What Was the Civil War about, Anyhow? Valor

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Editor's note: Tommy Stevenson, whose column usually appears in this space, is taking a break from writing.

My wife asked me the other day, "what was the Civil War about anyhow?"

This caught me a bit off guard, since historians have written about the causes of the Civil War ever since the Civil War broke out and still battle over interpretations. How does one answer a loaded question, whose answer spans monumental issues like slavery, states rights, constitutions and the invariable role of individuals who don't always behave predictably?

We are in the midst of commemorating the 150th anniversary of that war, which spanned from 1861-1865. More men were killed -- 625,000 -- in the American Civil War than in any other conflict the United States has been in since the American Revolution.

The statistics of famous campaigns and battles are staggering -- tens of thousands of men killed and wounded in the space of a few months -- like the Union campaign to bring Vicksburg, the key to controlling the Mississippi River, to its knees, or in three short days early in July in the rolling countryside of Pennsylvania at a place called Gettysburg.

The "high tide" of the Confederacy was marked at Gettysburg by the most famous charge of the war, led by Gen. George Pickett on the third day of battle, July 3, 1863.

Gen. Robert E. Lee had led his army into the heart of Union country, Pennsylvania, to try and inflict a painful lesson on the Union and perhaps bring the war to an end. Up until the end, most of the war had been fought in the Confederate states. Now, the Federals would get a taste of what the South was enduring.

On July 3, Pickett was ordered to charge the Yankee lines in a final, desperate attempt to turn the tide in Lee's favor. The Confederates threw 15,000 soldiers against Gen. George Meade's 6,500 troops, defending a strong position along Cemetery Ridge. Lee ordered the attack, but even one of his leading generals, James Longstreet, thought the effort futile. The Yankee position was too well-defended, and the charge across the open fields proved him right. It was carnage.

Lee's artillery opened the battle with a two-hour barrage, but it did little damage to the Federal troops hunkered down. The Confederates, although they did puncture the Union line at the height of the battle, were thrown back with terrible losses. The Yankee soldiers taunted the Rebels with "Fredericksburg, Fredericksburg," a reminder that Lee had inflicted a bitter victory on the Union, and it was now payback time. …