact, immediately produced warring narratives. Nothing could hold back among Americans in the wake of the Civil War what Thucydides saw among the Greeks in the wake of the Peloponnesian War: “The people made their recollections fit in with their sufferings.” Americans may have wanted to say “good-bye to the war”, as Whitman coyly imagined, but we never really have.

Indeed, like most of the rest of the world, the United States is an anniversary-obsessed culture, and has been since at least the centennial of American independence in 1876. The Civil War has been remembered and commemorated in stone, political rhetoric, ritual and literature more than any other American experience. Its countless monuments, small and prosaic as well as large and majestic, occupy the town squares and public landscapes of nearly the entire country, including portions of the West that did not become part of the American experience until well after 1865. A brief comparison of the fiftieth, hundredth and ongoing 150th anniversaries provides a means of gauging the changing place of the war in our collective memory.

At 50

President Woodrow Wilson had initially declined to appear at the fiftieth anniversary Blue-Gray reunion at Gettysburg on July 1–4, 1913. He was acutely aware of being the first Southern-born President since the Civil War and of having been inaugurated that March after receiving only 41.3 percent of the popular vote in a four-way election. Wilson also wanted nothing to do, if he could help it, with a massive display of Civil War nostalgia and popular remembrance at the very moment that he and some of his cabinet officials were beginning to re-segregate the Treasury and Post Office Departments of the Federal government, not to speak of public buildings in the nation’s capital. But the President understood the significance of the reunion, following as it did the so-called Peace Jubilee’s fiftieth anniversary events of 1911, privately writing: “Both the blue and the gray are to be there. It is to celebrate the end of all feeling as well as the end of all strife between the sections.” As an historian himself, Wilson had long advocated sectional reconciliation, even as he expressed deep sympathy for the former Confederacy in which he had been born and raised.

The 1913 Gettysburg reunion was designed as a ritual like none other in American history. It was to be a festival of sectional “harmony”, as its planners announced during the years of preparation. With well more than $2 million appropriated by the states and the War Department, every living Civil War veteran from anywhere in the United States was offered train fare to Gettysburg. Some 53,407 attended from nearly every state in the Union, including many from the far West. More than forty railroad companies provided special cars to transport the old men, the average age for whom was 74. At least as many civilian spectators descended on the town and countryside around Gettysburg for what the organizers and the press dubbed the “Great Peace Jubilee.”

As it stood in American culture in the early 20th century, Civil War memory never saw a more fully orchestrated expression than on the fields and ridges of Gettysburg that July. For most observers, and for cameramen and reporters who determined to put the spectacle on the front pages of nearly every newspaper in the country that week, the veterans strolling about the great tent city in their tattered caps and flowing white beards were men out of another time, icons that stimulated a sense of pride, history and amusement all at once. They were an irresistible medium through which Americans could envision part of their inheritance and be comfortably deflected by it at the same time. The reunion was part circus, part national worship on sacred ground.

Newspapers gushed with amazement at the massive event. “You may search the world’s history in vain for such a spectacle”, announced the Columbus Citizen (Ohio). The sense of assumed finality of the national reunion was especially prevalent in the press reports. The National Tribune (the official organ of the Grand Army of the Republic, the primary Union veterans organization) rejoiced over the “death of sectionalism” and the ongoing “obliterating of Mason and Dixon’s line.” And the Confederate Veteran (the official organ of the United Confederate Veterans) could declare with full confidence that “the day of differences and jealousies is past.” Glorious remembrance was all but overwhelmed by an even more glorious forgetting. “Thank God for Gettysburg, hosanna!”, thumped the Louisville Courier-Journal. “God bless us everyone, alike the Blue and the Gray, the Gray and the Blue! The world ne’er witnessed such a sight as this. Beholding, can we say happy is the nation that hath no history?”

That Louisville editor, perhaps unwittingly, had captured the underlying tragic truth about Civil War memory at its semi-centennial. The American reunion required a great deal of official forgetting about the deep character and consequences of the Civil War. On the third day of the reunion, July 3, the governors of the various states spoke in a giant, bleacher-lined tent constructed on the field where Pickett’s Charge had occurred fifty years earlier to the day and hour. Governor William Hodges Mann of Virginia struck the principal chord of memory for the occasion:

We are not here to discuss the genesis of the war, but men who have tried each other in the storm and smoke of battle are here to discuss this great fight. . . . [W]e came here, I say, not to discuss what caused the war of 1861–65, but to talk over the events of the battle here as man to man.

