Insights: Pondering the Civil War
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Insights: Pondering the Civil War

Apr 14, 2012

America is now marking the 150th anniversary of our Civil War. As a history teacher at Genesee Community College, I have had plenty of opportunity to reflect on the meaning of that self-inflicted wound we call the Civil War.

Our Civil War Initiative has sought to find meaning in the war through a series of lectures, essay contests, and soon an encampment at our Lima Campus Center (April 27-29). In the fall of 2012 we will host Pulitzer Prize-winning author Eric Foner (at 1 p.m. Oct. 10) and a fantastic exhibit from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History in GCC’s Alfred O’Connell Library in October. The exhibit is called “Abraham Lincoln: A Man of His Time, A Man for All Times.”

Throughout the commemoration period one thing seems quite clear: We, as a society, are growing more distant from the war in ways more than simply chronological. To many young people I encounter, you may as well be talking about the Peloponnesian War. To them, it is ancient history. They do not understand how the Civil War is relevant to their lives today. Moreover, war to them looks far different and includes Middle Eastern countries, special operations and modern firearms — even remote-controlled aircraft. It is hard for them to envision a time before computers, the Internet, and smart phones. But most of all, they believe war means a foreign enemy.

Of course, there is one aspect of the Civil War that young people can understand: slavery and the fight to end it. And to their credit, many who can say anything about the war will say that slavery was somehow a cause of the war. This can be explained in very human terms: Injustice seemingly never ends, whether is it African-American slaves, the Holocaust, or more directly a part of their lives — bullying.

Older Americans seem to have a better appreciation for the tragedy of the Civil War. After all, we are not as far removed from the war era as it sometimes seems. There are folks now alive whose grandparents experienced aspects of the war (many were children at the time). Many of these folks have seen various Civil War films, read books and sometimes will find the History Channel running a TV documentary. To this older crowd, it is easier to imagine a world very different. Even I remember a time before computers, VCRs, DVDs and “iThings.”

The older crowd is less likely to blame the war on slavery because of their exposure to the romance of the so-called “Lost Cause.” This idea emphasized reconciliation between North and South and painted the war as regrettable but featured two sides that fought because of the ideals they espoused. Confederate veterans fought “manfully” for independence, and while they would admit that “Yankees” could fight too, the sheer might of the Northern war machine was too much to overcome.

It is noteworthy that many older folks also remember, and perhaps actively participated in the centennial celebration of the Civil War from 1961-1965, which was a disaster in many ways. The controversy, in large measure, was the result of disagreements over how to square the Lost Cause with the fight to end slavery in any remembrance of the war. Remember, this period is often called the “Civil Rights Era” by historians. Passions were running high on all sides concerning civil rights for African-Americans, so the portrayal of slavery as a part of the meaning of the Civil War was a very sensitive issue. At the height of the controversy, Ulysses S. Grant III, grandson of the Northern hero, resigned in disgust from the national commemoration committee. The sum result was that the country never really came to terms with the meaning of the war as the 100-year anniversary came and went.

I do not claim to have the definitive meaning of the Civil War to offer, but I do have a strong impression that we ought to try to do what they could not in the 1960s — set aside the passions of the day and have a meaningful, warts-and-all discussion about the meaning of our nation’s terrible family feud. I may even be able to offer a place to begin the conversation, though — admittedly — it is not tidy or easy.

The Civil War is unique in that the war was between us. Americans.  North and South. It was a fight within our own house. The war occurred because neither side could see any other alternative. For years, the two sides tried to avert war — as was the case with the Compromise of 1850 that did little more than postpone the showdown for a decade. When the war did begin, neither side thought the war would be particularly long or very bloody. Indeed, even Lincoln thought the states that seceded might return when passions cooled if he did nothing to enflame their passions further. As the war dragged on, both sides grew more and more bitter and restoration of the Union as it was grew less and less likely. The Emancipation Proclamation finally made clear that not only had the nature of the war changed, but there would be no going back to the Union as it had been. Just over two years later, and with casualties exceeding 700,000, the war would finally come to an end — though, in some sense the fighting never has, as we continue to ponder what it all meant.

Lincoln once said, “Let us resolve that right makes might.” This profound bit of wisdom reflects his notion that secession was never valid, so the South could not leave the Union — even if it has said so. It also suggested that in the end “right” would persevere. What his statement does not reflect is that Lincoln’s mighty fist was clothed in a velvet glove. I am convinced that no American leader ever showed more magnanimity than Lincoln. As the end of the war approached, he cautioned his military chiefs not to dance in the end zone. “Let ‘em up easy,” he was known to have said, “Let ‘em up easy.” It was these directives that led to the terms offered to Generals Lee in Virginia, Johnston in North Carolina, and all the others. Unfortunately, Lincoln was removed from the scene before all the pieces could be put back together again.

It is hard not to admire Lincoln. If ever there was proof of the difference one person can make, he is it. Can you imagine the result if any other man had been president at the time? Though he came up from poverty, was largely self-educated, faced defeat time after time — both personally and professionally — and came to the presidency in a roundabout way, he would become the nation’s greatest leader. Character was the key. Lincoln had an exceptional character. He was a politician, and yet he was benevolent, patient, humane, generous, immune to ridicule, and could admit when he was wrong. He had a humility that no politician of today can claim.

So, what is my point besides war is terrible and Lincoln is great? An understanding of the Civil War and the context in which Lincoln operated demonstrates humanity in a light that is difficult to appreciate today. Yes, the war was bloody and savage. Yet it produced freedom for millions. It revealed the darkness in the human soul, but also demonstrated human resilience and capacity for forgiveness. Using Lincoln as a lens, we can discover much about how we can overcome the greatest of trials, if we can acknowledge the humanity in each other.


Genesee Community College — where I teach history — continues its commitment of engaging students in the historical significance of the Civil War through a series of lectures and a weekend long Civil War Encampment that is free and open to the public. Complete details are available at the following blog:


GCC Lima Campus Center

Friday-Sunday, April 27-29

— A lively Union and Confederate skirmish

— Artillery, tin smith, and spinning demonstrations

— Clara Barton, Underground Railroad and wartime surgery Presentations

— Twilight tour of camps

— Excelsior Fife and Drum Band

— All events are free and open to the public

Exhibit: “Abraham Lincoln: A Man of His Time, A Man for All Times.”  

GCC / Batavia

Oct. 1-29

Derek Maxfield is Genesee Community College's resident Civil War historian and professor of history at the college. 

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