150 Years Later

Reflections on the Sesquicentennial of the End of the American Civil War

To say that the American Civil War continues to exercise an immense influence on the United States seems obvious, but it always pays to revisit why obvious statements are so.

The war’s legacy is everywhere: We still debate whether it is appropriate to display the Confederacy’s battle flag, or, closer to home, whether we should commemorate Harvard students who died fighting under it. Race still dominates national discussions, and we still argue about which rights of citizenship apply to which people, the best way to guarantee those rights, and what the federal government may do—all questions that animated America’s bloodiest conflict.

The practical importance of the Civil War is also beyond question. Imagine a world in which slavery had continued until 1900 or later, or in which you needed a passport to travel from Boston to Atlanta. These counterfactuals might seem farfetched, but they were absolutely the issues at stake between 1861 and 1865, when the unity of the supposedly well-founded American constitutional system was held together only through the annihilation of two percent of the nation’s population. As President Drew Faust’s book on the subject shows, that kind of slaughter has a lasting effect on a people.

Next Thursday, April 9th, is the 150th anniversary of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House in Virginia. Five days later is the sesquicentennial of Lincoln’s assassination at Ford’s Theatre.

These anniversaries of the war’s end underscore how close these events are to our own time. A five-year-old boy in Ford’s Theater for Lincoln’s assassination lived to recount the experience on television in the 1950s. The formative years of many 20th century Americans like Woodrow Wilson, who instituted segregation in the federal government, occurred during the war. The fourteenth amendment, on which we still rely for government civil rights action, the first Ku Klux Klan that provided the inspiration for later manifestations of American racism, the voting rights gained at Selma and under threat again today, are all direct descendants of the Civil War.


These aspects of the war are relatively well known. Others are less so, but no less important. Internationally, France’s invasion of Mexico in 1862 might very well have led to Napoleon III offering direct support for the Confederacy if not for careful U.S. diplomacy, and Britain also almost aided the South. The war’s implications for Native Americans, too, are often overlooked: Some slave-holding tribes fought with the Confederacy, while in the plains, conflicts like the Dakota War continued through the war. Union officers like George Custer later became infamous for their role fighting Native Americans in the West.

The issue of slavery transcends all. Reading South Carolina’s Ordinance of Secession quickly dispels the idea that slavery was anything but the war’s central and overriding issue. The states of the Confederacy wished to preserve their system of labor based on the enslavement of African-Americans, they believed that system to be under threat, and so they left the Union. Like all history, the exact contours of those events are complex and non-linear, but the outline is clear.

The North is hardly blameless in this story. It profited from industries and commercial connections that relied on slavery. Harvard itself bears the evidence of this history, as students in History professor Sven Beckert’s “Harvard and Slavery” class have uncovered. From money donated in Harvard’s early years, to the original owner of the President’s house, to antebellum Southern slave-holding students, Harvard’s history and that of the United States’ original sin are closely intertwined.

Over the next few weeks, take a minute to consider the reminders of the Civil War we encounter in our daily lives. Go to one of the Holden Choruses’ concerts on the war. (Full disclosure: I sing in the Harvard Glee Club). When eating in Annenberg or going to class in Sanders, read the names of the Harvard men killed fighting for the United States—and remember that some of their peers died fighting, however misguidedly, for the cause of secession. When walking across Cambridge Common, notice that the tallest memorial is to the Civil War. Remember that the first African-American field officer in the U.S. Army was kicked out of Harvard Medical School for being black. And consider that some of Harvard’s oldest buildings were built with money from slavery and the slave trade.

A few months ago, I ended a column by quoting the Gettysburg Address, and Lincoln seems a good place to end this column as well. Lincoln underwent an immense personal evolution during the war—one that ultimately revolved around the questions of citizenship, race, and nationhood that are the Civil War’s most salient legacies. Indeed, Lincoln’s final speech, on April 11, 1865, directly addressed those issues. But his second inaugural address articulated perhaps the definitive challenge the Civil War created for him and for the nation: “let us strive on to finish the work we are in…to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

Achieving that “just and lasting peace” has proven to be the work of generations. As Civil War anniversaries approach, our responsibility is to remember those who carried on that work before us, and to carry it on ourselves.

Nelson L. Barrette '17, a Crimson editorial executive, is a history concentrator in Winthrop House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.


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