Like the politics of reconciliation, which was several decades old by 1913, the Blue-Gray reunion was about forging unifying myths and, above all, about making it safe to remember. Neither space nor time in all the festivities and orations on this national stage at Gettysburg were allowed for considering the causes, transformations and results of the war; no place whatsoever was reserved for the legacies of the emancipation of four million slaves or the unresolved history of Reconstruction. Because organizers had allowed no space for black veterans (none officially attended), they had therefore allowed no chance to discuss the desperate failures of racial reconciliation across the country. The only blacks at the reunion were mess cooks and those who built and cleaned the latrines.

Nations rarely commemorate their disasters and tragedies unless compelled to do so by outside forces. And one should not diminish the profoundly meaningful experiences of the veterans themselves at a reunion like Gettysburg. But the “Peace Jubilee” was a Jim Crow reunion, and white supremacy was its silent, invisible, but powerful master of ceremonies. At a time when lynching had developed into a social ritual across the land (the NAACP recorded seventy in 1913 alone), and when an American apartheid had become fully entrenched in the South, many African American leaders and editors found the sectional love feast at Gettysburg more than they could bear. In response to the spectacle, the Baltimore Afro-American identified what was at stake in the national memory: “Today the South is in the saddle, and with the single exception of slavery, everything it fought for in the days of the Civil War, it has gained by repression of the Negro within its borders. And the North has quietly allowed it to have its own way.”

Woodrow Wilson likely did not think about how white and black memories were so at odds as he arrived at the Gettysburg train station on the morning of July 4. Wilson entered the huge tent, flanked by a Union veteran holding a U.S. flag and a Confederate veteran proudly waving a Confederate flag. That flag carried little controversy on that day of forced, or wished, harmony. The governors of Pennsylvania and Virginia followed immediately after the two veterans. Wilson strode to a high stage as the old soldiers rose in unison. Script in his hands, he too declared that he had not come to talk about the origins and consequences of the war. He declared it an “impertinence to discourse upon how the battle went, how it ended”, or even “what it signified.” Wilson claimed as his central charge the comprehension of what the “fifty years meant.” It became his refrain as he struck the mystic chord of memory most white Americans were prepared to hear:

They have meant peace and union and vigor, and the maturity and might of a great nation. How wholesome and healing the peace has been! We have found one another again as brothers and comrades, in arms, enemies no longer, generous friends rather, our battles long past, the quarrel forgotten—except that we shall not forget the splendid valor, the manly devotion of the men then arrayed against one another, now grasping hands and smiling into each other’s eyes. How complete the union has become and how dear to all of us, how un-questioned, how benign and majestic, as state after state has been added to this, our great family of free men!

Wilson strained to look ahead and not to the past, spending part of the speech calling the younger generation to the moral equivalent of a war to tackle the problems of teeming cities and corruption in high places. His great gift for mixing idealism with ambiguity was in perfect form. Without the slightest thought of Jim Crow’s legal reign, he claimed that “our constitutions” were the new generation’s “articles of enlistment”, and the “orders of the day . . . the laws upon our statute books. . . . The day of our country’s life has but broadened into morning”, Wilson chimed. “Do not put uniforms by. Put the harness of the present on.” Such a statement of optimism, oddly out of place for an audience of old soldiers from the previous century, at least made everyone aware that a new day was possible because that old Civil War had comfortably become the “quarrel forgotten” on the statute books of Jim Crow America. The words “slavery” or “emancipation” Wilson never once mentioned.

Thus the Gettysburg reunion of 1913 took place as a national ritual in which the ghost of slavery, the very questions of cause and consequence of the horror and overturning of the 1860s, might somehow be exorcised once and for all by pretending it wasn’t there. A simple line spoken by a character in William Faulkner’s The Hamlet (1940) captured this essential truth: “Only thank God men have done learned how to forget quick what they ain’t brave enough to try to cure.”

At 100

Fifty years later, at the war’s centennial in 1961, much had changed and much had stayed the same. A master narrative of the Civil War as a struggle between two noble foes for equally honorable notions of liberty, yet of soldiers’ commitment to actual causes that mattered not, could not rest uncontested forever across American culture. The truth is that by 1961 a Southern Lost Cause that struggled heroically for home and hearth against the ugly ravages of the industrial age, and for an orderly racial system of contented, natural laborers and benevolent landowners and managers, had become embedded deeply in the national consciousness. The book turned immortal movie, Gone With the Wind, played no small role in this, although it had much help from a thousand other elements of American popular culture. By the late 1950s, this protective coating of Civil War sentimentalism was about to be reinforced with armor.

