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  • Writer's pictureMarc Johnson

The Defining Event

The author and historian Shelby Foote, his narrative history of the Civil War  – all 1.5 million words of it – remains one of the masterpieces of American letters, once told the documentary filmmaker Ken Burns: “Any understanding of this nation has to be based, and I mean really based, on an understanding of the Civil War. I believe that firmly. It defined us. The Revolution did what it did. Our involvement in European wars, beginning with the First World War, did what it did. But the Civil War defined us as what we are and it opened us to being what we became, good and bad things. And it is very necessary, if you are going to understand the American character in the twentieth century, to learn about this enormous catastrophe of the mid-nineteenth century. It was the crossroads of our being, and it was a hell of a crossroads.”

The crossroads of American history? Indeed.

Do we really need to understand the Civil War to understand the current debates over the role of the Supreme Court or whether the president has the authority to legally detain a person thought to present a threat to the nation? The short answer is a resounding – yes. Issues of race, the roles and responsibilities of the states in relation to the federal government, whether a state can “nullify” a federal act, our very notions of freedom and equality all have roots in the Civil War. Later this month The Andrus Center at Boise State University will welcome a distinguished group of American scholars and historians to a conference to commemorate the 150th anniversary of our defining event. We’re calling it “Why the Civil War Still Matters.”

One of those historians is Dr. Joan Waugh who teaches history at UCLA and has authored a fascinating and important book about one of the central characters of the Civil War; a dated and dusty figure who most of us only vaguely know – U.S. Grant. Waugh sat out with her book – U.S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth – to understand the importance of Grant, the general and the president, to his times. I hope most high school students know that Grant was the fighting general who Abraham Lincoln ultimately turned to to win the Civil War and perhaps we have some hazy notion that he eventually became a mediocre president whose administration was dogged by scandal.

But in his time, Grant was much, much more; a figure considered by his fellow Americans as worthy of mention in the same breath as Washington and Lincoln.

“From April 9, 1865,” Waugh writes, “Grant emerged as the top military victor, but importantly as a magnanimous warrior of mythic status to whom the people of the re-United States turned for leadership time and again in the years after Lincoln’s assassination.” Think for a moment of the importance of Grant the military victor who brought defeat to the rebel southern states and then helps advance the long cause of reunification by virtue of him magnanimous attitude toward the very people who had tried to kill him and the country.

As difficult as our national challenges of race, equality and sectional division remain today, it is not at all difficult to imagine that without Grant, the magnanimous warrior, our national reconciliation may never have happened. This is the kind of story that Shelby Foote knew defined American character down to the present day. Today politicians from across the political spectrum toss around illusions to the Constitution like so many focus group tested sound bites, but the Civil War was all about the Constitution and the enduring meaning of the words to create “a more perfect Union.” For that reason and so many more our generation must confront again and again this national history and its meaning today.

More information on The Andrus Center conference on the Civil War – Why the Civil War Still Matters – can be found at The Center’s website: www.andruscenter.org.

 The conference will take place on October 25, 2012 and is open to the public. It promises to be a day of enlightenment, entertain and relevance.

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