• Marc Johnson

The Defining Moment


Of course the great and terrible American Civil War – across the country we are commemorating its 150th anniversary – eventually became a war to end slavery, but it certainly didn’t begin that way. The war that it is now believed claimed the lives of 750,000 Americans, North and South, was, as University of Virginia historian Gary Gallagher has argued, a war to preserve the very idea that a still new nation could survive – in one piece.

Gallagher’s latest book on the war – he’s written seven himself and co-authored or edited twice again as many – is called The Union War. Gallagher makes the case that as vital – and morally correct – as ending slavery was, preserving the idea of the still young nation was pretty important, too and that idea of Union is worth considering anew.

Gallagher quotes Abraham Lincoln early in the war as saying: “For my own part, I consider the central idea pervading this struggle is the necessity that is upon us, of proving that popular government is not an absurdity. We must settle this question now, whether in a free government the minority have the right to break up the government whenever they choose. If we fail it will go far to prove the incapability of the people to govern themselves.”

I’m delighted that Professor Gallagher and half a dozen other distinguished historians of the Civil War will be in Boise on October 25th for what proves to be an interesting, provocative and enlightening conference on the war organized by The Andrus Center at Boise State University.

Gallagher will keynote the conference with a talk entitled: “The Civil War at the Sesquicentennial: How Well Do Americans Understand Their Great National Crisis?”

Gallagher’s recent book has sparked some controversy because he has sifted the evidence in search of the real motivation for the fighting on both sides and re-interpreted much of what we have long taken for granted about the war. Such is the nature of the great conflict. It has been said that we have never stopped fighting – or debating – the war.

For example, slavery ended with the war, but racism hasn’t ended. We have the first black president in the White House, but his presidency has been haunted by age-old demands for greater “state’s rights” on many things and our country is now as politically divided as at any time since, well, the Civil War. Arguments persist about displaying the “Stars and Bars,” the Confederate battle flag, over southern state capitols and there is plenty of room to debate Lincoln’s arguably unconstitutional crack down on the partisan press and suspension of habeas corpus.

I would argue that the Civil War is the defining event in our national story. It was fought from 1861 to 1865, but in some respects the personalities, the impact, the controversy, the relevance are with us still. I’ll offer more thoughts on the great American trial this week and hope loyal readers might consider devoting a day in October to thinking anew about the Civil War at a conference we’re calling – Why The Civil War Still Matters.

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