In 1957, an unsteady coalition of people and interests emerged that culminated in a National Civil War Centennial Commission (CWCC), established by Congress and President Dwight D. Eisenhower. State Centennial commissions, especially in the South, where they often took on a distinctly Confederate viewpoint, also planned many events to reap an expected bonanza of automobile heritage tourism. As a broad cultural and political phenomenon, the official Civil War Centennial consisted of a series of public rituals and events mired in conservative, sometimes pro-Confederate, racially divisive and Cold War impulses. By and large, African Americans either avoided or bitterly criticized the tone and substance of the official Centennial. They often felt offended or even threatened by a consensual evasion of the story of emancipation in favor of efforts to forge national unity in an era of heightened anti-communism and Cold War tensions with the Soviet Union. Put simply, the official Civil War Centennial could never find adequate, meaningful ways to balance Civil War remembrance with the then-rising Civil Rights rebellion. Indeed, its early efforts were defeated by racism, by a perceived need to commemorate only reconciliation and patriotism, and by the strained effort of the Kennedy Administration to sustain political support from segregationist Southern Democrats.

The early, ill-fated leadership of the CWCC included Karl S. Betts, a successful Kansas-born, media-savvy businessman who had a passion for battle re-enactments that would draw patriotic audiences, and General Ulysses S. Grant III, great-grandson of the President and famous Civil War general, as well as a staunchly conservative superpatriot and, somewhat ironically, a racist. Twenty-five people were appointed members of the commission, including some distinguished historians such as Bruce Catton, Allan Nevins and Bell Wiley. But initially the historians’ voices took a backseat to the whims of Betts and Grant, who promoted a pro-Confederate story as a way of blunting the impact of civil rights activism in South.

The “national” Centennial opened in 1961 with several particularly regrettable events from which the larger commemoration never fully recovered. In February, 50,000 people participated in a parade, a fair and a pageant in Montgomery, Alabama, to “celebrate” the anniversary of secession and the inauguration of Jefferson Davis as President of the Confederacy. In April, in Charleston, South Carolina, the Commission tried to stage a commemoration of the firing on Fort Sumter, but when the headquarters hotel refused to accommodate the one Negro member of the New Jersey commission, the whole affair had to be moved across the bay to alternative housing in Federal “barracks.” The ensuing controversy garnered national headlines, and the young President John F. Kennedy, in office only two months, directly intervened. The fiasco led to the forced resignations of Betts and Grant.

Race was surely the thorniest problem for the official Centennial commemorations. But the spectacle of battle reenactments, and their commercialization, caused nearly as much criticism. In late July 1961, a crowd estimated at 70,000 people paid as much as $4 each to sit in bleachers and witness a mock staging of the first battle of Bull Run near Manassas Junction. The program for the well-rehearsed event, with 3,000 re-enactors, among whom were National Guardsmen in Civil War garb, included this statement of purpose:

There was a curious thing about the men who came against each other here a hundred years ago. Whether they wore the blue or the gray they were all deeply in love with their country. And the country they loved was America, though they saw America in segments then. Now it is wonderful to know that out of the misery of their differences came the magic and miracle of Union . . . as one wide, majestic land of infinite opportunity for all.

One could hardly find a clearer illustration of how mainstream the Lost Cause had become. Indeed, a more saccharine and spurious expression of the orthodox reconciliationist spirit, devoid of any awareness of the current turmoil in race relations, could hardly be imagined.

The events of 1960–61 threw the irony of that “wonderful” reunion into bold relief. In 1960, the Supreme Court decision Boynton v. Virginia had declared segregation in interstate bus and rail stations unconstitutional, and in early May 1961, the Congress of Racial Equality organized the first Freedom Rides to test that decision. By the time the interracial group of young bus riders reached Alabama, one of their buses had been burned near Anniston, and large mobs savagely beat them in Montgomery and Birmingham as police stood by and watched.

