Its Issues Resonate to This Day

By McPherson, James M. | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), May 24, 1996 | Go to article overview

Its Issues Resonate to This Day


McPherson, James M., The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


In 1976, several historians from the Soviet Union visited the United States to participate in the commemoration of the bicentennial. Their host asked them which sites they wanted to see first: Independence Hall, Lexington and Concord, Yorktown, Williamsburg? None of these, they answered; they wanted to go first to Gettysburg.

Why Gettysburg? was the astonished response; it had nothing to do with the American Revolution. But it had everything to do with preserving the nation created by the Revolution, they replied. Gettysburg was the American Stalingrad, the turning point in America's great patriotic war for survival.

That is one reason why nearly 2 million tourists visit Gettysburg every year, and millions tour other Civil War battlefields. Popular fascination with the Civil War eclipses interest in any other aspect of our history. Civil War books outsell those on any other subject offered by the History Book Club. Two hundred and fifty Civil War Round Tables meet monthly in all parts of the country. Some 40,000 re-enactors don their replica wool uniforms and pick up their replica Springfield rifled muskets to travel long distances for re-enactments of Civil War battles. An estimated 40 million Americans have watched the 11 hours of Ken Burns's television series on the Civil War.

How do we account for this extraordinary phenomenon?

Part of the explanation lies in the drama of a war fought on a continental scale - this continent, not some foreign land - on battlefields from Pennsylvania to New Mexico, battlefields that Americans can walk today and understand what happened there more than a century ago.

Part of the reason is the deification or demonization of near-mythical figures who seem to dwarf the pygmies of our own time: Lincoln and Lee, Grant and Jackson, Sherman and Forrest, Clara Barton and Belle Boyd - even Rhett Butler and Scarlett 0'Hara, for the line between fact and fiction is easily blurred in popular depictions of the Civil War.

Another factor is nostalgia for a world we have lost, for a supposed time when men were men and women were women, when moonlight and magnolias suffused the South and sturdy farmers and workers created the world's most democratic and prosperous society in the North, when issues were clear-cut and men were willing to give the last full measure of devotion for a noble cause - these romantic yearnings also help explain the appeal of the Civil War.

Nearly as many American soldiers lost their lives in that war - 620,000 - as in all the other wars this country has fought combined. If the same percentage of the American people were to die in a war fought today, the number of dead would exceed 5 million. This ghastly toll gives the Civil War a kind of horrifying but hypnotic fascination. As Thomas Hardy once put it: "War makes rattling good history; but Peace is poor reading."

The call to arms, the sound of drum and trumpet, and clashing of armies have stirred the blood of tribes and nations throughout history. Reading about such events or watching movies about them is more exciting than reading about the industrial revolution or the social reforms of the New Deal. But the real importance of the Civil War today goes beyond the high military drama and the devastating human cost.

The war was about fundamental issues that went to the heart of the meaning of America. …

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