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Lest We Forget…

July 2024
5min read

It would be possible to describe the American Civil War as the disastrous result of an ill-advised political maneuver which somehow got out of the control of the men who had started it. Unfortunately, it is just possible that the same melancholy remark may yet be made about the Civil War’s centennial.

With the general idea of giving this centennial proper observance there can be little quarrel. The Civil War was after all America’s most profound and meaningful single experience since the winning of national independence. It changed the course of American history; it helped to define the American character and the American ideal; it gave us an imperishable and completely unforgettable body of legend.

But the very fact that the war itself was a great event—grand and terrible at the same time, tragic in every moment and in every overtone, eternally bewildering and yet lit with an unmistakable significance for the world of today—means that the acts of commemoration ought to be in harmony with it. They must measure up to the dimensions of the thing commemorated. They touch greatness, and they are worthless unless they touch it with dignity, with solemnity, and with due recognition of the incalculable values bound up in the war and in the spirits of the men who had to fight it.

By this time we have had several months of centennial observances, of high and low degree, and a distressing pattern is beginning to be visible.

It is the pattern of the strawberry festival, productive of a syrupy sentiment that hides from view the immense realities that deserve remembrance, a light-hearted celebration that leaves us feeling that the whole affair was nothing more than a regrettable but by now vastly entertaining misunderstanding between people who were never really angry about anything in particular. It tends to reduce the war to the level of a college football game. One halfway expects to see Grant and Lee posing together, arm in arm and smiling pleasantly, before the television cameras.

The war left much bitterness in its wake, and of course it is good to emphasize the way in which this bitterness has faded out. But must we do it by creating—out of borrowed costumes, old-time music, and a plentiful use of blank cartridges—a musical comedy which implies that the 600,000 deaths caused by the Civil War had no real meaning? Are we re-creating our past or hiding from it? Do we commemorate Gettysburg, for instance, by pondering on the words Lincoln said there or by watching several hundred young men in blue and gray uniforms caper about the crest of Cemetery Ridge?

If the tone for the entire centennial period is to be set by parades, sham battles, and a general re-creation of a swords-and-roses atmosphere designed to amuse the tourist and slake our thirst for romance, we are simply going to stultify ourselves. When we show Americans firing on the American flag and doing their best to destroy the American government, let us at least do it because we finally learned something from those desperate endeavors and not simply because it makes an amusing spectacle. Few people, to be sure, are entirely immune to the appeal of a spectacle; human nature being what it is, most of us have had moments in which we wish, illogically, that we might just have had a glimpse at some of those struggles which, now that they are suitably remote in time, are seen through a romantic haze. But we do need to be very clear about what it is that we are trying to do.

Precisely what—to begin with—do we think we are commemorating? When we undertake to re-create these vignettes from the past, how do we make our selection? There are some events that do not quite lend themselves to proper staging. Will we, for example, re-enact the starving of the first prisoner of war? Should the New York draft riots be re-enacted? Or Sherman’s march to the sea, the devastation of the Shenandoah Valley, or even the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, with the accompanying hangings!

No doubt we shall draw the line somewhere, because the point of these re-enactments is entertainment, and there were things in the Civil War which, even a century later, just are not very entertaining to contemplate. But that is precisely where the trouble lies. We are in serious danger of taking the most significant anniversary in American history and using it as a means of giving ourselves a bright and colorful holiday. How the Civil War soldier fought his battles is no doubt worth examining, but infinitely more important is a consideration of why he fought and what he accomplished. Lay on the sentiment, the romance, and the dramatic appeal heavily enough, and we shall presently forget that the war was fought by real living men who were deeply moved by thoughts and emotions of overwhelming urgency. To lose sight of the cause that was fought for and the dedication with which it was served is to dishonor the sacrifice, for victor and for vanquished alike.

The centennial does demand our remembrance, but the act of remembrance demands something of us.

It calls first of all for an attitude, a frame of mind, a brooding awareness of the immensity of the tragedy that once befell our country and an honest attempt to understand the far-reaching results which grew out of that tragedy. It calls upon us to be fully adult in our approach to it, so that we can make ourselves familiar with the hot passions and the human blindnesses that led up to it and grew out of it and can realize that greatness went hand in hand with meanness, that men caught up in a tide too strong for them to resist did somehow accomplish more than they meant to accomplish, that the whole of the terrible process did in the end mean more than the sum of its parts. We need to realize that although we are never going to reach a complete understanding of the war, it is not wholly incomprehensible; that it was infinitely more than a needless catastrophe, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

All of this has little to do with parades, re-enactments, and the serving of refreshments by bright young women in hoop skirts and ruffles, it has to do with the real value of the centennial; with the unfinished business which the Civil War left to us, the living. What we are today grows directly out of that war; what we mean when we are at our best is rooted in it. It left us not just something to remember but something to live up to. It began a process that still is not finished and that will be our continuing responsibility as long as we live.

For in its blind, brutal, and all but unendurably expensive way, the Civil War did accomplish something.

It created one nation, destined for world leadership, and it once and forever expanded the dimensions of American freedom. It brought Negro slavery to an end; doing that, it left us with no conceivable alternative to the task of creating, perfecting, and defending a one-class citizenship in our fair land. The fact that this task is a long way from being finished is beside the point. The commitment was made for us, and we cannot either escape it or forget it. Under everything else—the remembrance of the valiant things done by men long dead, the bright pathos of the Lost Cause, the continuing endeavor to heal the deep wounds which the war inflicted—this is implicit in the Civil War centennial. The centennial years are hardly less solemn than the years they commemorate.

We have had re-enactments, parades, and flowery speeches, and we shall doubtless have more. They are all to the good, so long as they are not all that we see or hear or think about. But we shall lose something we must not lose if we make these centennial years simply a time of soft and forgetful sentiment; if we hesitate to stress the final meaning of the war because we are afraid to “stir up controversy” or touch some present-day issue which might leave thorns in our fingers. We are a grown-up people by now, or at least we think we are, and we do not need to go through this anniversary on tiptoe.

Somewhere in these centennial observances there must be a time for sober reflection; for contemplation of the fact that freedom is a magnificent possession and an undying responsibility; for rededication to the ideal that came to its first flowering in battle smoke and agony. The centennial is not to be approached lightly. It means either nothing at all—or everything.

—Bruce Catton

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