After President Kennedy sacked Betts and Grant, he appointed Allan Nevins chairman of the CWCC and the young historian and Virginia native James “Bud” Robertson as executive director. Under their leadership the Commission strove for a more inclusive and serious set of commemorations and publications. Nevins sought to bring attention to the Civil War’s “darker aspects”, to discourage “cheap and tawdry” observances, and, above all, he said, to reach for a kind of Cold War consensus of “unity . . . out of a brothers’ war . . . a firm union of hearts instead of an uncertain union of jarring political elements.” But a civil war, no matter how neatly one folds it into serious, scholarly narratives of consensus, leaves its jarring politics of memory alive and kicking. By 1963, the nation and the world witnessed this reality at the most national space of all, and in a spectacle very different from that of 1913 at Gettysburg.

A breeze eased the intense heat of the late August afternoon as the huge crowd, weary but peaceful and jubilant, leaned forward to listen. All along the reflecting pool of the National Mall, people steadied their sore feet and peered up at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the unofficial secular temple of the United States. Martin Luther King, Jr., stepped to the microphones and delivered a short, transcendent oration on the meaning of the unfinished American Civil War. On August 28, 1963, King gave what should be considered the most important Civil War Centennial speech of the entire hundredth anniversary commemoration. In what will always be known as the “I Have a Dream” speech, the “dream” metaphor emerges late, and extemporaneously. In the second sentence, King announced the text of his sermon, suggested the historical weight of the moment, and began to employ other unforgettable metaphors:

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity. But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on an island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land.

No one could miss the significance of “fivescore.” As Lincoln implied in his own brief address at the Gettysburg cemetery in November 1863, beginning with “four score and seven”, the Civil War, the outcome of which was still far from determined, necessitated a new founding, a re-definition of the United States, rooted in the destruction of slavery and the rebirth of the still ill-defined principle of human equality. King was arguing the same for his own era: The Civil Rights revolution heralded yet another re-founding on the same principle, one hundred anguished years after Lincoln’s promise. The Civil War and Civil Rights have been forever intertwined in American history and mythology, but in the troubled period of the Centennial, the two phenomena were too often like planets in separate orbits around different suns. For 17 magnificent minutes, the power of King’s rhetoric broke down the segregated gravitational pulls of the two planets and brought them into the same orbit. But befitting his role as leader of a radical, if non-violent protest movement, King’s arguments were hardly mainstream in the Cold War American political culture of 1963.

In the year of John F. Kennedy’s assassination and of worldwide exposure to the vicious racism and violence in the civil rights crisis in the South, the meaning of the Civil War was the most divisive element in America’s national historical memory, just as it had been throughout the previous century. In 1963, the national temper and mythology still preferred a story of the mutual valor of the Blue and Gray to the troublesome, disruptive problem of black and white. Wilson had avoided mention of slavery altogether in 1913; fifty years later, it was just barely permissible to talk about it and its consequences.

At 150

As we take stock of Civil War memory at this sesquicentennial, we have to ask why it still has such a hold on our national imagination. Why doesn’t it simply go away now that all those who fought in the war have been dead for at least half a century? What gives the personalities and drama of this epoch such 21st-century resonance? Why is the Confederacy still so interesting to so many people? Haven’t we had at least two “Reconstructions” that solved these issues? Didn’t Barack Obama’s improbable rise to the Presidency in 2008, as Thomas Friedman wrote in the New York Times on the morning after the election, mean that the “Civil War was over?”

When Warren was writing The Legacy of the Civil War fifty years ago, his publisher challenged him to explain the “appeal” and “attraction” of the event. “Because the war made us great we like to look at it”, he said, “as the dog likes to look at the icebox door.” As Americans, do we still gaze at the Civil War more than we actually understand it? After so long do we still look at this story like rubberneckers at a car accident? Is there an unbridgeable distance between historical scholarship and public memory when it comes to this most divisive and mythic story in our past?

Several reasons come to mind for the staying power of our homegrown Armageddon in the national consciousness. We might begin with simple yet surprising demographics: Approximately a third of all Americans can trace their ancestry to someone who either fought in or lived through the Civil War era. Family connection is where Civil War fascination begins for many people. Even after decades of large Hispanic, African and Asian immigration to the United States, enthusiasm for the story of the Civil War has not significantly waned, and blood lineage to the men in Blue or Gray is not a requirement for club membership.

Other numbers are even more pertinent. We are drawn to this saga of loss, to the toll of human sacrifice in 1861–65, by its sheer magnitude. If the same number of Americans who died in the Civil War per capita had died in Southeast Asia during the 1960s and 1970s, there would be more than four million rather than 60,000 names on the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC. Those are unimaginable casualties for those who witnessed how Vietnam tore apart the American social fabric with fewer than 60,000 dead.

