Woodrow Wilson and the Legacy of the Civil War

By Gaughan, Anthony | Civil War History, September 1997 | Go to article overview

Woodrow Wilson and the Legacy of the Civil War


Gaughan, Anthony, Civil War History


The Civil War weighed more heavily on Woodrow Wilson's early life than any other historical event. "My earliest recollection," he related in 1909, "is of standing at my father's gateway in Augusta, Georgia, when I was four years old, and hearing someone pass and say that Mr. Lincoln was elected and there was to be war." As a child, he observed firsthand the human toll of the conflict when his father's church in Augusta was converted by the Confederate army into a military hospital and stockade. Three decades later he could still recall the terror of living in Georgia during Sherman's March to the Sea. In 1870, when his family moved to Columbia, South Carolina, he personally witnessed the physical devastation the war had left. The war's divisiveness even reached into Wilson's college years at Princeton. More than a decade after Appomattox, Wilson saw his Northern and Southern classmates violently polarized by the Hayes-Tilden election.(1)

Despite the turmoil of his youth, Wilson avoided the lasting sectional bitterness that had infected so many others. One week after the Hayes-Tilden election, Wilson delivered a speech to his fellow undergraduates in which he condemned the "fanatical partisans who enrage the people by their frantic wavings of the bloody shirt" and called for a "union of hearts" across sectional lines. Later, while a student at the University of Virginia Law School, he publicly applauded the Union's victory: "because I love the South, I rejoice in the failure of the Confederacy.... Even the damnable cruelty and folly of reconstruction was to be preferred to helpless independence." By the time he reached adulthood, he had become an outspoken advocate of national reconciliation. "To me," Wilson explained, "the Civil War and its terrible scenes are but a memory of a short day. I have reached maturity at a time when the passions it stirred have cooled and when it is possible ... to judge its issues without heat and almost without prejudice." In an 1881 letter to his future nemesis Henry Cabot Lodge, he insisted that "a mutual understanding between North and South" would foster a spirit of "agreement and harmony between the people ... of the two sections." Wilson's desire for sectional harmony even led him to object to the observation of "Decoration Day" at Confederate cemeteries: "I think that anything that tends to revive or perpetuate the bitter memories of the war is wicked folly." The true patriot, Wilson contended, must "inspire sympathy and confidence between all parts of the country" and "instill into the minds of the people those principles which will lead them to act in their already truly grand capacity of a united brotherhood."(2)

Wilson's aversion to sectional prejudice stemmed in large part from his unusual background. Although born and raised in the South, he had deep roots in the North. In 185 1 his parents had migrated from their home state of Ohio to Virginia, where Wilson was born five years later. Wilson, in fact, later attributed his impartiality on sectional matters to his status as a native Southerner of Northern blood. His father's estrangement from the Northern branch of his family also contributed to Wilson's distaste for sectionalism. Despite the fact that he had spent the first twenty-nine years of his life in the North, Rev. Joseph Ruggles Wilson chose to remain in the South during the Civil War, where he exercise considerable influence in the Southern Presbyterian Church. As a result, the Ohio Wilsons disowned their son as a traitor to the family as well as to the Union. Ironically, the future president may have inherited Unionist sympathies from his father. According to Arthur Link, Wilson's father "was probably one of the ... Southerners who were at heart American nationalists during the war and in fact desired the victory of the Union cause.... in the hundreds of letters that Dr. Wilson later wrote to his son there is not a single instance of repining for the Lost Cause and there is much evidence that Dr.

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