Over the past two years, quite a few events across the country have commemorated the Civil War’s 150th anniversary. Many of these have been local affairs, remembering a particular area’s contributions to the war and encouraging contemporary residents to experience what life would have been like in mid-19th-century America.
At some of these events, organizers have created a celebratory atmosphere. In North Carolina, for example, the Swansboro Historical Association hosted a gathering replete with re-enactors, musket firings, and music. According to a local newspaper account, one of the historical association’s members anticipated “a fun day” that would be “enjoy[able].”
Even at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where one might expect a more somber mood, the town’s programs seem to emphasize the more trivial aspects of the war rather than encourage reflections concerning the conflict’s causes or legacy. On the 150th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg, I want to suggest that 21st-century American Christians think more deeply about the war’s meaning than they will be asked to by popular culture. Recent historical work has shown that there are three lessons to be learned by the war—but not the sort likely to be emphasized at your local anniversary celebration.
The first lesson concerns the way that war has been remembered historically and the way it continues to be remembered today. Almost entirely absent from either of the commemorations listed above, for example, are African-Americans. So far as I can tell, at these exhibitions, displays of 19th-century weapons, ghost stories, and endless examples of Victorian fashion far outweigh any attention paid to slaves, free people of color, or individuals of mixed race.
Yet, in focusing on the more benign aspects of the war, contemporary Americans are only repeating a very old pattern. In his 2001 book “Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory,” historian David Blight has shown that only decades after the war had ended, Americans chose to think of the war in “reconciliationist” terms rather than “emancipationist” ones. Soldiers’ memoirs and speeches at Decoration Days (the forerunner of Memorial Day), for instance, stressed the fact that the United States was healing from its wounds and that the North and South were on increasingly good terms.
In the South, the “Lost Cause” interpretation of the war celebrated the noble Confederate heroes who had died defending their “way of life” and held that slavery had been only a secondary cause of the conflict. States’ rights, it was said, had really precipitated the struggle, and, ultimately, the South would rise again. Blight shows that in the late 19th century, even some Northerners accepted this view, and that in any case, both sides disliked the prospect of continued black Republican rule in the South. Such attitudes allowed the growing disenfranchisement of Southern blacks to occur, and perhaps even helped to create a culture where widespread lynching was conceivable and permissible. Christians, well aware of the human tendency to justify oneself instead of staring down sin, should be careful to avoid subscribing to the reconciliationist interpretation and forgetting the plight of ex-slaves after the war.
A related lesson concerns the nationalist interpretations of the war that often prevail in contemporary culture. At the end of Ken Burns’s acclaimed 1990 documentary “The Civil War,” writer Shelby Foote concludes that the signal achievement of the war was that Americans put aside for good older ideas of the nation as a collection of individual states, in favor of a conception of a strong national government. Similarly, Burns’s narrator David McCullough states, “Between 1861 and 1865, Americans made war on each other and killed each other in great numbers if only to become the kind of country that could no longer conceive how that was possible.”
In these interpretations, everyone can feel good: The war solidified the unity and power of our nation, and the United States finally discarded slavery, which had been un-American to begin with. Such a sanitized view allows us, then, also to celebrate the noble Confederates, who, after all, had some great generals and were good people too.
The danger of this dominant interpretation, historian Edward Ayers has argued in his 1998 article “Worrying about the Civil War,” is that contemporary Americans do not wrestle with the great moral questions that the war raised from 1861 to 1865 and still raises today. Applauding the effects of the war, Ayers writes, “can make it easier for Americans to find other wars natural and inevitable,” adding to the mythology of redemptive violence. Union soldiers “bled for us,” said the Congregationalist minister Horace Bushnell in 1865, “and by this simple sacrifice of blood they have opened for us a new great chapter of life.” Wise Christians, even those who do not renounce warfare entirely, should be hesitant to draw similarly triumphalist conclusions about the results of a conflict that killed over 600,000 Americans.
A final sobering lesson concerns the sort of society that participated in the Civil War. Although the United States has never been a formally Christian nation, the influence of Christian values upon society was probably greatest in the first half of the 19th century. Tragically, historian Mark Noll has argued, the war itself was a “theological crisis” because the nation could not resolve the issue of slavery by appeals to the Bible, despite the preponderance of Christians living in the United States. As Noll puts it, “It was left to those consummate theologians, the Reverend Doctors Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, to decide what in fact the Bible actually meant.”
Here, the lesson for today’s believers might be to carve out a spacious area for historical knowledge when constructing one’s hermeneutics. Knowing more about the nature of slavery in the ancient world, for example, might prevent one from equating slavery in the Bible with 19th-century American slavery.
It is always easier to fly flags, fire muskets, try on a uniform, and sing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “Dixie” than it is to wrestle with the causes and results of the Civil War. But if Christians are to live faithfully in the modern world, we must practice sustained engagement with history. As the historian Ayers puts it in the final sentences of his essay:
“If we acknowledge that we inherit all the past and not merely those parts we like to call our ‘heritage,’ we would better respect the past’s complexity, weight, and importance. If we recognize that the Civil War did not represent the apotheosis of American ideals, we might look for that culmination in the future rather than in the past. All we need is the faith to approach these threatening years without a comforting story already in hand.”
Image copyright Associated Press.
Benjamin J. Wetzel is a Ph.D. student in history at the University of Notre Dame. He can be reached for comment at email@example.com.