In this we are one with human history. Loss on a profound scale is the subject of some of the world’s greatest literature, epic myths and national destruction and creation stories. Euripides’s The Trojan Women is about as bleak an encounter with war’s devastating, unredemptive aftermath as one can imagine. Hekuba, her children and grandchildren all dead, is herself about to be marched onto a Greek ship into slavery with all the other surviving women. Wishing she could die in the flaming ruins of Troy, she famously wails her lament to and about the dead:

O Earth, Earth of my children; hearken! And O mine own, ye have hearts and forget not, ye in the darkness lying! Hearken O ye so silent! Even as the beasts they drive, even as the loads they bear, we go to the house of bondage. Hear ye dead, O hear!

Whitman also spoke to and about the American dead. It was “the dead, the dead, the dead, our dead—or South or North, ours all”, he mused, that destroyed one America and in such blood might re-invent another. Like Euripides and Whitman, we futilely want the dead to speak to us, to explain our collective woe that the honest among us know we cannot grasp of war’s ravages in retrospect.

Like the Greeks and so many since them, we are also drawn to epic history, to a saga that invests us in what we like to innocently call our own Homeric time. If Civil War enthusiasts admit it, they sometimes love this conflict because it has the ingredients of a great contest for world-historical aims—a fundamental rending, but one with a beginning, middle and, if we so wish, a tidy ending. As William Dean Howells once wrote, Americans “love a tragedy”, as long as “it has a happy ending.”

We have often given this war too many happy endings (that magnanimous, noble surrender at Appomattox) without gazing into its authentic tragedy or its long, unfinished aftermath. Epics tend to reach resolutions, to supply heroes and villains aplenty. We need to admit it: The Civil War is a great story that keeps on giving. Who can resist the beauty of Bruce Catton’s storytelling when once under its spell? In his Terrible Swift Sword (1963), this most popular narrative historian of the event combined a sense of drama and mystery with transcendent prose as he described one of the war’s great turning points:

There was nobility in the idea that there ought to be a peace without victory; yet in August 1862 America’s tragedy was that it was caught between the madness of going on with the war and the human impossibility of stopping it. . . . Neither Mr. Lincoln nor Mr. Davis was going to assume anything of the kind. Each man was fighting for a dreadful simplicity. Neither one could describe a solution acceptable to him without describing something wholly unacceptable to the other; neither man could accept anything less than complete victory without admitting complete defeat. Both sides had heard the trumpet that could never call retreat. The peacemakers could not be heard until the terrible swift sword had been sheathed; but the scabbard had been thrown away, and now the Confederacy was carrying the war into the enemy’s territory.

We know we are in the presence of an enduring epic when an historian has the audacity to rewrite the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” in his own prose and pulls it off with flying colors.

For some the Civil War’s continuing seduction involves the sheer pleasure of military detail and its intensity of experience, the strategic and tactical fight on the ground, or in the mental battlefield, where winners and losers can be crowned and warriors anointed as geniuses or rogues. Military history, especially before the advent of the mass slaughter of aerial bombing, shows like little else the elemental in the human character, authentic moments of truth that men do not encounter in normal civilian life. The rush of the combat soldier can be the rush of the reader, or even the writer. And military history, it must also be said, is simply too important to ignore. It really matters how Grant, Sherman, Philip Sheridan and Lincoln devised a strategy for victory, and how and why the Confederacy suffered defeat.

For generations, historians have understood that a “modern” America was somehow born out of that terrible crucible of war—a country that, despite the sacrifice, was to become a powerful, centralized state and a world power able to forge the American Century to follow. Industrial society, a re-invigoration of the clash between capital and labor, and new meanings of citizenship and definitions of American inclusiveness all emerged from the war years. And surely “Big Government”, as we have come to call it, did too. It was rooted in the mass mobilization of manufacturing to wage war, in military conscription, in a new national currency system, in the Homestead Act, the Morrill Act (creating land-grant colleges), in the transcontinental railroad, and in the Emancipation Proclamation itself (the largest confiscation of property in American history). All of this finds its roots in the Lincoln Administration’s and the Republican Congress’s massive struggle to win a war against a slaveholding republic it had to conquer in order to defeat. The origins of our own “modernity” are there in the huge Quartermaster Corps of the Federal government of 1864, the largest single employer in the nation at that time apart from the U.S. Army itself. One wonders if those who hate government so much today would really prefer different outcomes for the Civil War, or World War II, which would not have been won without it.

