Why the Civil War Still Matters

By McPherson, James M. | American Heritage, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Why the Civil War Still Matters


McPherson, James M., American Heritage


One hundred and fifty years after the guns began shelling Fort Sumter this April, Americans remain fascinated with the Civil War. Why do we care about a war that ended so long ago?

Part of the answer lies in the continental scope of a conflict fought not on some foreign land but on battlefields ranging from Pennsylvania to New Mexico and from Florida to Kansas, hallowed ground that Americans can visit today. The near-mythical figures who have come to represent the war intrigue us still: Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant and Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson, William T. Sherman and Nathan Bedford Forrest, Clara Barton and Belle Boyd.

Most important, the sheer drama of the story, the momentous issues at stake, and the tragic, awe-inspiring human cost of the conflict still resonate. More than 620,000 Union and Confederate soldiers gave their last full measure of devotion in the war, nearly as many as the number of American soldiers killed in all the other wars this country has fought--combined.

Americans in both North and South were willing to fight on despite such horrific casualties because their respective nations and societies were at stake. Would America move toward a free-labor capitalist economy and a democratic polity in all regions, or would a slave-labor plantation economy and a hierarchical society persist in half of the country? …

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