Culturally and spiritually, too, Americans were changed forever by what Henry James called “that great convulsion.” The Civil War may have been the last stand of an earlier romantic age. In the face of unimaginable casualty lists and slaughter that defied rational or even religious meaning, many Americans, as the cultural historian Andrew Delbanco has argued in The Death of Satan (1996), lost their sense of sin and evil itself and banked their hopes instead on the unreliable notions of chance and luck. A harsh realism and a dreaded moral meaninglessness could only be a short distance from the trenches of Petersburg in the winter of 1865. And as Delbanco writes, even in the beauties of a Virginia April, when Lee finally gave up to Grant in exhaustion and despair, it was a “modern monster who accepted Lee’s surrender with laconic decency at Appomattox.” Anyone determined to keep alive his or her romantic notions of the Civil War has to avert eyes from most of the American history that followed from it, especially in what we have come to call the “Gilded Age.”

The search for the origins of our modernity may give us yet another related source of the Civil War’s enduring grip on our national narrative. If we became bigger, more expansive and somehow better, if also more ruthless, all that change has always seemed more palatable when couched in a reconciliation story: the grand reunion of North and South, even if it was achieved through the systematic suppression of the rights of the millions of blacks freed by the war. Such a heroic reunion story delivers us a Civil War, despite or because of its blood, that in the end unified us. In all our vexing diversity, people often love to revisit the Civil War era to find a time when we fought to the death in order, as the melodrama demands, to find our greater destiny and unity. We love being the nation that freed its slaves, rather than the one that owned four million people as property. We love the idea that we had to destroy ourselves in order to save ourselves. We are awed by the transcendent, pseudo-religious idea that we died to make men free, in the words of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”, even though that is not exactly how things stood in practice for more than a century after.

Increasingly over recent decades new generations of Americans living with and inheriting, even if not always understanding, the transformation of the Civil Rights era have perhaps come to realize that the Civil War brought the first racial reckoning in the nation’s history. Millions of African Americans have begun, just like other Americans, to probe their genealogical roots back to their origins in this country, which usually means of course to slavery. They have done this in a new kind of social safety and relative comfort, since slavery is no longer quite the taboo subject it used to be. As we discovered this past spring at the 150th anniversary of secession and war, millions still grow up in this country doubting slavery’s centrality to the causes of 1861, but they are now on the defensive against a consensus to be found in textbooks, films, scholarship and even in Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell’s hasty and embarrassed re-wording of a proclamation about “Confederate History Month.”

Despite all the differences swirling in our political culture, if we can remember our Civil War as a constitutional and moral transformation, rooted in the revolution of emancipation, that enshrined at least the beginnings of birthright citizenship, equality before the law and the universal right to vote, then we may begin to grasp not only why it has such staying power in our imaginations, but why so many of our roiling political issues of today can be traced to those graves of 1863 and the new nation that emerged from them. We might, therefore, by feeling the presence of living legacies, grasp a full measure of the Civil War’s essential and unfinished tragedy.

We live in a society in 2011 still polarized over race and ethnicity and the advent of a black President, over the rights of immigrants, over religious tolerance and birthright citizenship, and over a seemingly permanent state of war. We are also riven by a conflict over federalism, the never-ending debate about the proper relation of federal to state power. That “Union”, the name so many Civil War-generation Americans came to use for the United States, is not a healthy organism as it turns 150 years old. Yes, the Civil War was rooted in states’ rights, but the significance of any exercise of states’ rights, like any other constitutional doctrine, rests with the issue in whose service it is employed. In 1860–61, some Southerners exercised “state sovereignty” as an act of revolution in the interest, as they said themselves over and over, of preserving a racial order founded on a system of slavery.

Today, states’ rights claims are advanced by many governors and Republican-majority legislatures in the very language of “secession” and “nullification” made so infamous in antebellum America. They are aided and abetted by a conservative majority on the Supreme Court, although the justices have never, so far as I know, justified “nullification” by name. What has brought those words back into our political parlance, and in the service of whose interest and what issues? How many Americans shuddered, cheered or perhaps simply smiled when in 2009 Governor Rick Perry of Texas suggested his state might think about “secession” or “nullification” in response to the Federal health care law? Or when the Texas legislature debated making the Transportation Safety Administration’s new “pat down” examinations impermissible on Texan soil? And given the hold the Tea Party seems to have on the base of the Republican Party, as well as some of its presidential candidates, perhaps we should take notice for the good of the larger nation when that group invokes the Confederate Constitution of 1861 as a model for their brand of anti-tax, anti-government libertarianism. They may need a reminder of just how desperately the Jefferson Davis Administration struggled to forge a centralized government out of the chaos of war, jealous localism, states’ rights and home-grown individualism.

Indeed, the secessionists of 1861 and the Tea Party nullifiers of 2011 have much in common. Both are distinct minorities who have suddenly seized an inordinate degree of power. One acted in revolution to save a slaveholders’ republic; the other seems determined to render the modern Federal government all but obsolete for any purpose but national defense. Both claim their mantle of righteousness in the name of “liberty”, privatization, and racial exclusion (one openly, the other covertly). Both vehemently claim the authority of the “Founders” as though the American Revolution and the creation of the Constitution have no history. Both have embraced a version of federalism we once might have thought all but buried in the mass slaughter of the Civil War. But alas, history does keep happening.

A short list of examples among many tells us just how alive some Civil War legacies are in our time. Kentucky has a bill pending to make that state a “sanctuary” from the Environmental Protection Agency. Arizona Republicans want to exempt products made in their state from Federal interstate commerce laws. Montana is considering a bill to “nullify” the Federal Endangered Species Act. The same state’s legislature has a bill pending that would require the FBI to get a local sheriff’s permission to make any arrests. Utah passed a bill authorizing the use of eminent domain to seize federally protected land. Some state legislatures have tried to pass bills declaring their residents “exempt” from the health care reform law.

This is nullification by any other name, and it is happening too often in a vacuum of historical perspective. Although contexts do change, we have a history with these ideas, and it had a terrible result in 1861. Put most directly, either the United States that was reborn in and after 1865 is based on a certain social contract—forged and re-forged by new historical imperatives of industrialization and urbanization in the Progressive era, by a horrible economic Depression in the 1930s, and by a civil rights revolution of the 1960s, all of which for good reasons necessitated the increased exercise of Federal power to protect human liberty, welfare and survival—or it is not. The conservative movement in America, or at least its most radical wing, seems determined to repeal much of the 20th century, and even its earlier constitutional and social roots in the transformations of the 1860s. In this sense, at least, the Civil War is thus not only not over; it can still be lost. As the sesquicentennial ensues in publishing, conferences and on television and countless websites, one can hope that we will pursue matters of legacy and memory with one eye on the past and the other acutely on the present. The stakes are high.

If the Civil War is our national “oracle”, as Warren suggested, where shall we look for it in this sesquicentennial year? On Cemetery Ridge at Gettysburg? Monument Avenue in Richmond? In the words on the walls of the Lincoln Memorial, or at the giant Confederate shrine in Stone Mountain in Georgia? Is our personal oracle more likely to be in a precious collection of an ancestor’s wartime letters or diary, lovingly preserved? Or is that oracle simply in our minds and our assumptions, in ideological outlooks we now call Red and Blue more than Blue and Gray, ready to burst into action when prompted by a modern issue, a fear, or a legacy that suddenly hits us between the eyes? Where or what is this oracle that still speaks from that lovely landscape around Appomattox on an April morning, or from the ghastly Matthew Brady and Alexander Gardner photographs of human carnage on the fields at Antietam?

At the end of his Legacy of the Civil War, Robert Penn Warren declared that the Civil War “reaches in a thousand ways into our blood stream and our personal present.” He demanded that Americans see it as their authentic national “tragedy”, and to use that word in “its deepest significance: the image in action of the deepest questions of man’s fate and man’s attitude toward his fate.” We should not clean up this great story for polite conversation or feed to the beasts of romance the sense of unity that many demand of a “useable” past. Warren takes us to Melville, his favorite voice of American tragedy from 1866: “Let us pray that the terrible historic tragedy of our time may not have been enacted without instructing our whole beloved country through pity and terror”, Melville pleaded. “Have we been ‘instructed’ by that catharsis of pity and terror?” Penn Warren asked in 1961. “Sadly, we must answer no. We have not yet achieved justice. We have not yet created a union which is, in the deepest sense, a community.” In 2011–15, how will we answer Melville’s question and update Warren’s harrowing answer?

David W. Blight is Class of ’54 Professor of American History at Yale University and author of Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory and American Oracle: The Civil War in the Civil Rights Era.